Three important trophies remain in reach for FC Dallas – but one of them has extra special meaning around Toyota Stadium in North Texas.
The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is so named for a man who means the world to soccer in North Texas, a local legend who surely belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of American soccer pioneers. FC Dallas, one of Major League Soccer’s charter members from 1996, remains a passion and a property of the Hunt family, a club now run by sons Dan and Clark Hunt. Games at the tidy facility in suburban Dallas – the stadium built by Lamar Hunt – begin with a ceremonial scarfing of a statue of the man affectionately known as “Uncle Lamar.”
So clearly the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup retains a special place for FC Dallas – and now the club stands a tantalizing two wins from claiming a second tournament trophy. The road ahead may be short but it’s no easy one, as it goes through Los Angeles. FCD meets Bruce Arena’s L.A. Galaxy on Wednesday in a semifinal, a place in the final of the 2016 tournament final at stake.
FC Dallas has but one major trophy in its 21 years; a team under the management of Dave Dir and featuring young striker Jason Kreis prevailed in the 1997 U.S. Open Cup.
Since then the trophies have been elusive, to say the least. In 2010, FC Dallas may have arguably been the better team of the MLS Cup Final on a frigid night in Toronto (when the title was still contested on neutral grounds), but lost in extra time to the Colorado Rapids. The club has appeared in two U.S. Open Cup Finals since that victory in 1997 but lost both, in 2005 to the L.A. Galaxy and in 2007 to New England.
FCD was nicked for the Supporters Shield in 2015 on goal difference to the New York Red Bulls. That accounts for the sum total of the club’s close calls since obtaining the one piece of hardware back in 1997 and the unfortunate distinction of holding the longest domestic trophy drought in all of Major League Soccer. So the opportunity ahead, not just in the U.S. Open Cup, but in a Supporters Shield race that Dallas currently leads, is not lost on the players or staff.
“It does mean a lot to this club because Mr. Lamar Hunt’s name is there,” FC Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja said. “We always consider it very important for us to compete and to try to win it.”
This is Dallas’ ninth trip to the Open Cup semifinals, the most recent a 2014 loss at home to Philadelphia.
A lot of clubs say the 103-year-old tournament is important, but don’t always reflect that sentiment in lineup selection. Around Toyota Stadium, Pareja’s choices have said it all. In a 2-1 Round of 16 win against Colorado Rapids, Dallas’ third-year manager made only a couple of changes from his usual starting 11. In fact, the goals and assists in a 2-1 extra time victory came from his top attackers, playmaker Mauro Diaz, first-choice striker Maxi Urruti and livewire winger Fabian Castillo.
Three weeks after that Pareja again appointed a first-choice lineup in a 1-0 Quarterfinal win against Houston. At the Dynamo’s downtown ground, Castillo went on a signature dribbling run through the Houston defense, deciding the match in second-half stoppage time and sending FCD into the tournament semis.
FC Dallas also took care of business in its most recent league match (a 2-0 win over Vancouver) and then in CONCACAF Champions League (a 2-1 win over Real Estelí of Nicaragua). So the team is confident, holding an 8-1-1 record across all competitions as it departs for Wednesday’s clash in Carson.
Castillo’s late burst against Houston was largely responsible for Dallas’ place in Wednesday’s semifinal. As it turned out, that was the last goal he would contribute to the club; he was transferred soon after to Turkish club Trabzonspor in a prolonged, high profile move of a 2015 MLS Best XI player.
Dallas, a club built on academy talent and young signings from abroad such as Castillo and Diaz, has replacement options. Guys like Canadian international Tesho Akindele, versatile man Ryan Hollingshead and academy product Coy Craft are reliable fill-ins – but none have Castillo’s signature speed or unarguable game-breaking ability. Dealing with Dallas defensively almost always begins with accounting for Castillo; typically, the first man delays while a second and third defender arrives. Now FCD will become more reliant on Diaz’s central playmaking and on Michael Barrios’ speed on the opposite wing.
As for Castillo’s transfer, Pareja repeats one of his usual refrains: that injuries and player departures must be met with a shrug and figurative “get on with it.” He says there is never a time or place for feeling sorry for yourself.
“We always put the team first,” Pareja said. “Of course we need players like Fabian, but the team has played well without him and we have gotten results. If we have done it already, I know that we can do it again. Somebody else just has to take the opportunity now and match what the team needs in that position.”
FCD has a well-earned draw at Colorado and the two wins at home (against Vancouver and Real Estelí) since Castillo left the team. A lot of that is about Diaz, who is currently tied for second in assists in MLS league play. He has 10, matched with Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco for second behind New York’s Sacha Kljestan. It’s also about the team’s high functioning central defensive tandem Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman. Hedges, an MLS Defender of the Year finalist in 2015, has been exceptional once again in 2016.
FC Dallas has one important advantage over the Galaxy: the Texas club’s win over Real Estelí came almost a week before the Open Cup semifinal; Pareja deployed a first-choice lineup against the Nicaraguans on Aug. 4. That came a full three days before Galaxy manager positioned his own first-choice selections on a high-profile Sunday night MLS match against the New York Red Bulls. So despite the extra burden of travel, FC Dallas starters have an edge in rest, in addition to being generally younger across the field.
That’s the good news for Pareja’s team. The bad news is the history around this match-up, FCD has historically been something of a mess when it comes to visiting the Galaxy in Southern California. Including league matches, MLS playoffs and Open Cup contests, Dallas has a modest 7 wins in 40 appearances there (a 7-29-4 record). On Wednesday, they come up against a Galaxy side that has won 17-straight home U.S. Open Cup matches, a run that dates all the way back to 2000.
That includes an Open Cup semifinal loss (in a match at nearby Titan Stadium) in 2002 and an Open Cup final loss in 2005 at then-named Home Depot Center.
“The team has broken through this year in some of those places where it has been tough to win before,” Pareja said, pointing to an MLS win at Portland earlier this year and the recent Open Cup victory at Houston. “This year, we’ve been able to go into some of these places and change the story.”