When FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman said today after the club’s training session at the Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, WA in advance of Tuesday night’s US Open Cup Semifinal that the team has been on the road for two months, he was not kidding. Since the team’s 2-0 Open Cup quarterfinal victory over Real Salt Lake in Frisco July 12, the team has played a busy marathon schedule that has seen them in action on the road for eight of the dozen matches, including five of the last six.
Tuesday’s match will mark the end of the stretch on the road, though still quite busy, as five of the next six will come at home. It will undoubtedly be a relief.
The physical and mental approach heading into the Open Cup contest is huge according to Hyndman, saying “With all of the traveling – being away from your family and loved ones – and playing the games, I continually compliment our players on their commitment to this team and their ability to bounce back. It’s really been truly surprising, but it shouldn’t surprise me. After the game against Kansas City with the Toronto events it just shows wonderful qualities.
“You know, we’ve been on the road almost two months traveling. We were one of the teams that had to do a play-in [in the CONCACAF Champions League Preliminary Round] so we went down to El Salvador to play and [Alianza] came up to play us; and then of course US Open Cup games and a bunch of games here in the season. In many ways it’s been a great team bonding.”
That bonding has gone well. After advancing to the tournament semifinals Dallas played host to DC in a scoreless draw before hitting the road, playing three consecutively in Toronto (July 20, 1-0 win), New York (July 23, 2-2 draw) and El Salvador (July 28, 1-0 win) for three different competitions. Although they were able to spend the next week at home, it was certainly no vacation with a pair of 1-0 victories against Chivas USA (July 31) and Alianza (August 3).
The recent run has sent Dallas throughout North America with a game in Los Angeles against the league leading Galaxy (August 6, 3-1 loss), one in Philadelphia (August 13, 2-2 draw), and a Champions League fixture in Mexico against Pumas, where they registered a historic 1-0 victory to give MLS it’s first-ever win in Mexico (August 17).
They were home three days later to host the Sounders in a preview of Tuesday night’s affair, but saw just one small mistake prove the difference in a 1-0 loss.
“Seattle has been on a great run. They are a well-coached team and an extremely talented group of players,” said Hyndman. “We thought that game could have gone either way. We were down a man and we threw everything we had at them and they were resilient. Mauro Rosales scored a great goal 15 minutes into the game and we were trying to play catch up. Last time we were here (May 25) we were very fortunate Brek Shea got a goal and then we were resilient. So I think its two very good teams trying to make a statement in the league.”
One of the key resilient players Hyndman has relied on this season has been goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, who has led a defensive unit that has found great success of late with four shutouts in Champions League play. Hartman is one player on the team that knows full well the trials of tackling all three competitions head on. He has played every minute of the campaign thus far in 2011.
“It’s a struggle,” Hartman said with a slight chuckle in response to the challenge of keeping mentally and physically focused for the marathon. “I think you try to balance what becomes the most important on a week to week basis. Certainly, we’d like to continue to put some points up on the board in group play in Champions League so maybe in some of the latter parts of group play we are able to kinda give some guys a break.
“This game tomorrow is obviously critical because it’s a win or go home situation. It’s the third game – or fourth game actually because we had to replay the Champions League game on Thursday – so we’ve been playing a ton of matches in the past week and it’s really difficult to make sure that you continue to be up, but you realize it’s what you’ve spent all this other time dedicated to. If you don’t take it in the right frame of mind, then unfortunately it will be a wasted effort.”
The Dallas defense must certainly be dialed in then. The club made history as the second non-Mexican club to post two shutouts in any two-leg CCL series (Preliminary or knockout stages), blanking Alianza (El Salvador) in a pair of one-goal decisions. The Texan side then became the first club in MLS history to record a victory, 1-0, in Mexico, defeating a Pumas side that entered the match with its only loss at home in 11 previous CCL contests coming at the hands of a league rival.
Dallas’ shutout streak was extended last week with a 1-0 victory at Toronto in a match replayed Thursday morning after a lightning postponement the night before wiped out a 1-0 halftime lead. They joined the Montreal Impact (4) and Pachuca (5) as the only clubs to run off a series of four shutouts. No current MLS club has registered more than two consecutive shutouts in the tournament. The fourth shutout also lifted Dallas into a new level for shutouts in a single tournament, becoming only the third non-Mexican club and 10th overall to reach four (3 shutouts have been posted an additional 11 times).
“I think the guys really work hard on both sides of the ball,” said Hyndman about their performances. “It’s not just the goalkeeper that’s getting the shutouts, it’s the back four as well as the team.
“One of the ways you stop teams from scoring is putting pressure on the ball. And when you put pressure on the ball you need people to support the ball. And I think this group of players seems to have been in a pretty good organizational mode. They seem to be coming up with the right spacing and saves from our goalkeeper. But we also know we had lost George John there for a few games, and we got him back. We are really excited to have him back to be part of that defensive team.”
The news breaking over the weekend that the defender’s move to Blackburn of the English Premier League fell apart created an additional buzz surrounding Tuesday night’s affair. Having missed the Philadelphia match earlier this month and the past two games last week in anticipation of the move to the UK, John returned to the country Sunday evening from Heathrow. But will he play?
“I am sure he will,” said Hyndman.
The transfer situation surrounding John was just another item mixed in with the numerous obstacles in the path of the club that is in contention for four different championships.
“It’s definitely a challenge with all the games, all the stress and all the pressure and all the travel,” said Hyndman. “At the same time, we wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I keep telling people that when I walk by the mirror and I look into the mirror I say ‘God, who is that stressed out aging man, and say is this really the life I want? And I reply [to myself], what better life could it be?’ So, I am sure our players all understand that this is a good moment for our club and we try do the best that we possibly can.”
In his 15th season in the league, Hartman certainly understands that feeling.
“It is something that we are very proud of,” the all-time MLS leader in wins, shutouts, saves and games played said about being in the running for four titles. “We would like to be considered one of the more elite teams within Major League Soccer. We would like to establish ourselves internationally and develop a presence where teams within the region kind of respect us and what we have been able to accomplish. And the only way we are gonna be able do that is to win championships.
“We made it into the final last year in Toronto and unfortunately we weren’t able to win it; and we realize how fickle a championship is. So it’s something you have to make sure to give yourself as many opportunities as possible so that you are playing the percentages and you are going to get something. I think we are a dedicated group. We are a group that really believes in one another. I think the fact that we have been able to overcome adversity and find success is something that continues to build that.”
Part of that equation is the Open Cup for Hartman, who sees the tournament as a serious event as opposed to the distraction some teams treat it as.
“It probably varies from person to person, but I would say from my perspective it’s an opportunity to win a very, very historic championship within the United States. It’s something that really; it’s all levels, so it’s something that guys I used to play with in college are competing in. I think as MLS has really taken shape it’s become something where it also varies from team to team exactly how seriously they take it.
“From our perspective, it’s something we really look at as an opportunity to try to continue to create a winning mentality and winning attitude. It’s certainly something that we take seriously.”
The Sounders, winners of the tournament the past two years, unquestionably also handle the event with the same approach.
“Certainly we have a ton of respect for what Seattle does here and what they have been able to accomplish,” said Hartman. “They are probably very excited about having the game here at Starfire again.”
Although Dallas has not experienced any of that kind of championship success since winning the tournament in 1997, Hartman personally knows the feeling having played for the Galaxy from 1997 to 2005, helping the club win two Supporters’ Shields (1998, 2002), two MLS Cups (2002, 2005), a CONCACAF title (2000) and a pair of Open Cup championships in 2001 and 2005.
He looks back on his experiences fondly and with excitement in his voice recalling moments from his Open Cup past.
“I think seeing Alexi Lalas run up into the ivy at Cal State Fullerton when I was playing with the Los Angeles Galaxy was a pretty funny thing,” said Hartman immediately upon reminiscing, recalling the post-game reaction by his teammate after the 2-1 overtime victory against the New England Revolution at Titan Stadium in the 2001 Final.
“Some of the venues that I have played in, obviously it makes you kind of remember how passionate the fans are within US soccer and from city to city. It has been a great thing to experience. I remember playing up in Minnesota where the fans are three feet behind you and they really came out and supported – I imagine it was the USA Cup where they were probably have [youth] tournaments at the same time.
“I think the biggest thing for me is how crazy the games can get. It’s not necessarily how teams are ranked or what league that they are in. There is a ton of passion and I think the passion overspills the stands and comes out there on the field and you’ll see some wacky and wild games; and I certainly have been a part of a bunch of those. I think that a tournament type atmosphere really caters towards that.”
All photos by Gerald Barnhart, for more visit TheCup.us Facebook page