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FC Dallas dials it back to get into the playoff mix

SEATTLE — It kinda felt like the writing was on the wall for the proud charter club from Frisco, Texas. Heading into Wednesday night’s clash with the Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas sat in eighth place in a seven-spot playoff race with precious few matches left on the calendar. They were tied with the Portland Timbers on points for the season, but the Timbers owned the tie-breaker and thus the final Western Conference playoff spot.

And the Timbers held a game in hand.

Worse yet, while FC Dallas found itself heading into the most unfriendly confines of CenturyLink Field to face a Sounders team that had won three of its last four, the Timbers — playing the same night — enjoyed the far more palatable task of hosting the increasingly unconvincing New York Red Bulls.

The picture was actually even bleaker than all that makes it sound. FC Dallas has been a pushover all season when forced to venture from the North Texas sweatbox that is Toyota Stadium (3-10-2 on the road, with a -11 goal differential). Most recently, they were shellacked in Chicago just Saturday, ceding four goals in an embarrassing opening half and ultimately finding themselves lucky to only lose 4-0 (the Fire hit the post four times, while goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez delivered a pair of nice saves for Dallas as well). Lastly, there was also FC Dallas’ abysmal history when visiting the Emerald City: In 11 regular season visits since the Sounders joined MLS in 2009, Dallas had been outscored 29-8 and managed just one victory (1-9-1).

And, frankly, this is FC Dallas we’re talking about, a team whose 10-game losing streak late in 2017 only begins to describe its history of troubles down the home stretch.

The writing was indeed on the wall, and it bore a somber message for any Hoops supporter brave enough to read it. It read a little like an obituary.

But then the match started, and something curious happened. FC Dallas, a team that wakes up pressing and goes to bed possessing, sat back and mostly kept the game in front of them.

“I was surprised,” said Sounders fullback Kelvin Leerdam. “They’re a team that likes to play.”

Maybe that weekend thrashing from the Chicago Fire humbled head coach Luchi Gonzalez. In any event, he forced the Sounders to prove they could break down his side if it stayed compact and organized and disciplined and channeled the game to the touchlines.

The Sounders weren’t up to it. Not playing on short rest after a Sunday tilt against the Red Bulls. Not with some of their most dynamic and creative players (Jordan Morris, Brad Smith, Victor Rodriguez) out of the starting lineup. Not playing fairly sloppy and sluggish football for the first hour of the game.

“I thought we were pretty disciplined together as a block and we still had moments of high press,” said Gonzalez after the match. “We wanted to make it difficult for them to try and play out. Then in our mid and low blocks, which they had us in a few times and often especially toward the end, we needed to show a sacrifice and a suffering for each other to keep them away from our box. We prevailed defensively and kept zero in our net, so that’s really positive.”

Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer insisted he wasn’t caught off guard.

“Nothing they did surprised us,” he said in his post-match press conference.

Leerdam obviously disagreed. So did Cristian Roldan.

“We knew that they were a good team on the ball, and that they would make our lives difficult by stretching the field, making the field big and playing in between lines,” said Roldan. “I don’t think we anticipated them being that deep. They switched up their lineup just as much as we did, and it helped them — in the sense that maybe they had fresh legs to defend a little bit deeper — and I don’t think we expected that.”

Maybe the tactic doesn’t work if it doesn’t catch the opponent by surprise. Maybe it doesn’t work if the Sounders are rested and Morris and Smith and Rodriguez start: fissures certainly began to show immediately after Rodriguez and then Morris entered the match in the second half.

But here’s what matters: it worked Wednesday. And the Timbers lost to the Red Bulls. And FC Dallas is back in the playoffs.

For now, anyway.

If they’re going to stay in the playoff spots, they’ll have to start finding the back of the net again after being shut out for two straight matches. They host a formidable New York City FC side on Sunday, and will likely need at least a goal to ensure even a point.

“I have to be very proud of the boys, again, to respond and show defensive effort like that coming after a disappointing loss in Chicago,” said Gonzalez. “To do that now in Seattle is a positive step for us and we want to take that foundation — the defensive foundation — and implement a little bit more aggressiveness to attack in the opportunity we have on Sunday against New York City.”

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