By Pat Martin, Soccer Editor
Frisco, TX (Sports Network) -
Just under a third of the way through the 2007 Major League Soccer regular season, FC Dallas sits in the same position as it did when the 2006 regular season ended - tops in the Western Conference. Looking at the standings, everything appears the same, but MLS and Hoops' fans alike see a completely different picture.
Head coach Steve Morrow, who is in his first year in that capacity, has made numerous changes to the roster, style of play and overall attitude in Dallas. He has added depth, toughness and a resiliency that was missing a year ago when Dallas lost in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs for the second consecutive year to the Colorado Rapids. Thus, the goal coming out of preseason was for the team to be tougher, both mentally and physically.
"We have fallen short in the first round of the playoffs the last couple of years, and, I know as the head coach that needs to get better and that needs to change and that certainly needs to improve," Morrow said before the season. "I think we have to get tougher mentally. I think if I can get those things through to the players from the very start of the season we will have a level of consistency and a level of expectation throughout the season."
Morrow's master plan seems to be working so far.
"I do think so ... slowly," Morrow said when asked if the team is shaping up like he had planned. "We just got Pablo Ricchetti involved in the team in the last few games as well which has helped us a lot. I think we are starting to find a little bit of shape and a little bit of rhythm and a lot of the stuff that I was asking for, both on and off the field during preseason, is slowly starting to come into the team.
Steve Morrow has Dallas back in a familiar spot -- first place.
"A lot of the signs are very positive, there is still a long way to go and like I've said before, we want to set the foundation now so that we can get stronger as the season goes on. These are a lot of the things that we have seen so far, a lot of the guys are getting used to each other on the field as well. We have a lot of new parts on the team and they are starting to jell together well, so hopefully we will get stronger as the season goes on," he added.
The team's resilience was evident this past week when Dallas won three games in eight days, all by 2-1 final scores, to improve to 5-3-1 heading into week eight - a very strong record, considering FCD has played at least one more game than every team in the league while just capping off its third consecutive three-games-in-eight-days stretch of the '07 campaign. At one point, the Hoops traveled to Los Angeles for a Thursday night game (which it won 2-1) before traveling all the way across the country for a game in East Rutherford, N.J., three days later (which it lost 0-3).
"I think it has been a tough schedule for us, we have played nine games so far which is more than any other team," Morrow said. "I think at times the schedule has been tough for us. Having to go from L.A. all the way over to New York from Thursday to Sunday was a tough one and probably had a lot to do with the impending result against New York. But these things happen and I think we have dealt with it very well."
That game against the Red Bulls remains one of only two games in which the Hoops have given up more than one goal; the other was a season opening tie at Real Salt Lake. Despite the fact that the team hasn't recorded a shutout in 16-consecutive games, the backline of Drew Moor, Clarence Goodson, Chris Gbandi and Alex Yi has held strong. Also, since the return of goalkeeper Dario Sala (3-0, 1.00 GAA) from a suspension he earned in the playoff loss to Colorado last year, the team remains undefeated.
While the defense deserves a lot of credit, its the play of the midfield and forward lines that seems to be keeping the Hoops going. New additions like Juan Toja and Ricchetti add a caliber of play not seen in the Dallas midfield, while Ramon Nunez, Dax McCarty and Arturo Alvarez have also been big contributors in the middle. That group has given the team consistency on both sides of the field while adding the mental and physical toughness Morrow was seeking in the preseason. Younger players have also stepped up in crucial minutes, giving Morrow the option of resting his big guns to keep them fresh.
"We said all along we have a lot of young guys we want to contribute this year," Morrow said. "There are a lot of games to play and the more that we can get everybody minutes, then we are going to have competition for places and we are going to have good strength and depth as well. We want to keep guys fit and fresh as well and it is a good opportunity to rest some guys and freshen them up."
Up top, Kenny Cooper (4 goals, 1 assist) seems to be building on his rookie campaign in '06 where he scored 11 goals and four assists. Team captain Carlos Ruiz (2 goals, 1 assist) has also done well despite being benched for the team's May 12th win against Kansas City for unexcused absences from team practices due to personal issues. Before returning for Sunday's win, he missed a 2-1 win at Chicago on May 17, because of injuries.
Ruiz, who will also miss the Hoops' next match this Saturday at CD Chivas USA because he will have to serve a suspension for cumulative yellow cards, has been rumored to be on the outs with Morrow. There has also been speculation about him being traded, but Morrow stressed on Monday that the rumor is not true.
"There has been a lot of coverage surrounding Carlos the last few weeks and a lot of it unnecessary in my eyes," Morrow said. "He is still a very important player for us, a very important part of our team. He is our captain and he is very valuable to us. It is a shame he is going to miss the game against Chivas next week, which is unfortunate, and then he will be joining up with the (Guatemalan) national team just after that (to prepare for the Gold Cup), but we think very highly of him and we know that he is going to come good and he is going to score goals for his team.
"I've said it several times before, there are a lot of things that have been said that aren't true and there is no foundation for a lot of those things," Morrow added.
Dominic Oduro and Abe Thompson have also shown very well for the Hoops up top.
Even when Ruiz, and probably a few others, leave this summer to play with their respective national teams, Morrow is confident his depth will outmatch other teams around the league, keeping his team afloat until it is back at full strength.
"We are going to be losing Carlos quite soon and also Dominic (Oduro) so I think this is going to be the period, in the next couple months, where everybody's roster is going to be tested," Morrow said. "We are certainly going to be losing a few players, and I know most teams in the league are going to be losing a few as well, at some stage or another, so it is important to have that depth."
The Hoops' depth also figures to get deeper in the next couple months when defender/midfielder Adrian Serioux returns from knee surgery. Serioux was an integral part of the Houston Dynamo's MLS Cup winning squad last season and should fit in nicely with Morrow's tough style.
"He is making good progress, he is desperate to get going," Morrow said. "He is healing well from the surgery and wants to get back out there on the field and get some jogging done, which his is very close to doing. I think he is right on schedule and wanting to push ahead with things in the next few weeks.
"We definitely look forward to having him back. He is a very experienced player and we have missed his quality on the field and look forward to getting him back to make us stronger."
That's not what the other 12 MLS clubs want to hear - the Hoops getting stronger is not good news for them.