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Cunningham form resurrects FC Dallas



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Things have been a little uncomfortable for Major League Soccer’s FC Dallas lately. Poor performances, bad results, a badly-located stadium and low attendances have led to outspoken criticism of the front office by supporters not only of FCD, but of MLS as a whole. The cold, hard truth of football is you can get away with almost anything if you’re winning on the pitch. But with Dallas getting off to a dismal start in Major League Soccer’s fourth season, the club’s off-the-pitch strategy has come under fire.

As the 2009 season got underway, there were questions among Dallas fans about both coaching and marketing. Schellas Hyndman was appointed head coach in June 2008, replacing sacked former Arsenal cup hero Steve Morrow, and the decision raised more than a few eyebrows. Hunt Sports Group and General Manager Michael Hitchcock have also been criticised for their frugality, management of Pizza Hut Park and inability to market the team effectively and appropriately.

When you’re promoting a club in a league which is growing, soccer moms should not be your target market.

Rotting from the head?

With FCD disappointing on the field, questions continue to be asked about whether the problems begin at the top. The ownership of Hunt Sports Group (HSG) has become difficult for many Dallas supporters. There is a feeling that the owners are not willing to invest in making FCD a successful franchise. Zach Woosley of Ginge Talks The Footy believes that HSG is more interested in profit than success:

“[HSG] may have saved FC Dallas from retraction in 2003 but every decision since then has been about profit for the Hunts and not about the success of the club on the pitch. Last season there was a Saturday night match against arch-rival Houston scheduled. HSG moved the match to a Wednesday night so they can have a concert at Pizza Hut Park instead of the match. It’s never about the soccer with HSG, it’s about the money. FC Dallas might be one of the few MLS clubs that’s making a profit but they have been one of the worst teams in the league for nearly two seasons.”

Coupled with that, the company’s inability to adequately market the club has frustrated fans and General Manager Michael Hitchock is expected to shoulder much of the blame. In essence, it’s the familiar mistake so often made by MLS clubs: focusing on family football when what’s really needed are passionate, noisy supporters with plenty of disposable income. After nauseatingly introducing the song “H-O-O-P-S Yes!” by The Polyphonic Spree as the team anthem, the club then abandoned “Hoops” as its nickname. Hardly a smooth marketing operation, I’m sure you’ll agree.

And then, of course, there’s the football. HSG’s hiring of Schellas Hyndman as head coach was a controversial one given his questionable pedigree in the game. Woosley thinks his appointment shows another downside to having the club owned by HSG:

“The hiring of Schellas Hyndman is a prime example of why Clark Hunt is a bad owner. Bringing in Hyndman wasn’t about finding the best man for the job, it was the culmination of a multi-year chase by Clark to get his old college coach buddy in charge of the club. For a team that claims to want to bring a championship to Dallas, it’s hardly a great move to hire a coach who didn’t win anything in over 30 years [in university soccer].”

3rd Degree‘s Buzz Carrick recently considered another way in which FCD front office is letting the club down. When Danny Szetela returned to the States, Carrick argued that FCD, who passed on Szetela to enable him to sign for DC United, should have secured something in return from United. He believes that Dallas should have taken a chance on the player (who, it seems, had his heart set on DC) or – at the very least – made some demands in order to let the next club take the option.

This hapless, spineless approach has translated onto the pitch over the last two seasons, but things have been looking up lately.

The Kenny Cooper Effect

A turning point in FCD’s season has almost undeniably and somewhat perversely been the departure of Kenny Cooper. Cooper spent much of July on international duty with the USA and was sold to 1860 Munich of 2.Bundesliga before the month was out. From the outside, it didn’t strike me as a disaster for Dallas. Cooper has some useful attributes but had become a stagnant talisman, symbolising his team’s lack of incision, dynamism and cutting edge. Despite a spectacular goal on the first day of the new season, Kenny Cooper has looked ready for a move.

The problem with a team that’s been built around a player like Cooper is that it becomes one-dimensional and sometimes lacks the creativity to use him in a variety of ways (as a decoy, for example). This is compounded by Cooper being the face of FC Dallas and his increasingly lumpen, leaden play. Adam Soucie of Soucie On Soccer explains how Cooper’s recent stint with the US national team demonstrated the weaknesses in his game:

“Aside from his goal, Cooper stood out for all of the wrong reasons. Coming on as a sub, Cooper was supposed to provide a spark. Instead, he dragged down the US attack. At times, Cooper would attempt to dribble his way into a shot, only to have it easily taken away. In other instances, Cooper found himself in open space with the ball at his feet. Rather than make a run and provide service, Cooper choose to take shots, some from as far as forty yards away. When Cooper did have chances on set plays, he sent them well high or wide of the goal. All in all, Cooper’s presence was more hindrance than help.”

Sure enough, FCD’s form has picked up since Cooper’s departure. While it’s not necessarily the case that simply removing Cooper has improved the side, it is true that the focus of the team has shifted to create a more dynamic attack.

Stepping up

With a Cooper-sized hole in the Dallas attack, Jeff Cunningham has really shone. It’s difficult to be surprised: Cunningham is Major League Soccer’s third highest goalscorer, with 113 league goals to his name. Nine of those have been scored this season, seven of them in July and August. Cunningham fired in four goals during a particularly impressive 6-0 home win against Kansas City Wizards on August 1st.

By finding the net with such ruthlessness since Cooper’s departure, Cunningham has positioned himself as the new focal point of FC Dallas. It’s certainly an upgrade. Cunningham is faster than Cooper, is more clinical in front of goal and has a better touch. While Cooper’s worthy contribution to the team came in the form of link-up play and (occasional) goalscoring, Cunningham combines better with his team-mates and allows Hyndman to get more out of his better players.

Fortunately for Dallas, several of those have taken responsibility for improving the club’s fortunes. Dax McCarty’s energetic presence in midfield has developed into more than just a nuisance factor in recent weeks, allowing the side’s more creative players to make a telling contribution going forward. Dave van den Bergh’s left foot has been one of FCD’s most productive tools all season, but the recent form of Brek Shea, a 19-year-old Generation adidas kid from Texas, has been a revelation. He has made 13 appearances for Dallas this season and is now pushing for a place as a regular starter.

Shea has plenty of charisma and has started to marry that to a confident swagger on the ball and a great eye for a killer pass. He’s one to watch.

With that form improving, FC Dallas had given themselves a very slim chance of qualifying for the playoffs. Although Saturday’s defeat at Crew Stadium probably put paid to that idea, a strong finish would still be beneficial. After all, for a large portion of the opening exchanges in 2009 Dallas have been a laughing stock. Finishing just outside the top eight would be a significant improvement and provide hope for the post-Cooper era.

Chris Nee writes at twofootedtackle and co-hosts The twofootedtackle Football Podcast.