Whether you want to believe it, FC Dallas is already halfway through their 2014 season. Yes, no other club has played as many games through this part of the calendar as FC Dallas has.
Now that we're in the World Cup break, it is a good time to sit back and see what we've learned so far this season from this club under manager Oscar Pareja.
When it was good, it was really good
Do you remember March and part of April? Those were the days weren't they? Mauro Diaz was a beast in those games, Je-Vaughn Watson played reasonable well and the club as a whole just looked unstoppable.
It really makes you think 'what if' here.
One thing we knew would happen going into the 2014 season was that Pareja would indeed go with his young players more times than not. He did so in Colorado with guys like Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown last season and he is doing it again this year.
We did have some doubts before the season started as Pareja outed a couple Homegrown players like Bradlee Baladez and London Woodberry. Neither showed well in preseason and Pareja cut each of them before the start of the season. Given all the other moves that were made in the offseason, it looked as though the young players like Baladez and Woodberry just didn't have a chance to move up the depth charts.
But a funny thing happened that changed my outlook on the young players getting more minutes in 2014. The first real sign of that was the day the club re-signed Homegrown midfielder Victor Ulloa, a player who really never made a dent on the field under Schellas Hyndman. Last year it seemed that Ulloa was hanging on to a roster spot by a thread and by the end of the year he was let go.
Before start of the 2014 season though, Ulloa was back and earned a roster spot under Pareja. Looking back on that we can't thank Pareja enough to trusting Ulloa to grow as a player.
It hasn't just been the breakout of Ulloa that has been good to see under Pareja. Fellow Homegrown Moises Hernandez, who had spent the last two seasons on loan got minutes right away to start the season. Kellyn Acosta continued to start before getting injured. Danny Garcia also saw plenty of time on the field.
Then there was rookie forward Tesho Akindele. Everyone laughed when FC Dallas grabbed him early in the first round of the SuperDraft in January but as the season has rolled on, Akindele has been one of the few bright spots in this year's rookie class. He has a unique combination of size, skill and soccer IQ for a young player.
Castillo breaking out?
For a couple of seasons now we have been asking the same question with regards to Colombian Fabian Castillo, when will he break out into the player we all think he can be?
Decision making has never been his strongest suit but in the last month - during a time that FC Dallas was struggling in - Castillo turned into one of the club's more dependable players. Between his speed and skill on the ball, Castillo has gone from a one trick pony to a constant threat on the field for Pareja and FCD.
After 17 games, Castillo has five goals and two assists. While those numbers aren't exactly a giant lightning bolt to the league, it has been the play in the last couple of games that have truly shown his ability as a player and what he can do on and off the ball.
Castillo still has a ways to go but seeing him mature as a young player is a sign that FCD fans have been waiting on.
Discipline issues yet again
I find it slightly ironic that the club's marketing department dubbed this year's campaign as 'Red For 90'. I know their intentions were never about the club earning red cards in the fashion that they have but it is way too ironic that the club has a franchise record eight red cards through 17 games.
Just so you know the MLS record is 11 red cards by one team in a season. FCD won't be winning any fair play awards in 2014 for their discipline issues.
We can bitch and moan about the poor officiating all we want here but at some point we have to look at the number of red cards and say that it is more of a 'team problem' then a 'ref problem'.
FCD plays with an edge, one that is a bit reckless. Teams around the league know it and officials know it as well. At some point the reds and even yellows will balance themselves out. The World Cup break probably came at the best possible time for the club as they'll likely begin the second half of the season without Castillo for a couple games, and definitely without Blas Perez and Hernandez for a game.
For FCD to get over this epidemic, they have to look within themselves and correct the moaning about the calls. It is a top-down thing as even Dan Hunt has taken to complaining about the calls. Sometimes you have to just look at yourself in the mirror and admit your own faults before other people will go along with it. Bad teams always have an excuse for why they lose too, right now FCD has too many excuses for why they aren't consistently winning here.
Injuries have been killer
It hasn't just been all about the red cards this season. Injuries have been a topic of discussion almost since the club started training camp in January.
George John is the prime example. The veteran center back hasn't even sniffed the training ground this season as he is still dealing with lingering knee issues. I've been told on several occasions that he has seen a slew of doctors already in 2014, getting second, third and even fifth opinions on what to do. Those sources may have exaggerated the doctor numbers but the fact remains, he hasn't felt comfortable to push it and play this season.
John isn't the only one dealing with injuries either. Walker Zimmerman continues to come and go with a hamstring injury. Andres Escobar dealt with back injuries for two months. Zach Loyd started off the season recovering from injury. As did Raul Fernandez. Let's not forget Andrew Jacobson and Adam Moffat have been in and out of the nursery as Pareja likes to call it.
Michel has been out with an injury for the last few weeks while Matt Hedges left the Colorado game last weekend with a hamstring injury.
But the real talk had to be about the three players that went down and have been out for several weeks now. Mauro Diaz went down with a knee injury back in April in D.C., he has been rehabbing for a while in Kansas City to get healthy here after his surgery. He is back in Dallas now, and continues to be on track for a return in July.
Kellyn Acosta and Hendry Thomas both drew plenty of talk from the media for tweeting out photos of their surgeries before the club could comment on the injuries. Acosta still has a longer way to go before he sees the pitch than Thomas.
Injuries are always a problem for ANY club in MLS. But it feels like this season is different, almost 2012-like with the injury bug that killed that season. A lot of the injuries like to Hedges and possibly even Michel stem from the extra miles these players are putting on their bodies this season with the congested schedule the club had in May and all the red cards the team is picking up. Look at Hedges in particular, he was the club's ironman until he left the Colorado game. Things just add up over time.
More leadership issues
We thought going into the season that John would be the undisputed leader in the clubhouse. But with his knee keeping him off the pitch for the last few months, the captain's armband went to Jacobson. In the games that AJ hasn't played, the armband went to Hedges and once to Perez.
The constant swap of leaders on the field has been tough to overcome as the team continues to miss that one guy that can really hold things together for the team. While Perez has the intensity you want in a leader, his standing with the league officials make him a target for cards and calls all the time. Hedges is vocal in the back but not vocal enough to guide this team when things get tough.
The absence of a clear-cut leader on the field has been one of the bigger issues facing this club. Sure, some players have stepped up nicely this season but the accountability factor is killing this club at the moment. Think for a moment if Daniel Hernandez was still captaining this team, even if he wasn't a starter he would have kept this group accountable for the silly mistakes that have plagued them this season.
That bite on the field has to come from somewhere. Maybe Thomas is the leader when he gets healthy. Maybe it is time to switch over to someone like Stephen Keel.
More heart than in years past
But while there have been issues in the discipline and leadership, the one thing that continues to poke through as a positive this season has been the heart of this club.
That comes from Pareja for sure as you see the team embody how he used to play here in Dallas. The young players show that they never give up in a game. While the team has struggled in games this season, the one thing remains, they continue to push for goals even when their attack is depleted. They continue to pressure teams off the ball, even when they're banged up.
I've said it a few times this season, even in a loss like the New York game. This team wouldn't have pushed for goals in that manner in seasons past the way this group is. If anything, that heart to push through in a game is carrying this team as far as it has this season and will continue to do so in the second half.
What is to come
With 17 more games left, FCD has the tough task of dealing with a schedule that sees other teams catching up to them in the standings and potentially passing them. The team has eight more home games to go with the nine road games. FCD has done fairly well against the Eastern Conference this season and they only have four more matches against clubs from that league (Columbus, Philly, New England and Chicago).
The rest is dealing with the West. We have three games against Vancouver left, two with Colorado, Salt Lake and LA. Only one more match with Chivas, Seattle, and San Jose.
The points are certainly going to be there for the taking. I still believe that if you do well in those eight home games, you put yourself in contention for a playoff spot.