FC Dallas made it three wins in a row for the first time in the 2016 MLS season by recording an unexpected 4-2 win away at New England Revolution on Saturday night. The Revs hadn't lost at home yet this year going into this game while FCD were on a run of three straight away defeats and, when considering the team's selection issues, few thought a Hoops win was on the cards at Gillette Stadium.
But that's exactly what happened. Although New England reversed an early deficit via a Tesho Akindele penalty with a Juan Agudelo header and Lee Nguyen penalty of their own, Dallas hit back with Atiba Harris heading in from a corner to make the score even after an exciting first half. Then, second half goals from Fabian Castillo and once again Akindele proved too much for the Revs to turn around and it meant that FCD's barren run on the road was finally over, in the most unlikeliest of circumstances.
The win keeps Dallas second in the table, on 26 points from 14 games, and leaves the team in a strong position with just a visit to San Jose and a home Texas derby against Houston to come before a two-week Copa America Centenario break.
Many positives to take away from this latest away game, much more than could be said about some of the previous ones, even if there was some suffering to endure and bumps to take along the way to getting these three points. It's the first time this year that FCD has scored four in any single match and the first time they've done it since the 4-1 Texas derby win over Houston last October, some twenty-three competitive games ago. New England's defense was a mess, which wasn't helped by injury problems and an unfamiliar formation, but it's still an impressive feat nonetheless.
With that said, offensively the team was in the mood and confident with every foray forward throughout the evening. Ten shots were created, seven of which were on target, and obviously four of them were converted into goals. The improvement in quality and efficiency was evident in comparison to previous weeks when the attack struggled and what makes this especially awe-inspiring is that 3/4ths of the starting front four was missing with Mauro Diaz left out of the squad for technical reasons, Maximiliano Urruti still nursing an ankle problem, and Michael Barrios getting injured very early on in the game as well. Even if you bring the number of shots down to nine as Barrios did win the penalty after all, it's still a splendid outing on the offensive side of things to manage such success in an away game without several key attacking players.
Defensively things were just as impressive, at least in terms of the game play action. New England was limited to just three shots on goal from open play throughout the entire match, two of which were long range attempts which means that they just had one real attempt on goal in the box without counting set pieces. Even though Dallas is still without captain Matt Hedges' leadership and presence at the back, the team managed to limit a team boasting several quality players like Kei Kamara, Nguyen, Agudelo, Kelyn Rowe, Diego Fagundez, and Femi Hollinger-Janzen in their ranks. That's a testament to how much the defense has matured and how well they've adjusted in Hedges' absence, with Zach Loyd and Walker Zimmerman particularly standing out and forming a real good understanding and partnership together which has come at a good time with the captain out of action.
Above all though, the most impressive aspect about this victory was the attitude and character of the players shown after falling 2-1 behind and struggling to get ahold of the ball in undoubtedly the team's toughest period of the game. Instead of crumbling to pieces as they did after falling behind in defeats to Houston, Vancouver, and New York, they produced a reaction, fought back, and duly got their reward. And to have done it against an Eastern Conference contender and without the likes of Diaz, Hedges, Urruti, Barrios, and Jesse Gonzalez, it makes it that much sweeter to have seen their collective spirit and positive attitude shine through to get a result.
Credit must also be given to Oscar Pareja who spotted some of the issues in the tactics and the way the team was playing at halftime and addressed them accordingly which tilted the game in Dallas' favor in the second half. Getting Castillo and Akindele more involved and utilizing their pace on counters with through balls and long balls more often, moving Ryan Hollingshead to the left flank which freed up more space for Harris to attack into, and giving Kellyn Acosta more attacking freedom and license to roam forward improved the team's possession and attacking game, which was evidently a clear difference in the way the team played out the second half in comparison to the first.
The biggest low point of the night was easily the problems the team had once again on defending set pieces. New England's two goals both came directly as a result of exploiting Dallas' weaknesses in that area, which several teams have done time and time again this year. Agudelo headed in a goal from an indirect Nguyen freekick that really should have been dealt with by one of the markers closest to him while a short corner routine caught Dallas out who failed to clear the danger which led to Victor Ulloa fouling Nguyen in the box and Nguyen himself scoring the resulting penalty.
New England won several of their aerial duels after those two goals as well which didn't lead to goals or even shots on goals, but once again, Dallas' defensive set piece woes continued on Saturday night and that continues to be the team's single biggest weakness. Six goals have already been let in this year from set plays and although Dallas have been very good on them offensively in recent weeks, there just hasn't been much improvement in dealing with them defensively and how this issue will get resolved is one of the biggest question marks for the coaching staff to figure out an answer to.
Another criticism could be the foul count of eighteen which doubled the amount made by New England, but considering that Dallas spent more time without the ball and defending deep for much of the game and had several defensive minded players out on the pitch, that probably comes as no surprise. Sometimes it's good to see players get stuck in and committed to the task and having seen a lack of a reaction in away games in recent weeks, this was a lot better this time around and being overly aggressive probably was a helping factor in the process, so it may not be a bad thing after all. Still though, continuing with this approach could get the team in disciplinary trouble and plenty of bookings in the future if they're not careful, so trying to limit the amount of fouls may be something to work on to ensure that doesn't happen.
There aren't any other real critical notes to take out of what was a really good Saturday evening for a depleted Dallas team considering the circumstances. Now with the team really well placed and those who were missing in Foxborough set to return soon for the upcoming matches, things may only get better yet from here. The early season problems slowly seem to be going away and the team is beginning to hit its stride, which promises much for the challenges ahead and for what's to come later on in what is shaping up to be an exciting time for the team as they continue to chase down long awaited glory at last this year.