There is an old coaching quip that claims that “defense wins championships”. Do a quick Google search, and you can find numerous bloggers, sports pundits, and internet message boards debating and dismissing it. Is there truth to it? Maybe. However, it’s no better advice than hearing a brilliant sports analyst make the case in pre-game commentary that a key for a particular team to win is their ability to score more points than the other side. Yeah.
Still, in soccer, defense is especially vital in a sport where 1-2 goals represents a solid outing for most teams. If you don’t let your opponents score, you are probably going to be alright. In the tense and nervy playoff atmosphere late in the season, locking things down over 180 minutes in a two leg series is what champions are made of.
Case in point - Seattle Sounders won the MLS Cup in 2016 despite failing to register a single shot on goal during regulation and extra time, frustrating an unlucky Toronto FC defensively. While, yes, Toronto probably should have scored, Seattle setup a defensive shell and gutted their way to the eventual PK win. Give them credit for that performance, even if it was offensively abysmal.
The good news for FC Dallas fans is that it looks like this squad’s defense is peaking at the right time. Sure, question marks remain over the offense, but there is no uncertainty around the back line of Reggie Cannon, Matt Hedges, Reto Ziegler, and Marquinhos Pedroso with Jesse Gonzalez in goal. They look ready for the playoffs. They look ready to leave a mark.
In the last five games, FC Dallas is sitting at 8 goals scored with 3 goals allowed. Two of those goals given up came in a wild blowout win at home against Houston, so in three of those games, FC Dallas managed a clean sheet. Offensively, four goals also came against Houston, meaning the remaining games have been tight affairs. Overall, while you wouldn’t mind a few more goals scored for your side, that’s a solid stat to take with you in these final three games of the regular season.
Does this put FC Dallas on track with other recent MLS Cup winners?
In particular, I’ll be focusing on the September and October time frame to get a simple comparison of recent winners and their form leading up to the playoffs.
In 2017, Toronto FC completed a historic season with a big MLS Cup win at home. In the last two months of the season before the playoffs began, they scored 18 goals and gave up 8 goals defensively. In those final eight games, they managed just three clean sheets but were able to outscore their opponents behind an exciting attack. The ratio, roughly two goals scored per one given up, isn’t too far off from what FC Dallas is already enjoying, but FC Dallas simply doesn’t have the offensive talent that Toronto has/had.
In 2016, Seattle outlasted Toronto in front of a hostile crowd via penalty kicks. Over the last eight games of the season, they scored 12 goals and gave up 7 goals. (Interestingly enough, their final loss of the season was against FC Dallas.) They too only managed three clean sheets among some tight results. Their ratio is a bit worse, maybe just under 2-to-1, but not too dissimilar either. They never gave up more than two goals this late in the season in those matches, meaning all of their games were close.
In 2015, Portland Timbers lifted the MLS Cup. Over those remaining seven games of the season, they scored 12 goals, eight of which came in the final two games of the season, and gave up 7 goals against their opponents. They only managed two clean sheets and got shutout three times. Their form was pretty uneven, but those two final games may have been enough to kickstart their offense for the stretch run. Caleb Porter’s teams were not necessarily the most exciting to watch, but they got the job done.
Finally, in 2014, LA Galaxy won their most recent MLS Cup. Has it been that long? Over the final two months, they chipped in 21 goals (six goals against a hapless Colorado and four against New York included in that) and gave up 9 goals against their opponents. It’s easy to forget how good those LA Galaxy teams could be offensively. They too only managed three shutouts, all three of which were blowouts, and got shutout once in the final game of the regular season. Of course, Bruce Arena was well known for resting key starters on that final meaningless game - and for valuing home field advantage.
All in all, these stats look fairly similar, and really, I’m not sure if there is enough data to make a strong case here one way or another. If I go farther back, I’m almost certain that other championship teams had a similar ratio. Score more goals than you give up, and you're going to make the playoffs and probably move on toward the cup. Give up at most 1-2 goals, and you should have a chance to be competitive and grind out some results if your offense is competent enough.
Over these final three games, if this cherry-picked ratio holds for FCD of eight goals scored and three goals allowed, FC Dallas would bury 5 more goals and give up another 2 goals over the remaining regular season matches. FC Dallas would then be at 13/5 going into the playoffs, placing them firmly into the company of Portland and Seattle’s championship runs (although potentially stingier). Of course, FC Dallas could tank any of these games, easily take care of business against a hapless Colorado side, or surprise us with a dominant performance at home versus Sporting Kansas City. Or, heck, the defense could shut out everybody the rest of the way. Fabian would like that:
Does this mean FC Dallas’ defense is poised to carry them to the cup?
I think it is safe to say that the way FC Dallas’ defense has come together is one of the big stories late in the season that deserves more love and attention. Sure, defense can’t do it by itself, so the offense needs to be prepared to step up for some big goals. A single goal in a playoff series can be the difference between advancing or going home. However, there is no reason why FC Dallas can’t follow the route of Portland or Seattle and battle their way into a championship game behind a just good enough attack and a worthy back line.
If there is a question mark for the back line, it’s depth. Injuries will derail any team’s chances. If Reggie goes down, Reto or Matt miss time, or Marquinhos gets hit by a car while helping someone stuck on an icy road, the options are inexperienced or aging. FC Dallas will likely struggle, but until that moment, the defense may be a bigger asset than any attacking talent this squad has.
Give me your feedback -
- If FC Dallas locks up a No. 1 or No. 2 spot in the next couple of weeks, should Oscar Pareja rest some key players for the final away match of the season?
- Are you worried about the offense more than the defense?
- Is there any single player in FCD’s defense that causes you worry with the potential for a bad game?