Dallas, Colorado on divergent paths

As the 2011 MLS season reaches its half-way point, the two teams that battled in the 2010 MLS Cup Final last fall find themselves heading in different directions.

FC Dallas handily defeated a tough Columbus Crew side on Saturday to become the first MLS team to win 10 games this season, closing the gap behind the Los Angeles Galaxy to two points atop the Western Conference standings. With two games in hand on the Galaxy, Dallas looks every bit as good as the team that won the Western Conference.

On the same night, over in Colorado, the reigning MLS Cup champion Rapids were struggling to score against a resolute Houston Dynamo team. They failed to find the net and settled for a 0-0 tie. It marked the seventh straight game Colorado failed to win at home, and the ninth time in the past 10 matches Colorado failed to get three points.

We are just mid-way through the 2011 season, and the final script is far from being written for either team, but right now it’s tough not to notice that Dallas is playing some of the best soccer in MLS while the Rapids look pretty far from a championship team.

The coaching job being done by FC Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman has to be applauded considering the players the team lost in the off-season and the fact MLS MVP David Ferreira went down with a broken ankle early in the campaign. What Dallas has been leaning on are some smart off-season acquisitions as well as the maturation of a budding star in Brek Shea.

Dallas lost some serious talent in the off-season, including regular starters Dax McCarty and Atiba Harris, as well as Heath Pearce, who the team traded away. Newcomers Fabian Castillo and Andrew Jacobson have been stellar starters and have helped Dallas keep one of the deepest benches in the league, with Castillo teaming with Brek Shea to carry an offense in the absence of the dynamic Ferreira.

And the team that beat Dallas for that championship? The Colorado Rapids have had far less to feel excited about as they do their championship tour around MLS. They are currently eighth in MLS in points accrued, which may not seem that terrible until you consider that nine of those points came in the first three weeks of the season.

So what has changed? Injuries have played a part, with star strikers Omar Cummings and Conor Casey missing a combined 15 of 30 possible starts. In fact, the forward tandem hasn’t been in the starting lineup together since the season opener. Irish striker Caleb Folan was signed in the off-season as cover, but after a promising start, he has been largely ineffective. There have been other absences, from Marvell Wynne’s injury stint to Brian Mullan’s 10-match suspension for breaking Steve Zakuani’s leg.

The injuries to Casey and Cummings, and Mullan’s lengthy suspension, have played some part in Colorado’s recent struggles, but other top teams (FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake, Seattle) have managed just fine despite losing stars for long periods of time.

The reality is that, despite an impressive run to an MLS Cup title last season, the Rapids were a slightly above-average team in the regular season. They avoided key injuries and managed a regular season record that tied for the seventh-best in the league.

This year injuries hit, and the Rapids roster simply hadn’t been strengthened enough in the off-season to cover for injuries. Colorado will also have to deal with the rigors of CONCACAF Champions League in the late summer. That means more matches on an already busy schedule, and with a team that has already been proven to not be that deep.

Where Dallas added impact players in Castillo and Jacobson, Colorado’s off-season acquisitions have underwhelmed. Tyrone Marshall has played more than expected, and has looked better than he did in 2010, but he’s far from the player he once was. Folan just hasn’t had that much of an impact (two goals, which came in the same game), while Sanna Nyassi has managed just one assist since coming over from Seattle.

If the Rapids are going to duplicate their 2010 success, they are going to need to make some summer acquisitions, because expecting another run like last season’s just isn’t realistic.

Dallas, on the hand, has every reason to believe another MLS Cup run can happen. With Brek Shea playing MVP-caliber soccer, the defense looking as good as ever, and Ferreira due to return before the end of the season, FC Dallas is looking as likely as any team in the league to lift the trophy Colorado won.

MLS Player of the Week

New York Red Bulls midfielder Joel Lindpere scored both goals in the Red Bulls 2-2 tie against San Jose, including a late equalizer. With strikers Thierry Henry and Luke Rodgers sidelined, and with goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul committing yet another goalkeeping blunder, the Red Bulls turned to Lindpere to help them salvage a road point. FC Dallas’ Brek Shea and Houston’s Tally Hall were also outstanding.

MLS Rookie of the Week

Sporting Kansas City striker C.J. Sapong continued bolstering his case for MLS Rookie of the Year by registering a goal and assist in KC’s 2-1 victory against Portland. Sapong’s form has helped keep Teal Bunbury on the bench, and he rewarded his coach’s confidence with his best game as a pro. Portland striker Darlington Nagbe also merited consideration for the honor after scoring a beautiful goal.

MLS Team of the Week

The Columbus Crew arrived at Pizza Hut Park having won three of four, but FC Dallas proved too tough, thoroughly outplaying the Crew in a 2-0 victory. Led by Brek Shea’s dynamic attacking skills and Kevin Hartman’s stellar work in goal, Dallas dominated Columbus to become the first team with 10 wins.