FC Dallas and Colorado adjusting to new coaches
It's a script that has been played out countless times in soccer's history. A struggling side changes their manager in midseason in the hope that a reversal of fortune will occur. And while form typically improves in the short term, the long-term effects are usually negligible.
This week on "MLS Primetime Thursday," that adage will be put to the test, as FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids -- both of whom have made coaching changes this season -- will duke it out at Pizza Hut Park.
And despite their respective difficulties, players from both sides will have more on their minds than just trying to impress new managers, as each team is still within sniffing distance of the postseason. The Rapids have the worst record in the league but are just three points out of the last guaranteed playoff spot in the Western Conference. Dallas, meanwhile, is even closer, as they lie just a point behind third-place Chivas USA.
Five story lines to follow
1. Gary Smith tries to salvage the Rapids' season
Three weeks ago, Smith took over as head coach for Fernando Clavijo, and while family reasons played a part in Clavijo's resignation, the prospect of missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season didn't make it difficult for the Rapids brass to say goodbye to the former U.S. international.
Into the mire stepped Smith, who cut his coaching teeth as an assistant with several English clubs, and is now tasked with bringing stability to a team that looks like it could disintegrate at any moment.
"I think it has been a frustrated group," Smith said. "They were playing well, and if you look at the statistics leading up to Fernando's departure, I think approaching the goal, we were as productive as anybody. Our conversion rate just wasn't good enough."
2. The Schellas Hyndman era continues in Dallas
Colorado at Dallas
8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN, ESPN360.com)
Hyndman's record so far as FCD manager is just 2-3-4, leaving one to wonder if it was really worth it for Dallas to fire Steve Morrow in May. But that is the least of Hyndman's concerns. His team has struggled to find that balance between attack and defense since he took over.
"I think the team isn't completely firing on all cylinders," Hyndman said. "I think we're throwing more numbers into the attack, which is something we've worked on, but our issue is losing possession in the middle third of the field, where we're losing the ball and teams are countering on us."
3. Offensive blackout in Colorado
Smith hasn't hesitated to ring in the changes since taking over, and his alterations so far indicate a preference for substance over style. One example is his choosing the lunch-pail ethic of Preston Burpo in goal over the erratic play of Bouna Coundoul. But among the more eyebrow-raising moves has been Smith's benching of midfielder Christian Gomez, especially since the Rapids have been shut out in four of their last five games.
"With three away games coming up, the idea was to use players who were going to be a bit more industrious away from home in extremely difficult circumstances, and use [Gomez] more wisely," Smith said. "Bring him into the game maybe at a point where he can be more effective and more creative and use his talent to a more pointed degree."
4. License to drive
Among the bigger impressions Hyndman has made as head coach is the responsibility he has given to young players. Witness his attempts to fill the attacking midfield position with rookies Eric Avila and Bruno Guarda. It's a role that most managers would only trust to a veteran player, but for Hyndman, it's a risk he feels is worth taking.
"I have great confidence in our younger players," said Hyndman. "And it's a situation where I know what I'm looking for. I'm putting a puzzle together and I need to find the right pieces and put them in the right places."
5. Looking for warm bodies
Fielding a consistent lineup proved elusive during the Clavijo era, and the chopping and changing has continued under Smith, although the Englishman's alterations are more understandable. A spate of injuries has cut deep into Colorado's roster, with Mehdi Ballouchy and Ugo Ihemelu both suffering from concussions, while hamstring ailments have sidelined midfielders Pablo Mastroeni and Terry Cooke. It has left Smith trying to patch together a side whose confidence is at a low ebb.
Five players to watch
1. Kenny Cooper, F, FC Dallas
Cooper's 13 goals are good enough for second in the league, and the fact that he hasn't been rewarded with a call-up to the U.S. national team remains a mystery. But with Dallas desperate for any points they can get, the fact that the FCD forward is still with his club counts as a blessing for Hyndman, especially given Cooper's combination of size, skill, and finishing.
2. Conor Casey, F, Colorado
The only player who has been able to find the net for Colorado in the last month has been Casey, who bagged two goals in the Rapids' 2-1 win over Kansas City on Aug. 16. But there has always been more to Casey's game than just goals, and his hold-up play is a vital part of the Rapids' attack.
"I think Conor has found life a little bit difficult, especially when we've gone with that one forward up front," Smith said. "It's a thankless task, especially in a group that is trying to find some form. He's much better than people give him credit for, especially with his back to goal. He has a good first touch, he brings people into the play, and he has that physical strength."
3. Jeff Cunningham, F, FC Dallas
No player has scored more goals while wearing out his welcome in more places than Cunningham. The former U.S. international notched his 100th career goal against Columbus on Aug. 16, but only after changing addresses yet again a week earlier, when Toronto shipped him to Dallas. Now Cunningham is expected to take the goal-scoring load off Cooper and provide more of a one-two punch. With two goals in three games, Cunningham may yet find a home in Dallas.
"[Cunningham] is creating havoc for the opposition," Hyndman said. "We're starting to understand him better, and as far as off the field, he's been great in the locker room and great with the other players. I think right now we might have had the steal of the year."
4. Cory Gibbs, D, Colorado
After enduring foot and knee injuries over the last two years, Gibbs was in real danger of taking up permanent residence in the "Where are they now?" file. But the once and perhaps future U.S. international now looks to be healthy again, and has so far given the Rapids' backline a boost. Given all of Colorado's injuries, Smith is certainly hopeful that Gibbs can enjoy an extended run in the Rapids' lineup.
"[Gibbs] is a very accomplished individual," said Smith. "He brings physical strength, athleticism, and he's been very effective. He's a terrific addition to the group."
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5. Andre Rocha, M, Dallas
The Brazilian scored perhaps the goal of the season on Aug. 23, when his 40-yard bomb against Kansas City nearly pierced the net. But Rocha ended up landing in the doghouse on that same day, when after being substituted, he went straight to the locker room instead of sitting with his teammates. Such a display was a no-no in the eyes of Hyndman, and it required a sit-down between player and coach. Hyndman now insists that the issue is settled, and given that Rocha leads the team with six assists that counts as good news, as the midfielder is a key part of the Hoops' attack.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at email@example.com.