FRISCO, Texas — After clinching the first playoff spot in the Western Conference last weekend, FC Dallas will now turn its attention to Saturday’s match against struggling Orlando City.
The club earned a playoff berth with a scoreless draw against the Portland Timbers. Now, it will look to clinch a first-round bye. To do that, FCD must finish first or second in the conference, so remaining focused on Orlando and the three final regular-season matches after that is crucial.
Dallas (15-6-9, 54 points) is in first place now. Sporting Kansas City (15-8-7, 52 points) and Los Angeles FC (14-8-8, 50 points) are right behind, though, in second and third, respectively.
“Naturally, we always should be in a better place mentally because, obviously, we already accomplished that one objective, which is important,” FC Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja said. “What is following is even more important. It’s just trying to get from one objective to the next one, and definitely we are ready for that.”
Dallas joined Eastern Conference teams Atlanta United, New York Red Bulls and New York City FC as the only teams with playoff berths so far. It’s a group of clubs right back Reggie Cannon called elite. He emphasized the importance of a bye for the team with the unpredictable one-match knockout round that kicks off the postseason. Last season, both Eastern Conference lower seeds (Columbus Crew and New York Red Bulls) advanced out of the knockout stage.
“There’s definitely a lot more pressure now because we clinched it, and at this point, we have to get over that next level,” Cannon said. “Now, we’re up with the elites. We’re up with the Atlantas, we’re up with the Red Bulls and all those other big teams. Now, we gotta keep pushing for that spot. That first and second spot in the conference is going to be huge. Those byes, the best teams can be knocked out easily with one knockout game. We really need that first and second spot and that’s what we’re aiming for.”
After the good news of securing a trip to the playoffs, the team received bad news. Forward Cristian Colman tore his ACL during training earlier this week and is out for the rest of the season. Colman started the last two road matches for Dallas against Vancouver and Portland and was beginning to settle into his role. He was also called up to the Paraguayan national team by new coach Juan Carlos Osorio and was expected to leave after the Orlando City match.
Pareja said he has options to replace Colman, mentioning Dominique Badji and Jesus Ferreira as players who have impressed him in training. The disappointment was evident in his voice, though, when discussing Colman’s injury.
“Very tough to swallow, if we can ever swallow that,” Pareja said. “Difficult moment for a player that has done a great job for us, and lately, just having minutes and consistency and getting called to the national team. It’s very difficult.”
Orlando City comes into the match desperate for a win. The team has not won in its last 11 matches and is . The Lions’ last win was 2-1 against Toronto July 14. While all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, roster spots next season are on the line for Orlando’s players. Knowing this, and with Sporting Kansas City hot on Dallas’ tail, FCD wants to enter the match with the same intensity it had last weekend before having the playoff spot.
“We have to keep that same intensity going, and even though they haven’t had the greatest of seasons so far, they’re fighting for spots on their team,” midfielder Victor Ulloa said of the Lions. “They have a new coach, and I’ve been through that and I know how it is to try and earn your spot. Those guys are gonna come and try to prove a point. They’re going against the No. 1 seed in the West, and we have to match up to that intensity and take the game with a lot of responsibilities and get those three points.”
A slip in focus can lead to results like Dallas suffered against the last-place San Jose Earthquakes — 3-1 and 4-3 losses against an opponent it should have beaten. That’s why Cannon says the team needs to be prepared, especially with the offensive firepower that Orlando can have when playing its best.
“Those teams are honestly the most dangerous, because, honestly, they have nothing to lose,” Cannon said. “They can just fly up and down the field, and with a team offensively dangerous like Orlando, we need to be solid in the back with our backline.
“Defensively, they’ve been struggling, and that’s why they’re not doing too hot. Offensively, they definitely have the players. [Sacha] Kljestan, Dom Dwyer — they have a very dangerous front four, I’d say. They’re trying to find their foot in the game, and that’s the tough part about FC Dallas. You have a target on your back. They’re just going to come out with everything and they have nothing to lose. So, we gotta be on our toes.”