By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 22, 2021) US Soccer Players – Under Major League Soccer’s forgiving postseason structure, every instance of elimination from playoff contention is a sobering milestone. Still, it feels quite different when confirmation of that status is certain well before Decision Day.
Such was the case for FC Dallas on Wednesday night. In a playoff-race six-pointer, they blew a halftime lead at home to fall 3-2 to LAFC. The result is that they’re officially out of this year’s MLS Cup Playoffs with four games still to play. It effectively marked a tough end to a campaign that began with surging optimism. Year three of Luchi Gonzalez’s head coaching tenure arrived amid booming outbound transfer sales. The club has drawn international acclaim for its prolific academy and slow but steady growth for the first team. Or so it seemed.
A month ago, FC Dallas fired Gonzalez, ending a nearly decade-long relationship with a central figure in their organizational identity. The stated aim at the time was to salvage the season.
“The good news is we’re only seven points off the playoff line. We made a choice to make a change now because we actually believe we have an opportunity to still get into the playoffs,” owner and president Dan Hunt told reporters at the time.
With just one point from their next four matches, Dallas found themselves twice as far out of 7th-place as when they made the coaching decision. Their young talent remains coveted by clubs overseas, with Ricardo Pepi the next star expected to make a move. What that means for the team on the field remains the issue for a selling club in a selling league.
As disappointing as Dallas’s 2021 has been, they lasted longer in the playoff race than either of their Texas counterparts. The math caught up with the Dynamo over the weekend, extending their postseason drought to four years running. It’s a splash of cold water a matter of weeks after announcing a new investor/operator with the potential for an uplift in the long-underperforming Houston market.
On the field, the pressing-oriented tactical plan hasn’t panned out, at least not yet. This week’s MLS Players Association salary drop drew attention to the fact that Houston has two of the four highest-paid center backs in the league. That’s not exactly reflected in their 49 goals conceded in 31 games. Their pressing-oriented tactical plan hasn’t panned out, at least not yet. That September rivalry win over Dallas that triggered Gonzalez’s exit might well end up as the high point of Houston’s season.
Debutants Austin FC already knew that they’d be watching the playoffs on TV as well. Austin spent the early part of the season on the road waiting to open Q2 Stadium. Once they got to play at home, it showed just how vibrant Austin is as a soccer market. That enthusiasm didn’t turn the team into a playoff contender, but that’s still an exception in this league. Just because it’s happened for other teams doesn’t mean it’s an expectation.
Expansion teams get time. That said, it is surprising that Austin didn’t push Houston and Dallas to do more over the long, hot Texas summer. This was all supposed to be a lot more fun across the state.
It was to be a monumental year for soccer in Lone Star country. Drawn in part by Austin’s new building, Concacaf held a flurry of Gold Cup matches in six venues across the state, followed by its first-ever USMNT World Cup qualifier, this month’s win over Jamaica at Q2. Dallas and Houston also remain highly-rated contenders to win 2026 World Cup hosting status.
Texas is also home to five USL teams, an NWSL side, and millions of youth and adult players. Even the often-discouraging soccer media scene showed signs of local optimism. A well-funded new outlet called The Striker Texas launched with a subscription model and a pledge to cover all levels of the state’s soccer culture. That meant sending their MLS beat reporters to away matches, a rarity across the league.
As much of a magnet as the state is for prominent soccer events, as much respect as its homegrown players have earned on the global stage, it’s hard to shake the sense that the professional game is still underperforming in Texas. Perhaps it’s arbitrary to lump its clubs together, given their specific individual contexts. However, that’s both part of the state’s mystique and a natural tendency given the soccer power of comparable regions like Cascadia and California.
So maybe MLS’s gravity isn’t being pulled south just yet. Given the history of the league, that probably shouldn’t surprise us. From weather to media coverage to connection with Mexican and Mexican-American fans, the state epitomizes some of the league’s toughest challenges. If MLS can solve Texas, it will find itself in a better place all across the country.
More from Charles Boehm:
- How the youngest team in USMNT history is navigating the Concacaf qualifying odyssey
- Jamaica win another breakthrough moment for USMNT youth movement
- Three games, three cities, nine points: Charting USMNT’s October window
- 5 questions about the USMNT’s September window
Logo courtesy of FC Dallas