Dissecting FC Dallas' fall from MLS Cup contender to playoff outsider

Seattle 4-0 FC Dallas: Sounders into playoffs - Via MLS (2:28)

Seattle secured their ninth consecutive trip to the MLS postseason, while Dallas no longer control their playoff destiny. (2:28)

There was a strong feeling of optimism that permeated throughout FC Dallas media day, as reporters huddled into the team store back in late January at Toyota Park in Frisco, Texas.

Team president Dan Hunt and head coach Oscar Pareja spoke about the season ahead, their ambitions for an MLS title clearly stated. The signing of Paraguayan forward Cristian Colman was complete (the No. 9 they've been missing!). Speedy Ecuadorian full-back Anibal Chala had joined (a classic Pareja South American signing!). Veteran midfielder Javier Morales signed from Real Salt Lake and would provide ample cover for playmaking wizard Mauro Diaz while the latter continued to rehab from last fall's Achilles injury (they won't miss a beat!).

On the heels of a U.S. Open Cup title and MLS Supporters' Shield crown, no wonder all the talk was about bringing home the club's first ever MLS Cup.

Nine months later, the narrative has changed significantly. One match remains in the 2017 MLS season and not only are FC Dallas an afterthought in the title race, it may miss the playoffs altogether.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly where things took a wrong turn. Everything started so positively. There was a preseason trip to Argentina where they played nine games in eight days, which served as preparation for the club's 5-2 aggregate victory over Arabe Unido in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. Even the CCL semifinal defeat to Pachuca had its positives. Yes, the Mexican side had advanced with a last-minute goal in the second leg, but Dallas had gone toe-to-toe with the Tuzos, a rarity in the one-sided nature of the Liga MX-MLS rivalry.

The Texans started the MLS season with a 6-0-3 record. Pareja was signed to a long-term deal in late March. Midfielder Kellyn Acosta was called to the national team, and thrived, notably in the U.S.'s 1-1 draw at Mexico in early June.

The peak came in a July 1 3-1 home victory over East-leading Toronto FC. Sitting atop the Western Conference toward the end of July, there was every reason to think that 2017 would belong to FC Dallas.

Inexplicably, the bottom then dropped out with a shocking 10-match winless skid. A defense that had been sturdy in the first half of the season suddenly started leaking goals, 23 total in that 10-game spell.

What happened in Big D?

"It's been a lot of things," said defender Walker Zimmerman to ESPN FC. "Lineup changes, guys on international break, injuries ... We just lacked that continuity."

But these are the same things that just about every other team in MLS experiences, especially during a Gold Cup summer. Drill down a bit more, and the real problems are there to see. Forward Maxi Urruti was so good in the first half of the season, scoring 11 goals through the first week of July. But in the 15 games since the 4-2 July 4 win over D.C. United, the Argentine has just one goal, essentially mirroring Dallas' fall and further exposing the struggles of Colman, who has just two league goals.

Likely not helping was the transfer talk involving a number of the team's starters. There was Acosta's talk of possibly moving to Europe mid-summer, and also the potential deal of sending Urruti and winger Michael Barrios to Argentine club San Lorenzo, which ultimately fell through. While Zimmerman refutes the notion that it was problematic -- "It didn't affect the locker room, all those players stayed focused" -- such uncertainty can be unsettling.

Amid everything, there has been the injury struggles of Diaz. A player who was in the MVP discussion last year before suffering an Achilles injury against Seattle in October, he has yet to return to the difference-maker that guided FC Dallas to two trophies in 2016. The Argentine missed three games in August with a knock, further complicating his journey to a full recovery.

Despite all the aforementioned hurdles, there is still hope. A win over the LA Galaxy on Sunday and dropped points from San Jose against Minnesota would mean that Dallas is in.

"For sure there is pressure, but that's a good feeling," Zimmerman said. "We know we have to perform. We're staying positive. We feel like if we can get in, we have the team to make a run to MLS Cup."

But should the Earthquakes take care of business and FC Dallas end the season on the outside looking in, it'll be a "U.S. in Trinidad" kind of disappointment felt in Frisco, making for a much longer offseason than anyone ever expected.