FRISCO, Texas — With a 2-1 result from the first leg of their Western Conference Semifinal series with Real Salt Lake in the books, FC Dallas have to feel pretty good about their chances in next Saturday’s return leg at the home of the reigning MLS Cup champions.
Not only did FCD get goals from Jeff Cunningham and Eric Avila in the win, but RSL's star midfielder Javier Morales was sent off in the 69th minute of the match. He will miss next weekend’s return match (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET; FSC).
Morales earned his second yellow for a high kick that struck FCD midfielder Dax McCarty in the mouth.
WATCH: Full match highlights
Dallas had one of their starters ejected, too, as Atiba Harris hit the showers early in the 75th minute for serious foul play when he collided mid-air with midfielder Will Johnson.
But it’s clear that the loss of Morales looms larger for RSL than the absence of Harris does for FCD.
“Yeah, the pressure’s definitely on them,” McCarty said. “Without Morales, they’re a little bit of a different team. We’re under no illusions. It’s going to be a dogfight up there. It’s going to be very, very difficult to go in there and get a good result.”
FCD accomplished this result after a shaky start that saw RSL taking a 1-0 after five minutes from a goal by Fabian Espíndola.
“We start off I think a little shaky, a little unorganized in the back, especially on the first goal,” Dallas center back Ugo Ihemelu said. “It’s not to give up an early goal like that at home against a team like that. They’re really organized and they play well.”
But after around 25 minutes in, FCD head coach Schellas Hyndman made a tactical decision to switch right back Zach Loyd and center back Jackson Goncalves. It was a move that paid big dividends the rest of the night.
“I thought we were giving the ball away too much from that right fullback position,” Hyndman said. "So, we brought Zach [Loyd] back into the middle and I thought Jackson played very well when he went out there wide."
Cunningham’s tally in the 44th minute was his fifth career playoff goal. His last came in 2005 as a member of the Rapids when he scored in the first round — against FCD.
“It came at the right time,” Hyndman said. “Jeff Cunningham’s the guy you want in the box. He did a great job finishing it.”
But it was Avila’s tally, which came in his playoff debut and was his first goal since the second game of the regular season, that will earn the headlines.
It came just seconds after he subbed in for Jair Benitez. Avila dashed up the field as David Ferreira was about to get crushed by two RSL players. But before that could happen, the MVP candidate laid the ball off to Avila, who finished with precision from outside the box.
“I was just following David,” Avila said. “I was just trying to get open. It looked like he was about to pass it to me anyways. I had my opportunity and took it."
The series now shifts back to Salt Lake, and it’s clear all the pressure lies squarely on the shoulders of the reigning champs.
“I think we have all the confidence,” FCD captain Daniel Hernandez said. “We’re not going to go look for a tie. We’re going to look to win the game. We haven’t changed our style of play all year. That’s what we’re going to do next week, try to go get a result.”