FRISCO, Texas -- It was a long, long year for Schellas Hyndman after he ditched a successful 31-year college career to coach FC Dallas.
His team was losing, his locker room was divided and his moves were roundly criticized.
He was afraid he knew the answer to the question everyone was asking -- himself included -- after he took the job in 2008. Why leave the cozy SMU campus in Dallas for the uncertainty of pro coaching?
"There were times I was going, 'Oh my gosh. Man, this could be the biggest blunder of my life,"' Hyndman said.
A year and a half later, Hyndman is taking FC Dallas to its first MLS Cup in part because he turned during the darker times to some of the players who helped him make 23 trips to the NCAA tournament in 24 years with the Mustangs. Former SMU star Daniel Hernandez emerged as a captain and primary team-builder, while talent upgrades elsewhere ultimately led to Dallas' first playoff berth since 2007.
In the first two rounds, Dallas knocked off the top two MLS teams during the regular season -- Real Salt Lake and the Los Angeles Galaxy -- and will face Colorado for the title Sunday night in Toronto.
"There's a transition for anybody who goes into professional sports," said Hyndman, who turned 61 this month. "Sometimes I didn't expect the land mines, but there were some bumps in the road. It's so nice to put that in the past."
Hyndman is seen as a disciplinarian who doesn't spend much time trying to filter his blunt assessments. His style was whatever he wanted it to be at SMU, where players tended to have an awestruck "ooh, it's Schellas" approach to their coach, as FC Dallas defender and former Mustang Ugo Ihemelu puts it.
The approach had to change some in the MLS, where players move freely and frequently between leagues and their national teams, and are often playing for their next contract.
"A lot of times instead of a coach, that title becomes manager because he has to manage the players now," Hernandez said. "The main thing I can see is knowing how to deal with different personalities on the team and making everybody happy."
Hernandez said he sensed trouble in the locker room when he trained with Hyndman's new team before signing in the summer of 2009. At the time, Dallas was near the bottom of the standings before an improbable late-season run ended just one point shy of the playoffs.
More personnel changes ensued during the offseason, and players say the resulting improvement in team chemistry helped Dallas through a strange early season, when the team didn't win much -- or lose either. Dallas had seven ties in the first 10 games, and the propensity for draws fueled an MLS record-tying 19-game unbeaten streak. Dallas tied another MLS record with just four losses.
"That's one of the things we pride ourselves on is being a tough team to beat," said midfielder Dax McCarty. "If you're a tough team to beat, you're always going to have a chance to win at the end."
Dallas wasn't a tough team to beat early in Hyndman's tenure because his attacking style led to a lot of goals at the other end, a part of the learning curve for the coach.
"Obviously the level of play is so much greater," Hyndman said. "Any mistakes you would make, they would score on. We were giving up so many goals, it was very disheartening because you keep working on things."
Anchored by goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, the Dallas defense is much better. The former MLS Cup champion with the Galaxy has allowed 12 goals in 21 starts, highlighted by several spectacular saves in a 3-0 win over the Galaxy in the Western Conference final.
Dallas traded for Hartman when it was clear Kansas City wanted to move on without the 14-year veteran. Hyndmann wanted Hartman, but wondered why the Wizards were letting him go. The coach followed his procedure, making three "character check" phone calls and coming away satisfied.
"We have the right blend. We have the leadership," McCarty said. "I've been here five years. I've seen a lot of players come and go, but I've never seen a team as deep as we are."