Every D.C. United fan worth their salt is still luxuriating in our 1-0 win at Red Bull Arena, but the season marches on. After toppling one of the supposed big MLS clubs, United will now face a club that can actually live up to that title. FC Dallas sits near the top of the MLS table, and if they were to win their games in hand on the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders, they'd actually be first overall in the race for the Supporters Shield.
Dallas comes into this weekend's match on the heels of a back-to-back series against fellow heavyweight Real Salt Lake. Both clubs managed 2-0 wins at home, with RSL triumphing in the league and Dallas knocking Jason Kreis and co. out of the US Open Cup. That result may leave FCD with a daunting slate of games in the future: If they make the USOC final and qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, they'll be adding ten games to their schedule (and that doesn't include the MLS playoffs). People may knock Dallas for their tiny crowds, but when it comes to matters on the field, the Texans dream big and have the quality to back it up.
Meanwhile, United comes into the game on an odd run of form. We've only lost once in our last ten games, yet we've also only got three wins over the same stretch. The optimist can point to some impressive road results and the recent displays of grit and resourcefulness, while the pessimist can easily note that four of the six draws in this stretch should have been wins. It's been good enough to get within spitting distance of the playoffs - we'd miss out via a tiebreaker at the moment - but it hasn't been good enough to push ourselves up to the next tier of MLS clubs. A win at Dallas would go a long way to change that perception.
Beyond the jump, we'll look at the likely Dallas lineup, along with the offensive and defensive keys to the game.
Dallas will come out in an aggressive 4141:
While most MLS clubs playing a 4141 tend to make it defensive, Schellas Hyndman is simply using the best formation for his best eleven players (well, healthy players...most MLS fans should be looking forward to David Ferreira's return next season). It may appear to be a fairly defensive team, especially if you remember Eric Alexander getting his first MLS minutes last season in place of Daniel Hernandez in the anchor role, or utility man Jackson playing every position across the back four last season, but Dallas prefers to be the aggressor.
A big factor for Dallas will be having to play Tuesday night in the U.S. Open Cup. Winning 2-0 over RSL certainly makes the mental recovery easier, but five of the above likely starters - Kevin Hartman, the back four minus Zach Loyd, and Eric Alexander - went 90 minutes in the Dallas heat, while Loyd played 68 minutes and both Jackson and Marvin Chavez split the game up front (yes, Jackson can play forward, too; he has now played every position for Dallas other than goalkeeper and the attacking role in their central midfield trio in less than a full season). This is a factor, especially in the summer. D.C. may struggle a bit with the heat, but I'd rather be fresh in hot weather than coming off a knockout game against a good team in that same heat.
Dallas has legitimate Supporters Shield hopes along with still being alive in the Open Cup and likely having eight extra games thanks to the CONCACAF Champions League (provided they beat Alianza of El Salvador...no offense to my old Salvadoran co-workers, but the odds of Alianza pulling the upset are long). There is at least some chance - probably reduced due to an injury to Andrew Jacobson that will rule the former United man out - that a player or two might be rested given the clogged schedule the Red Stripes have through the rest of the year.
2.Bundesliga veteran Ricardo Villar - the player Dallas had originally intended to replace Dax McCarty with - will likely step in for the injured Jacobson. Villar might appear to be yet another player from Europe that couldn't adjust to MLS, but from what I've seen, it's more of a case of Jacobson and Alexander simply playing too well to lose their spots. Villar will make Dallas less physical than Jacobson (whose size and ability to win headers is an overlooked quality), but he will give them a craftier look in the linking midfield position. Look for Alexander to also play slightly less aggressively, as well; where Alexander goes forward while Jacobson holds, the dynamic with Alexander and Villar will be much closer to a 50/50 split of roles.
A Dallas player that is not often discussed is Hernandez, who Hyndman views as more or less irreplaceable. It's not just that Hernandez is the team captain or their most experienced field player; Hyndman has often referred to him as an extension of the coaching staff on the field. Unfortunately for us, Hernandez is apparently fit after sitting out two straight games. While Hernandez doesn't have the range of Osvaldo Alonso, the skill with the ball of Kyle Beckerman, or the size of Shalrie Joseph, he is as adept at reading the game and screening his defense as anyone in MLS, and he has plenty of bite too. Hernandez is also a pretty decent long-range passer, which gives Dallas the ability to bypass midfield if they catch a team unawares.
That ability to strike rapidly is also a product of the collective team speed of the Hoops; this may be the only team in MLS that is faster than DC on offense. While much has been made of Dallas being as good or better without Ferreira - I reject the idea that they're "better," but it's been said numerous times - they are very clearly a different team without the Colombian genius. Dallas still tries to dictate games, but they generate most of their scoring chances on the counter due to 2011 MVP candidate Brek Shea down the left, the speedy Jackson on the right, and Marvin Chavez down the middle. This emphasis on speed helps Dallas get around the fact that they lack a true creator centrally, and also covers up their lack of a target forward (Chavez is roughly 5'6" and probably weighs under 140 pounds).
To counter that speed, D.C. will have to make the same tricky choices we tend to force on teams: Do you defend high in hopes of snuffing out the runs before they start, or do you sit deep to neutralize their pace? If we play high up the field, even the smallest lack of focus can lead to a breakaway, so Bill Hamid will need to be at his best (as he was last week). If we sit deep, we will likely have trouble on the offensive end of things, as Dwayne De Rosario would likely be taking up possession far from goal and surrounded by FCD's 3-man central midfield. We also have to factor in energy; if Dallas looks tired, playing up high and gambling on catching the first goal might be a worthwhile risk. If they seem alright at the start, we might just want to sit in and hopefully let them tire themselves out before getting aggressive in the later stages.
On offense, United has a tough task. Dallas has a stellar collection of defensive talent, and they all play very well as a group to boot. The communication from Hernandez and Kevin Hartman keeps them very organized, and in George John they have a Defender of the Year candidate (if the season ended today, he'd get my vote). They're big - well, other than 5'-7" Benitez - they're fast, they're smart, and they don't make many mistakes.
So how do we beat them? Benitez can occasionally struggle to balance his desire to get forward from left back. Andy Najar won't be able to beat Benitez for pace like he usually can against opposing left backs, but if we catch Benitez out, the gap will be big enough that Najar will have plenty of space to create. We've also seen Chris Pontius get the better of right backs that you'd take before Loyd; isolating him 1v1 is hard to do because Dallas stays so connected, but Party Boy is up to the job if he brings his top form.
Finally, I really like the chances of Charlie Davies making trouble in this one. Ihemelu is one of MLS's fastest defenders, true, but he can also struggle a bit with elusive forwards that he can't necessarily just catch up to via that speed. I'm not sure who would win in an even footrace between the two, but if Davies can get a couple yard head start, my money would definitely be on CD9. Dallas is a bit better dealing with traditional forward play (i.e. the "big man/small man" pairing), so perhaps our different look will open up doors that are usually locked.
This is going to be an extremely tough game, even with Dallas on short rest. Hyndman's squad is an athletic marvel, they feature smart players down their spine, and in Shea and John have legit candidates to take individual awards at the end of the season. They play a difficult style that gives them defensive solidity while not hurting them much in the way of attacking power. United is, however, very big on playing up or down to their opponent; our record against the four clubs with realistic Supporters Shield aspirations (Dallas, LA, RSL, and Seattle) is 4 draws and 1 win out of 5 games. While we got lucky against RSL and LA at home, we probably should have beaten Dallas here and also had the better chances at the Home Depot Center. This D.C. team is capable of springing the upset, but it will require a special effort from everyone that takes the field.