All the talk surrounding D.C. United after last week's 0-0 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps is that we're moving closer to a good, cohesive 90 minutes. A less-than-ideal start didn't see any catastrophic errors, and United grew into the game quite nicely. By the end of the match, it was the home side hanging on for a point and a visiting United going for three. It wasn't a great leap forward, but it was a step in the right direction.
Contrast that with FC Dallas, tonight's opponent. They opened the season with a 2-1 win over a New York Red Bulls side that was flat-out terrible for the first 70 minutes of that game, and by the end NYRB nearly stole a draw thanks to some poor game management from Dallas. This was followed up by a 1-1 draw against a notoriously poor on the road Portland Timbers side. The Portland goal was the result of a disastrous backpass from Dallas captain Daniel Hernandez, and the Hoops generally looked somewhat demoralized from that point on. Finally, Dallas were generally outplayed throughout a 2-1 road loss to Sporting Kansas City, but held on until conceding the winner in the 88th minute.
Dallas has had a strange offseason. The good news of finally finding the right striker for their system in Blas Perez has been tempered by some chaos caused by injuries and unexpected personnel developments. George John's loan to West Ham United in England was widely expected to end in being offered a permanent deal. His return to Dallas, who had essentially moved on without him, has left Schellas Hyndman with some tough choices. Meanwhile, David Ferreira's expected return from last year's broken ankle has been hit by a series of delays; the former MVP was recently stuck in a walking boot and his return is up in the air. Finally, Olympic qualifying took Hyndman's top two choices at left midfield away, forcing him to shuffle the deck even more.
Can United take advantage of a team that's arguably further from their best than we've been?
There are so many moving parts with Dallas right now that predicting a line-up is unusually complex. Two returning players from Olympic qualifying, injuries, and the generally unsettled look Dallas has had are all contributing to a projected starting eleven that should be taken with a large grain of salt:
That's Shea out on the right, rather than his normal left flank. Hyndman has switched Shea to the right on a regular basis as an in-game tactical move, and it appears the player he trusts least from their recent line-ups is youngster Bryan Leyva. If Shea isn't ready to start, look for the tricky Leyva to get the call ahead of the more athletic Wiedeman.
If this is the starting eleven, look for normal left back Jair Benitez to stay wide in the midfield and focus on crossing, which he is quite underrated at. Benitez has plenty of speed and appears to really enjoy playing a more attacking role than he usually gets, but he doesn't cut inside much. If he's on the ball and has time to cross, United's central players will have to pick up runners before the cross is struck.
However, if Fabian Castillo (questionable with a knee injury) is fit to play from the start, we'll probably see him on the right, Shea pushing high on the left, and Benitez playing left back with either Hernan Pertuz or George John dropping to the bench. There is also the somewhat remote possibility that Carlos Rodriguez - who like Shea was in Olympic qualifying with Panama and only rejoined Dallas yesterday morning - could also be thrown in. In that case, he'll play on the left where Benitez is listed.
Finally, there's the question mark next to Ricardo Villar, who had to come out at halftime with a rib injury after a collision against Sporting Kansas City. Villar has half of FCD's 4 goals and has been in very good form, and his mental toughness was given praise from Hyndman this week. As such, I'm expecting him to start. If he isn't ready, however, look for either Andrew Jacobson to push further up. In that case, we'll probably see Bobby Warshaw come in and play as a roving destroyer between Jacobson and Hernandez. That would also mean a far more conservative mindset for Dallas, given the lack of creativity that central trio would offer up.
Oh, and there's also the outside chance that Hyndman scraps all of this 4141/4231 stuff and starts new Colombian forward Luis Perea up front with Perez in a 442. We could also see Bruno Guarda somewhere in the midfield.
Got all that? (EDIT: See comments for added news that I didn't see until after publishing)
With all this variation, it's important to focus on what we do know. First and foremost, that will involve shutting down Perez, who appears to be the striker Hyndman has been searching for over the past couple of seasons. Perez has good touch, good strength, and is completely comfortable with being an isolated target man. His ability to get involved in Dallas attacks - both with his back to goal and by making runs designed to pull center backs out of position - makes him a huge threat.
Perez is actually a very different threat from last week's skillful target man, Eric Hassli. Hassli tends to stay further forward than Perez, who will mix in a lot of dropping off the front line to help the midfield. He is also a far less honest player than Hassli, who for all his cards and temper is usually just reckless. Perez is big on the dark arts; expect a lot of diving, complaining, and generally unlikeable behavior from him. However, we can't be content to just be morally superior. United must be aware of Perez's tendency to hit the deck, which means staying focused on defending without lunging in to avoid opening the door for a dive to be rewarded.
The reason we can't just go around kicking Perez for his craven approach to the game is because Dallas will punish us on set pieces if we give them enough. Their goal at KC was a beauty by Villar, who has the ability to get up over the wall but keep his shot on frame. They've also scored from a scramble caused after a poorly-cleared free kick, which in my book counts as a set piece goal. With players like George John, Ugo Ihemelu, Andrew Jacobson, Zach Loyd, Perez, and (if he plays) Shea, Dallas has one of the tallest teams in MLS.
They also like to use long throw-ins, with Ihemelu able to hurl the ball in from a long way out. He's not as dangerous as New England's Darrius Barnes - Barnes puts enough speed on his that they're like corners, whereas Ihemelu's tend to float in - but it's nevertheless something we can't afford to go to sleep on.
With Ferreira unfit, Dallas tends to play a bit more on the break than they do by holding possession. This also suits their personnel, because they have speed down the wings (Shea, Castillo, Benitez), elusive central players making runs into the box (Perez, Villar), and the long-range passing capability (Hernandez, Jacobson) to reward those runs. United will probably own the possession advantage tonight, but when we turn the ball over, the transition into defending must be immediate. Players will have to make their recovery runs into good defensive positions as well as change their mindset towards getting the ball back.
The biggest challenge defensively for United tonight is likely to be Villar, assuming he plays. Marcelo Saragosa's family emergency in Brazil will leave us choosing between either a surely tired Perry Kitchen or playing Stephen King out of position. In either case, that will leave us with a question mark over the player that will see the most of Villar, who has been in top form thus far in 2012. Villar has the technical ability to punish any gaps in our defense, and his solid work ethic means that he won't get lazy when he's not on the ball. It will take a team effort to keep Villar under wraps off the ball, which means communication and focus will be more important than usual tonight.
It will also be vital to cut out the long balls that have unfortunately been a frequent sight from United this season. On the plus side, Dallas (playing just one forward) will be less able to funnel the ball towards Brandon McDonald than KC, LA, or Vancouver (with 2-3 forwards) were. If we find ourselves going long, the Hoops will have a huge advantage given their size in the back.
Going forward, we should have some openings to attack. Ihemelu's partnership with John was excellent in 2011, but they have looked unfamiliar since his return. Further, Pertuz and Ihemelu on the left half of their back four don't look entirely sure of each other either (mostly due to Pertuz not being a left back by trade). While Loyd is one of MLS's top right backs, the rest of the back four looks unsettled. The best way to take advantage? Good runs off the ball, which should exploit the confusion.
I also have been unimpressed with the play of anchor midfielder Hernandez, who is starting to look like he's finally feeling his age. He hasn't done his normally strong job of setting the tempo in possession for Dallas (they had only 41% of the ball and only completed 63% of their passes against Sporting last week) and his defending has been off. Kei Kamara's winning goal for the Sporks started in midfield, where Hernandez dove in for a tackle he had no real hope of making. Kamara found Chance Myers down the right, and about 4 seconds later Kamara was celebrating behind Kevin Hartman's goal. Normally, you'd expect Hernandez to stay on his feet there, and he'd likely have had a chance to impede Kamara's run from midfield before it ever started.
Without the ball, United must follow KC's example and pressure Hernandez so that he has to play the ball back to a defender. This will undermine any attempt at possession for the Hoops. In attack, United should look to draw Hernandez out of position and either attack the space he vacates or, if Hernandez fouls (he does it a lot), we have to make the set pieces amount to something. In fact, that goes for the whole team; Dallas has been committing some avoidable fouls due to their lack of organization.