Sometimes life isn't fair. When you're coming off a catastrophic loss - a loss that may qualify as the worst in club history - the last thing you want to have to do is fly out to a venue you've never done that well at to play the team atop the MLS standings. Then again, maybe this is a classic case of making your own luck: Teams that waste gifts like getting the Dynamo on 66 hours rest (which included a cross-country flight and missing five useful second-choice players as well as a starter) don't deserve fairness from the fates.
That brings us to D.C. United's next game, in north Texas against table-topping FC Dallas. 1st versus 19th. A team that is getting the breaks they never got in 2012 against a team that has been thoroughly abandoned by Lady Luck. Sure, bad luck isn't why we have only 4 points, but it is one more thing that has gone wrong (we've had almost as many legit goals called back for no reason as we have actual goals that counted). All the indicators point to this game just being a further step down into the abyss.
Dallas, however, is something of an odd team. Their record has been very strong, obviously, but it is fair to say they haven't quite played as well as it indicates. That's not to say they're stumbling into results over and over again, but I have my doubts that they're truly MLS's best team. Elite MLS teams have at least one comprehensive victory over a struggling or mid-level side on their resume. Houston just got theirs at RFK, while Sporting Kansas City crushed Chivas USA by a similar scoreline recently.
FCD doesn't have that game to bolster their claims. They've only scored more than two goals on one occasion, which is rare for a team that picks up 21 points from ten games. Schellas Hyndman's side isn't on some sort of imperious, history-making trajectory; instead, they're currently more like the 2011 Galaxy, winning tight games over and over. Three of their six wins are 1-0 results, which depending on how you look at it is either the sign of a truly top team or simply a team that's avoiding that one bounce or bad call that turns 1-0 into 1-1.
Much has been made of the ability of this Dallas team to turn games late. They've scored game-winning goals in the 71st, 87th (twice), and 90th minute of matches, and their equalizer on Wednesday was a 77th minute Kenny Cooper penalty kick. That's 9 points earned in the final 19 minutes of games, which is along the lines of what last year's San Jose Goonies did.
However, it covers up the Mr. Hyde side of things for the Toros. Up 1-0 at Chivas in the 67th minute, they ended up losing 3-1. Up 2-0 at Vancouver in the 71st minute, they let up two goals in three minutes and had to hang on for dear life to the 2-2 draw after Jackson got sent off for throwing an elbow three minutes after the Whitecaps pulled even. Most alarmingly, they were up 2-0 at Toronto FC - that's Toronto "We Give Up Late Goals" FC - in the 84th minute, and contrived to only leave with a 2-2 tie.
In short, there is something off about this Dallas team, something a little suspect underneath the admittedly pristine surface. Teams capable of the above results don't also end up beating the Dynamo 3-2 in one of the season's most thrilling matches. They don't find themselves atop the table for long stretches, because leaving every game tied heading into the final 20 minutes is a risky way to do things.
Hyndman may be worried about his team's split personalities, but he's probably more unsettled by something else that happened on Wednesday: David Ferreira pulled up with a hamstring strain early in the second half. Ferreira is arguably as vital to FCD as any individual player is to his club in MLS (only Omar Gonzalez and Thierry Henry strike me as reasonable alternatives). Ferreira tried to stretch it out and continue, but eventually took a seat and came off. While there is no definitive word on whether Ferreira can play, it would be bizarre to see him out there given the risk for long-term injury.
Ferreira's absence would be enormous for the Hoops, because a) they don't have a similar replacement - Hyndman says Ramon Nunez is not quite fit after months out with a torn ACL - and b) Ferreira has that talismanic effect on his teammates. Most Dallas players have convinced themselves that they are capable of more when Ferreira is on the field than when he isn't. Obviously for the attackers this is true, but even their individual defending tends to be better when he's on the field. Ferreira isn't just the best and most important FC Dallas player; he's also the one that galvanizes the group by sheer presence. In other words, the fates are inexplicably giving us another huge gift.
Normally I'd say that Dallas would not be able to play their preferred 4231 without Ferreira, but Hyndman actually stuck to it against Portland. His solution involved dropping natural #9 Blas Perez into the hole, with Eric Hassli coming in up front. It didn't really work, as the Toros lost direction in attack and went to a 442 (almost a 424, really) once Portland took the lead. Given a couple days to work on their shape, however, I think they'll stay in the 4231:
Most of the question marks are down to the quick turnaround and injuries (both guys possibly out and players possibly returning from injury). In the back, I suspect Hyndman would like to rest Jair Benitez - it's happened before - but he has no real candidate to do so. Michel has been a revelation in central midfield, but was initially brought in as a left back. However, his participation is up in the air after the FC Dallas broadcast team mentioned that he was suffering through an illness. He went 71minutes against Portland, but that was a bigger game for FCD. I'd rate the Brazilian as 50/50 to play anywhere, and 10/90 to end up at left back for the ostensibly healthy Benitez.
At center back, London Woodberry looked more comfortable than he has in past outings. He's less of a powerhouse center back and more cerebral, relying on his smarts to intercept passes and clog passing lanes more than he gets stuck in. If George John is fit, Woodberry will sit out, but John is questionable right now with a knee problem and didn't play against the Timbers. That's more good news for United, as Dallas has a 457 minute shutout streak with John on the field.
In the midfield, I expect to see Bobby Warshaw get a game here due to the injuries and tired legs of the other potential candidates. Andrew Jacobson missed out Wednesday with a hamstring issue that has him rated as questionable, we already covered Michel's illness, and Je-Vaughn Watson went 90 in an unfamiliar holding role against Portland. One from that trio should play in Michel's spot, but at this point I'd be surprised if Warshaw isn't in from the start.
That's a change from the normal Dallas alignment, where Jacobson sets up as a forward destroyer alongside Michel, who functions as a deep-lying playmaker. Warshaw is a destroyer, to be sure, but he will sit deeper than Jacobson does. That will mean less quality going forward, but arguably a more sturdy side defensively. Warshaw has a tendency to commit a lot of fouls, so if that holds up United must make Dallas pay by converting some set piece chances (rather than put them over the bar time and again like we did against Houston).
The attacking midfield trio is also a toss-up thanks to the short rest. You can bank on Jackson - suspended for Portland's visit to Frisco - being out there somewhere, but he can play any of those three roles. Perez could end up in the midfield even though he's not suited for it, or he could play up top. Cooper could be on either flank, but then it would be harsh for Hyndman to leave out Fabian Castillo, who was dangerous all night long as a left winger against the Timbers. If you're a United fan reading this, take a moment to be envious of that array of attacking talent.
Despite the many different bows in Hyndman's quiver, the Dallas game plan is usually the same. Dallas has good team speed and most of their players have a reliable first touch, so they play at a very high tempo. Between the pace throughout the FCD lineup and the inability to slow the game down, teams are often pinned back and forced to play a deeper line.
That often contributes further to Dallas success. It's hard to break the Dallas pressure, but long balls don't work because the Toros have tall, fast defenders and also (via Jacobson and Warshaw) plenty of size in the holding midfield as well. Dallas forces teams to play on their heels, and eventually finds a goal through the individual quality of guys like Perez or Cooper or a moment of genius from Ferreira. It's a simple recipe, but any good cook out there will tell you that simple food done right is usually pretty damn good.
This is a big problem for United, because arguably our worst deficiency has been speed of thought. Our defensive frailty and our lack of good chances generated both come back to players thinking too slowly. If Dallas can maintain the electric tempo they had in the first half against the Timbers, we are in a world of trouble. Even if that isn't the case, the Black-and-Red simply must think faster and stop being a reactive team all the time.
Of course, things might not be so simple for Dallas if they don't have Ferreira or Michel. Without their most skillful midfielders, their speed of play simply can't be attempted without constantly turning the ball over. If those two are out, look for FCD to play more long balls supplemented with playing Jackson and/or Castillo in behind on the wings. That won't be attractive, but it could still work due to the speed of those wingers and the hold-up play Perez, Cooper, and Hassli are all capable of.
Defensively, Dallas has two main weak points: Benitez and goalkeeper Raul Fernandez. With Benitez, the issues are his size - he's about 5'6" - and his occasional tendency to lose his mind. Sometimes that results in a dumb foul; sometimes it's a mistake in terms of positioning or decision-making; and sometimes it's getting caught taking a cheap shot at an opponent (Benitez has a well-earned reputation as one of MLS's dirtiest players).
Benitez is a good player 90% of the time and has plenty of speed to bail him out of trouble, but for United it's about catching him during his bad moments and taking advantage. If Dallas presses us into playing long balls, we should aim them towards Benitez in the hopes that Kyle Porter or whoever ends up at right midfield (it should be Porter, since he's our only player meeting or exceeding expectations) can win a physical battle and get in behind. While right back Zach Loyd can be had positionally from time to time, I think Benitez is the player more likely to make a big mistake in our favor.
Fernandez, meanwhile, has not turned out to be much of a catch. His shot-stopping abilities notwithstanding, the fact that he's Peru's starting goalkeeper only underlines what must be a lack of good GKs for La Franja Roja. Fernandez is extraordinarily aggressive coming off his line, to the point that he almost sees charging forward as the solution to every problem he might encounter. This doesn't mesh well with the fact that he's not a physically imposing keeper; when he charges into traffic in the box, he usually can't push through opposing players.
United can get cheap goals here if, on corners and crosses, we simply make sure someone gets in Fernandez's way. We've let other keepers - think Luis Robles and Zac MacMath - off the hook in this department a few times in 2013, but we need goals by any means possible. I see no reason why we should let Fernandez's recklessness go unpunished.
If Dallas opts for Warshaw in the center of midfield, United might do well to sell out on funneling FCD's play through the middle. Warshaw is a pure destroyer who won't want much of the ball in possession, so if we can limit Dallas to having few options beyond passing repeatedly to him, we may be able to disrupt any semblance of rhythm for the home side. That will mean preventing Dallas from exiting out of the back via Loyd or Benitez as well as proving we can defend some long balls (which Dallas will likely test us on early). Obviously it's a huge ask for a team that has been truly deplorable early in games, but if we can stand up just this once for the first half hour, we may cause Dallas problems.
Watching the Dallas-Portland match, it occurred to me that there were more fouls than I was used to seeing in a DCU game (despite the fact that the halftime total of 16 between the two teams was nothing out of the ordinary). Looking into it revealed something indicative of where United has gone wrong: Our only win of the season was also the game in which we committed the most fouls (17). We also committed 16 in the season-opening 2-0 loss at Houston - a game in which we at least looked competent for 80 minutes - and 15 in the 1-0 loss at KC.
Meanwhile, our truly miserable results all coincide with a lack of aggression. We only had 8 fouls against the Dynamo on Wednesday, and managed only 7 in the 0-0 draw at NYRB that could have easily been a 3-0 loss. The games in which United has looked the worst have all been games in which we have failed to show the kind of bite that sometimes results in fouls. It's not that United needs to become a dirty team; we just need to be something other than the Downy soft outfit we are today.
Good teams that are aggressive in the right way commit 12 or so fouls a game just as a matter of course. Our lack of fouling is indicative of the lack of conviction we've been playing with, if nothing else. It's an odd problem, too, because lack of effort hasn't been a legitimate complaint. United isn't a lazy team, but what we do once we've done the running has been too passive. A hard tackle early in a game can be a galvanizing factor, and this team needs things like that in the worst way.
Against Dallas, some controlled aggression would go a long way. Despite Hyndman's obvious discipline as a martial artist - he's a 10th degree black belt - his squad has quite a few players with short fuses. This lack of discipline can result in needless fouling and the occasional red card, and it doesn't take much to bring it out. A little meanness from United could go a long way towards at least making this a respectable performance (which would be enormous progress).
Ultimately, United needs to think faster to have any real chance in this game. Even without Ferreira, Dallas can play a direct style that will exacerbate our tendency for awful defending unless we prove to them that it won't work. For United to get a hugely unexpected result here, we'll have to anticipate well enough to slow Dallas down, while also stepping up our speed of play when we have the ball.