This time last week, I was telling you that D.C. United faced their biggest challenge of the season in the form of a road trip to Columbus. It's safe to say that United exceeded most expectations, pressing early to throw the Crew off their game and - once in the lead - mostly defending as a cohesive unit. The late Hector Jimenez goal was an unpleasant end note, but United held an expansive attacking side to few real chances, and forced MVP candidate Federico Higuain into arguably his worst game in 2014.
One would hope that United's next game would be at home and against a weaker opponent, but we only got half of what we'd like. Tomorrow's game is indeed at RFK Stadium, but the opposition is top-of-the-table FC Dallas. The Hoops - whose jerseys are now two-tone red, making the actual hoops hard to make out - are 5-1-1 and have scored 17 goals in that stretch. That's a pace that would give them 83 goals over a full season, or just short of the all-time MLS record set by the 1998 LA Galaxy.
Small samples aside, FCD has scored at least two goals in every game this season bar their 1-1 draw at Sporting Kansas City, the team with what is probably the best overall defense in MLS. They're far and away the most dangerous set piece team in the league, and they're not reliant on one single goalscorer (three players have three goals, while three more have chipped in two apiece). They have an MVP candidate in Mauro Diaz. They're really good, is what I'm saying.
Or are they? It's not getting much talk, but Dallas has played the easiest schedule of anyone in MLS up to this point. They've only had two road games out of seven, and they've only played three teams currently in playoff position. In those games, they're 1-1-1; the one win was over a Toronto FC side missing several key starters (including Jermain Defoe), and even that game required an 88th minute gamewinner. TFC also had a strong shout for a penalty kick in the 75th minute with the score at 1-1, and Andrew Wiedeman wasted a great chance to equalize in the 94th minute.
None of this is to say that Dallas will be easy, but they've been taking advantage of some really bad teams. Wins over this year's dumpster fire (Montreal), a Chivas side that defends with a comically high line given their lack of speed, and the winless Timbers are games you have to win if you're a good team, but they don't necessarily go down as calling cards for the rest of MLS. Even FCD's one impressive win - 4-1 at Houston - has lost some shine due to the Dynamo's five-game losing streak.
It's been interesting to watch Oscar Pareja adapt the style of play he used successfully in Colorado to a rather different group of players. Schellas Hyndman used to have his team play soccer based on speed, athleticism, and David Ferreira; they could look threatening going forward, but if opponents controlled the tempo of the game the Hoops would struggle.
Pareja has taken those same players and rapidly (sorry, I'll show myself out) got them playing a game that mixes those track-meet impulses with the possession-based game he wants his teams to play. As such, the Rapids look to transition out of defense quickly either by finding Diaz or feeding the wingers before taking their foot off the gas once possession is established in the attacking third.
In terms of formation, Pareja is a big fan of what he calls a 433 but what is really just a standard 4231. The Rapids played it last year, and Dallas uses it in 2014:
There are a couple of positions that are up in the air right now. At right back, Kellyn Acosta briefly lost his starting job and then joined the US youth national team at the Dallas Cup, only to start over Zach Loyd last week. Even our friends over at Big D Soccer aren't 100% sure who Pareja's preferred right back is. When listing the pair, though, they list them as Acosta/Loyd rather than vice versa, so that's how I'll list them too. Both are reasonable players, with Loyd probably a more alert defender and has a bigger frame while Acosta is more mobile and better with the ball at his feet.
In the midfield, the Hoops have an interesting question to deal with. Michel is among the best in MLS at set pieces, and as we'll get into below, that's a huge part of FCD's game. However, the Brazilian veteran is also a defensive liability to such an extent that a smart manager - and Pareja is firmly in that category - would have to consider holding him in reserve while on the road. It's actually a bit like Ben Olsen's issue with Branko Boskovic, though Michel has more defending to do given his role as a defensive midfielder.
Normally I'd mention all this but expect Michel to start, but I noticed that he was benched against the Sporks, and I also watched him do some rather dumb things positionally and in terms of his choices in being aggressive towards the ball last week against TFC. On more than one occasion, Pareja plugged more conservative players into his Rapids lineups when on the road or facing a particularly strong opponent.
Adam Moffat and Andrew Jacobson are candidates to step in if Pareja is truly worried about keeping things tight on the road - with Moffat slightly more likely the choice since Jacobson is coming off an injury - but I'd rate the chances of such a move at around 25%. In his shoes, I'd take the risk given United's still rather tepid attacking play. With either alternate option, Hendry Thomas would move into a left-center role rather than the right-center spot he's listed in above.
Up front, young DP David Texeira has started three straight games. Normal starter Blas Perez has been coping with a hamstring strain, and Pareja has also mentioned wanting to keep the 33 year old Panamanian well-rested for the long haul that is an MLS season.
As such, it's hard to say who will start. Texeira is the busier of the two, doing plenty of selfless running up top when Dallas doesn't have the ball. On the other hand, Perez's hold-up play was sorely missed against TFC, and he's also the sharper finisher of the two. I view this one as a toss-up; Perez only played 20 minutes last week and might not yet be a safe play as a starter. Texeira isn't a bad player by any means, but there's reason to hope that we caught Dallas a week or two before Perez could start, which would be welcome news. Dallas is already doing well enough without "Super Raton."
One player that we definitely have to worry about is Diaz, who has looked like one of the best players in MLS this season. It's an interesting contrast from last weekend against Higuain. Both are Argentine #10s who are legitimate MLS stars, but they play very differently. Where Higuain roves around looking for pockets of space and sometimes even stays high as a second forward, Diaz tends to stay in the middle much more often. Higuain is also a huge danger just outside the box, whereas Diaz likes to combine and get inside the area from those same spots.
The trouble with Diaz is that he's so good turning out situations that would look favorable for the defense on a chalkboard. You blink, though, and the River Plate product is gone due to his quickness, his ability to hold off challenges despite his small size, and a keenly developed sense of just when the defense is trying to shift or go for the ball. Throw in his vision and ability to sense where his teammates are without so much as half a glance, and you have a very difficult player to contain.
United exceeded expectations last week in terms of defending as a unit and covering for one another, and the results were a predictable Crew attack. Higuain dropped very deep and played his passes both longer and earlier than he'd like to. It's going to take that kind of mental sharpness throughout to stop Diaz, but the implementation will be slightly different.
United wanted Higuain wandering away from goal, but Diaz tends to resist that impulse. Instead, the goal should be to minimize the number of touches Diaz has in the attacking third. That's going to require a lot of work from Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud, but it'll also need some well-timed steps forward from Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke. Diaz's preference to stay central means that United can compress his space and force Dallas to play through someone else.
TFC tried to do this last week, but they undermined themselves a bit with their almost aggressive disdain for having possession. They compressed Diaz's space, but defended so deeply that they ended up in trouble anyway. United will have to play higher up the field - that should be easier as the home side - and they'll have to do a better job at keeping the ball. I've been harping on that all season, and it's really the next step for United to take if they don't want to be a team that grinds and hopes all year long. It's gotten results of late, but it probably won't be enough against the Hoops.
Elsewhere, Fabian Castillo has added a more polished final product to his game. The Colombian is always a threat due to his top-tier speed and his dribbling ability, but this year his choices have improved. I'm tempted to say his technique shooting or crossing has gotten better as well, but the more I think about it I think it's just down to attempting those things at better moments (i.e. under less pressure). He seems more composed under Pareja, whereas under Hyndman he played every moment like the ball was on fire.
Sean Franklin will probably have to stay home a bit more as a result, but he shouldn't let Castillo pin him back for 90 minutes. Castillo is not a very good defender; he makes the effort to a certain extent, but he chooses to lunge in at bad moments and often misses both ball and man. it's also worth noting that if Franklin can't get forward as often, Olsen should be instructing Christian to attack more often to keep the numbers in the attack at a healthy level.
In terms of depth, the Hoops don't have much going forward. Teixera played a few minutes in the #10 spot with Diaz going deeper as FCD tried to come back against Seattle, but hyped signing Andres Escobar looked far from convincing before picking up a back injury. Against TFC, their only attacking option aside from Perez was 20 year old Homegrown winger Danny Garcia, who has yet to make his professional debut.
In central midfield, Pareja prefers his two defensive midfielders to cut the field in half, so that one plays a right-center role and the other stays left of center. Both have roughly similar amounts of attacking responsibility, though Michel tends to choose to go forward more often than Thomas. What this situation can mean, though, is that playing outside-in can be effective if we're able to draw one of them wide before then playing back into the space they vacated. With Michel, this is a particularly smart thing to do given his lack of positional sense.
Speaking of Thomas: If you're not familiar with him, prepare to dislike him. He's one of the hardest hard men in MLS, the kind of guy who makes sure you know you've been fouled. On the plus side, he's among the many potential red cards in the Dallas lineup; on the down side, refs are sometimes lenient with him and the result is banged-up midfielders on the other team.
That said, Thomas is a Premier League veteran and a starter on the Honduran national team for a reason. He's smart positionally, plays very simply, makes himself an outlet for resetting failed attacks, and is very comfortable functioning as the voice of Pareja on the field. Thomas keeps his teammates organized, and this is a group that probably needs that. Part of the reason Dallas scores so much is that they have conceded at least one goal in every single game thus far.
When attacking, United should be able to create some danger if they can secure their fair share of possession. We've covered Michel, but of the back four only Matt Hedges is a high-quality player. Due to what has become a long-term injury to George John, Dallas will use Stephen Keel as a partner for Hedges in central defense. Keel is a big, powerful, brave defender, but he's not very agile when the ball's on the ground and he takes too long to figure out what opposing attackers are up to for someone who lacks quickness. In other words, he's a promising target for both Fabian Espindola on the dribble and any through balls designed for Eddie Johnson to chase after.
The outside backs are also vulnerable. Acosta is going to be a strong right back, but he's still learning to think at the MLS level, and he can get caught ball-watching. On the other side, Jair Benitez - another card-prone provocateur for Dallas - is starting to show his age. At 35, Benitez still plays the style of game you see out of guys in their prime, but he's starting to lose his wheels. We're not talking about a De Ro-style physical breakdown, but it doesn't take much for a fullback that was never that positionally aware in the first place. I think Nick DeLeon should put his new-found physical fitness and core strength to drive past Benitez whenever possible; I don't think Benitez will have much of an option beyond fouling or simply falling back in hopes of blocking the cross.
Finally, there are those set pieces. Dallas is by far the best team in MLS at turning them into goals right now; their announcing crew last week brought up the idea of Dallas simply looking to get fouled or win corner kicks rather than actually attacking. That might overstate their plans a bit, but it's no accident that Big D Soccer took a look at the locations of United's fouls in the past few games and got excited.
Michel in particular excels at hard, driven, bending service targeted for the near post or for dead center at the top of the six yard box. The former gives keepers little chance to attack the ball, while the latter forces said keepers into traffic. Meanwhile, the group of targets - Hedges, Perez, Keel, and Je-Vaughn Watson topping the list - has huge confidence in their collective ability to either get on the end of the ball or create enough chaos that there's a loose ball to turn in at some point.
Both Dallas goals last week came off of set pieces, as have the majority of their goals on the season. While I'm more confident in United's ability to defend set pieces than I have been in a long time, fouling or giving up cheap corners against Dallas is still the best way to ensure they keep that streak of scoring twice or more going.
Funny thing about set pieces, though: Dallas is really pretty shaky at defending them. You'd think with all that size throughout their team and the mindset it takes to convert attacking set pieces (where you're always going to be outnumbered in the box) that they'd be solid, but they're often a disorganized mess. Last week was a good example: TFC offered up what was either a rehearsed low corner kick or simply a badly hit service, but Dallas could never clear the ball and Toronto ended up taking the lead with their third bite of the cherry.
That's really good news, because United is arguably just as reliant on set pieces for goals as Dallas is (they're just better at them than us). Hedges and Keel are pretty good against the biggest targets, but we've seen Kitchen score on a scramble, and Christian is still a very good third target after Boswell and EJ. Dallas is looking at RFK as a happy hunting ground, but I think we might actually be just as likely to get a set piece goal this week as they are.
Bottom line: Dallas is going to be a very tough opponent, but we might be able to give them a taste of their own medicine if we can improve our possession play and avoid having to defend too deeply or for too long.