It's a rare occasion to see such an ostensibly unimportant game mean so much to two MLS teams. However, both DC United and FC Dallas enter tonight's US Open Cup qualifier winless on the season. Both clubs are at the bottom of their conferences, and both have been guilty of some poor defensive play.
That's about where the similarities come to an end. Dallas has managed 3 draws against good teams (Houston, Columbus, and Seattle) and has scored 6 goals in their 4 league matches. That's not brilliant form, but most people agree that Dallas isn't too far from putting things together and moving up the standings.
Contrast that with United, who have only managed to score on Philadelphia, who sit 15th overall in MLS. The club's injury list is looking as long as it ever has, and the dark cloud over the club seems to get more foreboding with virtually every report from the RFK training grounds. DC United needs something to go well for them like you or I need air and food.
What can we expect from FC Dallas in what has become an unexpectedly important game?
Scouting a team's lineup for MLS games is fairly easy, but the Open Cup is a different animal. MLS sides tend to send out teams ranging from a mix of reserves and starters to groups that even their own coaches probably struggle to recognize. Dallas has mentioned how their organization values the Open Cup due to the fact that late owner Lamar Hunt's name adorns the trophy.
However, the unavoidable reality for Schellas Hyndman's team is that their schedule is jam packed. After their visit to RFK, they face a trip up I-95 to New England to play on the turf at Gillette Stadium. That's followed by yet another away game next Wednesday against their archrivals, the Houston Dynamo. Finally, on May 8th (just 10 days from now), they face us again in the league at Pizza Hut Park. It's this kind of schedule that very frequently deters MLS coaches from allowing their starters to make anything other than cameo appearances in the early stages of the Open Cup.
With that in mind, it's time for a look down the Dallas bench. Here are a few players I would expect to see log serious minutes tonight:
Kevin Hartman: A guy that probably needs no introduction, Hartman will probably step in for the somehow-still-starting Dario Sala. Considering Sala's injury history, it seems safe to assume that Hyndman will want to rest his #1. To be blunt, Dallas is better off with Hartman starting, so this is definitely a negative for us.
Edson Edward: A 6' tall rookie defender from Canada, Edward managed to win a roster spot despite direct competition from Steve Purdy (an occasional starter for Dallas last year). Edward is capable of playing either right back or center back. With Kyle Davies out with a broken arm, Edward is now the only true central defensive depth for Dallas (unless Hyndman wants to get really creative and push Daniel Hernandez or even Brek Shea back there). Look for Edward to get a start and provide a physical presence in place of either Ugo Ihemelu or George John.
Anthony Wallace: Wallace is a versatile former USA u20 entering his 4th pro season despite being just 21 years old. He's played on either side of a back four and as a defensive midfielder both in MLS and on the youth national team level. A good athlete who has struggled at times with his touch and decision-making, Wallace seems likely to start at left back in place of usual starter Jair Benitez.
Eric Alexander: Another rookie, Alexander is Hyndman's second-choice midfield destroyer behind Hernandez. Given that Hernandez is 33, it seems probable that Alexander will be starting at defensive midfielder. Alexander is a big, physical player (6'1"), but is not just some goon charging around the field. Alexander will look to be physical with anyone playing through the middle, but he's also shown some tactical smarts. Hyndman trusted him enough to bring him in as a 55th minute sub against Houston, so he probably won't be someone we can easily beat.
Bruno Guarda: A Hyndman favorite from his SMU days, Guarda will step into a starting role in central midfield. Guarda is a box-to-box midfielder with some technical ability, but he's also prone to giveaways, bad fouls, and picking up bookings. DC should really focus on making him defend, because he'll probably give us some quality free kick chances. This will also keep him playing deeper in the midfield, where he'd be less able to attack our fragile defense.
Eric Avila: Close followers of MLS will know Avila's name, but he's not exactly a star at this point. Avila has loads of skill on the ball and has a tendency to score both impressive and clutch goals in his normal supersub role. Hyndman doesn't start him because he doesn't really do much defensive work, but he has troubled even the best of MLS defenses by isolating defenders or by having room to shoot from outside the box. Avila will likely start as a winger, but United's defenders should be well aware of his tendency to float inside. He is something of a lightweight, so a physical approach (just short of fouling) will probably slow him down.
Andrew Wiedeman: Wiedeman left school early to be drafted on a Generation Adidas deal during this year's draft. Hyndman used him both on the wing and as a forward during the preseason; the latter is the position he played at California, where he scored 30 goals in 59 appearances. If Dallas had more time between games, Wiedeman probably wouldn't get his pro debut in this game, but the schedule reads otherwise. That, combined with the age of Ferreira and Cunningham, leaves the door open for Hyndman to field Wiedeman up top with...
Jason Yeisley: Most MLS fans know Yeisley for the extremely soft penalty he earned in stoppage time of last Thursday's 2-2 draw with Seattle. Despite being a natural target man (6'1", 200 lbs), Yeisley saw relatively little time in the preseason as a forward (even with Cunningham in the national team camp). Still, Hyndman threw him on against Seattle and Yeisley grabbed his opportunity with both hands by "earning" a vital penalty kick. Hyndman has preferred to use Atiba Harris as the lone forward in their usual 4231 formation when Cunningham is unavailable, but Harris is also first choice at right midfield. It seems likely to me that Yeisley will get significant time up top for Dallas. Our center backs should expect a bruising evening.
Here's my best guess at the team Dallas will field:
Hyndman may opt to start a couple of his younger starters, like Harris (as a forward) or McCarty (in his usual role), and he may also consider bringing in youngsters like Bryan Leyva and Peri Marosevic. However, it seems safe to expect big names like Cunningham, Ferreira, and Pearce to start the game in reserve. It'll be very important for DC to jump out to a lead while the JV is on the field, because I don't think we can keep their best players off the scoreboard once the inevitable subs come.
The best places to attack this Dallas team will be down whichever flank Avila is stationed on, and by pressuring guys like Wallace and Edward when they're on the ball. I also think we have at least a chance of fighting to a draw in central midfield, unlike any of our previous games. Dallas will probably be sending out a team high on athletes but low on tacticians, so playing intelligently and forcing their players to make quick decisions would likely work. Of course, playing intelligently at any kind of speed has been part of our problem, so maybe we need to start smaller. Dallas's reserves have the look of a foul-prone bunch, so we should get plenty of looks from set pieces. We've been regularly winning headers in the box on such chances; now would be a great time to put some of them in the net, instead of sending them wide every time.