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Scouting report: FC Dallas

The new-and-improved Atiba Harris is one of the many threats DC United will face at Pizza Hut Park tonight.
The new-and-improved Atiba Harris is one of the many threats DC United will face at Pizza Hut Park tonight.

Didn't I do this recently? Technically, this is my second Dallas scouting report in 10 days. However, the version we brushed aside 4-2 at home in US Open Cup qualifying was a pale shadow of the actual FC Dallas. Don't be fooled by the fact that Dallas needed as long as us to record a league win; this is a team that was good enough to march into Houston and win 1-0 (and without Jeff Cunningham to boot), as well as a team that has just one loss this year in league play.

What's the difference? Where are their weak points? And what should we be worried about? I've got you covered beyond the jump.

In last week's Open Cup qualifier, Dallas started several guys that most people have never heard of. On top of that, even the regular players who did take part only saw limited minutes (the only regulars that went the full 90 were Kevin Hartman, Brek Shea, and rookie Zach Loyd). Their lineup on the day looked more like something you'd see back in the days of the MLS reserve league. Our team wasn't that much stronger (Adam Cristman, for example, was subbed off for the recently waived Tiyi Shipalane), but it was certainly closer to our best group than what Schellas Hyndman trotted out.

Here's what we can expect from Dallas at full strength:










There are a couple possible variables here. First, Cunningham missed the win in Houston after bizarrely waking up from a nap with a sore knee. Most reports currently say he's likely to return to a starting role; if not, look for Atiba Harris to move up top and be replaced by either Eric Avila (with Shea moving to the right) or by Honduran Marvin Chavez, who is himself returning from a lingering hamstring issue. You might remember Chavez from his time at Marathon, where he pretty much torched us home and away in the 2008 CONCACAF Champions League. If Hyndman does decide to hold Cunningham out, we're not getting too much of a break if Chavez is his replacement.

In either case, we have a tricky challenge ahead of us. Dallas has attackers with speed, strength, and size. Harris is no longer the oaf that ran around fouling everyone because he simply didn't have full control over his body. The Harris of today is showing improved skill on the ball, a much better shot, and plays a much more intelligent game than he ever has. Shea, meanwhile, is still an athletic freak. He is prone to dumb decisions and dribbling straight into double teams, but he's still a tough challenge thanks to his speed, height, and his straight-ahead method of attacking fullbacks. Cunningham is only MLS's 2nd most prolific scorer behind Jaime Moreno, and thrives in his lone striker role.

If Dallas is tough to cope with on the wings and up top, they're arguably even better in central midfield. Daniel Hernandez is a quality destroyer, combining a strong positional sense with a well-honed sense of how to be physical without giving away too many fouls. He's also a skilled agent provocateur, which given our tendency to pick up bookings (18 yellow cards and 1 red in just 6 games!) is something to look out for. Ahead of him is Dax McCarty, who is a fine two-way midfielder. McCarty serves as the metronome of this midfield, keeping the rhythm of their possession game and ensuring a steady supply to the front four. He's also improved his sense of when to burst forward and provide the late runner, so Clyde Simms and Kurt Morsink will have their hands full tracking him. Finally, there's the little Colombian David Ferreira, who is arguably the best player in red and white stripes in MLS. Ferreira is highly skilled on the ball, but his best trait is his ability to evade marking. He has a great knack of popping up wherever defenders aren't, and given time and space he will make teams pay. Given his attacking midfield/withdrawn forward role, our communication is going to have to be excellent amongst our whole back four and the midfield to restrict his space. If we can force Ferreira to pass sideways or backwards, we'll have done very well.

I told you there was a weak spot, and there is. Dallas has struggled to defend all season long, and that's the main reason their top-notch midfield hasn't carried them to more wins. Ugo Ihemelu is still erratic both on the ball and as a man-marker, and George John appears to be starting by default (Hyndman even publicly bemoaned the injury to Kyle Davies because there's no no real competition at center back). Even better for us, normal first choice left back Jair Benitez is suspended for 2 games after needlessly elbowing Gordo Landin in the head. On one hand, we now face a fringe national team left back in Heath Pearce (who, due to injuries and lack of depth elsewhere, has been playing all over the place for Dallas). On the other hand, this means that Loyd will return at right back, where he did not impress in the US Open Cup. Maybe this is Cristian Castillo's chance to finally impress? He's probably only got, at most, until Chris Pontius returns from his hamstring strain to prove he's worth a starting role, so making an impact sooner rather than later would be nice.

In goal, Dallas has had a bit of a controversy after incumbent Dario Sala gave up an incredibly stupid goal against New England. Schellas Hyndman has stated that veteran Kevin Hartman will get the start after a strong outing at Houston resulted in a clean sheet. This is probably bad news for us. Hartman did play pretty poorly at RFK last week, but he's still clearly better than Sala, who has long since proven himself to be below MLS standards.

We know what kind of team DC is going to send out. In fact, Curt Onalfo barely has a choice, since United has just 18 fit players (by my count, we'll be without Andrew Quinn, Dejan Jakovic, Marc Burch, Bryan Namoff, Brandon Barklage, Andy Najar, Santino Quaranta, and Chris Pontius, or 8 of our 26 players). The emphasis will again be on out-fighting Dallas and being opportunistic. The less actual soccer there is in the game, the better it is for our pursuit of a result. Set piece play could end up being very important, since Dallas struggles with marking and communication. We've done a decent job of getting to headers on corners and free kicks, so hopefully those two trends can combine to become a few United goals. Given that both teams have major defensive issues and that Dallas has a powerful offense, it's probably going to take us 2 or more goals to escape with at least a point.