After a long but much-needed break, D.C. United is back in action against an FC Dallas team that has three straight wins and three straight shutouts. The Hoops have settled on a lineup recently and are looking every bit like a Supporters Shield contender at the moment. The attacking duo of Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz can trouble any MLS defense, and while Dallas has only one highly-rated defensive player - that'd be Matt Hedges - they tend to overachieve as a unit. On a hot night in Texas - two hour before kickoff, it's 97 degrees - United's place at the top of the Shield race is in for a strong challenge.
Key player: Steve Birnbaum
Dallas has a very high-powered attack that tends to get forward in a hurry. That means that when a team has to defend against them, they tend to do a lot of work at speed and/or facing their own goal. Few MLS defenders are a match for "Birdbomb" when it comes to emergency defending, so United is going to have to lean heavily on their young center back tonight. Obviously we'd all prefer to see defending that looks easy and very few dramatic interventions inside the box, but realistically that isn't likely against this Hoops side.
Birnbaum should arguably be playing in Baltimore tonight over some of the people called into the USMNT Gold Cup camp (coughVentura Alvaradocough), but since he's in Texas instead we should hope he continues to build his case for national team inclusion. Plus, FCD isn't that great defending set pieces, so look for Birnbaum to get himself at least one good look at goal before tonight's game is through.
Key question: United clearly needed the two weeks off, but did they get rusty in the process?
We have complained a lot about MLS's scheduling this year, and for good reason. It seemed almost pointedly designed to physically and mentally drain United. The Black-and-Red's last game was the final match in a stretch where they faced 7 games in 19 days, and the exhaustion was starting to show. United managed just 1 goal in the final 3 games of that brutal bit of scheduling, and that was against a bad team with only 10 players on the field. The rest was desperately needed.
Now that United has had a chance to recharge, though, there's the age-old issue of losing their collective edge as part of the exchange. Sure, United looked stagnant going forward, but defensively the first team looked very solid at TFC and at Seattle. Dallas is a stern test of whether that collective speed of thought will still be in place, and one slow rotation or instance of miscommunication against the Hoops can easily result in a goal against. With Bill Hamid and Fabian Espindola both missing, United's defense is going to have to be very sharp all night long for the Black-and-Red to take points.
Match date/time: Saturday 7/18, 9:00pm Eastern
Venue: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, TX)
TV: CSN Washington (English), MLS Direct Kick (English, requires subscription)
Online: MLS Live (English, blacked out in the DC area and Dallas)
Check back in two hours for our gamethread.