Tired, bedraggled, and above all struggling to turn chances into goals, D.C. United ends a grueling start to the summer tonight, facing Supporters Shield contender FC Dallas on short rest in the heat of Texas. If that sounds like a recipe for trouble, it’s also worth noting that United has a terrible history against both the current and former iteration of this franchise. In the twenty-one year history of Major League Soccer, United has just six wins in the general Dallas-Fort Worth metro region.
And yet, maybe this is the moment to be facing Dallas. It’s not getting much attention, but Oscar Pareja’s side has gone just 2W-4D-3L in their last nine league games. The upcoming Gold Cup means starters Kellyn Acosta, Matt Hedges, and Maynor Figueroa are all on international duty, while Walker Zimmerman is out injured. That’s three of their four starting defenders, plus a starting holding midfielder. Having played on Saturday, this quick turnaround will surely test their depth. They’ll still be heavy favorites, but these are big defensive absences for a team that is deeper on the attacking side than they are at the back.
Key player: Steve Birnbaum
Let’s not mince words: United is up against it tonight. Dallas, even if they rotate heavily, has skillful, fast attackers who are extremely well-coached. They’re best playing on the break, but they can string possession together, and they can break down teams that sit deep with skilled dribblers spread throughout the offense. It’s going to take great individual defending, great organization, and great composure and focus from front to back to escape this game with anything.
That’s where Birnbaum comes in. 2017 has not seen him provide his best soccer by any means, but tonight United will need to see their captain playing at his ceiling. With Bill Hamid and Bobby Boswell absent, Birnbaum will have to be the vocal leader of the defense, and he’ll have to provide some big plays in terms of emergency defending (because this United team is not smothering FCD for all 90 minutes). Every defender will be tested, but Birnbaum is the most likely to pick the whole group up.
Finally, if there’s a weakness with Dallas, it’s a lack of size. Toronto FC had three great looks on first half corners on the weekend, and they don’t have anyone as good as Birnbaum when it comes to aerial prowess. The Black-and-Red’s attack is clearly struggling, so Birnbaum - who is still goalless on the year - might be needed at both ends of the field.
Location: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, TX)
Kickoff time: 8:30pm Eastern
Projected D.C. United starting 11: (4231) - Travis Worra; Sean Franklin/Chris Odoi-Atsem, Steve Birnbaum, Kofi Opare, Taylor Kemp; Jared Jeffrey, Ian Harkes; Sebastien Le Toux, Luciano Acosta/Julian Buescher, Lamar Neagle/Patrick Nyarko; Jose Ortiz
Bench: Eric Klenofsky, Chris Korb/Franklin, Marcelo Sarvas, Buescher/Acosta, Lloyd Sam, Nyarko/Neagle, Deshorn Brown
This is the 7th game for United in 22 days (and the 4th straight away from home), and the uncertainty here reflects that. Ben Olsen will probably want to get Franklin another start as he continues to come back from injury, but Odoi-Atsem’s speed might be valuable given how fast Dallas is across the board. Jared Jeffrey should return, while I suspect Sam - having only just returned from an injury - will be rested in favor of Le Toux.
Elsewhere, Ortiz will probably rotate in for Brown up top, and we could see Acosta (who has that ongoing ankle complaint) and Nyarko not used from the start as well. Worra, Birnbaum, Opare, Kemp, Marcelo, Harkes, Acosta, and Nyarko all went the full 90 at Stade Saputo, making them all candidates for rotation.
Projected Dallas starting 11: (4231) - Jesse Gonzalez; Hernan Grana, Atiba Harris, Walker Hume, Aaron Guillen/Ryan Hollingshead; Carlos Gruezo, Carlos Cermeño/Victor Ulloa; Michael Barrios/Tesho Akindele, Javier Morales/Mauro Diaz, Roland Lamah/Akindele; Cristian Colman/Maximiliano Urruti
Rotation is a factor for Dallas too, and Pareja is not the kind of hard-headed coach to ignore the physical reality of playing three games in one week during the summer. A smart choice to rotate heavily for last week’s Open Cup game still saw FCD win, and it also means we’re not seeing a full Dallas B team tonight. Still, Hume (a 6’5” rookie) will make just his third MLS start, while the midfield and attack could see some major rotation. That said, Dallas is so deep that we’re still talking about players like Morales, Akindele, or Colman (who is hungry to jump-start a poor debut MLS season).
Referee: David Gantar
Available TV: NewsChannel 8 and regional affiliates (check the link for the over-the-air alternate channel in your area), including CW Richmond in RVA.
Available streaming: MLS Live for those outside the blackout radius
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
What do we have to say about it?: We’ll have predictions and a look at the expected Dallas eleven later this morning.
What are you drinking?: This game calls for a strong cocktail. I’m leaning towards the as-yet-unnamed combination of Trader Joe’s jalapeño limeade and mezcal I had on the last episode of Filibuster.
This is the place for all your pre-game, in-game, and post-game discussion. Vamos end of sadness!