It seems weird to say this about a team firmly in the Supporters Shield race, but FC Dallas makes for an unpredictable opponent for D.C. United. The Hoops actually pick up 1.68 points per game, the highest rate in all of MLS (United is right behind them with 1.67), yet they've also suffered three four-goal losses and a three-goal loss in all competitions in 2015. One of those four-goal losses was at home against Colorado! The toothless Rapids have 13 goals in their other 18 MLS league games this season, but went to Frisco and crushed the home side.
Normally I'd also include a note here about Oscar Pareja's pronounced tendency to tinker with his lineup - both in terms of selection and formation - but in recent weeks it's an itch he hasn't scratched. FCD has won three straight games without conceding a goal once, and in those matches Pareja has kept 9 of his 11 starters in the exact same starting position every time (with Ryan Hollingshead staying in the team but moving from the right wing to left back last week due to Je-Vaughn Watson's absence due to Gold Cup duty with Jamaica). Frankly, as a United fan who has seen a preposterous schedule, injuries, and suspensions force Ben Olsen to chop and change every week, I'm jealous.
So while the good Dallas/bad Dallas dynamic still exists, the unpredictable lineup that normally comes as part of the package has more or less vanished. I do think Pareja will make a change or two tonight after getting Tesho Akindele and Moises Hernandez back from their respective national teams, but this is still an easier FCD team to predict than we normally see:
After needing a few weeks to get over an early-season injury, Dan Kennedy has firm control of the goalkeeper position. From his time with Chivas USA, everyone knows Kennedy is a great shot-stopper. However, he can be very reckless coming off his line for loose balls; last week, he conceded a penalty kick in just such a scenario. United needs to try and tempt him to come out for a ball that he shouldn't be attacking.
Atiba Harris has been pretty consistent at right back. He's not a natural in the role, but Pareja's highest priority with his fullbacks is that they be capable on the ball. Harris spent the previous years of his career as a wide midfielder - with the occasional period up front or in defensive midfield - so he fits the bill. He still doesn't look like he figures out positional demands quickly enough, however. He does make better decisions than I would have expected, but it still takes him a bit. It's sort of like watching someone who speaks a language with less than perfect fluency. United will want to play quickly - paging Chris Rolfe! - and test how quickly Harris can figure out what he should be doing.
In central defense, Zach Loyd and Matt Hedges have been pretty good as a duo whenever they've both been available. That's mostly down to the flimsy hamstrings Hedges has been saddled with, but he's healthy right now so United won't get lucky here. Still, there is a tendency for these two to leave a big gap right down the middle two or three times a game. Last week, Orlando City had a goal wrongly taken away for offside in one such moment, while Carlos Rivas wasted another look from a similar position. United will need to make sure they're ruthless in those moments, particularly if one comes early in the match.
Left back will probably be taken over by Hernandez provided he didn't pick up any knocks with Guatemala. The FCD academy grad has been solid enough this season, though he hasn't 100% taken over a position where he has no real competitors. Watson, for example, has played left back a few times after coming to MLS as an attacking midfielder/right midfielder. Hollingshead, the alternate choice if Hernandez isn't available, is a natural right winger. So while Hernandez is a decent enough left back, he's hardly a lock-down defender. He also has a tendency to give away fouls, so hopefully Nick DeLeon is feeling good about attacking on the dribble tonight.
Victor Ulloa has quietly had a very good season as FCD's #6. While Ulloa doesn't tend to win tackles with any particular zeal, he's very steady on the ball and plays a smart game based around positional sense. Ulloa is the sort of player that is playing his best soccer when you aren't noticing him all the time. Alongside him should be another FCD academy product, Kellyn Acosta. Acosta has pushed set piece ace Michel to the bench because unlike the Brazilian veteran, he stays involved in games when the ball is in play.
In this set-up, Acosta's job is to be the more dynamic, physical player in FCD's engine room. Still, the former fullback has the look of a utility defensive player more than a true hard-working ball hawk at this point. Perry Kitchen will be the physically stronger player here, but more importantly United needs to use Acosta's desire to cover a lot of ground against him. If the Black-and-Red make him chase the ball without success, there will suddenly be more gaps to go at in the middle.
On the right wing, Pareja will probably bring Akindele back in if he's ready to go after Canada's ill-fated Gold Cup. The reason is simple enough: Taylor Kemp has not done well against physically strong wide players, and Akindele fits that bill. Even if Akindele is used elsewhere or only comes off the bench, Pareja could ask Hollingshead to use a similar approach in this spot. Michael Barrios is also an option, though with his lack of size I expect Pareja to be unable to resist testing Kemp's ability to defend direct, powerful players.
The other midfield roles go to FCD's biggest stars. Mauro Diaz can be a thrilling player to watch due to his impish creativity, field vision, and extraordinarily quick decision-making. United is going to have to work very hard to suffocate the ex-River Plate man. That's something DCU has done before, but that doesn't make it an easier job on the road in Texas heat.
Out on the left is an even bigger threat. Fabian Castillo is among MLS's best scheme-breaking players. The Colombian's top-notch speed has always been a threat, but over the past two years he's become much smarter about when to run at defenses while also becoming more composed in front of goal. The end result is one of the biggest attacking threats in the entire league. Chris Korb is going to have to deliver a big performance, but so too will United's entire squad. Castillo can stay wide, or cut inside, or pop up on the opposite flank - he's actually started about half of FCD's games on the right this season - without diminishing his game. The less we see of Castillo on the ball, the better. Sorry MLS neutrals and aesthetes.
Up front, David Texeira was brought in last year from the Dutch Eredivisie with the thought that he'd push the agin Blas Perez to the bench. That didn't happen thanks to both some good play from Perez and Texeira's very slow adjustment to MLS. The Uruguayan only has two goals this season as well, but one of them came last week. He's starting to figure out how to succeed in this league, and I think that Pareja is using Perez's Gold Cup absence to build up the young man's confidence for the future.
That, combined with Akindele likely starting on the right, should see Texeira get his fourth straight start. Texeira's not a great hold-up man, but he is very clever off the ball. Dallas has been able to score regularly lately without a true target up front, so DCU should be very concerned with tracking Texeira off the ball. Look for him to play one-touch to make up for the fact that he doesn't have the strength to fend off center backs. If United's defensive midfield can cut off those one-touch passing options coming from underneath, Texeira may struggle as a result.
Off the bench, look for Hollingshead to get in at some point if he doesn't start. I suspect we'll see veteran Rolando Escobar replace one of the attacking trio in midfield if Dallas has a lead to protect, while Michel could come in for Acosta or Ulloa if the Hoops need a goal. If Akindele is on the bench at kickoff, you can pretty much guarantee that he will enter either up front or on one of the wings.