On one hand, D.C. United is playing FC Dallas at the perfect time. International call-ups and injuries have left the Hoops with a bare bones squad, particularly defensively. It's to the point where Oscar Pareja may choose a formation change simply due to the fact that he only has four available defenders of any kind. For a team whose first-choice defense conceded five goals in their last road trip. that's not a great situation. For a team that is struggling to score goals, though, facing an opponent in that situation is manna from heaven.
On the other hand, Pareja will have his full compliment of attacking starters. That's a group that can tear any defense in MLS apart, and it's not like United's defending has been consistently locked in thus far in 2016. Dallas has also developed a mentality in the past couple of seasons that has them believing they can win any game with any group of 11 players on the team. A bunch of kids? No defenders? They don't care. They will not enter this game worried about how to make up for the absences. United may be catching them at the right time, but this will surely not be an easy match for the Black-and-Red.
Dallas has an attack that can scare anyone in MLS, but tomorrow they're playing with a back-up goalkeeper behind a back four featuring only one normal starter, and one of their first-choice defensive midfielders is out too. This is not a game in which United should sit in and focus on defending first and second. The way to knock Dallas off in these circumstances is to make the match about their reserve team defense's ability to withstand a hungry, positive attack on the road.
In particular, attacking from kickoff - that is, not letting the game settle into a rhythm in the first 20 minutes - should be a priority. There's no good reason to let this totally unfamiliar defensive group build any confidence or understanding. They should be pressed from the opening whistle. FCD will probably be starting a player with literally 0 professional minutes in central defense. This is not the right time for a patient approach. Make them defend, make them scramble, and you're likely to see good results.
Smart transition play
Dallas is arguably the best team in transition in MLS. It's not just about their elite speed, either. FCD's attacking midfield trio breaks forward intelligently, with movement designed both to provide space for the man on the ball and to create options further upfield. It can be very entertaining to watch unless you happen to support the team playing Dallas.
First of all, United needs to slow things down whenever they turn the ball over. Giving Dallas the time to break forward following a giveaway is a recipe for disaster, particularly with the Black-and-Red's best emergency defender (Steve Birnbaum) away with the USMNT. Every United player needs to be aware of their position in possession, because when the ball turns over the entire group needs to move into sound defensive spots ASAP. Slowing the initial person on the ball for Dallas would help, but it's important to not simply chase the ball down without a plan. Sometimes you have to wait until the first or second pass to really stall a break forward.
Tonight's game will be a real test for United's overall alertness and just how organized they are as a unit. A slow-of-thought performance, or even a quick but chaotic one, will make this a very difficult game. United lacks the firepower to be a team that is anything less than solid defending dead balls, and right now they are statistically the worst team in MLS at it. That has to stop starting with tonight's game.
Do. Not. Concede. From. Set. Pieces.
With Walker Zimmerman and Atiba Harris missing, Dallas is going to have a pretty small team on the field. Matt Hedges and Aaron Guillen are the only real threats they're going to have on the field. However, United's set piece defending has been such a mess that they can't be overconfident about stopping anyone.
Dallas has good (but not great) delivery, but they're a clever team that is well-coached. The movement inside the box will be designed with freeing up either of the bigger targets or to leave one post unmarked for a free runner. They're also a brave, determined group, so don't be surprised to see FCD players flinging themselves at the ball with abandon.
United has to take the first step towards proving this is not going to be a weakness any more. They'll probably have quite a few tests, as Dallas has so much speed and a willingness to dribble. They're going to win fouls, they're going to get corners. United has to make sure they don't get goals as a result.
Overload the wings
FCD has a pair of 2-0 wins and a 5-0 loss on the season. What did the Houston Dynamo do to dismantle their old rival so thoroughly? A big part of it was just catching Dallas on a truly atrocious night. This is an own goal from that game. Sometimes things go disastrously wrong, even for good teams. In MLS, just about every team will have a night like that this season.
However, the major tactical advantage that Houston had in this game was the Dynamo's ruthless pursuit of overloads on either wing. Here's one that turned into a goal: From about the 10 second mark here, Houston purposefully moves to create what becomes a 3v3 on the Dallas left. A clinical triangle is set up, Andrew Wenger is put through, and he eventually scored thanks to some Keystone Kops defending.
Here's a bit of good news: United is capable of doing this. With Taylor Kemp pushing up the left wing and a gang of forwards who all like to peel out wide, these moments are going to happen naturally for DCU anyway. Against an unfamiliar Dallas back four featuring a right back better at attacking than defending (Ryan Hollingshead) and a left back who is really just a utility defender filling in (Zach Loyd), this is a promising alignment of a Dallas weakness and a United strength.
All that said, it doesn't just work because those two issues dovetail neatly. United needs to play quickly when they overload, and the off-the-ball movement needs to be incisive and thoughtful. Someone needs to eventually be making a run into the middle, or all the overload work will still result in an empty penalty area. Overloads also come with a risk: If 3 or 4 players are tightly packed on one flank, and you turn the ball over, you're leaving huge gaps to defend against a fast team that loves to break.