D.C. United fans are quite right to look at tonight’s game against FC Dallas with a pessimistic attitude. United has five fewer goals than any other MLS team this season, while only one team (Sporting KC) has a better goals conceded tally than Dallas. Maximiliano Urruti has 10 goals by himself, which is nearly more than United’s entire scoring total as a club in league play. At the best of times, this would be an extremely challenging fixture.
It’s not the best of times, though. United’s best player, Bill Hamid, is away with the USMNT. The Black-and-Red will be playing their seventh game in three weeks tonight, and this last one is an awkward Saturday-Tuesday turnaround. The gametime temperature looks like it’ll be in the upper 80s, and a mid-day chance of storms will probably just keep the humidity high. Oh, and on top of all that, United has lost three straight in all competitions, all of which were road games, and have been shut out in five of their last six league games. Their last road goal was that penalty kick in Vancouver, back on May 27th. It feels like it was a year ago.
There is a glimmer of potential good news, though. Gold Cup call-ups have taken Kellyn Acosta, Matt Hedges, and Maynor Figueroa away from Dallas for the time being. Walker Zimmerman is out with a knee injury. That’s both starting center backs (arguably the best pairing in MLS), an emerging USMNT starter and the best #8 in the league, and a rock-solid left back that in many ways defines the take-no-prisoners mentality Dallas brings to the table.
On Saturday, Oscar Pareja - facing the same scheduling issues as Ben Olsen, save for his team being at home in both games - understandably rolled out his best 11 to face Toronto FC. An authoritative 3-1 win was his reward, but it came with a price: Urruti, Carlos Gruezo, Hernan Grana, and Atiba Harris - all key starters themselves - went the full 90 minutes, as did Acosta’s stand-in Victor Ulloa. In other words, Pareja is probably going to make some significant alterations to his lineup, both to get fresh legs in and to avoid the risk of worn out players picking up injuries.
Pareja has often lined his team up in a 442, but the return of Mauro Diaz to fitness has meant more 4231 of late. Diaz probably won’t start tonight - he was out for nearly a year with an achilles tear, and has already started twice this week - but the formation probably sticks around:
Jesse Gonzalez, after years of buzz due to both the United States and Mexico pursuing him for international play, has pushed Chris Seitz aside to take over as the #1 in Frisco. Gonzalez showed his quick reflexes several times on the weekend, as TFC created three point-blank scoring chances on set pieces while the score was still 0-0. The 22 year old still has consistency issues, but he’s also capable of producing the spectacular.
If Dallas weren’t so short of defenders, I suspect Pareja would consider resting Grana, his attack-minded right back. However, since they are, and since Grana didn’t play in last Tuesday’s Open Cup win over Colorado, he’s probably going to have to give this one a go. Grana’s experience in the Argentine top flight tends to show through, making him hard to beat despite merely average speed and quickness. If Grana needs to be rested, 19 year old homegrown rookie Reggie Cannon would be tabbed to step in.
Harris may be a surprising name to see at center back for long-time United fans who probably remember him entering MLS as a winger/striker. It’s been a strange trip for the only St. Kitts and Nevis native in the league. After a brief attempt to mold him into a midfield destroyer, Harris eventually landed in Dallas as a wide utility man who could primarily sub into games on the right flank. Over time, he became more of a defender first, and this year Dallas began working on adding center back to his list of possible roles. Surprisingly, he’s done quite well, and while he’s not Zimmerman or Hedges, he’s far from a desperation play for Pareja.
Alongside him, FCD probably has to roll rookie Walker Hume out for his third-ever MLS start. The hulking (6’5”, 204 lbs) UNC product was touted as a potential early draft pick before falling due to perceptions about a lack of speed on the turn. However, Pareja clearly has a great eye for talent, and United will be giving away quite a bit of size up front no matter who starts.
With Figueroa called up by Honduras, and Ryan Hollingshead - whose career was jeopardized this winter after a car struck him, fracturing his neck among other injuries - playing 180 minutes already this week, Pareja will likely turn to Aaron Guillen at left back. Guillen is more of a left back-center back hybrid who would do well in a back three, but he has usually looked comfortable enough despite playing just 480 total MLS minutes since signing a homegrown deal before the 2016 season.
In the midfield, Gruezo is probably going to start despite playing the full 90 against TFC. Pareja could rest the Ecuador national team regular, but with Ulloa coming off of two straight 90 minute appearances and nearly needing a sub after an awkward fall on Saturday, it seems likely that Gruezo starts as per usual. He may not quite be at the level that Osvaldo Alonso or Dax McCarty are, but Gruezo is right near the top of the second tier of MLS defensive midfielders. He plays a no-frills game, quietly screening the defense while keeping the ball moving and getting stuck in when necessary.
Since I suspect that Ulloa needs a rest, look for Carlos Cermeño to get a rare start. The 21 year old, signed on loan from Deportivo Tachira this winter, has just 204 minutes played spread across 5 appearances thus far, but he’s also got a senior cap with Venezuela to his name. On a team that didn’t have Acosta and Gruezo, he’d be a regular. That said, a Gruezo-Cermeño midfield pairing could allow United to overpower Dallas in the middle, as both players stand at just 5’7”.
Ahead of them, Diaz might be a candidate to only come in off the bench. Pareja has been careful to build up his star playmaker’s fitness after last year’s torn achilles tendon, and is keeping his eye on the long haul. With Diaz already playing 132 minutes in two starts this week, it seems likely that Pareja takes a cautious approach here.
Of course, he has the luxury to do so because Dallas wisely signed Real Salt Lake legend Javier Morales this offseason. The 37 year old has not exactly torn it up in spot duty with Dallas, who played more of the aforementioned 442 in the early going. However, he’s well rested, and we’re talking about a guy with 53 goals and 90 assists in his MLS career (including playoffs). Morales doesn’t have Diaz’s quick burst or audacity to send people through from his own half, but when space gets compressed at the top of the box, the veteran still knows how to solve problems in ways that defenders don’t expect.
Pareja has wisely managed to keep Michael Barrios and Roland Lamah from playing too many minutes in this tough stretch of games. Lamah has two starts this week, but was subbed off both times to keep him fresh. Barrios, meanwhile, only came into the Open Cup match as a sub, and was removed before full time against Toronto. That means they’re likely to get the nod tonight, which is bad news.
In Barrios, Dallas has a player with electric speed and a tendency to take risks on the ball that often pay off. If there’s a drawback to the combative Colombian, it’s a tendency to let his emotions get away from him. Lamah, meanwhile, needed ten games to get himself a goal upon arriving in MLS, but since breaking through in late May, he has five goals in five appearances (including two against TFC on Saturday).
Dallas has Tesho Akindele to call on if either needs a rest. The versatile Canadian is in pretty unimpressive form at the moment, but he’s still a talented player and a top-level athlete. Most likely, he ends up being a substitute somewhere in the FCD attack in this one.
Up top, Dallas went out and signed Cristian Colman as a Designated Player this winter. He was supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle, a dominant goalscorer who could provide more goals than the hard-working Urruti. Colman was in demand internationally, and Dallas landing him was seen as a bit of a coup.
So far, the return on a rumored $2 million investment has been quite disappointing. Colman has not scored a competitive goal since his move, while Urruti has risen to the challenge by already beating his 2016 total halfway through the season. However, with Urruti doing a ton of running in 90 minutes on Saturday and United looking like a vulnerable opponent, it seems likely that Colman gets a chance to build his own broken confidence up.
Off the bench, look for Pareja to turn to his big names if this game is close. Diaz will almost certainly get in for the last half hour regardless of the scoreline, while Urruti also seems like a viable option to sub in. Akindele, we already covered, and Hollingshead could play any of the four flank positions if Dallas needs him to sub in. Should this game turn into a blowout one way or another, homegrown players like Paxton Pomykal or Coy Craft could also get a shot somewhere in the attack.