D.C. United has become one of the most talked-about teams in MLS these days, thanks in part to a six-game unbeaten streak during which they’ve scored 16 goals. It’ll be a statement if they can carry that high-scoring form on past today, because they’re up against one of the best defensive teams in MLS. FC Dallas has conceded just one goal in their last four games, and like United they haven’t lost since August.
United will be missing several regulars, but they’ll only be missing one bona fide starter in midfielder Junior Moreno. Dallas has one fewer international call-up, but they’ll be without two starters. Reggie Cannon is away with the USMNT, while Carlos Gruezo is with Ecuador during this FIFA window. That’s helpful for the Black-and-Red, but it doesn’t mean a major drop in quality. Oscar Pareja’s club has plenty of high-quality depth, and they can be expected to account for their absences without losing much at all.
In the past, Pareja has mostly shuttled between a 442 and 4231 depending on the status of his playmaker. Mauro Diaz went to the UAE in exchange for a transfer fee back in July, which would normally have seen Pareja go 442 full-time. Instead, Dallas acquired Chilean attacking midfielder Pablo Aranguiz and stuck with the 4231...but those two facts aren’t inextricably linked.
Since he arrived, Aranguiz has been in and out of the lineup, and Pareja seems to view the 21 year old as needing some time to acclimate. He also hasn’t really been a traditional #10, and the actual solution to Diaz heading to the Middle East has been to move striker Maximiliano Urruti into the #10 role. Urruti doesn’t play like your usual attacking midfielder because he doesn’t really have the right skillset. Instead, his job is to use his work rate, energy, and mobility to be an option for others and to disrupt the opponent’s attempt to build out of the back. Urruti has never been the best at making the first run expected of a striker, and playing in this spot means he doesn’t really have to.
It’s an unorthodox choice, but Pareja deserves credit for coming up with a solution that has worked very well. Urruti has 7 assists in 6 games playing in this spot, and Dallas is more difficult to predict going forward than they have been as a pure counter-attacking 442 team in the past.
Going back to the defensive players, goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez has been decent enough this season. Gonzalez was the starter last year only to lose the job in preseason to veteran Jimmy Maurer (an injury in February didn’t help). It took 10 games before Pareja opted to go back to Gonzalez, but since then he’s started 18 of 21 possible games. Gonzalez has an impressive wingspan and a knack for making himself big, but beyond that he’s still a couple years away from proving whether he can go from being a great prospect to one of the league’s best.
Cannon, the normal starter at right back, is the team leader in minutes played and has started every game this season. However, replacing him with Ryan Hollingshead isn’t a substantial loss. Hollingshead has spent the last couple of years mostly playing on the left, but he’s right-footed and is just as comfortable at right back as he is on the left. He’s not as fast or agile as Cannon, but he’s pretty far from slow. He and Brazilian left back Marquinhos Pedroso (a quietly effective summer signing) won’t be expected to bomb forward and hit a ton of crosses. Instead, look for them to take up roles supporting the attack in possession, and they’re not afraid to dump the ball up the wing to spring a counter.
Dallas has one of the very best center back pairings in MLS, with Matt Hedges partnering well-traveled Swiss international Reto Ziegler. Hedges provides the brawn, while Ziegler — a veteran of the Premier League, Serie A, Turkish and Russian top flights, and two World Cups — doesn’t step as aggressively. They’re both smart, focused defenders, and they’re both great targets on set pieces.
Gruezo’s absence in central midfield will force Pareja to choose which of the Ecuadoran’s qualities he values more in this instance. 33-year-old Colombian Abel Aguilar was signed late in the transfer window and has been used sparingly since arriving. That’s a luxury Dallas could afford due to the solid play of Victor Ulloa, and Aguilar has had time to build himself up after playing in this summer’s World Cup rather than having to jump right back into the deep end of the pool.
Aguilar is not the most mobile player, though, which opens the door for Maryland native Jacori Hayes to possibly get the nod here instead. Hayes has a good engine, covers a ton of ground, and rarely gives the ball away, but he lacks Aguilar’s field vision in terms of taking up the right defensive position on a consistent basis. This being a road game, Aguilar has the edge, but having some speed in central midfield might be tempting for Pareja.
Speaking of speed, the rest of the FCD attack is a real problem thanks in part to tremendous pace. On the right, Michael Barrios is a very direct winger who despite being 5’4” loves to mix it up with opposing players. Pareja has also used him as a lone forward later in games, thanks in part to good stamina that allows him to keep making hard sprints for the full 90 minutes. Including a breakout hat trick against Sporting KC on July 28th, Barrios has 6 goals and 5 assists in Dallas’s last 11 games.
On the other side, with Dallas likely to take on a counter-attacking posture, it seems probable that they’ll go with Santiago Mosquera over Aranguiz. Mosquera is another speedy winger/forward, and like Barrios he’s in very good form right now. The Colombian took a while to get going in MLS, but he has 5 goals in his last 6 games. While Aranguiz wants to drift inside and create from central positions, Mosquera does much of his work from the touchline. That said, he’s always looking to slash inside if there are gaps to exploit.
Up top, Dominique Badji joined the Toros in the deal that sent Kellyn Acosta to the Colorado Rapids. Badji hasn’t quite matched his scoring form with the Rapids, but that’s not to say he’s been bad at all. Badji brings strength and size that Dallas didn’t have before, and he has the wheels to keep up with Barrios and Mosquera when the break is on. Badji is also willing to do the hard work, and his ability to occupy defenders is part of the reason Barrios and Mosquera are doing so well of late.
Off the bench, beyond the Aranguiz/Mosquera swap that seems assured to happen at some point, Pareja has some options. Belgian attacker Roland Lamah has fallen out of favor of late, playing just 41 minutes in the last 8 games, but he still has 8 goals and 5 assists on the year. Lamah can play on either wing, and spent some time centrally earlier this season as well. Tesho Akindele is similarly versatile, though the Canadian’s game is more based on his physicality and speed.
Finally, Pareja is very comfortable going to five in the back to close out a game. Figueroa is normally his go-to in those moments, but he’s away with Honduras. Homegrown rookie Jordan Cano apparently traveled, so if Dallas has a result to protect (yeah, they’ll do this if it’s 1-1 late on just as much as they will if they’re winning), look for him to come in for Urruti and for Dallas to move into a 541.