What Are They All About? FC Dallas
Progress. This past weekend the Chicago Fire defeated DC United 1-0 on the back of a sublime counterattack and David Accam’s sixth goal of the season. Perhaps more impressive than their first road win of 2017–and just their second such accolade in the past fifty away encounters–was the manner in which they achieved the result. They dominated possession, chance creation, and defensive interventions to grind out three points against a desperate DC United and in-form Bill Hamid. The victory moved them into second place of the Eastern Conference and a point per game ration of 1.75 (only bested by high flyers TFC). Lest the celebrations get out of hand, the Fire are set to continue a busy period against Western Conference powerhouse FC Dallas at Toyota Park this Thursday (7:30 CT Kickoff on CSN Chicago). Their opponents will provide a stern test but should the result go the Fire’s way they will shake off a few more doubters as they reiterate their intention to finish near the top of the pile.
Dallas enters the contest ending a different sort of streak. Oscar Pareja and his men were unbeaten in nine matches heading into their last encounter against San Jose and could have reclaimed top spot in the West. Instead, San Jose newcomer Jahmir Hyka made a Messi-esque solo run that sucker punched Dallas at home. As they travel to Chicago they’ll be motivated to show the rest of the league that this past weekend’s result was just a fluke and that they are still the same side that nearly completed the treble last season. At stake is more than just the supporter driven Brimstone Cup. This match could ultimately signal a shift in power dynamics among MLS favorites. Will Veljko Paunovic leave the field stern jawed and steely eyed saying “I told you so”, or will Oscar Pareja reveal that Chicago’s recent run has been as much about the inadequacies of their opponents as it has been about their fortitude? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Dallas Form Guide (last five matches): L-D-W-D-W
Previous Result: A 1-0 home loss to the San Jose Earthquakes.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Gonzalez; Grana, Zimmerman, Hedges, Figueroa; Acosta, Gruezo; Barrios, Morales, Lamah; Urruti
Strengths: Aside from the departure of Fabian Castillo and the arrival of $2.7 million–Dallas’ share of the transfer fee–the squad did not lose any of its core members in the offseason. This bodes well for a team looking to improve upon its Supporters Shield and US Open Cup winning 2016 by adding MLS Cup to their trophy cabinet, a first in their history. The arrivals of DP striker Cristian Colman, MLS veteran Javier Morales, right back Hernan Grana (on loan from Argentine Primera club All Boys), and CS Vise product Roland Lamah have only strengthened an already impressive side. Let’s see where they could succeed on Thursday.
Tomatelo con Soda: We wouldn’t miss a chance to heap praise on an Argentine doing well in the league. Dallas’ acquisition of Maxi Urruti has certainly paid dividends over the last two seasons. The Newell’s Old Boys product has six goals in nine matches played and seems to have finally settled into MLS. A bizarre start in Toronto after his high-profile acquisition saw him play just two matches before being traded to Portland where he scored twenty-six goals in sixty-five starts for Caleb Porter. Adjusting to a new lifestyle hasn’t been easy but the Spanish speaking locker room and Argentine compatriots Mauro Diaz, Hernan Grana, and Javier Morales have helped him settle down and play some of the best soccer of his career. His team leading thirty-three shots have yielded fourteen attempts on target, he’s added two assists this season, and his work rate see him lead the line in Pareja’s high pressure tactics. Urruti’s ability to create a chance out of thin air, his acrobatic skill, competitive spirit, and tendency to go down easily could spell trouble for Chicago.
Como Una Cumbia: While the jury is still out on the best squad in MLS at the moment, there is no doubt about which team plays the most beautiful soccer. Oscar Pareja has put together a well-oiled machine, one that looks as good as it is efficient. Much like a traditional cumbia, stability at the base is key for Dallas. Walker Zimmerman and Matt Hedges have silently become one of the best center back pairings in MLS while providing a heightened level of comfort for goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez to grow into his starting role (earning a clean sheet in half the matches he’s played). Rounding out the backline are Grana and Figueroa who offer brains, brawn, and more speed than you’d expect of a thirty-two-year-old and a thirty-four-year-old. They’ll provide attacking support if they have to but are more comfortable solidifying the back four, ensuring that Accam will have to be at his best no matter which flank he is attacking.
If we’re staying with the cumbia metaphor, it’s all in the hips. Whether playing in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2, Carlos Gruezo and Kellyn Acosta have been charged with serving as dual pivots in the midfield for Dallas. Both of them can run all day long, have superb passing completion, and have averaged fifteen successful defensive interventions per match this season. Additionally, Acosta–serving as the more advanced of the two–has contributed three goals and two assists on the season. His ability to shoot from distance and make secondary runs coupled with his speed are worrisome attributes. Schweinsteiger and McCarty could be tested by this dynamic pivot.
When you round out the lineup with the speed of Michael Barrios, newcomer Roland Lamah, or Tesho Akindele on the wings, the potential of Javier Morales to serve as the heart driving the dance, and the strong headedness of Urruti mentioned above, this is one synchronized squad.
Quick Turnaround: While we will focus on Dallas’ failure against San Jose below, the most resounding theme in the locker room post-match was one of focusing on the next challenge. Walker Zimmerman put it bluntly, “We really wanted to get the result at home and now that gives us some urgency to respond in Chicago and pick up some points that we might have dropped here”. A motivated Dallas is a dangerous Dallas.
Weaknesses: There’s no doubt about it, this Dallas side is entering Thursday’s match wounded. Pareja rolled out a new line up against San Jose, opting to return to his patented 4-2-3-1 from last season in preparation for Mauro Diaz’s return from ACL surgery–and it backfired. It was their first home loss in MLS since September of last year and just their second in the last two seasons. The West is topsy-turvy at the moment and should Dallas leave Chicago without any points they could fall as far as sixth in the Conference standings by the end of the weekend. Let’s take a look at where they might struggle.
Chance Creation: For a side with as deep of a creative roster as Dallas has, they really struggled to find key passes in the final third against San Jose. Build up play was superb throughout the match and they dominated the possession and passing statistics as the Earthquakes looked to put ten men behind the ball and counter. Oscar Pareja, Kellyn Acosta, and Javier Morales all expressed frustration with the anomaly in their post-match interviews, saying that their play was unrecognizable upon crossing the halfway line. Three shots on target is the lowest such haul from Dallas in what has been a great start to the season.
When asked specifically about the reasoning for such a misplaced performance Acosta alluded to complacency and a sense of comfort around the squad. With so much talent one cannot blame them for such a lack of tempo and vigor but once again, MLS is unforgiving in such circumstances. If Schweinsteiger and McCarty can continue to win midfield battles, Dallas will certainly struggle again as they count down to the June return of Diaz.
You Should Have Seen His YouTube Channel: In order to inject a sense of competition into the striker position, a position solely occupied by Maxi Urruti last season, Oscar Pareja signed U-23 Panamanian international Cristian Colman to a Youth Designated Player contract. In his eight appearances Colman has yet to register a goal. In fact, he’s put just three shots on frame and even those were speculative. Pareja’s plan might have back fired as there is no uncertainty about who will be on the team sheet. Perhaps Dallas should have promoted one of their homegrown players or scouted better in the offseason. Should Pareja opt to rest Urruti in this away match, Chicago’s back line will know what to expect on Thursday.
Our Vision Only Works at 1000 MPH: While Dallas is lightning quick on the counter and in buildup play, they seem to struggle when things are slowed down. Half of the goals that Dallas has conceded in their last five matches have come from set plays. An expertly weighted ball from David Villa nearly found the back of the net for NYCFC but it bounced off the bar into the path of an on-rushing Tommy McNamara who headed it in. The awestruck ball watching from the Dallas defenders did little to thwart the play. In that same match, Maxime Chanot nearly doubled the lead from a corner as the same attitude was taken by Pareja’s charges. Similar mistakes caused close calls against RSL and Fanendo Adi’s towering header from a free kick reinforced this shortcoming against Portland. While Chicago is not known for their set piece prowess, asking Kappelhof or Meira to get forward for set piece opportunities might pay off in this one.
Schedule Congestion: Thursday’s encounter will be the second of three matches in nine days for Dallas. While the players may be looking forward to putting their recent loss behind them, the schedule cannot be easy on their legs. Javier Morales played his first sixty minutes of the month against San Jose and we wouldn’t expect him to feature extensively with such a quick turnaround. This should exacerbate the already problematic creativity scenario for Dallas. A return to Pareja’s often utilized flat 4-4-2 could be on the cards but we’re not sure such a formation bodes well against a Chicago side that enjoys possession at home. Pareja could very well opt to give the likes of Victor Ulloa, Tesho Akindele, and Ryan Hollingshead the start as he prepares for the Texan derby on Sunday, adding a lack of game time cohesion to the already tumultuous away trip.
Prediction: There is no doubt about it, this Chicago side is good. However, they’ll be taken down a peg as Dallas reminds them that nothing comes easily in MLS. Chicago 3-3 Dallas. Nemanja Nikolic, David Accam, and Drew Conner for Chicago.