The Major League Soccer season has really started to take shape at the midway point and the top clubs in both conferences are establishing roots, particularly during this tricky point of the campaign where squad depth is being tested through injuries, suspensions and Gold Cup call-ups.
Week 21 has a distinct Western Conference flavour to it with three standout matches that could significantly shape the standings. While San Jose Earthquakes vs. Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers vs. Los Angeles Galaxy are worth the price of admission, the match we’ll be focusing on is a top of the conference clash at FC Dallas Stadium between FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake.
Real Salt Lake @ FC Dallas
FC Dallas currently finds itself on a 6 match winless streak and has been overtaken by Real Salt Lake for pole position in the West. This run has seen the club take a step back but it has managed to earn a share of the points from a losing position on 3 occasions (Colorado Rapids, Sporting KC & Philadelphia Union). RSL by contrast are on a 7 match unbeaten streak and haven’t dropped its level of performance despite Gold Cup call-ups to significant players, injuries and suspensions.
Both Jason Kreis and Schellas Hyndman will have to adjust their respective line-ups. In addition to Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran, Kyle Beckerman and Alvaro Saborio being away on Gold Cup duty, Real Salt Lake will also see Lovel Palmer miss this match due to a red card suspension. FC Dallas for its part will be without Blas Perez; the Panamanian forward stayed with the team for matches against Chivas USA and LA Galaxy but will now join Panama at the Gold Cup.
One aspect of the match that will impact both sides are weakness within the defensive units, as both clubs have their fair share of injuries issues.
The hosts have seen Peruvian keeper and recently named 2013 MLS All-Star Raúl Fernández take command of the defensive organization in the face of a shuffling defence. The FCD backline hasn’t played its top central defensive pairing of Matt Hedges and George John in the last few matches and has seen the likes of Stephen Keel, as well as rookies Walker Zimmerman and London Woodberry, step in and contribute. The status of George John is still up in the air at this point and, given how Real Salt Lake likes to attack opposition with the combination passing and creativity of players such as Javier Morales, Joao Plata and Luis Gil, it will be vital for FC Dallas to stay compact and composed.
RSL have been dealing with the long term injury absences of Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe and as a result have had to play a mixture of young players and squad players. This in combination with the suspension to Palmer will see further changes take place with the possibility of Aaron Maund or Abdoulie Mansally stepping in alongside Nat Borchers, Carlos Salcedo and Chris Wingert. One problem this defence will have to deal with is the size advantage FC Dallas will have on set plays even in lieu of Blas Perez, as players such as Kenny Cooper, Eric Hassli and Andrew Jacobsen are handfuls to deal with and could open up space and options for David Ferreira to link with his Colombian compatriot Fabian Castillo and Brazilian Jackson.
Taking a look at the tactics and individual match-ups there are a few distinct battles that could shape how the match plays out.
The first battle is Javier Morales vs. Andrew Jacobsen. It will be up to the FC Dallas hard man to do much of the heavy lifting in midfield and track the runs of the Argentine. Much of the success that RSL generates in attack comes via the deep runs and tempo setting possession of Morales. The more he’s able to roam free and connect with teammates, the more confidence the entire team shows. For FCD to have any measure of success they’ll need to nip that in the bud, beginning with Jacobsen holding his position, breaking up play and finding the likes of Michel or David Ferreira quickly.
The second individual match-up to be aware of while watching the match is Yordany Alvarez vs. the aforementioned Michel. Although much of the focus on the Dallas attack is centered around Ferreir,a it’s the play of Michel as a deep lying playmaker that gets them going either on counter attacks or getting the ball to its big forwards in space. In Beckerman’s steed, Alvarez had been given the reigns in defensive midfield and has already produced in uncharacteristic fashion with a goal against Toronto FC. The main responsibility for the Cuban will be much like FC Dallas’ Jacobsen in breaking up play and moving the ball efficiently but he will not have to be quite as active in marking Michel, who plays more like a quarterback spraying the ball around the pitch.
The final dual to keep an eye on is Nat Borchers vs. Kenny Cooper. The hosts have largely been able to spread their goal production between a few different players, but with Perez on Gold Cup duty, this is a good time for Cooper to get on a similar good run of form that saw him score 18 goals last season for New York Red Bulls. It will be a tough task for Borchers to handle alone and he will need help from young central defender Carlos Salcedo, especially in situation where the pace of the Mexican defender will aid Borchers in tracking Cooper, whom often roams to the wide areas and drops deep to connect with Michel and David Ferreira.
Even with both sides currently tending in opposite directions, the match still shapes up to be an exciting match that historically produces goals and close encounters.
Here’s how I see both sides lining up:
Real Salt Lake:
FC Dallas 2-2 Real Salt Lake