Which Match This Week is More Important?

Bob Levey

Wednesday's USOC game against Houston and Saturday league match against Portland are both important in their own ways. But which should get the stronger FCD lineup?

As was noted by Alfredo last night, FC Dallas has a very busy week ahead of them. The red stripes have a US Open Cup clash with the hated Houston Dynamo on Wednesday night, and 65 or 66 hours after that match ends they will kick off in Portland on artificial turf in a matchup that will have a direct effect on the Supporters Shield race and potential playoff seeding.

That timeframe is much shorter than the amount of time most human beings would need to recuperate after playing 90 minutes, let alone a decent chance of overtime and PKs on Wednesday. FC Dallas needs to earmark a couple players as being capable of pulling off 180 minutes in that timespan, and Schellas Hyndman and staff will have to rotate the lineup quite aggressively to maximize performance and minimize the risk of injury.

The club did this pretty well a couple weeks ago when FCD took on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in USOC play and visited the Colorado Rapidsa few days later . The only players to play 180 minutes that week were George John, Michel, and Blas Perez, while Jair Benitez (178), Fabian Castillo (175), Matt Hedges (139) and David Ferreira (106) were the only other ones to play 100-plus minutes. That was with 95.5 hours of recovery time, though, which is a very different proposition from a 65-66 hour turnaround. We have to hope the trainers get a good reading for how well each of the players above withstood the extra workload before, so they can gauge who's capable of doing it on even shorter rest.

So, it will be impossible for the club to use a first choice lineup twice. Which players are best suited to which match? It has to be noted that Raul Fernandez and Je-Vaughn Watson won't be available Wednesday because they will have played for their national teams the night before, and they don't have any more national team fixtures in the short term. If healthy, maybe they will be available on Saturday only. If Blas Perez recovers from his bout of Montezuma's revenge by then, he'll probably be preparing to play for Panama against Costa Rica next Tuesday. Also, Kellyn Acosta is already with the U20 World Cup team, so he won't be available in either match.

Past those automatic issues, the biggest questions center on the real strength of this Dallas squad, its spine. Which match will see more of David Ferreira, Michel, and George John? We have to weigh how much the two fixtures will effect one another and which of the two matches is more important.

Best Lineup on Wednesday or Saturday?

At this point we're left to sort out which match is more important. Wednesday's match is the 2nd of a possible five matches in the USOC tournament, while Saturday's is between the first and third best records in the West. Some argue that the Open Cup is the easiest route to a CONCACAF Champions League spot. That's a simplification, though, and it particularly falls apart when a club finds itself in the running for the Supporters Shield.

Based on casino odds, FC Dallas has a 54.19% chance of beating Houston on Wednesday. Let's say that the potential quarterfinal that FCD would host on June 26th has the same probability, and the semi and final against unknown opponent in unknown venue are each 50/50 propositions. That means FCD's odds of winning the US Open Cup is 7.34% right now. That's respectable, but by no means easy. Win on Wednesday and those odds become 13.55%, and of course a loss makes them 0%.

Meanwhile, Dallas is still in good position for a run at the Supporters Shield, but their chances are at substantial risk on Saturday. Right now, Sports Club Stats' simulations place Dallas Shield odds at 17.2%. If they lose Saturday, that drops to 13.1%, but a win would push the red stripes up to 26.8%, and a draw would mean 17.6%. Notably, if Portland wins, the Timbers' chances will be 13.7%, passing FCD through virtue of an easier schedule, though they would still trail Dallas' PPG, 1.73 to 1.87.

Beyond the Shield race, a Saturday loss would mean that RSL, Seattle, and Portland would suddenly be uncomfortably close to the top, and if they all overtake the red stripes by the end of the season, then FCD wouldn't even have a bye in the playoffs. For me that is a worse outcome than losing out on the crapshoot US Open Cup. Especially since the Supporters Shield and an MLS Cup are far more prestigious than the national cup competition.

Put all of the odds together and you'll see that that right now the chance of a Supporters Shield-USOC double is approximately 1.2%, and that's inflated because it assumes independent results. Hyndman and company have to decide which trophy is their priority, and it's clear that right now they have better chances of winning the Shield.

The only other complication here is that Wednesday's opponent is Houston. I hate the Dynamo just as much as the next supporter, but I just don't think that rivalry trumps a better chance at a more prestigious trophy. Ferreira, Michel, and John should only start on Wednesday if the trainers in Frisco are very confident that these players are capable of putting in a superhuman workload over three days time. It wasn't so long ago that Hyndman screwed up the 2011 season by overplaying his best players to the point of exhaustion. To avoid the same issue he'll need to make tough decisions this week and it's clear which course is more advantageous to the club.

Bonus: Visualizing the Shield race

Last week on The Shin Guardian, I laid out the points per game (PPG) pace every MLS club needs from here on to be on the edge of playoff contention or have a good shot at the Supporters Shield. Below is an updated version of the central graphic, which you can customize in the menus at the bottom right. Think it'll take more or less than 47 points to clinch the 5th seed in the West? Just click the arrows until the number you want is displayed, and the graph adjusts.

Dallas' position here is the envy of all but L'Impact. However, you can see that many clubs are quite close behind and it will only take a bad result or two to push FCD back into that pack. They have to be aggressive and put their best foot forward in every regular season match, going for the win in almost all circumstances.

If my appeal is a little overly logical for those who just wants to crush the orange, let me put it another way. FC Dallas should have a better chance of beating the Dynamo in Frisco with a less-experienced group than they would sending reserves to Portland. The opposite approach would make a loss in Portland overwhelmingly likely, and the Dynamo would still be capable of scraping out victory in Frisco. If FC Dallas want to achieve the best possible pair of results this week, the need to emphasize the tougher and more important match on Saturday.

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