Here we are folks, one win away from 60 points. The only thing standing in the way is a D.C. United team on a hot streak, fighting for their playoff lives.
D.C. United come in to this one undefeated through their last six games, going 4-0-2. With 41 points on the season, they sit two points back of the playoff line and sixth place Montreal Impact, who have 43 points. Fortunately for United, they have a game in hand on Montreal, so one poor result won’t totally doom them.
Dallas have stayed on top of the Western Conference and now have 57 points on the season. They are four points ahead of the chasing Sporting KC and LAFC; each of whom has 53 points. The cushion has given Dallas some breathing room towards the rest of the conference as well as they are a full six points ahead of fourth place Portland.
Over the past two months, D.C. United have pulled themselves from the cellar of the Eastern Conference to the verge of a playoff spot. Having spent the first half of the season essentially playing road games as they awaited their new stadium to finish, the home cooking in the new place has really helped change their fortunes. Oh, and they also picked up some guy named Wayne Rooney during the summer window. To condemn or not to condemn them for going down the “old Euro star” route comes down to results and impact from the player. And in that case – it was a genius move. Much like Bastian Schweinsteiger did for the Chicago Fire last year, Rooney has galvanized the team. Everyone believes, everyone contributes, everyone wins.
It also helps that Rooney has come in with a great attitude and even better production. He has contributed 9 goals across his first 16 appearances. That’s more than anyone on FC Dallas’s roster. Everything he brings to the table was summed up in that incredible last second play against Orlando to steal a win back in August. You know the one – where he sprints back from a corner to stop an Orlando attacker from icing the game with an open net goal. He stops Orlando, then gets up and sends in a long range cross to find a game winning header. Superb effort from the team leader. That’s why United went out to get Rooney, his skill and leadership…and big name and the money it brings. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The player who finished off that incredible sequence was Luciano Acosta. Acosta was just named the MLS Player of the Month as he has gone on a tear to help United climb into the playoff hunt. In fact, he may be the most dangerous player for DC right now. Since Rooney joined up, Acosta has found his shooting boots, posting more goals in the past three months than he had the entire two years previous. And again, this isn’t just me crediting Rooney, its Coach Olsen and even Acosta himself. So what else can we expect from the surging Black and Red? United try to play a possession-based game, utilizing the wings whenever possible; though using the wings is more for advancing play forward rather than for crossing to score. United send through balls to Paul Arriola, of USMNT Fame, who occupies the right and Amil Yasad who takes the left. While Rooney is deployed as the lone striker, he still likes to drop down to the midfield to pick up possession, which allows Acosta, acting as the central no. 10, and the wingers to surge forward. The two defensive mids, Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno, do an admirable job of protecting the back line (Moreno) and helping shuffle the ball forward (Canouse).
The real question for DC United is the back line. Hit with injuries, United are still working through who should lineup. Center back Steve Birnbaum and left back Joseph Mora have been the only starters to stick all season. Frederic Brilliant started the season as Birnbaum’s partner, but due to ineffectiveness and injury, had been replaced by Kofi Opare. However, Opare went down a few weeks ago and is out for the remainder of the year, so Dallas will see Brilliant in the lineup once again. It’s questionable who will be the right outside back since starter Oniel Fisher is now injured. United could roll out Kevin Ellis or get creative and move Arriola to the back and shoe-horn another attacker up front to make the right wing more dynamic. The last line of defense is still Bill Hamid – after he came back on loan of course (?). That’s a saga all its own, best left for you to wander down the internet rabbit hole un-assisted.
For Dallas, this should be a relatively straight forward affair. While United have a few dangerous players, Dallas has the upper hand all over the field. Even without Cannon, Gruezo, and Figueroa (all on national team duty) The back line is superior at every spot compared to DC, and the midfield is too. You can say Arriola and Rooney might be better than Barrios and Urruti, but the difference in how each team uses the two makes it more of a wash for me. So, if it comes down to talent and coaching, give me Dallas every time.
Key Matchup: Maxi Urruti vs Steven Birnbaum
Once again, Maxi will find himself with a golden opportunity to get off the goal scoring schneid against a team with a porous back line. Will he take the opportunity? After looking at his stats on the season, I’m starting to think it may not be so bad if he doesn’t. Maxi has seven goals on the season – pitiful for a full-time striker. But Maxi also has 11 assists – eight since the middle of August! In fact, Maxi is three assists away from totaling his career assists in one season. Up until this year Maxi had totaled 14 assists across his entire MLS career. With 11 on the season, and four games to go, he has a chance to put up 14 this season, especially if he continues the hot streak. Maybe Maxi is a No. 10 after all.
1. Ulloa’s Partner – This will be the biggest hole to fill for Dallas this week. Hollingshead is a shoe-in to fill in for Cannon, but there are a few options who can step into the Gruezo role, although none will be as effective. Will we see the reappearance of Jacori Hayes? Will it be mid-summer signee Abel Aguilar? Will we play a new formation and just leave Ulloa alone at the base of the midfield? Who knows? But getting it right will be the best way to pick up all three points.
2. Bad Badji/Good Badji – I’m not saying Dominque Badji has been awful since his signing, but maybe he isn’t quite living up to some people’s expectations. With Colman now out of the picture, he needs to grab the proverbial bull by the horns and make the striker spot his for good. Getting on the score sheet would really help that situation.
3. Think of the Kids – If there is one disappointment I have this season, it has been the total lack of youngsters being given game time. Don’t @ me about Cannon. He is but one of this team’s young players that has seen the field for any reasonable length of time. Dallas has so much talent waiting on the bench or out on loan (they can easily be recalled). Maybe with some of our regulars out and some injuries to deal with we will see one of the kids (any of them, I’m not picky) see the field.
So here we are. On the road, against a team on a hot streak, with everything to fight for. Dallas has already secured a playoff spot and is dealing with missing internationals and injuries. But 60 points and home field advantage are within reach. It’s not time to rest just yet. I expect United to come out guns blazing, knowing they must keep picking up points to make the playoffs. But Dallas is just as fine playing off a counter attack as they are keeping possession. The Hoops have the talent to carry this one through. Final call is a 1-0 win for Dallas and 60 points in the books.