This week, Dallas play host to Chicago Fire in the “highly anticipated” Brimstone Cup. Dallas comes in having lost last week but still lead the West with 35 points, one point more than Los Angeles FC. Chicago come in on weary legs, having played Philadelphia on Wednesday night. That game was a lot of fun with the final score being 4-3 in favor of Philly. Chicago has now lost two in a row and come in at eighth in the East, one point behind Philadelphia and Montreal who are tied for the sixth spot.
Coming off a loss where the tactics were poor and the play was poor, I feel kind of…optimistic. I know that’s not a normal reaction. Real Salt Lake played a good game and FC Dallas played a poor one. But the silver lining in my eyes is that coach Pareja mixed up the squad and gave some rest to a few key players while he also gave some opportunities to a few young guys. Kris Reaves continues to show his worth and Ema Twumasi made his MLS debut. If ever there was a time to blood a few of the kids, a midseason game in which we are in first place in the conference isn’t the worst time for it.
Now it’s back to business against our old foe Chicago. The Fire have had a very inconsistent season. They have not yet won back-to-back games and have only 6 wins on the season. They had a fine June. Having opened the month with a win and then drawing three straight, they preserved June undefeated. July even started promising with a big win over NYCFC before they lost back-to-back games against Vancouver and Philadelphia.
What worked so well for the Fire last season has (ahem) gone up in smoke. Last year’s MLS leading goal scorer, Nemanja Nikolic, hasn’t been quite as prolific. Chalk it up to service, surrounding talent, or (most likely) a return to expected goals. Along with the drop off from their number nine, Chicago haven’t been able to fully replace David Accam just yet. Accam had a brilliant season last year, scoring 14 goals to go along with eight assists. But it was more than just the stats. His speed on the wing opened up space for the whole offense to operate. Think if Michael Barrios became a finisher and better setup man, how much more dangerous our offense would be. Accam was moved to Philadelphia in the offseason (and, coincidentally scored the game winner last week against Chicago) for a great fee and was replaced with new man Aleksander Katai. Katai has been a fine replacement, but doesn’t stretch the defense in same way. Missing Michael de Leeuw has also been a problem. His injury last season threw the offense out of line and his creativity has been missing since.
When it comes down to it though, the real reason Chicago’s season hasn’t been very good starts at the back. They have scored the seventh most goals in the league, but still have a negative goal differential. Chicago is next to last in the league for goals conceded, right behind dreadful Orlando. Giving up 38 goals, the same number NYCFC has scored, puts a tremendous burden on the offense. Indeed, Chicago has already started to try to right the ship, bringing in a new center back on the day of this writing (Nicolas Del Grecco). Fixing the leak in defense may be all this team needs to get back on course and make another run at the postseason.
Approaching this opposition from the FC Dallas perspective is a fun thought experiment about what you think of another team. Coming into this article, I was prepared to chalk up Chicago as a pretender, not contender. But further examination shows, not necessarily a sleeping giant, but a team that is more nefarious that originally thought. The Dallas defense will be tested this week. I feel that Reggie Cannon has hit somewhat of a wall in the past few games. He has been reckless in direct defense and made numerous mental mistakes when off the ball. He has grown immensely this season, but we may be starting to ask too much of him, both in minutes played and role on the field. On the plus side, our offense should have a great matchup to get a few players out of their slumps. Both Lamah and Urruti have had a bit of a dry spell. After scoring in four straight games in May, Maxi hasn’t found the back of the net in seven games running. This is the game to break that streak and get back in the black. Dax McCarty offers good protection of the Chicago back four, but can be overrun in the middle or simply out maneuvered down the flanks, an area Dallas excels.
Key Matchup: Maxi Urruti vs Kappelhof/Campbell
When a defense allows every opponent to score like NYCFC, the burden of proof falls on the offense to produce, not the defense to change its ways. So it must be for the Dallas offense to produce and that starts with Maxi. He should have ample opportunities to break through a weak back four. Depending on the game plan, even Lamah and Barrios should have an opportunity to get on the score sheet.
1. Score Early – Dallas must apply some pressure to Chicago early. Get out in front and take possession of the game. Too often the team is content to sit back until their backs are against the wall and then fight for a result. It won’t do in this game.
2. Fix the Defense – Last week it was “Clean up the D” but last week was before we conceded two more goals. The team has given up 7 goals in the last four games (post Anton) so the signing of a new left back will hopefully right the ship.
3. Smart Tactics – Last week, Coach Pareja got the tactics wrong, full stop. This season, however, Coach seems to bounce back with a great game plan after every poor one. I will trust again that he has something up his sleeve to get back to our winning ways.
Once again, I find myself second guessing how I think the game will play out. Written all over the season, game after game says Chicago can be beaten by a good team, which I believe Dallas is. The problem is that game after game also shows that Chicago can score with the best of them and that at any time, put up two or more goals. In fact, on the season they have more two-plus goal games than they do one or less. So again, do you and I believe Dallas can outscore Chicago? I think we can, and I think our defense can help. I’ll say a 2-1 win, but I’m not confident in it.