With the first battle in the Texas Derby in the rearview mirror, Dallas heads north for their first MLS matchup of the season against Sporting Kansas City.
Sporting comes into this game in a deep rut, having lost four of their last five games, with only a draw against struggling Toronto sandwiched in-between. The latest loss came from our rivals down south as Houston dumped Sporting out of the US Open cup last week. Despite the recent drought, KC still finds itself in third place in the Western Conference with 33 points.
After a close game Dallas absolutely should have won, the team nevertheless came home with a point on the road last week against Houston. Thanks to Minnesota absolutely thrashing LAFC (what?!?), Dallas has a four-point lead for first place in the West with 39 points. Dallas now sit in 4th place in the race for the Supporter’s Shield, behind three Eastern Conference teams, but just five points behind leader Atlanta United.
Let’s look back for a moment at FC Dallas’ horrific second half swoon last season. I know, I know, it’s a painful memory. But none the less, it is an example with which Sporting KC are intimately familiar. Since winning the MLS Cup in 2013, SKC has taken a summer dive down the standings every season that sees them fall from the top of the conference to a fight for a playoff spot. Now, FC Dallas set the dubious precedent of actually missing the playoffs, but still, for a team to repeatedly go through the same fall, year after year; it helps put things in perspective for how good FC Dallas was in the seasons prior to last year, and what they look capable of for the remainder of this season.
Of course, there is talk going around Kansas City right now about the team starting their dive early this season. Like most losing streaks, a combination of problems have plagued the team thus far. First and probably the most significant contributor is injuries. SKC have lost their two starting center backs, their best midfielder, their starting striker and a myriad number of depth pieces along the way this season. Couple that with a pile up of games over the past few weeks (five in three weeks) and coach Peter Vermes notorious reluctance to rotate the squad and well…tired legs + injuries = losses.
So what can Dallas expect up at Children’s Mercy Park on Saturday? Regardless of who is on the field, it’s always tough to play in KC. They currently come in second in the league in possession, first in pass accuracy, and first in shots per game. Even in this poor run of form, the offense has continued to put goals in the back of the net. They have scored two goals in four straight games (record: 0-3-1) and are tied for sixth in the league in goals scored on the season. In fact, in just 20 games, SKC have 37 goals. Only three less than their total from last year and are on pace for their highest goal total in team history. Not since 1996 have the Wizards – uh, Sporting KC - had this potent of an attack. Sporting is remarkably balanced in who scores. Johnny Russell leads the team with seven, but Daniel Salloi has six and Felipe Gutierrez has five. In total, 14 players have found the back of the net this season.
For Dallas, this means shutting down another potent attack or trying to go head to head against them. Dallas added some firepower in the likes of Dominique Badji this week, but he will not be available until next week at the earliest. New no. 10 Pablo Aranguiz’s paperwork hasn’t been received yet and will likely need a spell to adjust to life in MLS anyway. That leaves the “old guard” responsible for getting a result this week. Maxi Urruti, Roland Lamah, Michael Barrios et al will need to be in fine form to score this week. Victor Ulloa and Carlos Gruezo have become a very solid midfield partnership and their stability in the middle has allowed Coach Pareja to tinker with how the other attacking pieces work around them. In fact, it has been Ulloa and Gruezo’s stability in defense and growth in the attack this season that made Kellyn Acosta’s departure not sting so bad. Look for Dallas to play it safe this game. They can sit back and soak up Sporting’s pressure and spring the counter when necessary.
Key Matchup: FCD Left side of the D vs Johnny Russell
Whoever is lining up at left back in this game will have their hands full with Russell. He is the team leader in goals and tied for second in assists. Reto Ziegler and our midfield will have to play a part as well. Ziegler can help keep Russell from penetrating the back line, but Gruezo and Ulloa will need to shut off his supply by limiting Roger Espinoza’s influence as well.
1. The Counter – When playing on the counter, Dallas usually has Barrios as an outlet down one flank and Urruti takes up the center and other side of the field while Lamah pinches in to act as a middle man. They must provide a real threat to SKC this game. Getting out on the counter releases pressure on the defense and allows them a breather as well as creates the scoring chances Dallas will need to put pressure on SKC.
2. New Depth – One missing talking point with the Kellyn Acosta move has been the sacrifice of the midfield depth he provided. Dallas is deep in the midfield, even without Kellyn, but without him and an injured Mosquera, we actually might be a bit shorthanded with proven MLS depth if another injury were to occur. We have some young players on the bench that deserve a chance, but none have had a consistent run out with the team. Besides, it was nice (funny) to see Dallas with a U.S. International being used as a sub for the past few weeks.
3. Set-Piece King – For the love of all that is Just, please never let Lamah talk his way into a penalty again. Reto Ziegler established he is the king of the mountain for this team and that should never be questioned again for this season – unless of course he misses a few PKs – but still. I’m still annoyed/bitter that Lamah is responsible for losing two points to Houston.
As mentioned at the top, Sporting KC has been on a slide down the standings for most of the month of July. Dallas is good enough to make sure that continues and with the win would add a big cushion to the lead atop the Western Conference. That said, it has been ages, it feels, since Dallas came out of KC with a win – 10 games in fact. I want to call a win but another 1-1 draw on the road feels the more likely outcome. All I can hope for is that Dallas will keep the SKC Slide Alive!