Welcome back folks! It’s been a minute since we last saw FC Dallas in action as everyone observed the international break. Hopefully you are just as recharged as the team and ready to cheer on Dallas as they make their way towards the playoffs! In our first match back, Columbus Crew come to town.
Columbus currently sit fourth in the Eastern Conference with 43 points. After a three-game winning streak at the end of July, Columbus has gone 1-1-1 since. Their last game however was a win over New York City FC, 2-1. Even after the win, the Crew are six points behind NYCFC for third, and only seven points ahead of Montreal for the last playoff spot.
FC Dallas come into this game still in first place in the West with 49 points, just one ahead of Sporting Kansas City and three ahead of LAFC. It will be important for Dallas to pick up points this week as SKC will be playing last place San Jose and LAFC take on New England, who are bottom three in the East.
After the looooonnnggg international break, it feels great to be getting down to the last few weeks of the regular season. The battle for playoff positioning will be intense as there are only eight points separating first place Dallas and sixth place Seattle, this will be one of the tightest stretch runs in recent memory. Now, this is Dallas first matchup with Columbus this season, so here is what we can expect from our soon to be in-state rivals (I say that as bitterly as possible).
We all know about Columbus’ style - Gregg Berhalter doesn’t hide it. Possession based soccer, building patiently through quick passes all around the field. In his own words, “Our aim is to disorganize the opponent through ball possession to create goal-scoring opportunities…” Columbus, of course, have maximized their attacking talent to do just that. Almost everything begins and ends with their man in the middle, Federico Higuain. He is the metronome upon which the team ticks. The midfield triumvirate of Higuain, Will Trapp, and Artur is one of the best in the league and they are the foundation building players for Columbus’ style. But here’s the thing, it’s the periphery players (wingers, forwards, outside backs; not lesser players) that make the offense sing. The high profile signing of the summer for the Crew was Gyasi Zardes. He of USMNT fame and one incredible season in Los Angeles. Many pundits scoffed at Columbus picking up Zardes, but clearly Berhalter knows how to get the most out of a striker. Zardes is having a career year – he already has 15 goals on the season, one shy of 16 in that big year in LA, and is fourth in MLS goal scoring. He has become a pure striker, upping his shot total, conversion rate, and goals scored, while leaving behind his assists (currently at zero this season).
But Zardes isn’t the only player to watch out for. Another big move in the off-season was the trade of Justin Meram to Orlando City. After a solid, if unspectacular, career in Ohio for the first six seasons with the Crew, he put it all together in year seven to have a big year with 13 goals and seven assists. This earned him some attention and Orlando City traded away over a million Garber bucks to get Meram to the Lions this season – where everything fell apart. It was so bad, Orlando decided to cut bait after only five months and sent him back to Columbus. Meram has scored one goal in his two games back in Ohio, which doubled his season total after 14 games in Orlando (yikes). So, Zardes, Meram, and Higuain are the players to watch out for as far as scoring. Zardes almost has more goals himself than the rest of the team combined (Zardes 15 – 18 Team). Things will change with Meram back in the side, but those three are the ones to stop. A few other names to watch out for include right winger Pedro Santos, with six assists this season, Will Trapp, and Artur. After a dismal first season in the league, center back Jonathan Mensah has settled in this season as a solid defender and is partnered in the middle with last year’s no. 5 SuperDraft pick Lalas Abubakar. The two Ghanaian players are backed up by, USMNT keeper of the moment, Zach Steffen.
Key Matchup: Midfield vs Midfield
It’s hard to choose one person from each of these midfields to give the most focus. Truth be told, Columbus has one of the best midfield groups in the league – but man for man – I would take Dallas’ group over the Crews. Either way, stopping Higuain is a group effort and Gruezo and Ulloa will need to be at their best to keep his influence at bay. The “winner” of this battle on the field will likely determine the outcome of this one.
1. Tactical Pressure – “Pushing down on me, pushing down on…” whoa, sorry, lost track for a moment. But – pressure – as in, a press – may be one of the big keys to playing against Columbus. Much like NYRB has ruled the series between the two teams, pressing has been the key differentiator for them. If Dallas can effectively press (we have the players to do it) the team can control Columbus and limit their effectiveness.
2. Healthy Lineup – In what feels like forever, FC Dallas will have a fully healthy roster with which to choose a lineup from (aside from fringe players Reaves and Atuahene, they don’t count). How Coach Pareja chooses between Lamah, Barrios, Mosquera, Crown Prince Aranguiz, Urruti, and Badji is beyond me but at least two of those names, and maybe three, will be on the bench this game, which is nuts. Getting the lineup right will be crucial but having that kind of firepower to call on will certainly help.
3. Home Cooking – Not to pile on the pressure… “dum mum ba be” …but this, for me, is a must win against a very good opponent. Dallas needs to keep racking up the points to maintain a good position for the playoffs. They don’t have the toughest of remaining schedules, but neither do some of the teams behind them in the standings. Columbus and SKC are probably the toughest remaining fixtures on the schedule for FCD and picking up a win this week keeps Dallas ahead of SKC for the top spot in the West and sets things on track for an ultimate showdown in their last meeting of the season.
This game features, arguably, the two most underrated “good” teams in MLS. No matter the accomplishments, both these teams are known for things apart from their standing in the league. FC Dallas is the “academy team” known for developing players, not Western Conference front-runner or first team in league history with back to back 60-point seasons (says bitterly). Columbus is now known more for “Save the Crew” than for its actual accomplishments the past few years - which includes a MLS Cup appearance. For Columbus, climbing up the standings in the East will be tough, but if they can beat FCD, they can beat those teams above them. For Dallas, keeping atop the standings should be the primary focus. Picking up points to stay ahead of the pack is the goal for these final games of the regular season. But for both teams, the most important part is changing the narrative. No summer swoon for Dallas. Anything but Austin, TX for Columbus. Fittingly, I think this one ends in a draw, so 2-2 is the call from me.