Here we go folks. The start of a magical playoff run in which all your dreams (FC Dallas related only) come true. After a long season, Dallas squeaked into the playoffs as the final playoff seed in the Western Conference. They ended the season in seventh place with 48 points. To start things out, Dallas heads to the Pacific Northwest to take on the second place Seattle Sounders. Seattle finished the season with 56 points which was good for fourth place overall in the Supporter’s Shield standings.
That new playoff format
Before we dive into Seattle, a quick playoff primer is order. The new playoff format is now single elimination all the way. No more home-and-home two-week legs, it’s down to one game, one shot. This was done to keep the momentum of excitement from start to finish. Previously an international break put the skids between the Conference Finals and the Championship game which significantly hurt MLS and it’s build up toward crowing the league champ. Now with the single elimination games, chaos can reign as every game is truly up for grabs and the whole thing can go uninterrupted. Of course, it also gives a significant advantage to teams who hole home field advantage, which brings us to Seattle.
It was just a few weeks ago that Dallas was in Seattle coming off a disastrous loss against Chicago that seemed to sink the playoff ship. Hope was basically gone amongst most fans and heading up to face a strong Seattle side appeared to be a final stand before the inevitable. But then, just like some final stands do, Dallas held Seattle to a goalless draw and escaped. And then, with a renewed confidence the next week, stood strong again against New York City FC, the best team in the East. I’m convinced those two draws against those top four teams propelled Dallas to its six-goal dismantling of Sporting KC on Decision Day. It brought a belief that Dallas could hang with anyone, and that, if they could just get in the playoffs, would have a chance to go on a run. The problem is they won’t ever get a home game and that starts this week.
About that road record
The statistics don’t favor the Hoops…at all. Dallas has just three road wins on the season and Seattle has just two home losses. Seattle hasn’t lost to Dallas at home in their last 12 matches and have kept six clean sheets in their last eight games played between the two. Dallas has not scored in five of their last six away games and three of Seattle’s last four opponents have failed to score. To wrap it up, Dallas hasn’t won on the road since a 2-0 win against Sporting KC back on July 20th, one day short of three full months.
Breaking down the Sounders
I won’t rehash the full starting XI break down (you can catch up here), it is still largely the same except that Seattle got Roman Torres back from suspension just in time to have him secure the vital three points to clinch the two seed and grab his first career MLS goal. How convenient. Torres can be a true game changer for Seattle. His skill, experience, and leadership solidify a back line that was a major concern all season. It’s no coincidence Seattle allowed a goal or more in nine of its last 12 games; the first game of August through the end of the season. Only Minnesota, San Jose, and… gulp… Dallas didn’t get on the score sheet.
If there is a silver lining for Dallas it’s that there are eight Seattle players having to come back from international duty, including five who played a game earlier this week. Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan obviously don’t have much travel concerns, but on Tuesday Brad Smith (left back) was in China, Gustav Svensson was in Sweden, and Torres was in Mexico. That’s three key pieces of the defense recovering from jet lag. If this sounds like I’m grasping at straws, well, your right. But every little bit helps.
Another key piece who may be back is Victor Rodriguez, who is on the verge of returning to action after injury. The Spanish attacker has only played in 17 games this season as a few injuries have put a damper on his season. But he’s a terrific spark plug off the bench who can change the dynamic of a game and elevate all of Seattle’s already dangerous weapons.
How does Rodriguez change things, you ask? Well, that starts with how Seattle usually lines up to start the game and how that formation dictates their play. Their version of the 4-2-3-1 is unique not in movement schemes, but in what skillset is played where. Roldan is both the example and fulcrum of this. Former defensive midfielders rarely find new life out on the wing, and yet Roldan has been a standout performer all season. Opta Sports has him in the Best XI of the season (alongside Ryan Hollingshead!) as does WhoScored.com. But with only six goals and five assists, that seems a bit mediocre for a winger. Instead, what Roldan brings is the defensive muscle he was know for into the attacking third. He won possession over 200 times this season, and 20 times in the attacking third of the field. Add in his accurate passing and you have a menace that allows Seattle to linger longer in attack knowing a chance may come quick off a turnover upfield.
This has allowed the fullbacks, especially Kevin Leerdam, to constantly overlap on the right side and create goals. It also allows Seattle to leave it’s two holding midfielders further back. Usually those two midfielders alternate between going forward or one is kind of the designated “offense” guy while the other is the “defense” one. But again, with Roldan winning possession farther up the field and Leerdam providing width, Seattle can get numbers forward without those midfielders and still keep a solid defensive shape.
On top of that – it allows Seattle to keep a numerical advantage in the most important part of the field. With Roldan (again) pinching in, Seattle can use Svenssnon, Jordy Delam, Nicolas Lodeiro and Roldan as almost a box or diamond midfield. Gaining a 4 vs 3 or 4 vs 2 numerical advantage in the middle has multiple benefits. It allows Seattle to press whenever they want or need. They can also sit back in an almost impenetrable block and wait to counter. They always have a man advantage to muck up the other team’s transitions which then makes said teams more one dimensional in how they attack. When they do turn over the ball, the numbers allow them to work amongst themselves to get out of a quick counter-press or, with Lodeiro and Roldan, spring a quick attack out to the wings or straight up to Raul Ruidiaz.
Now look back and think about how Victor Rodriguez can sub on and affect change. If you take off one of the holding mids and move Roldon back, well you now have Roldan and his passing range in a more natural position while also adding a more direct attacker out on the wing. Roldan can still get forward, only now he has more options to work with, more dangerous ones at that. And in all of this, let’s not forget that Seattle’s best attacking player is the yet to be mentioned Jordan Morris, on the opposite side of the formation we’ve been talking about. It’s a dangerous combination for any team to combat and Dallas walks in having to do just that.
Key Matchup: Ryan Hollingshead vs the Right Side
As I’ve been harping on over the past few paragraphs, Roldan and Leerdam make a difficult partnership for teams to work through and still be balanced enough to keep Morris and Lodeiro in check. Insert Chaos – aka Ryan Hollingshead. Hollingshead was also in both the Opta and WhoScored Best XIs. Opta summarized it best: “…with six goals and 72 touches in the opposing box. Since 2007, only one defender has had more goals, and only two have had more touches in the box in a season. Menace.” I called him Captain Chaos earlier this week even before I saw those numbers because every time the ball makes it’s way to his side, something manic tends to happen. With Leerdam getting forward so often, it’s going to be a battle of whose full back can be more dangerous. If Seattle gains control and limits Ryan from getting forward, the game won’t go in Dallas’ favor. But if Capt. Chaos gains the advantage – watch out!
Keys to the Game
No bullet points this week. No tired or played out colloquialisms. This week Dallas must bring the offense that scored six goals a few weeks ago along with the defense from the last time these two met. When you attack a team set up in the above formation, the key is to catch them too far upfield or unbalanced in a vulnerable spot. One way is to risk throwing numbers forward against that one guy out of position. Another is to line up in a way that makes their strength become a vulnerability. That’s where Dallas must take this matchup. Rather than fight fire with fire on the wings, I would rather see Dallas try to break the middle of the field. This is done with the positioning of a few key players, mainly the central attacking midfielder, striker, and the wingers + plus a spare midfielder when necessary. It’s about positioning them in the gaps between Seattle’s holding mid tandem. You could place someone in the dead middle of the Seattle midfield “box” and have players rove around them providing passing options. It requires a player with quick feet and quicker mind, but it’s doable. Another way is to get your central midfielder out wide, outside of the holding mids, into the half spaces. This requires someone else to cover the middle, maybe a winger or another mid, but it creates another overload in a vulnerable place. Dallas could also abandon the middle almost entirely and work the wings like crazy. Zdenek Ondrasek is a fine target man who’s in the form of his life. Dallas will look to take advantage of him regardless but a quantity over quality approach isn’t a bad option. Either way, the key to the game is to figure out the right combination of getting forward without being left exposed at the back. You know, like they try every game.
Ok, enough is enough. No more bluster from me. In what I have wrestled with all week I now have to declare. As much as I love Dallas and despise Seattle…the Sounders are a better team and are probably going to win this game. I think the final score will be 2-1 and Seattle will be victorious. But remember, single elimination games create chaos, and Dallas has the Captain. Let’s go Hoops!