After a week to ruminate over another poor performance against Vancouver, FC Dallas is back in action Saturday to take on the Seattle Sounders. Seattle’s had a quick start to the season and are in third place in the Western Conference with 26 points. Dallas, now winless in their last six games, are clinging to a playoff spot with 18 points, good for seventh in the West.
Both teams come in having lost their previous game, but that’s where the commonalities end. Seattle has nine points (two wins, three draws) from their past six games, where as Dallas has just two. In fact, Dallas is the only team in the league without a win in any of its last six games.
In a funny turn of events, Seattle is off to one of its hottest starts in MLS history. Usually content to start off the season at a slow pace before a summer transfer or two kicks things into high gear, Seattle this season has challenged for the top spot in the West straight out of the gate. If they go on their usual summer run, this could be a team that challenges for the Support’s Shield and MLS Cup. But before that can happen, Seattle must navigate a tricky June and July stretch that could see them lose some of their most important players for a long stretch of games. Seattle has 12 players that have been named in rosters for the Copa America, Gold Cup, European Qualifying, African Cup of Nations, or various international friendlies. The bad news for Dallas is that this week is probably the last one in which all of those players will still be available. The good news is that the most important player, Nicolas Lodeiro, will miss this game anyway due to card accumulation.
Of course, even with Lodeiro, Seattle is still a highly capable team. It all begins with striker Raul Ruidiaz. The Peruvian has five goals and an assist on the season but has only started seven games. He is a poacher, a line breaker, and clinical finisher all wrapped up into one. He’s taken 26 shots in nine games played, second only to Lodeiro (28), who’s played 14. He is a volume shot creator and can cause trouble to a back line with his speedy and elusive play. Out on the wings, Seattle has a number of options to choose from. Although Jordan Morris is out due to a hamstring injury, Seattle can call on Will Bruin (2 goals), Harry Shipp (2g/2a), Victor Rodriguez (1g/3a), and Handwalla Bwana (one goal) to fill in. That’s a lot of production from from role players that don’t have normal minutes with Jordan Morris healthy.
Which get’s to another departure from recent years. Seattle ranks third in goals scored this season and a key reason has been how much they have gotten out of other players. Midfielder and USMNT’er Cristian Roldan has been a stalwart running box to box, but also has 3 goals and an assist. Lodeiro, the consummate number 10, has two goals and eight assists so far. With Lodeiro out, we may see the afformentiond Rodriguez moved into the 10 spot, or Roldan moved up and Gustav Svensson return to his holding midfield role after a time on the injured list. At the other holding mid spot we will most likely see Jordy Delem who has started the last six games in place of Svensson.
But I mentioned contributions from everywhere. And one of the best examples comes from the defense. Right fullback Kevin Leerdam is second on the team with four goals on the season (and two assists). Fellow wingman Brad Smith at left back has four assists. Even centerback Kim Kee-Hee has an assist on the season. The only player not contributing in the scoring stats is center back Roman Torres (shocking, I know). Point is, the Sounders have been getting contributions up and down the roster. When every player on the field is a threat to score or create, it can be tough to deal with. While we are talking about the defense, it will be interesting to see if Kee-Hee plays this game after subbing last game due to an apparent hamstring injury. Seattle had already brought in a new centerback in Xavier Arreaga, from Ecuador to replace the retiring Chad Marshall (and possibly Torres later this season), but he may get his first start in this one if Kee-Hee can’t go.
That brings us to what Dallas will be looking to do in this game to try and neutralize the Seattle attack. You see, while the attack has been strong, the defense hasn’t been as good as its reputation. While 17 goals allowed is nothing to scoff at, Seattle has been slightly less formidable in the back. Could it be Romain Torres is starting to age? Chad Marshall just retired mid season. The attacking prowess of Smith and Leerdam is impressive, but them pushing up field leaves space behind them to exploit, particularly Leerdam. Seattle also likes to play a slightly higher defensive line and employ a press, not as much as what we saw against LAFC, but enough to trouble Dallas. Breaking through the press, preferably down Michael Barrios’ wing, will be key.
Key Matchup: Michael Barrios vs Kevin Leerdam
As just mentioned, Leerdman likes to join the attack which leaves space behind him. Coach Luchi has been more apt to switch Barrios to the other wing than Oscar Pareja was to try and exploit matchups. This should be a great opportunity to use Barrios speed to disrupt how Seattle defends. If Leerdam pushes forward, Seattle risks isolating Torres on Barrios. Yikes. Alternatively, they could hold one of their defensive mids back to try and cover that channel, but that takes away numbers in the middle of the field. And if Leerdam does stay back to cover for Barrios, that’s a win for Dallas as a potent attacker isn’t attacking.
Three Keys to the Game:
- Break the Attacking Funk - Dallas is in an awful goal scoring rut. After converting just one of 20 shots last week into a goal, and not having scored more than one in a game since their last win, we can officially call it a slump. Jesus Ferreira gets in a dangerous spot and gets off a dangerous shot at least once a game. But he’s the only one consistently producing something.
- Midfield Roles- Somehow, someway, Luchi needs to get this midfield turned around. Without Paxton Pomykal, the trio in the middle has been lacking attacking oomph. With Carlos Gruezo missing games, the defensive protection has been lacking bite. Playing Bryan Acosta as holding mid last game accentuated his flaws as a defender and bars him from playing farther forward, one of his strengths. Maybe we see Thomas Roberts get more game time, he certainly looked deserving in his 20 minutes last game. Switching roles for Acosta and Hayes seems like a hopeful option. Hopefully the fix is in for this week.
- Settle the Defense - Speaking of a funk, Reggie Cannon hasn’t looked like the Reggie we saw last season. He isn’t joining the attack as much and his defense hasn’t held up to the standard he set as a rookie. Ali Adnan’s goal last week, where he slipped between Cannon and Bressan was atrocious defending and should never have happened. But it’s not just Cannon. Matt Hedges is starting to look (whispers…carefully) slow. Reto Zeigler has been inconsistent with his positioning and gets caught out of it too often. Bressan is a great desperation tackler - which speaks for itself. If this group doesn’t settle back into a rhythm, Seattle will score more than the two goals Vancouver pulled off.
I’m not overly optimistic this week. I can usually find a way forward for Dallas to get a win or at least a draw, delusional as it may sound. But the past few weeks have been a wake up call. After an exceptional start to the season, Dallas looked to be exceeding all our expectations. However, even before the kids left for the U20 World Cup, cracks were starting to show. And expectations are starting to catch up with reality. And reality is that Dallas is a fringe playoff team as currently constructed. Paxton Pomykal can lift that ceiling to respectable playoff team, but he’s not back this week, so don’t expect anything more than what we have seen these last few weeks - a lackluster performance, leading to another loss this time around. Please prove me wrong Dallas.