An Independence Day game brought the fireworks out early last week as FC Dallas picked up the win against DC United. Now, the Hoops travel north to play Minnesota United. Minnesota is on a three-game win streak and have 30 points on the season, leaving them in fourth place in the Western Conference. Dallas is one point and one spot back with 29 points and in fifth place in the West. There are currently four points and four teams separating eighth place Real Salt Lake (26 points) and Minnesota. And only four points and one team between fourth place Minnesota and second place LA Galaxy (34 points).
The Loons have become one of the surprises of the MLS season. After a historically poor debut season, in which they were one of the worst defensive teams in MLS history, Minnesota and manager Adrien Heath have made steady gains the past two seasons to be in the hunt for their first playoff appearance. After striking out heavily on their transfers that first season though, things have started to turn around thanks to a few key imports.
That all starts up top with striker Angelo Rodriguez. The Columbian started the season in good form with four goals in his first nine games until going on a bit of a cold streak that was finally snapped in that 7-1 drubbing of Cincinnati a few weeks ago. With five goals and two assists on the season, he’s been solid if not spectacular. But it’s his partnership with fellow Columbian Darwin Quintero that is so terrifying. Quintero in general is terrifying for most opposing teams. With speed and creativity to spare, he is lethal in the open field. He had 11 goals and 15 assists last season – and is on pace to match or come close to both stats with six goals and five assists thus far. Minnesota has been playing him in the no. 10 spot the past few weeks which brings his creativity more central on the field, but he can and often does act like a second forward, shuttling down either wing/half space to create room for Rodriguez in the middle. Out on the wings, we find Miguel Ibarra on the left and Ethan Finlay on the right. Ibarra has had an unusually quiet season according to the stats. With only one goal and one assist, it appears at first glance he is struggling to pull his weight. But the truth is probably more down to being unlucky than bad. He’s never been a prolific scorer or setup man, and a cursory glance at his career shot totals and conversion rate point to a missed chance here or there instead of any true drop in quality. Finlay on the other hand, with three goals and three assists, appears to be back on the up after tearing an ACL last season. He’s producing like his Columbus Crew days which is a big boost for United. Both wingers look to get down the sidelines and put crosses into the box for Rodriguez and Quintero to latch on.
In the midfield is where Minnesota has really come along since last year. First, they signed Jan Gregus in December from FC Copenhagen and then picked up Ozzy Alonso off waivers after the veteran was released by Seattle. Alonzo’s impact has been transformative, IMO, in how Minnesota play. He’s not going to wow you in possession or with his passing, but he is an absolute rock in the middle of the field, both protecting the back line and leading the team. Who will wow you is Gregus. The more offensive minded of the two (obviously) has 1 goal and 7 assists this season in his box to box role. He’s been terrific in dicing up opponents, just ask Cincinnati. Minnesota also has plenty of depth on the bench in Rasmus Schuller and Kevin Molino. Molino is working his way back from tearing his ACL last season but has chipped in with three goals and two assists mainly as a substitute.
Defense is the next biggest area of change with the next best upgrades. Ike Opara was brought in in a trade with Kansas City. The central defender has been terrific all season, with 4 MLS Best XI so far (I know, I know – MLS voting) and has even contributed three goals. Beside him is Michael Boxall in the middle and the duo have been very dependable. Opara is probably in the running with Walker Zimmerman for Defender of the Year – unless his new teammate Romain Metanire has anything to say about it. The full back is out on international duty with Madagascar still but has been an eye opener all season. Filling in for him will probably be one of Eric Miller, Hassani Dotson, Brent Kallman, or even rookie Chase Gasper – and then one of the others will be on the other side. In goal will be Vito Mannone, who is on loan from Reading FC. The Italian has started and played every game and minute of the season.
Key Matchup: Paxton Pomykal vs Osvaldo Alonso
Once again Dallas has a matchup with a team deploying a serious midfield destroyer. Alonso has maybe lost a step or so, but his positioning and understanding of the game hasn’t changed. Much like Portland’s Diego Chara, I expect Alonso to try and make Paxton’s life very difficult. On the flip side, Paxton’s ability and influence will go a long way in getting a result on the road. We as Dallas fan’s all know how important he is to the offense, but the rest of the league is starting to figure out just how much too.
Three Keys to the Game
1. Midfield Decisions – Besides Paxton’s influence, Coach Luchi will also need to make some hard decisions on starting Bryan Acosta, Edwin Cerrilo, or Brandan Servania. If I had my druthers we would be playing a diamond mid with all four (sigh). But Servania has earned a shot at starting, but so has Cerrilo. Does that mean Acosta becomes a very expensive sub? Doubtful.
2. Wing Play – The signing of Edwin Gyasi showed where the Front Office felt this team needed to see more production. Hopefully it sparks a fire under our collective winger department (paging Santiago Mosquera) and get’s the offense into a healthier, more dynamic state, rather than having Paxton shoulder all the creative burden. Being able to move down the wings this week, bypassing Alonso, and creating chances from there would be a nice development for the second half of the season.
3. Strike Force – Speaking of developments, Dominique Badji’s recent hot streak (three goals in last four games) has not held off the clamor for another striker to be brought in. Both he and Jesus Ferreira have five goals apiece, but it still feels like Dallas can and should have more. With Cristian Colman returning from injury and getting game time with North Texas, it will only be a matter of time before the competition for the starting job leaves someone on the outside.
Minnesota has been on a nice run the past few weeks while Dallas has been up and down. But after another nice win at home, it’s time to see if Dallas can replicate it’s form on the road. This Minnesota team is not the one you remember from 2017, or even last year. They have a nice attack and sturdy defense. It’s going to be tough for Dallas to get all three points this week, but it is possible. Even still, I’m going with a 2-2 draw on the road and crossing my fingers the teams below us in the table lose their games. Let’s go Hoops!