Another roller coaster rush saw Dallas beat Sporting KC last week in Kansas City. Coming around the next bend is Real Salt Lake in the friendly confines of home. RSL is hot on the heels of Dallas, with 30 points, tied with Houston for seventh place in the Western Conference. Dallas, in sixth place in the West, has 32 points.
In the second meeting of the season with Real Salt Lake, Dallas will look to end the Win/Loss/Win/Loss form they are in. Real come in having drawn their last game with Minnesota and beating Philadelphia 4-0 the game before that. They are 3-1-1 in their last five games and have won every game this season in which their previous league match was a draw (three in total). However, it’s not all sunshine with the lineup. After bringing in Sam Johnson early in the season, the striker has provided a nice return on investment, leading the team with eight goals in his 16 games played. But a quad injury suffered July 3 has him out for at least another few weeks. Likewise, stalwart center back Nedum Onuoha is out due to injury as well. Two injuries to important players down the spine of the team is never great and could have real consequences for RSL if not properly managed.
That start’s up top with Johnson’s replacement, Damir Kreilach – the Croatian Army Knife. Kreilach was originally signed before last season as a central midfielder, preferably a replacement for Beckerman. But his skill set was so well rounded, he often found himself leading the line in place of the lackluster set of strikers RSL was trying to get by with. Now, it appears Coach Mike Petke will again turn to him or Corey Baird as cover for Johnson. Kreilach has four goals and three assists on the season playing in a more central mid role. Last season, in his part time striker role he finished with 12 goals and eight assists. He can get the job done up top, but his production from the middle of the field is what will be missed. Baird on the other hand has had minimal impact from the bench, with only one goal and two assists from his 14 starts and 20 games played.
In the heart of the field is the singular Albert Rusnak. He has seven goals and three assists this season and continues to be the creative hub for Real. He’s a pure attacking midfielder, blessed with good vision and great instincts. He can score from all over the field – cutting in from the wing, long strikes outside the box, or popping up in the penalty area. Dallas will have to keep a mindful eye on him all game. Flanking him on the wings is Jefferson Savarino and Sebastian Saucedo. Savarino has five goals and three assists on the season while Saucedo has two and two. Each can be a problem for opposing defenders. Savarino is tricky with the ball at his feet. He can cut in for a shot on goal or dance down the sideline to whip in a ball to the box. He had 11 assists last season and will be a crucial cog in getting Kreilach the ball up top. Saucedo is a Salt Lake homegrown who flutters in and out of the starting lineup. He’s quick with the ball at his feet and not afraid to take his defender on one-on-one. Backing them up in the midfield is the un-aging Kyle Beckerman and bruising Everton Luiz. Neither is much of a goal threat, but they can both unlock a key pass now and again, evidenced by each having two assists. While Beckerman is mostly playing off his incredible defensive mind, Luiz has enough brawn for the pair of them. It will be interesting to see how Brandon Servania and Jesus Ferreira deal with the battering Luiz is about to dole out.
In the back, some combination of Donny Toia, Aaron Herrera, or Brooks Lennon will be manning the fullback spots while Justin Glad will partner with Marcelo Silva. Silva scored the goal last week to earn a draw against Minnesota but isn’t usually a threat to put one in the net. Nick Rimando is midway through his retirement tour and still putting in a solid shift as keeper.
In general, Salt Lake’s entire defense is rather below par from an attacking contributions output. I’m not saying they don’t contribute, Herrera has three assists this season after all, but from a simple number’s perspective, they are one of the few teams without a stand out defender who scores or assists as an important part of an attack. And it’s the attack that is so confounding about RSL. They have plenty of talent all over the field but with only 30 goals on the season, are in the bottom half of the league in the goals scored department. (I realize Dallas only has 31 goals this season as well, so Dallas is the pot and RSL the kettle in this situation… but that’s another article.) Real was picked by many to take a step forward this season, but they haven’t. They are the same team as the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that. Good enough to tantalize, but not good enough to get over the hump.
Either way, Dallas can’t be lackadaisical this game. With only two points keeping us above the playoff line, it’s games against the teams below them that will have to keep the Hoops afloat in the playoff race. Real aren’t some high-powered super team like LAFC. They have a system and play within themselves, but rarely deliver more. The standard 4-2-3-1 attack is…standard. The full backs will push forward to overlap, the wingers will cut inside. Everything revolves around Rusnak in the 10 spot. But neither Beckerman or Luiz will push too far forward to make the attack unique. Their best back up striker is a midfielder and the overwhelming sense of the roster is that everyone is just…fine. Dallas can beat this team, and should at home, but they can’t get too far ahead of themselves.
Key Matchup: Brandon Servania vs Everton Luiz
I’ve already mentioned this matchup above, but each passing week shows just how good Servania can be. Dallas being blessed with both Paxton Pomykal and Servania feels like a miracle. With Pax out, Servania has the creative chops to fill his shoes. He’s a terrific on ball player who glides around the field. His vision is terrific and he’s got some lightning bolts stashed away for long range shots too. But much like Paxton and the young guys have been bullied by some of the leagues more…difficult…defensive midfielders, Servania is going to have to get through a very experienced and tough defensive mid pair. Luiz and Beckerman are going to challenge him at every step, and probably step on him for good measure. If Servania can rise to the challenge they way Paxton was starting to, Dallas will be able to keep pressure on Real’s spotty backline defense.
Three Keys to the Game
1. Edwin Gyasi – He is, himself, a key this week. Not that he must save the offense or win the game single handedly – but he needs to get off to a hot start and the team needs him to get off to a hot start. Dallas needs to get more production from the strikers and wingers, that’s why they brought him in. Sub or starter, he needs to start justifying his signing quickly.
2. Defense Wins Championships – Ok, cliché, I know. But Dallas’ last three wins have also been shutouts. If you don’t get scored on, you can’t lose the game.
3. Get Acosta Going – For all the hub-bub his signing brought, Bryan Acosta is not having a very good season. He’s scored two goals and added zero assists this season. You can see how talented he is – in how he joins the attack, pops up in the right spots, his killer left foot – but the end product isn’t there. Getting more from him may be THE key to the remainder of the season, because if he can start to contribute, Dallas can go much farther than the first round of the playoffs.
It’s time for Dallas to jump off the roller coaster and get back to consistent play. A steady, one foot in front of the other approach to move closer to playoff safety rather than flirting with the red line. They are talented enough to do that, but will they? Playing a team like Salt Lake is kind of a litmus test for how they Dallas ends this season. A nice win shows they have enough to be in the playoffs and be dangerous. A poor effort draw or loss shows this might not be a playoff team after all. Again, Real isn’t a great team, nor are they awful. Being squarely middle of the road is, much like their team - fine. Here’s Dallas’ chance to prove they are more than that…or less so. I think they are more, and I think they prove it with another 2-0 win. Go Hoops!