Wooo Boy! It was a barnstormer last weekend as FC Dallas demolished the Houston Dynamo. And now a gift from the MLS schedule as Dallas will play host to FC Cincinnati. The Orange & Blue are struggling in their inaugural MLS season as they sit last in the Eastern Conference with only 18 points. Dallas moved back into the playoff picture after their win and are now in seventh place in the West with 40 points. For reference of how crazy the West is Dallas is only three points (one win) away from second place Salt Lake who have 43 points! That’s RSL and Seattle tied with 43 points, LA Galaxy and Minnesota with 42 points, and San Jose with 41 points. Buckle up for the end of this one folks.
You know, you don’t realize how good you got it until you look at a team like Cincinnati. They have lost six of their last seven games. They have five wins in MLS and six wins total if you factor in US Open Cup play – plus only three draws.
Their roster is riddled with average to below average players at almost every position (no offense Roland Lamah and Victor Ulloa) with only one real bright spot in central midfielder Allan Cruz. They are on their third coach of the season with Dutchman Ron Jans taking over three weeks ago. They have a goal differential of -37. They are easily having the worst expansion debut season ever.
But the “new club” smell is still wafting in the breeze in Ohio. FCC is averaging over 27,000 fans and has a new stadium on the way. They reached into the transfer market quickly to try and correct a deficient squad and have what appears to be a committed ownership group. Sure, those things rang true for Toronto and Orlando and it took them years (well Toronto anyway) to reach competency (Orlando is still waiting). And it may yet take a few years to build out this roster to be competitive in MLS. But Minnesota looked awful in their first season, especially next to Atlanta, and they’ve turned things around nicely. Point is, while Dallas is catching Cincinnati at their lowest moment this season (they were officially eliminated from the playoffs last week), it might only be a matter of time until they are in the playoff hunt too.
But until that time, let’s try and kick them while they’re down.
It is difficult to say how Cincy will approach this game. New coach Jans said after last weeks loss in Columbus the team would use the remainder of the season to evaluate for the future. We may well see old friends Lamah and Ulloa as they have been key pieces this season, but we may also see some of the newer and younger players evaluated alongside them. In the interim, coach Jans has implemented a high-press system that looks to turn the ball over high up the field and work a few quick passes into a chance on goal. We may see a 4-3-3 this week as well instead of the 4-2-3-1 used for most of the season. Besides the press, coach Jans has also been more expansive on offense in general, asking the full backs to charge forward often and overlap with the wingers more than the previous two coaches. It’s a bold strategy considering they have already given up 64 goals this season. But for an attack that’s only netted 27 themselves, it’s a risk that will be more entertaining for certain.
Speaking of the attack, let’s look at who will be on the field. Up front will most likely be Darren Mattocks. The Jamaican has started the past few games and has three goals and three assists on the season. Pushing for more playing time will be Kekuta Manneh who’s coming back from injury and scored in his short time as a sub last week. Lamah will most likely start at left wing although it would not be surprising to see him “rotated” out in favor of a younger option. He has a single goal this season to go along with three assists. Look for new signing Joseph-Claude Gyau or Derrick Etienne Jr. to take his place in the starting lineup or as a sub. Out on the right is Emmanuel Ledesma, the teams assist leader with four of them to go along with his four goals. With the new system asking the fullbacks to overlap more often, you will see the wingers pinch and cut inside more than before.
In the midfield we find Ulloa alongside Allan Cruz and Caleb Stanko. Stanko plays the holding mid in most formation permeations while Ulloa and Cruz attack. Cruz actually leads the team with five goals and has an assist as well. The young Costa Rican is lively all over the field and can win the ball back as quickly as he can score. Ulloa is having his typical no frills season with one goal and two assists. But he continues to be a good cog in the midfield, ably moving the ball all around and facilitating where ever needed. However, it’s telling that multiple Cincinnati blogs have called for more creativity in the midfield as a key for the team to take the next step. All three midfielders may be solid all-rounder’s but they also all lack the creativity to operate as a fulcrum for an offense.
In defense Cincinnati has made a few changes as well. In the middle is Kendall Watson alongside Transfer Deadline acquisition Maikel van der Werff. Werff spent his entire career in the Netherlands and is a solid addition. Out on the flanks Mathieu Deplagne will be on the right and another transfer window player, Andrew Gutman, on loan from Celtic, occupies the left spot. In coach Jans first game in charge against New York City FC, the fullbacks lead the team in touches. Besides showing that NYCFC forced the ball wide, it also shows Cincy’s new found attacking ideal of overlapping fullbacks. In goal will be second choice keeper Przemyslaw Tyton who’s been filling in for the injured Spencer Richey.
Dallas will have to work through the high press for at least the first few minutes of the game. But both New York and Columbus found answers to the press and went about dismantling it. Cincinnati is still working on the finer points of team pressing and doesn’t quite have the timing down along with fitness levels not quite up to par yet. Dallas will have opportunities to break through.
Key Matchup: Paxton Pomykal vs Victor Ulloa
This is really about the middle of the field battle for both teams. Dallas will have to play through the press and use the open spaces Cincinnati leaves behind. This is where Paxton comes in. Either with long diagonals from the midfield or with penetrating runs through the middle, it will be up to him and Brandon Servania to break through the press. Likewise, Ulloa will need to muster more creativity to help Cincinnati get any sort of result in his former home.
Three Keys to the Game
1. Unlock the Press – Clearly an emphasis, but Dallas has struggled all season with teams who pressure them and don’t allow Paxton or the midfielders much time on the ball. Fortunately, Cincinnati is in its nascent stages with the system and is still vulnerable in multiple spots. It will be imperative for Dallas to work around or through Cincy efficiently to create goals.
2. Ride the Hot Hand – Speaking of goals, keep riding Zndnek Odrasnik to victory. Not only was his work rate on display last week, but so was his positioning and hold up play. Both are keys to working through the press (drink) because he can act as a target or outlet when things get tight and can also hold the ball and allow others to run into the open space around him. Actually finishing his chances also works highly in his favor.
3. Don’t Get Duped – Ok, so this is more of a psychological tactic than anything. With Dallas riding high following their “rivalry” win coupled with playing the worst team in the league, the danger is that the team may not take their opponents seriously. Hopefully the old heads on the team keep everyone in check. A team with nothing to lose and a coach who’s openly asking who wants a job next season is dangerous, no matter who is playing.
On paper, this is a cake walk for Dallas. This is literally one of the worst teams to play in MLS in years. But lest we forget that just last year, Dallas lost to San Jose – multiple times – while they were also the worst team in the league. This is the type of game Dallas needs to assert themselves quickly in and stymie any real threat of a struggle with Cincy. They have the talent. Do they have the determination? A win could vault them multiple spots up the Western Conference. A loss could very well end their season. No pressure right. A 2-0 win sounds about right. Let’s go Hoops.