A big road point picked up in Seattle on Wednesday has FC Dallas back in the playoffs. Now comes the stiffest test yet, with a meeting at home against New York City FC. New York sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference with 57 points on the season, five points ahead of second place Philadelphia. With the point against Seattle, the Hoops are on the playoff line with 44 points, tied with sixth place San Jose and eighth place Portland. Both teams have a game in hand on Dallas though, so don’t get too far ahead with your thinking.
In what was certainly a surprise to me and probably most FC Dallas supporters, the boys pulled out an epic 0-0 draw against one of the hottest teams in the league. In a match I was sure would have fireworks going off for both teams, both defenses pulled things together to keep things clean. If Dallas manages to do that this week…well, let’s not jinx anything this early in the preview. New York is probably the hottest team in the league right now. They’ve won four of their last five games and are unbeaten across their last seven, a stretch that runs back to mid-August. Back then they were duking it out in the middle of the pack, with supporters unsure if they were as good on the field as on paper. But the hot streak has really quelled most of the doubts and they are cruising into playoffs.
Starting up top, as we always do, finds the Pigeons (awesome nickname BTW) with second-choice striker Valentin Castellanos starting in place of goal leader Heber. A few notes, first, Castellanos is NOT second-choice quality, he’s just stuck behind a beast goal scorer in Heber. Second, speaking of Heber, he has been out injured for three weeks with his initial diagnosis being three to four weeks, so we may yet see him start or make an appearance. Either way, both of these guys are terrific. Castellanos is second on the team in goals scored with 10 and has five assists to boot. Heber has 14 and four. Both are quick, technical players who can play with the ball at their feet. Heber is more “traditional” in that he leads the line like a striker: moving across the defenses line, prodding at gaps, finding space in the box. Castellanos is more winger/striker than out-and-out no. 9. In fact, if Heber is fit to start, we can probably scratch Mackay-Steven’s name off the starting lineup and put Castellanos on that wing.
On the left wing, we will see Alexandru Mitrita and his 9g/3a. The DP was signed this past off-season and is coming off back to back games with a goal. On the other wing we could see summer signing Gary Mackay-Steven, Castellanos, or even young DP Jesus Medina. Medina was brought in last year to much fan-fare and started bright for New York. He had six goals and seven assists, but kind of fell out of favor after former coach Patrick Viera left for France. He’s been in and out of the lineup all season and has three goals so far but could be on the up swing after scoring two goals against New England a few weeks ago. Mackay-Steven might be the purest winger of the bunch. While Mitrita, Castellanos, and Medina basically act as inverted wingers (left-footed right winger, right-footed left winger) to cut inside and attack from the channel and middle, M-S will gladly hug the sideline and whip in a cross. All four players are dangerous running a counter as well as in possession and Dallas is going to have their hands full containing them all.
Especially when they have to keep an eye on Maxi Moralez. The MLS assists leader has 18 of them to go along with seven goals. I said in the last preview that Nicolas Lodeiro in Seattle and Diego Valeri in Portland were probably the two best no. 10s in the league. I totally forgot about Moralez, much to my dismay when researching for this one. I might still take Valeri over anyone else, but Moralez is close. He makes everything happen for New York. He’s like a better version of Mauro Diaz, and I don’t say that lightly at all. He should terrify the Dallas backline if he gets time and space on the ball. Flanking him is a young US-born midfielder that probably should be getting more pub for national team consideration. You may have heard of Keaton Parks. The Plano (!) born mid was off to Portugal as a teenager and is on loan from powerhouse Benifica. Parks is a big, rangy, box-to-box type that loves to get forward and attack but has developed really well defensively this season along side team captain Alexander Ring. For his part, Ring is a solid holding midfielder. He’s not an overly physical player, but rather, has terrific vision, positioning, and instincts to hold down the middle of the field.
In the back we find fullbacks Ronald Matarrita on the left, Anton Tinnerholm on the right, and Maxim Chanot in the middle. These three have been mainstays in the back line all season. Chanot’s centerback partner has seen a bit of rotation due to injuries and form, but best guess right now is that Alexander Callens starts back there. Tinnerholm is the man to watch as he loves to get forward on the overlap and has been quite successful this season doing so. With one goal and 7 assists, he’s one of the better full backs Dallas will have played against. And that’s no fluke as last season, his first in MLS, he had four goals and six assists. Backing them up is the perennially underrated (IMO) goal keeper Sean Johnson. The 6’3” keeper has excellent positioning and that keeps him from having to worry about ridiculous saves, although he can still make them.
For Dallas this is a team that can hurt you in a myriad number of ways. While Seattle, and most teams to be fair, have two or three players who really trouble you, New York easily has four or five depending on health and availability. They are a possession-oriented team that can also counter with the best of them. They have a true playmaker in Moralez that can unlock any defense, and they have multiple players around him to clinically finish. From a number’s perspective, not even LAFC has this many weapons. Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi are better weapons, no doubt, but NYFC can pick you apart from anywhere on the field.
Key Matchup: Bryan Acosta vs Maximiliano Moralez
When you’re playing the best team in the East, who has the best set-up man in the league, containing him is priority A, B, and C. This means Acosta is probably the key player to keep tabs on Moralez in this game, and thus, is now the key player for Dallas’ season. With so little separation in the playoff standings, a loss could effectively end the season for Dallas. On the flip side, a win moves Dallas up a few spots in the standings. Acosta certainly has the chops to handle the assignment. His greater responsibility will be to provide an attacking threat and still shut down in the Argentine.
Three Keys to the Game
1. Strong D – Dallas shutting down the scorching hot Seattle attack gives me hope they can handle business in this one. It’s a flickering, candle in the wind hope, but it’s there. And if Seattle was a breeze – New York is a bluster. If Dallas somehow manages a clean sheet, they can book a playoff ticket.
2. Strong Attack – Right, about that. Just as the defense found its feet, now it’s the attacks turn. Anything less than two goals probably isn’t going to get it done in this one. Of course, I said that last game, so…
3. New Formation – One thing I failed to mention yet was how New York has changed formations quite a bit this season. They like to play a 4-3-3 but busted out a 3-4-3 early in the season when things weren’t clicking. Now they adapt around a 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3, and even a 4-2-3-1 which are all essentially adaptions from each other. Dallas adapted last week, not through formation, but through personnel, with Paxton Pomykal moving to right “wing” and Jesus Ferraira moving to along side Brandon Servania and Acosta in the midfield. With NY being so formation-fluid, I wonder if coach Luchi Gonzalez will do the same? I wonder if he should?
So last game, Dallas definitely proved me wrong. Not only was it not a loss, but it was also not a goal-fest. That’s awesome! I don’t expect it to happen again. As good as Seattle is/was/whatever – New York is better in every way. I’ll keep this short, Dallas will lose this game 3-1 and you will find me grumpy and bitter all week for even thinking such a thing. I don’t know if it will kill our playoff chances though. This was always going to be the hardest game of the last few months. And Dallas should – *should* - be able to handle the last few games of the season. If our rivals don’t pick up wins and pull away, we can live with 0 or 1 point. Hopefully, it’s better than that. Prove me wrong Dallas.