One of the most challenging stretches of MLS action awaits FC Dallas through the months of June and July. Difficulty lies not within the frequency of games, but the caliber of the competition. What could be an arduous summer campaign starts tonight at home against Sporting KC, a team which Dallas fell 2-1 away in 2012.
On paper the circumstances favor top the Western Conference table FC Dallas. FCD is unbeaten at home in eight, has a 3-0-1 record against the East, and a plus-nine goal differential at home. Sporting is 3-2-2 away from KC, has a 1-0-3 record against the West, and plus one goal differential away from home. KC, regardless of inconsistency on the road, still has the toughest defense in the MLS.
A healthy squad will face SKC tonight, but it will be a shorthanded one at that. Jair Benitez’s well-deserved suspension for his head butt on Frederic Piquionne at Portland last week will leave the back line a bit shorthanded. Still, Eric Hassli, Kenny Cooper, and Blas Perez are all expected to make the game day roster, Cooper the likely starter up top.
Kansas City could well have taken two vacations since their last MLS match: a June 1st loss to Montreal at home. It’s been three weeks since the 3rd-placed Eastern Conference side have seen action. They are at least rested, if nothing else, but also winless in three matches. Furthermore, their staunch defense had stayed just that for each 90 minute stint in MLS action, until their last match against Montreal, where SKC dropped a halftime lead for the first time in 2013. They are a team in a rut, but still one with enough offensive firepower to cause chaos in the Dallas backfield.
Tonight’s match could be determined by wing play. Both sides line up with wingers that are intended to be pressed high up on the pitch. SKC thrives on creating pressure on opposition back lines by staying pressed, fostering a sense of chaos and making their midfield even tougher to crack. London Woodberry, Benitez’s likely replacement at left back, will have his work cut out against MLS veteran Kei Kamara. If nothing else it is a battle of athleticism.
This will be the second week in a row FCD face high-pressing ball from an MLS side. SKC will lack the possession of Portland, but will be vicious on the counter and even more determined to challenge FCD high up the pitch. The Portland match was not a total loss, and in fact FCD still created genuinely solid chances on net with GK Donovan Ricketts playing sublimely, and also without a proper target forward in the lineup. With Kenny Cooper expected to start at least Dallas will have its battering ram to lead the line.
But real space will open up for FCD out wide. Fabian Castillo should expect to a multitude of opportunities to do what he does best on the line. Now he will have a true target to find after bursting down it, which was certainly absent last week. Jackson, who gave Jack Jewsbury constant woes out wide a week ago, should expect the same. Kenny Cooper could be pivotal in this match. Hopefully he is up for scoring at least a goal against KC – a team he has yet to score against throughout this entire MLS career.
Hosting a playoff-caliber team like KC makes this meeting even more important: nine out of the next ten matches are against other playoff-caliber teams. The home and away match ratio is split fifty-fifty, but that makes the home streak ever more important, as Hyndman’s road record, even into this highly successful season, is still suspect. At least Frisco is still a stronghold: it will have to be for their Western Conference lead to last through the summer.
FC Dallas: 4-2-3-1: Fernandez; Loyd, John, Hedges, Woodberry; Jacobson, Michel; Jackson, Ferreira, Castillo; Cooper
Sporting Kansas City: 4-3-3: Nielsen; Sinovic, Collin, Opara, Jerome; Rosell, Joseph, Nagamura; Peterson, Bieler, Kamara
(image courtesy of USA Today Sports Images)