It may be 103 degrees in New York City right now, but a little heat wave wasn't about to stop us from exchanging three questions with Big D Soccer ahead of the match between the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas on Saturday evening.
Read below for Big D's thoughts on FC Dallas prioritizing the Open Cup, MVP candidate Brek Shea, and what makes Dallas one of the best teams in Major League Soccer (hint: the word starts with the letter "D").
1) Once a Metro: FC Dallas is in the middle of a month and a half stretch of twelve games including two Open Cup matches, league matches against some of MLS' best (Real Salt Lake, the L.A. Galaxy, and the New York Red Bulls), and two CONCACAF Champions League matches, one that requires a trip to El Salvador. New York made clear that its priority is winning league matches - what is FC Dallas' priority and how is the club balancing the demands of multiple tournaments and a busy MLS schedule? What players a little lower on the depth chart can Schellas Hyndman turn to with such a crowded schedule?
Big D: I think right now, the priority for FC Dallas is to win a trophy, any trophy. They've placed a huge emphasis on Open Cup this year because as Schellas Hyndman says, it's named after our owner and is the easiest path into Champions League for 2012. It's tough to say about CCL because Dallas hasn't played yet but I anticipate a very close to starting XI for the match in El Salvador as well. Recently, due to injuries and fatigue, Schellas Hyndman has played a few different central midfielders, namely Bruno Guarda, Ricardo Villar and Eric Avila in place of the regulars, Daniel Hernandez, Andrew Jacobson and Eric Alexander.
On Saturday, it will be very interesting to see if team captain Daniel Hernandez starts the match, but I would anticipate that Andrew Jacobson and Eric Alexander get the start in midfield. One thing Schellas hasn't done is rotate his back four much with the mainstays of George John and Ugo Ihemelu in the middle with Jair Benitez and Zach Loyd/Jackson on the outside.
2) Once a Metro: Brek Shea seems to have really hit his attacking stride this season as he's tied for 2nd in goals scored and in the top ten in both shots and shots on goal. How (and where) is Shea being used on the field? Does he still show flashes of the immature, pointless red card drawing player the Red Bulls saw last season?
(More from Big D Soccer including their three questions on the Red Bulls after the jump).
Big D: Wow what an improvement we've seen from Brek Shea. After inexplicably starting the year in defense, Shea has been an absolute juggernaut on the left side for FC Dallas this season. He's tied for second in the league in goals, pretty remarkable considering he doesn't even play forward, and seems to score both wonder goals and the scrappy goals as well. I'm sure you've all seen his fantastic effort against Toronto on Wednesday. Perhaps the biggest key is he's not showing the youth and petulance we saw at times last season, he simply gets the ball, runs at his defender and good things usually happen. He's just 21 years old and perhaps the most exciting thing is that Dallas has locked him up to a long-term contract through 2015.
3) Once a Metro: Defenders Ugo Ihemelu, George John, Zach Loyd help to anchor what is one of if not the most dynamic defense in Major League Soccer, getting forward and helping the attack while keeping Dallas near the top of league as far as the least goals conceded. If teams can break down Dallas' defense, what do they face in GK Kevin Hartman? Is he still as good as his numbers suggest or has he slowed down and is fortunate to play behind a stellar group of defenders?
Big D: The strength of Dallas lies in their defense. It's not always pretty, but the fact that Dallas is 10-0-1 when scoring the first goal this season speaks volumes. George John was, for me, perhaps the biggest All-Star snub and those three guys you mentioned plus Jair Benitez on the left have been nearly unbeatable. They have four shutouts in the last five games and when you do get past them there's Kevin Hartman who has been playing better than any goalie I've seen in Dallas. It will be very interesting to see how the Dallas defense reacts to Thierry Henry facing him for the first time since the controversy of last season.
1) Big D: New York just simply can't seem to put together any consistent run of good form this season. There's no doubt that on paper they're one of the most talented teams but why can't the Red Bulls put together a solid month of play?
Once a Metro: Excuses. In manager Hans Backe's first season, when the team did not perform he attributed poor play to an overall lack in fitness. This season the reasons have included poor officiating, artificial turf, a four-week road trip including three cross-country trips to the West Coast for matches, the Gold Cup, and an overall crowded schedule.
The Red Bulls can't put together a solid month of play because they don't have the depth that's required to succeed for long stretches of time in Major League Soccer. The consistency just isn't there for the club to make a serious run at the Supporters' Shield.
At the beginning of the year when the Red Bulls brought in European veterans Jan Gunnar Solli and Teemu Tainio, not as designated players but at relatively high-for-MLS salaries, club management said they were aiming to have a solid core of the best twelve to thirteen players they could afford with the league's strict salary cap rules, and use the other seventeen roster spots on young, cheap developmental players. The strategy has not been fully realized as there are still a couple of glaring weak links within the first twelve to thirteen (Roy Miller at left back, Jan Gunnar Solli covering at right back instead of playing in the midfield where he is most comfortable, and the twelfth and thirteenth players are Juan Agudelo and?). But even still one could question if twelve or thirteen players is enough considering how often players are absent for international duty, pick up minor injuries, accumulate cards, etc.
New York has arguably the best starting eleven on paper in Major League Soccer, but until the club strikes a better balance between top level talent and depth by bringing in a handful of guys that are useful and can hold their own when called upon, the target for the club this season has to be to make the playoffs and play for the MLS Cup with who they have.
2) Big D: New York has just one win on the road, but a very respectable 5-2-3 record at home. What's been the difference between home and road play that sees NYRB so tough to beat at home?
Once a Metro: Besides the general home-field advantage for MLS clubs (almost every team has more wins at home than away), the disparity in the Red Bulls match results is largely due to the club starting the season with a handful of winnable matches at home during a stretch of excellent play by the club. In their first eight games, the Red Bulls conceded just two goals, which is one less than what they conceded to Sanna Nyassi just on Wednesday night. It also just happened that the Red Bulls had four away matches during the Gold Cup when the team was missing five of its key players (Marquez, Richards, Ream, Agudelo, and De Rosario (R.I.DC.). The results weren't as bad as they could have been, with New York salvaging a couple of away ties during the stretch, but it definitely contributed to the lack of wins on the road as well. Also, the Red Bulls have yet to host FC Dallas, LA, Real Salt Lake, or Philadelphia, so the real tests at Red Bull Arena are yet to come.
3) Big D: We all know about Henry, Agudelo, Ream and Marquez but who is someone on New York that could hurt Dallas that may not be a household name?
Once a Metro: Dax McCarty. Just kidding. If center midfielder Teemu Tainio plays (he's been nursing leg/groin injuries the past couple of weeks), the Red Bulls will be a completely different team than if he's missing. Tainio almost certainly won't show up on the score sheet (except for a possible yellow card) but his ability to distribute and help New York keep possession is top-class. He's also a physical player and has been successful at frustrating opponents for all ninety minutes.
Tainio joined the club at the beginning of this season after playing for Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland, and most recently Ajax, and is the only player not named Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, or Frank Rost (New York's recent upgrade at goalkeeper) on the roster that has played in a non-qualification UEFA Champions League match.