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How to Beat FC Dallas

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A look at the strengths and weaknesses of Friday's opponent, and how Jesse Marsch and the Red Bulls can steal all three points on their trip to Frisco.

Photo credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Photo credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Bulls travel to Dallas this Friday for some Viernes de Futbol action. While the undercard, featuring a blue team in Kreisis, should be a one-sided affair, the 9:00 PM fixture is sure to be a competitive match between two of the league’s top teams. If the Red Bulls are to leave the Lone Star State with all three points, they will have to overcome a Dallas side that is coming off consecutive impressive victories against intra-state rivals Houston and the reigning champion Los Angeles Galaxy. Thus, the question on the minds of Red Bulls fan this week is how can Jesse Marsch's men avoid a similar fate?

Strengths of the Opponent

FCD's attack leads the league with 17 goals this year, which is no surprise given the firepower at Oscar Pareja’s disposal. Leading the line is Panamanian international Blas Perez, a consisten- if-not-flashy target forward with aerial prowess and hold-up ability. Off the bench, Pareja can turn to last year’s rookie of the year Tesho Akindele, a dangerous attacking option up top or out on the wing. Perez and Akindele share a keen ability to draw just enough attention from the two center-backs to make space for Argentine playmaker Mauro Diaz, early MVP candidate Fabian Castillo, and the functional-if-not-spectacular Ryan Hollingshead: collectively, the true firepower of the league’s most high-powered attack.

Diaz and Castillo have shown flashes of tantalizing potential throughout their young MLS careers, and have started to click as this season has progressed. Recovered from an ACL injury that kept him out for the majority of last year after winning Player of the Month for March 2014, Diaz is back to picking defenses apart, serving as the catalyst for Dallas’ two-goal comeback against the Galaxy last weekend with two assists. Castlllo continues to make highlight reels with his one-on-one ability and deftness on the ball, but has added a creative, playmaking element to his game that has made him even more dangerous to contain.

In addition to the run of play danger posed by Dallas, the Hoops are blessed with two of the best free-kick takers in the league: Diaz and deep-lying midfielder Michel. Each have scored multiple spectacular set piece goals the likes of which the Red Bulls—despite the best efforts of Juninho and Roy Miller—can only dream of matching. Furthermore, Dallas have one of the fittest teams of the league, one of the few that can equal the up-tempo energy drink of the Red Bulls’ high press. To further boost the team’s young corps, Oscar Pareja hired a fitness coach this past offseason, a move that paid dividends during the team’s late comeback against LA as the Galaxy withered in the Texas summer heat.

Weaknesses of the Opponent

On the flipside of Dallas’ potent offense is a lackluster defense that has let in 13 goals this year, tied for second most in the Western Conference. The problem is only compounded by recent injuries to the Dallas backline. Both starters, captain Matt Hedges and veteran Zach Loyd, are set to miss this week’s clash, while former Red Bull and fan favorite Stephen Keel is sidelined with a long term injury (side note: I had the chance to talk to Stephen Keel at last year’s MLS Cup, where he said he’d love to come back and play for RBNY. Get on that, Curtis!). Pareja will thus be forced into starting third-year defender Walker Zimmerman alongside converted right winger Je-Vaughn Watson, who will no doubt be disappointed not to have the opportunity to reacquaint his cleat with Tim Cahill’s groin in this year’s meeting.

Although there have yet to be any significant flare-ups this year, Dallas’ inexperience has led to a number of rash challenges and disciplinary issues that have undoubtedly caused Oscar Pareja headaches. The Red Bulls have shown a knack for provoking small dust-ups with the other team in the past two games; given the reputation they’ve developed around the league and among referees, Dallas players will have to be careful not to lose their heads in the heat of the moment.

How to Win

For lack of a more a nuanced take, the Red Bulls will have to exploit Dallas’ defensive weaknesses while containing the opposing offense in order to win.

On the first count, the team will rely on two players, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Lloyd Sam, to dominate their individual matchups in order to generate space and scoring opportunities in the final third. Wright-Phillips will be going up against a pair of centerbacks with limited experience who will struggle to track the Ultimate Scoring Machine’s movements in and around the 18.

After dominating poor RJ Allen on Sunday, Lloyd Sam will look to add Dallas’ left back Moises Hernandez to the long list of those buried in the dust of the Lloyd Sam chop (RIP Tayor Kemp). Pareja’s makeshift back four features two players, Watson and Atiba Harris, who have spent the majority of their MLS careers as forwards or attacking wingers, both of whom will be put under intense pressure from Wright-Phillips, Sam, and the rest of the RBNY attack.

From a tactical standpoint, Jesse Marsch will not be able to rely on simply outnumbering teams in the center of the pitch as he has throughout the year. Against teams that also employ a 4-2-3-1 formation this year, the Red Bulls have managed a fairly average 1-1-1 record, compared to a 3-0-3 record against all other competition.

In order for Sacha Kljestan, Felipe, and Mad Dax to control the center of the park, the team must create and exploit space between the back of midfield (two out of Victor Ulloa, Michel, and US U-20 national teamer Kellyn Acosta) and Dallas’ front four.

Given Diaz’s tendency to push up high to combine with Perez and Castillo and Hollingshead’s desire to stay wide and spread the field, the Red Bulls midfield will look to pressure the opponent’s back six deep into its own half and unglue Diaz’s connection with the double pivot at the base of midfield. If Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, and Bastian Schweinsteiger can pick apart the 4-2-3-1 so easily in such a fashion, surely the far superior trio in the middle for the Red Bulls can accomplish the task.

On the defensive side of things, Ginja Ninja—as Dax will no doubt be referred to on tomorrow’s Spanish language broadcast—will be tasked with limited Diaz’s creative influence. Thus far this season, the Red Bulls have successfully muzzled some of the league’s best playmakers, from Federico Higuain to Lee Nguyen (in a cameo appearance) to Mix Diskerud (just kidding, he’s not anywhere close to being one of the league’s best), a feat they will have to replicate in order to escape Texas with all three points.

Coming off a stellar performance last weekend that earned him a place in the MLS Team of the Week, Kemar "Taxi" Lawrence should start opposite Fabian Castillo, his toughest assignment in MLS to date. Lawrence is better cut out for the task than the more offensively minded Roy Miller, and will need to be careful not to pick up an early yellow against the league’s foremost dribbler. On that front, the Red Bulls must exert extra caution not to give up unnecessary fouls close to goal, given Diaz’s and Michel’s aforementioned mastery of dead balls. In that light, it may in fact be a blessing in disguise to have Karl Ouimette at centerback rather than the talented yet prone to rash tackles Young Matt Miazga.

Dallas’ fitness and ability to move the ball well may mean that Jesse Marsch will have to reassess his high pressing strategy for this game. The Red Bulls adapted well after going down a man last weekend, bunkering and countering while ceding the vast majority of possession. A similar approach—or at the very least, a more selective pressing strategy—may be necessary in order for the Red Bulls to last the full ninety in the humid heat of Frisco. As recent events have shown to the soccer world, those coaches who are unwilling to adapt their proactive stance when circumstances require it suffer the consequences.

What do you think? Should Jesse Marsch show some caution on the road against the league’s best attack? Or should he stick to his guns and press high against Dallas’ inexperienced, mistake-prone defense? Have your say in the comments!