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Massive Scouting Report: Stakes are high as Crew SC hosts Dallas

A breakdown of Saturday’s matchup between Columbus and a former favorite in the West

MLS: FC Dallas at Sporting KC Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

It’s rivalry week, which means ... Columbus Crew SC vs. FC Dallas?

Well, yes. Apparently the two clubs play for the Lamar Hunt Pioneer Cup. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know that existed, neither did I.

Less a rivalry and more a celebration of the contributions of Lamar Hunt to each of these two clubs and MLS, this season sees the matchup pit a Columbus side desperate to scrape into the playoffs and a Dallas side desperate to steady a ship taking on water and get things righted by postseason time.

What are some things to look for when the game kicks off Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium at 7:30 p.m.? We offer a breakdown...

At a glance

Record: 9-6-9 (5th in the West, 36 points, 1.5 ppg)

Form: LLDLD

The reality is that Dallas’ current form isn’t much better than that of the LA Galaxy side Columbus just beat. FCD is winless in its last five, with its last victory dating back to July 22 at the Montreal Impact. Dallas has been outscored 12-4 in that time — that’s a goals against average of 2.4 goals per game.

Formation: 4-4-2/4-3-3/4-2-3-1

Goal leader: Maximiliano Urruti (12)

Assist leader: Michael Barrios (12)

Series history:

Dallas’ setup

In the club’s time under coach Oscar Pareja, FCD has always had a consistent system with a methodical approach. Depending on game and personnel, Dallas has often gone with a traditional 4-4-2 or a more free-flowing 4-2-3-1 (formation choice has often changed with the availability of the Magic Little Unicorn, Mauro Diaz).

However, a team that was favored by many to win the Western Conference and, perhaps, a Supporter’s Shield, has watched the ground fall out beneath it in the latter stages of this season. Now FCD is searching for answers, Diaz wasn’t even in the gameday 18 at midweek and Pareja tried out a 4-3-3.

Formation is less important than approach, though, and Dallas has typically been a squad that embraces the counter attack and is built on wide play, especially when Diaz is not available.

The foundation has been a strong back line anchored by center back Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman, with a number of quality fullbacks, including Maynor Figueroa, Ryan Hollingshead and former Columbus Crew SC player — for a minute — Hernan Grana. (<sarcasm>One can assume he’ll receive rousing, warm welcome in his return to MAPFRE Stadium, a place he abandoned due to “homesickness.”</sarcasm>)

MLS: Colorado Rapids at FC Dallas
Just at home enjoying quality time with the family. ... Oh, wait. Nevermind.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

For those who remember Grana with Crew SC, it should come as no surprise that the ball-dominant Grana’s 12.0 touch percentage leads Dallas, which wants to control the ball from the back forward.

The midfield is held together by a cadre of defensive-minded midfielders, with Carlos Gruezo and the homegrown duo of Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa. Acosta has developed into more of a two-way player — a box-to-box player with the ability to contribute in the attack and on dead balls.

While Diaz is among the most elite playmaking midfielders in MLS when healthy (2.15 key passes per 96 in 2017), he’s not a player that controls the midfield, which is something Dallas is searching for at times.

When FCD is at its best, it’s exploiting the wide areas with Roland Lamah and Michael Barrios. Lamah has eight goals on the season and Barrios is second in MLS with 12 assists. Some people believe that part of the club’s struggles are linked to getting away from the wide play that has worked well in the past.

Up top, Urruti has had a very good season. The Argentinean — one of the best defensive forwards in MLS — is a very active presence, adept at poaching goals and buzzing around the field. His 9.79 xG+xA leads the team.

Other options to play alongside Urruti (or in place of him, if there’s player rotation) are Tesho Akindele and Cristian Colman, an offseason DP signing that has firmly disappointed and only scored two goals this season.

Here are passing maps tweeted out by @11tegen11 from games this month.

First, out of a 4-2-3-1:

Dallas pass map out of 4-2-3-1
@11tegen11

Then a 4-4-2:

Dallas pass map out of a 4-4-2
@11tegen11

You’ll notice a couple of things:

  • Urruti’s movement changes a little as a lone striker, but he always plays a little deeper and does defensive work.
  • Barrios is always very advanced on the wing, as is Grana.
  • The heaviest connections are in the back, where Dallas wants to circulate the ball with the center backs and D-mids.

Notes from mid week

Just when it looked like Dallas might be coming out of its funk ... the seams unraveled. After a stretch of poor results, FCD took a 3-1 lead Wednesday hosting true rivals Houston Dynamo, only to settle for a 3-3 draw.

On the plus side, three goals was a veritable opening-of-the-floodgate after managing just one goal in the four previous games. But on the other side of the field, Dallas continued leaking goals in a way that no one would have ever suspected when projecting it as maybe the West’s best team.

Dallas scored a trio of highlight-reel goals, including a golazo by Akindele and a long-range strike by Urruti, but was undone again by the thing upon which its dynasty was built — defense.

The issues started quickly, when Houston victimized FCD in the first minute, bringing some high pressure on a less-than-stellar pass from Figueroa, forcing a bad touch by Hedges and walking in on goal.

Houston later scored a lightning-quick counter and a rebound goal by Erick Torres in the waning moments.

Here’s the especially bad opener:

At one point, Hedges was considered maybe the best defender in MLS, simply biding his time for a chance with the national team. Then 2017 happened. Hedges got his callup and withered in the spotlight, and back in MLS he has still been good, but has been haunted by high-profile mistakes. The goal Wednesday was just the latest.

His partner, Walker Zimmerman, hasn’t been quite the same lately either, and Maynor Figueroa, who began the year playing left back, has filled in a bit at center back.

It’s also worth looking at an overall snapshot of Dallas ball movement against Houston. FCD had a slight edge in the possession battle, but you can see that doesn’t result in a pass-heavy attack.

Dallas dashboard vs. Houston

It’s a pretty direct approach that, even with three central mids in this instance, does not get bogged down in the middle of the field. While the three Dallas goals were not high-efficiency strikes, its likely that the focus on wide play helped FCD get back its attacking groove, if nothing else.

Crew keys

  • Get the big 3 on the field — Yes, a congested slate this week means player rotation is a real factor, but there’s no time for that for the Black & Gold. Maximum points are the only thing to strive for with the club’s postseason fate hanging on these critical home results. So despite the fact the trio played Wednesday (and in one case, also Saturday), Gregg Berhalter needs to stick with Justin Meram (although, if we’re being honest, his legs looked like they might fall off on Wednesday), Federico Higuain and Pedro Santos (and, therefore, likely the 4-2-3-1). Dallas will almost certainly take a relatively conservative approach on the road, and are well versed in staying deep and countering. The best way to break that down and victimize a somewhat struggling back line is to get the best attackers on the field together. Against the LA Galaxy, Pipa’s return re-energized the attack, Meram scored a goal and Santos made it look like every penny was worth it. Unleash them again.
  • Harass the center backs — Crew SC has never heavily employed a high press under Berhalter, but having the attacking unit apply some pressure to FCD’s back line seems prudent. Hedges has had some issues under pressure, and with a system that wants the center backs moving the ball out of the back, there are opportunities there.
  • Stay aware in the back — Dallas is nothing if not opportunistic. When I call Urruti a poacher, he not only poaches goals, but also space and chances. He will punish a back line that falls a sleep, whether by getting in behind or by back-pressing and taking the ball off a defenders foot to generate an opportunity. Columbus’ defense must stay aware and engaged or risk giving Urruti just the type of looks on goal he wants.
  • There’s always the VAR — Video review was omnipresent in Wednesday’s game, and it ruled in Crew SC’s favor multiple times. Meanwhile, video review has been the nemesis of Dallas since its implementation. This all bodes well for the Black & Gold, right?

Final thoughts

Regardless of current form, Dallas is an experienced side with talent, a strong sense of identity and one of the best coaches in the league. That’s a different beast than a Galaxy side that was heavily shorthanded and has looked like a mess all season. This one will be much tougher.

Keep an eye on what player rotation Berhalter utilizes. He’s walking a very tricky, very tough line — there is zero margin for error right now, and playing anything less than a near-full-strength lineup could result in dropping points that haunt the Black & Gold in a few weeks. Will GB opt for some fresh legs to inject energy? Or will he put the best players on the field? Making the right decision could determine the club’s fate this season and, perhaps, the coach’s beyond that.

Here’s a (probably incorrect) guess at how the team’s might line up on Saturday:

Columbus Crew SC vs FC Dallas - Football tactics and formations