16 March 2012

One day out: FC Dallas vs. Portland

FC Dallas Stadium on Friday morning

We do a lot of preparation for any game broadcast, and I want to detail that process at some point, but in the case of Saturday’s game between Dallas and Portland, preparation included watching both teams train today. From talking to FC Dallas coaches and players (I’ll talk more with John Spencer tomorrow morning) and studying up on this game, there are some fairly obvious talking points about the game.

Before I get to those, however, here are two key statistics I've had an eye on this week:

Goals scored per road game by the Portland Timbers last year (10 goals in 17 games), worst in Major League Soccer.
Goals against average in home games by FC Dallas last year (11 goals in 17 games), second in MLS.

Those numbers illustrate just how much Portland struggled last year and why Saturday's game could be difficult for the Timbers. There really is a more confident air around this year's Timbers, however, and they will hope Kris Boyd can help reverse that stat and their road form. Meanwhile, with a lot of attacking players injured and potentially absent, Dallas will count on its defense to win the first of many intra-conference games with playoff implications.

Now, on to some of the key talking points ...
1. Set pieces – This seems like it’s a key for almost every game I cover (Alexi Lalas would back me up on this), and I'll say it again on Saturday. Portland is very potent from dead-ball situations, and while the normal-sized field in Frisco won’t give the Timbers quite as many chances as they get on the smaller surface at home, it will still be a factor. In beating Dallas 3-2 last year up in Portland, two Timbers goals came from set pieces, one of which was taken quickly. Dallas players repeatedly said today that 10 of Portland's 40 goals last year came from set pieces. I think the number has to be higher, but I haven't had time to check it out yet, and my research says 16 of 40 (40 percent) originate from dead-ball situations, although that total includes three penalty kicks. On the other hand, when Dallas crushed Portland 4-0 here in Texas, two goals came from corner kicks. Both teams netted from dead balls in their openers last week, and both goalkeepers - Troy Perkins and Kevin Hartman - can have a tough time with back-post crosses, so I expect somebody to score from a set piece on Saturday. The most interesting answer I got when asking about set pieces came from Hartman, who talked about the need to avoid defense free kicks altogether by not fouling in dangerous locations. Easier said than done, but a good game plan.

2. Wide play – Dallas is hurting out wide, with Brek Shea gone on national-team duty and Fabian Castillo an injury question mark. Carlos Rodriguez (who will join Panama's Olympic team after Saturday's game), Jair Benitez, and Zach Loyd did have some success getting forward against New York, but Dallas still has to make the last pass a decisive one, find an answer at right mid, and contain the Timbers’ flank players. MLS Player of the Week Kalif Alhassan is the most notable of those, but former Dallas midfielder Eric Alexander had a great preseason and could start again on the left for Portland, with Rodney Wallace (whose last MLS goal came against Dallas last April) overlapping. It will be interesting to see if Portland asks its outside players to focus more on getting crosses (Kris Boyd is effective in the air, but so are Ihemelu/Pertuz/John/Hedges for Dallas) or cutting inside toward the penalty areas to run at Dallas defenders with speed.

3. Bench strength – Both these teams will/could be missing a number of starters due to injury. So not only is the Dallas starting lineup a question mark (less so with Portland, although the Timbers are facing a quick turnaround from a physical game), but potential impact substitutes will be limited. I have to give Portland an edge here, because Darlington Nagbe is a truly exciting and creative player off the bench, while I’m not sure Dallas has a similar option. Newly acquired forward Luis Perea and inexperienced right mid Andrew Wiedeman might be its best bets. How both coaches use their respective benches will be fascinating, and that lack of depth makes the first goal even more critical than usual.

Dante Washington and I will call the game Saturday night on FOX Sports Southwest Plus, so feel free to send questions or thoughts on the game to us via twitter, @jtyardley and @dantewashington.

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