13 September 2012

FC Dallas vs. Vancouver: What I'm watching for

Vancouver will have to stop David Ferreira on Saturday night.
I’ll return to MLS action for the first time since July 28 this weekend, calling the most critical game so far in the Western Conference playoff race, with FC Dallas hosting the Vancouver Whitecaps. Catch it on TXA 21 Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. CT.

FC Dallas trails Vancouver by four points, but the Whitecaps have a game in hand, so Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi’s quote in the Vancouver Sun that “it is a must-win for them more than it is for us” is a spot-on assessment.

FC Dallas has to win this game to have any realistic shot of making the playoffs; Vancouver could definitely get by with a tie and will still be favored even with a loss. That’s mostly because of an incredibly favorable closing schedule, with Vancouver hosting the bottom three teams in the Western Conference down the stretch. Even seven points of a possible nine in those games would all but secure the last playoff spot, especially given that Dallas is unlikely to take major points at San Jose and at Seattle.

But that’s why they play the games! Dallas can keep itself in the race with a win on Saturday night, and word on the street is that the crowd is likely to be a big one. These teams have been going in opposite directions since June 23, with FC Dallas averaging 1.58 points per game (5-3-4) with Ferreira and Vancouver struggling to the tune of 0.91 points per game (3-7-1) in July, August, and now September. What’s more, the Whitecaps have lost six straight road games, tied for the second longest streak in MLS this year.

With all that in mind, and without consulting my partner, traveling man Brian Dunseth, here are some angles I’m keeping an eye on Saturday night:

1. Let’s get physical
The teams have already played twice this year, and the games combined for 71 fouls and 13 yellow cards. The majority of those (41 fouls, 9 yellows) came in the second meeting, a 2-0 FC Dallas win at BC Place on August 15 that saw a wide variety of Whitecaps personnel heavily criticize FC Dallas playmaker David Ferreira for diving on a foul near the benches late in the second half. The specifics of that play notwithstanding, these teams do not like each other much, stemming from Ferreira’s broken ankle in their first meeting last year (it basically ruined Dallas championship hopes for 2011 and 2012) and heating up with the playoff race this year.

2. All eyes on Number 10
The harsh truth is that Dallas is not a force in Major League Soccer without David Ferreira. Yes, they made the playoffs last year without him, and yes, a lot of other players have to contribute even when Ferreira is on the field, but he is the guy who makes FCD go. It’s no secret. If Dallas wins on Saturday, it’s likely going to come through his efforts. Consider that the 5-foot-5, 145-pound Ferreira set up not one but both FCD goals against Vancouver in August by bodying off bruising Whitecaps defender Andy O’Brien (6-3, 175). And, of course, consider one of the best moments of the season so far in MLS, an exhausted Ferreira’s dying-minutes game-winner at Real Salt Lake (6:11 on this video). Vancouver tends to employ two holding midfielders, usually Jun Marques Davidson and Gershon Koffie, and the Whitecaps will want to keep one of those on Ferreira at all times, rather than letting him run loose against slower center backs O’Brien, Jay DeMerit, and/or Martín Bonjour.

3. Midfield support
With all that focus on Ferreira, I have to believe Andrew Jacobson’s ability to get up and down the field will be vital in this one. With those two holding midfielders, Vancouver sometimes gets caught with a major gap between its six defensive players and its four attackers, leaving space to exploit. If Jacobson (and to a lesser extent either Daniel Hernandez or Julian de Guzman) can use that space effectively, both to shoot on target and keep the ball moving, it will lighten the load from Ferreira’s shoulders. It could also drag Barry Robson deeper in the field, limiting his playmaking abilities.

4. Keep your cool
From what I’ve seen, a majority of Vancouver’s chances lately have been created from the right side of the field, either via the fleet feet of Dane Richards or Barry Robson cutting back onto his left foot. Facing Richards (assuming he starts, following his efforts for Jamaica this week) will be the hot-and-cold Jair Benitez. He has the speed and guile to cool Richards down, but he also has a hot temper, and Richards (eight yellow cards this year) is just the guy to push his buttons. This is a huge matchup for Vancouver's offense.

5. Jetlagged hitmen
Forwards on both sides will arrive on Saturday with some extra wear and tear on their legs, as both Kenny Miller (Scotland) and Blas Pérez (Panama) scored while on international duty this week, and Darren Mattocks saw substitute action. Mattocks’ speed will be a major concern for sizable FC Dallas center backs George John and Matt Hedges, while Dallas has been waiting for a healthy Pérez since he was injured during the last international window back in May. Whichever forwards can shake off their travels the fastest should be in a position to swing the playoff race with a goal.

6. Sleeping giants
Brek Shea and Camilo are game-changers who have underperformed this year but remain capable of pulling something special out of the hat at a key moment. Camilo has been trouble for Dallas this year, scoring the game-winner in a 1-0 win in April, then hitting the crossbar with a free kick in August. Shea has one goal from open play this year, and that came back in April, but we’ve all seen him produce in the past. An involved night from either player would be a major boost to his squad.

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