Season in review:
Dallas have stabilized from last season’s epic collapse, enough to challenge for the top of the Western Conference and position themselves well in a wide open landscape. They would have been in in pole position for first-place had they not lost 3-0 to Sporting KC in Week 33.
New contributors have replaced old stalwarts, part of an on-the-fly rebuild initiated by their 2017 fall from grace. Mauro Diaz and Kellyn Acosta were sent away this summer. Walker Zimmerman was traded in the offseason. Players like Reggie Cannon, Victor Ulloa and Santiago Mosquera carved out regular roles over phased-out veterans.
They haven’t been the most exciting team in the league aesthetically, which is likely by design — I wrote about in-depth here. Oscar Pareja keeps the pace slow, hoping his heavy-shooting attack can create enough quality chances to score one of them. Maxi Urruti, usually playing behind striker Dominique Badji, is one of the league’s higher volume shooters. Urruti is firing 3.84 shots per game, eighth among attackers who’ve played at least 500 minutes. Security against counter-attacks is exchanged for a fairly simplistic attack.
Midseason signing Pablo Aranguiz was supposed to be the Diaz replacement, and he’s looked skillful and smart, but he hasn’t produced a ton in limited minutes — just 272, with 0.32 xG+xA per 96.
Goalscoring has to come from a wider range of sources without a true creator or elite striker. Roland Lamah, a mostly-underwhelming winger with a propensity for poaching goals at the back-post, leads the team with eight, while Urruti has seven and longtime winger Michael Barrios ties Mosquera at six. Badji has only two in his short career in Dallas.
The season, as a whole, was smoother than some of their counterparts. There were no big winning streaks or significant downturns. One highlight was winning the El Capitan over rival Houston with a 4-2 early September win, which helped eliminate the Dynamo from the playoffs.
Why Dallas won’t win MLS Cup:
If anything does them in, it will be the attack, which does not have the firepower of others in the conference (like, for example, LAFC, Portland, and the Galaxy) and won’t put enough pressure on the opponent’s goal to make up for it, as Sporting KC have done.
FCD won’t put up a ton of goals, and they won’t score on demand. Set pieces will be big, with Matt Hedges and Reto Ziegler combining for six goals from the center back position. But there is little creativity in this side, especially when Aranguiz sits. Urruti, as much as he has improved on his set piece delivery, won’t be much of a distributor, and you know what you’re going to get from the Lamah, Barrios and Mosquera winger cast.
Keep an eye on the goalkeepers, as well. Jesse Gonzalez appears to have won his spot back, but he occasionally been good for a collapse here and there. Dallas could give up cheap goals.
Why Dallas will win MLS Cup:
They’re solid, they can defend, they know how they want to play, and they’re less likely to beat themselves. It comes down to that.
Not many in the conference can say the same. There are still shades of first-half Seattle somewhere in there. When the Timbers try to do anything else other than sit and counter in a Diego Chara-anchored 4-3-2-1, everything falls apart. Sporting, like Dallas, have lacked in high-volume scoring. LAFC don’t play a defensive midfielder.
If Aranguiz settles in at some point, he could be a valuable asset, at least off the bench. Barrios is streaky, but when he gets going, he gets going. He’s been quietly productive this year, with a key pass percentage of 11.1%, ranking third in MLS among players that have played more 1,000 minutes. Other players near the top of that leaderboard (Diego Fagundez, Johnny Russell, Darwin Quintero) are crafty wide players who get the ball to the touchline. It’s an essential way of unlocking defenses, and Barrios is one of the most effective at it.
Urruti will at some point hit on one of the terrible shots he takes. He’s due for a nice golazo, even if it makes one of his teammates mad for not making the pass he probably should have made.
Badji can stretch backlines, and in games that require instant, easy scoring, having the ability to flip one over the top and have Badji run onto it is valuable. They need that method to be more effective than it has been since the Senegalese forward was acquired. In a potential first-round matchup against RSL or LA, though, Badji could feast on slower backlines.
A central midfield pairing of Ulloa and Carlos Gruezo is no-frills, but it works, and neither of them are threats to implode or make some crucial mistake. Dallas don’t use the pairing in possession as much as other teams; neither overwhelms in possession numbers — Gruezo’s xB/96 is an surprisingly low 0.53, and his touch percentage is a full two percentage points lower than Ulloa’s.
One interesting variable is the amount that Cannon overlaps from right back. He gets the ball at a lower rate than other MLS full backs (9.7% touch percentage), even as touch percentages gradually increase across the board among outside backs, consistent with tactical trends. He has the skill and the stamina to overlap with more frequency. The freedom Pareja allows him could depend on the opponent.
There’s no doubt, though, that Cannon has been one of the team’s best players all season. Dallas will continue to face questions about whether they have the pure talent and multifacetedness to face up against the Western Conference elite, but they could have just enough solidity and tactical astuteness to make a real run.