With the opportunity for first-time MLS Cup glory at stake tonight, both FC Dallas and Colorado will play with more fight and determination than ever before. If both sides are evenly matched (and I believe they are), what will separate the two?
I believe the outcome of the following key matchups will determine who will become the MLS Cup champion.
George John vs. Conor Casey
After an injury-ridden rookie campaign last season, George John has found consistency in his second year as a part of the Dallas backline. At 6 feet 4 inches, John has the physical tools to compete for high balls. But the University of Washington product has also shown the kind of tenacity in the tackle that makes life extremely difficult for imposing forwards. Last week’s assignment, Edson Buddle, was frustrated with every move and denied any opportunity to turn or bring fellow Galaxy attackers into the game.
John will need to do the same thing against Conor Casey. An added bonus for John? His feet are just as good as his defending. Watch to see how many times he passes out of pressure to help FCD build an attacking movement.
Casey on the other hand is one of the most physical forwards in Major League Soccer. Just over six feet tall, the U.S. international competes for any and all balls around him. His strength and power help him fight off challenges from defenders like George John. If Casey is allowed the opportunity to comfortably receive passes from teammates, he has the ability to bring other attackers forward.
If George John can communicate well with Daniel Hernandez, then the path for Casey to receive passes becomes more difficult. Shut him down, and the Rapids attack begins to look stale.
Jair Benitez vs. Omar Cummings
The Colombian left back for FC Dallas adds the athleticism across the back that Schellas Hyndman relies heavily on. Benitez’s left foot provides width to the FCD attack as the ball moves forward. When opposing defenses try to compact the center of midfield against the three central players of FC Dallas, the width usually comes from Benitez. He has the ability to pick out teammates in dangerous areas inside the final third.
On the other side of the ball is Omar Cummings, an explosive scorer. His partnership with Conor Casey may be the best forward tandem in MLS. Casey’s linking play helps create space for the speedy Jamaican, and Cummings is at his best when he drifts into wide areas to get isolated one-on-one with outside defenders. If he gets it, look to see if he cuts inside for a trademark left foot attempt. He scored the goal of the season against Seattle (in my humble opinion) on a similar movement that resulted in a thunderbolt strike from well outside the penalty area. With movement like that, he’ll be seeing a lot of Jair Benitez.
Benitez will need to pick and choose the right moments to add width to the FCD attack. If the boys in red and white lose possession with him forward, Cummings and the rest of Colorado are certain to counter attack in that vacated space.
David Ferreira vs. Pablo Mastroeni
Recently named the MVP of Major League Soccer, Ferreira is gaining the recognition that he richly deserves. The Colombian has been involved in five of the six playoff goals Dallas has scored and played all but one minute while being fouled more than any other player in MLS. His durability is undeniable. His vision and passing ability make everyone around him a better player. Look no further than his pass last week to set up Marvin Chavez to see his skill.
On the other hand, Dallas fans are very familiar with Pablo Mastroeni. The fiery central midfielder has added the bite in midfield for the Rapids in every playoff win over FCD. Never one to back away from a tackle, Mastroeni has as much guile to his play as anything. Watch him drop closer to the Rapids backline to begin possession.
If Ferriera moves about the field freely, Mastroeni will need to work with other teammates to defensively occupy the MVP. That could potentially add undue fatigue on a player that is integral in front of the two Colorado center backs.
If Ferreira receives passes behind Mastroeni, the Dallas attack is better for it and the end product is probably an attempt at goal. Ferreira has the ability to draw fouls and cautions against opponents, and if Mastroeni gets a yellow card in the first half his defensive effectiveness could be questioned.
Atiba Harris vs. Drew Moor
A surprise move by Schellas Hyndman last week saw Harris start as the lone target against LA in the Western Conference Championship. The move paid off, as Harris was good in physically competing with the Galaxy center backs while holding up possession to relieve pressure. His ability to defend set plays was an added bonus in that game. Harris is tireless and can create problems for backlines with his work rate.
Drew Moor, the former FCD man, played in over 120 game in his career for his hometown team. To say he’ll be motivated to show his quality would be an understatement. Moor has played every minute in the center of defense for a staunch back four that rarely concedes soft goals. His leadership helps his other defenders position themselves to cut out impending threats. Always a target on set plays, he will be determined to get on the end of at least one chance. The man marking him will probably be Harris.
The strength and power of Harris has caused opponents problems out wide or as a target forward. He is more than willing to commit to challenges, and Moor will be on the receiving end of some of them. Moor on the other hand will look to win the ball from Harris quickly and then find a Rapids teammate upfield to start a counter attack.
A coach can break down X’s and O’s all day long, but many times in the biggest games the individual battles are what determines success or failure. Pay close attention to these matchups and you will see where the game is won.