2023 Season

Steve Davis: Jumping on teams not at full strength, an MLS must

3.16 Davis

FRISCO, Texas - An immutable law of Major League Soccer is that teams will not – simply cannot – be at their best over the full eight-plus months of competitive play.

This isn’t just about the naturally occurring dips in form, although those are certainly in play, too. Rather, it’s about personnel, and the inability to deploy their top men over a campaign that may now include 44-45 matches over four concurrent competitions. (A deep run in one or more of these competitions could even see an MLS side stretched to 50 or more matches.)

Everyone deals with it. There will be matches where clubs necessarily reach deep into their player pool, subtracting starters for the Nos. 2 or even Nos. 3 on the depth chart. It’s a fact of life in most leagues – but perhaps more impactful in the salary-capped MLS, where being strong and “two-deep” at every position is a luxury most can’t afford.

But there’s another side to this inevitable vulnerability: opportunities for opposition. And there lies one of the secrets to MLS success.

Every MLS club finds itself matched from time to time against a vulnerable opponent, one missing its best and brightest due to injuries or sometimes to international duty, or perhaps just resting players. In modern day vernacular, where physical capacity can be data-tracked, we call it load management. For injury risk reduction and career longevity, this load management is absolutely the right thing to do. 

I’ve said it for years on broadcasts: “You want to maximize points over a season? Then you’d better ruthlessly hammer any soft spots on the schedule.” That doesn’t mean that teams are “soft,” it means that they find themselves in a depleted state, missing key personnel. It means they aren’t at their tippy-top best – and it means you darn sure have to jump on them.

FC Dallas did just that last week in Vancouver. Saturday night’s match at BC Place was sandwiched between two important CONCACAF Champions League matches for the Whitecaps. Vancouver rotated its lineup and may have been a bit distracted or physically spent – it’s  impossible to say how much. Either way, through tactical control and generally smooth execution, FC Dallas took a worthy point out of place where they generally haven’t been able to.

So check the box beside “mission accomplished.”

Sporting Kansas City (Saturday at Toyota Stadium) provides the next opportunity to potentially exploit. That isn’t to say that SKC is a weak team; far from it, in fact. A quick scan of pre-season predictions shows Peter Vermes’ club picked to finish anywhere from 3rd to 6th (among 14 Western Conference teams). From the MLS Extra Time crew, 12 of 13 analysts like Kansas City to make the playoffs.

It’s just that Sporting Kansas City has yet to see its best personnel on the field.

Johnny Russell, one of the league’s premier wingers for his blend of skill and want-to, has yet to play a minute in 2023. A hamstring injury won’t keep the trusted Scotsman out for long, but he’ll be limited this weekend if he’s available at all. Two other valuable attackers, midfielder Gadi Kinda and Mexican DP striker Alan Pulido are still recovering from long-term injuries. 

Vermes still has good players – such as 2022 scoring revelation Willy Agada or left-sided winger Daniel Salloi, a 16-goal scorer as recently as 2021 – but the offense has clearly suffered. SKC enters Match Day 4 without yet having scored a goal. Not one, covering three matches.

Vermes has also been without top goalkeeper Tim Melia; he could be available this weekend, but the team is being cautious with a problematic hamstring that helped undo his entire 2022 campaign.

Does any of that mean we should all cash out our 401(k)s to bet the FCD win? Hardly.

Reserves play hard, happy for their opportunity to impress management and eager to earn the trust of the starters. Minnesota traveled into North Texas on opening week without its top playmaker or its top striker; the Loons flew back north with all the points. 

Clearly, nothing is guaranteed. But the opportunity is there to catch Sporting in a depleted state; it’s on FC Dallas to stay focused, execute Estevez’s game plan and push hard to scoop up all the points. Because there are plenty of matches out there where teams will be at top strength. And probably a few where FC Dallas won’t be. It’s the way of MLS.



View the 2023 FC Dallas schedule.