FC Dallas vs. Vancouver Whitecaps: Keys to the Western Conference Knockout Round
The MLS playoffs begin on Wednesday, with FC Dallas hosting the Vancouver Whitecaps in the Western Conference knockout round. The winner will face the Seattle Sounders in the conference semifinals.
Dallas and Vancouver split the season series. Each team earned a win, a draw and a loss in three matches. However, the Hoops have won all five games at Toyota Stadium against Vancouver since they entered the league.
That makes this matchup all the more intriguing. Here are the main storylines and keys to the game.
Dallas' Strong and Speedy Attack
Fabian Castillo and Andres Escobar posed a threat to the Whitecaps defense in Frisco. The duo were difficult to contain which several teams have discovered this season.
When they start, Castillo and Escobar are always involved in the attack. They can create chances on the flanks, or utilize their pace to cut inside and challenge the opposing goalkeeper.
Blas Perez scored twice in the win over Vancouver in September. One of them was a lucky strike, but Perez is such an imposing presence up front, especially with Tesho Akindele beside him.
The Whitecaps have to contain the likes of Castillo and Escobar. Andy O'Brien and Kendall Waston aren't fast, so Dallas' play on the flanks will make a difference.
Who Will Step Up and Score for the Whitecaps?
Considering the Whitecaps' top scorer in the regular season was Pedro Morales, it's an incredible accomplishment for Vancouver to qualify for the playoffs.
Darren Mattocks and Erik Hurtado have scored 11 goals combined, just one more than Morales' total. The latter has worked harder recently, though. He's gotten his teammates involved in the buildup play, his runs are timed better and his overall attitude has improved.
On the other hand, Mattocks might have played his last game in Vancouver, per TSN analyst Jason de Vos (h/t Jonathan Tannenwald of Philly Sports. The Jamaican international hasn't scored since August, while Hurtado's latest goal was in September against Dallas, his first tally since June.
It might take more individual moments of brilliance for the Whitecaps to grind out a win in Texas. Their strikers haven't been good enough, so Dallas' job is a lot easier.
The Holding Midfielders
The heart of Dallas' midfield is extremely underrated, but it is key to their success. The same can be said about Vancouver as well.
Michel is arguably the Hoops' most important player. His ability to break up oncoming attacks and transition the play forward is the reason why the offense has been lethal this season.
Matias Laba does the same thing for the Whitecaps. He's played beside Russell Teibert, Gershon Koffie and Mehdi Ballouchy, but he's still been one of the best, most consistent defensive midfielders in MLS.
The defensive midfield pairings will be crucial on Wednesday. Both teams are strong on the counter, so whoever can contain the opposing attack and move the play forward will have the edge.
The Whitecaps clinched a playoff spot thanks to a Kendall Waston header off a Pedro Morales corner. Scoring via set pieces has been a problem for Vancouver, which has claimed just five goals in those situations, according to WhoScored.com.
Dallas leads the league in set piece goals with 20. Michel has 11 goals and 13 assists in his MLS career. Many of them have come via corners and free kicks.
Both teams have big targets. The Whitecaps have Waston, Dallas has Perez, Akindele, Matt Hedges and others. The hosts should have the edge in set pieces, and it will be a factor in the match.
Will Dallas Be Able to Protect a Lead?
FC Dallas has had problems holding onto a lead this season. One of those mental slip-ups came against the Whitecaps in July at BC Place. The Hoops were up 2-1 just before halftime, but the match finished in a 2-2 draw.
Vancouver could have even won that game had it not been for Raul Fernandez's heroics in goal. Admittedly, Dallas has been able to solve these problems since that night.
However, the Whitecaps possess a few players who can produce some moments of individual brilliance. If Dallas falls asleep at the switch, they could be punished again.
Can Pedro Morales Step It Up on the Road?
Pedro Morales has been noticeably poor away from BC Place this season. The Chilean has scored just three goals and recorded four assists in 17 away games in 2014, per MLSSoccer.com.
Morales stepped up in vital rivalry games in Portland and Seattle, which led to the Whitecaps defending the Cascadia Cup. However, apart from those two matches, he's been invisible on the road.
The 28-year-old was Vancouver's top goalscorer in the regular season and was awarded the team MVP, so to be that ineffective away from home is unacceptable.
Morales has been a terrific acquisition, but he has to try to get involved in Dallas on Wednesday, or else the Whitecaps will struggle.