As a group, FC Dallas is not a team that usually dwells much in the world of hyperbole. So, when several starters for the reigning MLS Western Conference champions say that Wednesday night’s second leg of their preliminary CONCACAF Champions League series with Alianza FC is the biggest match of the season to date, they aren't just making idle chatter.
“Coach said it’s the biggest game of our season so far and I think you’d have to agree with him. It’s the first time for this club [in this tournament],” FCD center back Ugo Ihemelu said. “It says a lot for how far this club has come along and it’s great for the league when you have teams in that tournament. It’s big. We’re just going to have to come out and take care of stuff tomorrow because it’s a huge game.”
Dallas comes off a 1-0 win over Alianza last Thursday in El Salvador. Versatile Brazilian Jackson had the lone goal of the match for FCD, continuing a recent run of torrid form from the sometimes defender and sometimes midfielder. Jackson figures to be in the Dallas first 11, most likely in the midfield, which is where FCD head coach Schellas Hyndman feels he is most effective.
Hyndman gave captain Daniel Hernandez the night off on Sunday against Chivas USA, so Dallas supporters can expect to see the Tyler native and SMU product wearing the captain’s armband for the ever so important second leg.
But the big question for Dallas could also rest in the middle of the park. Will linking mid Andrew Jacobson be back in the first 11 after his recent hamstring woes or will Bruno Guarda again draw the starting assignment alongside Hernandez?
Dallas will also have a new striker in Toronto FC expat Maicon Santos, who came over in a trade for Eric Avila on Tuesday afternoon. It’s unclear whether or not Santos will be available for this game of if he will start, but he did lead the Reds with six goals before the swap, so there’s no doubt he represents a considerable upgrade up top over the recently departed Milton Rodriguez.
Then again, Hyndman could go with Ruben Luna up top again. Luna performed pretty well in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Chivas USA but after the game, the Garland product admitted he missed several great opportunities and that he is a bit frustrated with his lack of precision around the net.
One thing’s for sure about this one, the starting back half of the field is set. Kevin Hartman, who has started every game of 2011 for Dallas in all competitions, will be back between the posts for FCD. And the back line will also be the same with Jair Benitez on the left, Ihemelu and George John in the middle and Zach Loyd out right.
Two other members of this stellar rearguard have no illusions about how huge Wednesday’s match is not only within 2011 but within FCD franchise history.
“I think it’s huge. Schellas said our team has never been in the Champions League group stage, so if we win or tie, we go through,” John said. “It’s going to be a huge lift for our club. It’ll help all of us gain experience at the international level. Playing games in Central America is a great experience. I hope we get a lot more of it.”
Loyd concurs. “I think it’s the biggest game of the season right now. The organization has never been in this competition and a win tomorrow will put us in the group stage, which is a huge step not only as an organization but as a team to get exposure on the international level,” he said. “I think it’s a huge game, up to this point, the most important game of the season. We’re definitely putting a lot of weight on this game and we’re going to come in and get the result.”
No matter what lineup FCD feels, fans in attendance at Pizza Hut Park or those supporters catching it on Fox Soccer Channel can expect something that has become commonplace in 2011, a team wanting to go at the opposition and try to put them away. Advancing to the group stage of Champions League would be a great accomplishment in itself but it could only be the beginning for this talented and truly special group.