NEW YORK – FC Dallas manager Schellas Hyndman will likely go back to his first-choice central defender pairing against the highest-scoring team in MLS as Real Salt Lake visit Pizza Hut Park in the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal on Saturday night (5 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel).
Ugo Ihemelu says he’s overcome a hamstring tweak and is ready to line up at center back alongside teammate George John, with whom Ihemelu formed a formidable team earlier this season.
“Overall I’m feeling pretty well and I’ll be ready to go on Saturday,” Ihemelu told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. “Not a lot of players are going to be 100 percent during the playoffs but I think I’ll be very close to being 100 percent.”
The combination of John and Ihemelu was one of the main reasons that FC Dallas became virtually unbeatable in the first half of the year. In the first 17 matches they started alongside each other, the team went 7-2-8 and allowed less than a goal per game.
Then a concussion forced the Nigerian-born Ihemelu to sit out 10 matches before returning against RSL on Oct. 16. It will not go down among his most memorable performances after he was outjumped on a ball in the box by RSL’s Ned Grabavoy for what proved to be the decisive goal at Rio Tinto Stadium and FCD’s third loss of the season.
Ihemelu also tweaked his hamstring in the match and only came off the bench against LA in the regular-season finale. The concussion and hamstring strain are now a thing of the past and he's counting on figuring prominently in his club's postseason adventure.
“The playoffs are what we’ve been looking towards from the first game in preseason,” Ihemelu said. “It’s our goal. Now we’re here and we feel anything can happen. We’re prepared. Maybe we could use a little luck here and there in the playoffs, but we’re going to go out and play and we’ll see.”
The 27-year-old Ihemelu, who played for FC Dallas manager Schellas Hyndman at SMU, says that the first-round matchup against RSL is arguably a meeting between the two best teams in the league. So he’s not buying the early talk from the defending MLS Cup champions that they will assume a defensive stance in the first leg at Pizza Hut Park.
Regardless of what Real Salt Lake decide to do, Ihemelu says FC Dallas plan to impose their will on RSL both at home and away at Rio Tinto, regardless of the altitude considerations. That daring approach may have stunned RSL when the two teams met in their final regular-season matchup, but it is a sign of the personality and confidence that few FC Dallas sides have shown in the past.
“We’re all on the same page,” Ihemelu said. “We know where we’re trying to go and everyone is willing to work, do their job and not complain. It’s kind of like a blue-collar attitude when we take the field.”
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