SANDY, Utah – With striker Milton Rodríguez left behind in Texas due to a groin strain, Schellas Hyndman confirmed that veteran Jeff Cunningham will be in FC Dallas’ starting lineup for Saturday’s crucial Western Conference semifinal second leg at Real Salt Lake (10 p.m. ET, FSC).
The No. 2 all-time leading scorer in league history has played off the bench in 15 of FCD’s last 18 games, but re-inserting him as the lone striker up top gives the side a bit of a different look as it clings to a 2-1 series lead.
Whereas Rodríguez is more of a hold-up target man, the 34-year-old Cunningham gives the Hoops tremendous speed and is a constant threat to slip behind defenders and then track back for a lead pass. That also allows central midfielder David Ferreira to push further up the pitch into the final third more often, according to assistant coach John Ellinger.
“Last year, [Cunningham] and David had a good partnership.” Ellinger told MLSsoccer.com of the duo, who combined for eight goals in 2009. “It’s started to get back to that point. The higher David stays, the better the partnership is, and the easier it becomes for Jeff to work off of there.”
Of course, it’s hard not to overlook the angle that Cunningham has a delicious opportunity to stick it to Salt Lake's Jason Kreis – the man who traded him away from RSL three years ago – with a potential clinching goal. No one knows Cunningham better than Ellinger, who preceded Kreis as RSL head coach and who lobbied FC Dallas to acquire him in August of 2008.
“I don’t know if you can say it’s a revenge thing,” Ellinger said. “But I think we’ll see a really good game out of Jeff tomorrow.”
[inline_node:322346]The Tinker Master
Another week, another lineup shuffle for Hyndman. Just when it seemed as if FC Dallas were near full-strength, the Hoops lost Rodríguez and left back Heath Pearce to injury, while winger Atiba Harris will sit out Saturday’s game due to the red card he received in the first leg.
Hyndman is still holding his lineup close to his chest, but one scenario for Saturday’s match is Brek Shea's return to the starting 11 for the first time since mid-September at the left wing, with Honduran Marvin Chavez switching over to the right.
Alternatively, rookie Eric Alexander or first-leg match-winner Eric Avila could factor into the equation in the midfield, while Zach Loyd or Jackson Gonçalves will likely fill in for Pearce.
This is nothing new for Hyndman – injuries and disciplinary issues have forced him to rotate and experiment with his lineup all year (but he admits he wishes he didn’t have to be, as he calls it “the tinker guy”). Shea, however, finds a distinct advantage in his coach’s little element of mystery.
“He keeps [the lineup] to himself until game day, and that keeps everyone on our toes,” the newly capped US international told MLSsoccer.com. “If you see you’re going to start, you may start to slack off a little bit. If nobody knows, everyone’s going to be ready.”
Real Salt Lake have turned Rio Tinto Stadium into a fortress thanks in part to the altitude (4,450 feet above sea level, second only to Colorado’s Dick’s Sporting Goods Park) and raucous crowds. But one aspect that often goes overlooked is the pitch itself, which many coaches and players have observed as one of the harder natural surfaces in MLS. Hyndman falls into that camp.
“When it gets into the evening, it gets slippery as well,” he told MLSsoccer.com. “There’s a lot of loss of footing, lots of guys running at people. That makes it more an offensive field because you can run at people and they can’t stay with you, they go slipping and sliding.”
RSL certainly have the offensive speed to take advantage, but FCD are no slouches when it comes to pace, either. Just one more reason Saturday’s second leg should be an epic encounter.