Following a surprising blockbuster trade between the clubs just last week, DC United will head north to New Jersey to take on the New York Red Bulls. Since the clubs exchanged Dwayne De Rosario and Dax McCarty, both teams have changed how their midfields line up to accommodate two very different players. NYRB's switch to the flatter midfield preferred by Hans Backe has seen them snag a 2-2 comeback draw in San Jose followed by a 5-0 thrashing of a hapless Toronto FC.
While blowing out Toronto is pretty much par for the course for MLS clubs at this point, this was a somewhat confident TFC, coming in after beating the Vancouver Whitecaps twice in 3 days and qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League in the process. Nevertheless, the Red Bulls ruthlessly exposed Toronto's generous defending, using the Reds to get over a stretch where they drew eight of eleven games. While Gold Cup-enforced absences surely helped cause that run, that 1-8-2 streak contained plenty of games before our region's premier tournament robbed Backe of five starters. Until playing TFC, the quotes coming out of New York were more about frustration and desperation.
Beyond the jump, we'll examine how NYRB will come out and what DC can do about it.
NYRB will utilize a slightly unbalanced 442:
Greg Sutton and Bouna Coundoul have shown over the last month or so how neither is a quality MLS starter (Coundoul's oft-cited low career GAA is a shining example of why citing stats in soccer can be so perilous). However, Sutton got through the TFC match without screwing up, and at this point that's all it takes to keep the starting job. United should look to take advantage of Sutton's awful decision-making on crosses and freekicks. Simple things like creating traffic in his path can be enough; not only is Sutton easily confused, but he's also probably the softest keeper in MLS. Where guys like Faryd Mondragon or Dan Kennedy are built and have no fear of contact, Sutton is a beanpole and usually looks unhappy at the idea that he might have to bump into anyone. This is a major advantage, especially given Andy Najar's recent delivery on corner kicks.
Across the back, there are no question marks. Jan Gunnar Solli has been playing through a hamstring injury for a couple of weeks, but hasn't looked like he's carrying a problem. Solli has been the best attacking right back in MLS this season - little surprise, since he came to MLS as more of a midfielder who could also play right back - and hit us for three assists back in April. Chris Pontius was very poor defensively against Sheanon Williams last week, so this game will be a big challenge for Party Boy.
Elsewhere in the back, Carlos Mendes will continue to deputize for the injured Rafael Marquez. This is excellent news for us, as Marquez was the single biggest factor in NYRB's ability to bypass the midfield in our previous meeting. Without his mid- and long-range passing, New York cannot afford to play on the counter like they did so well last time (where United had 59% of possession against an NY team that is supposed to be among MLS's best with the ball). Instead, NY will have to actually play through the midfield. Granted, they are also good at that, but they've done less well against teams that can match their ability to keep the ball - recently losing 4-2 to Seattle, for example - than against teams that are not as comfortable in passing.
DC can exacerbate the absence of Marquez by forcing Mendes - not Tim Ream - to be the player who distributes out of the back. Mendes is no oaf, but he's also no Marquez; we will not see him hitting inch-perfect passes to playrs 50 yards upfield. To do this, United will need to be selective about when to apply high pressure. Charlie Davies may be given specific instructions to stay up high and slightly towards our right side at all times, so that he's always in a good spot to pressure Ream if NY chooses to pass to him.
Another big problem for NY is that Teemu Tainio will be suspended after picking up his fifth yellow card against Toronto. Tainio is the metronome for the former Metrostars; he sets the pace and keeps the ball moving. He also provides a somewhat similar passing range to Marquez, which means that NY will be lacking their two best sources of the kinds of passes that killed us last time. Furthermore, with Tainio out, Dax McCarty will have to take on an expanded role, something he was uncomfortable with here.
In Tainio's stead, Backe is virtually certain to call on Mehdi Ballouchy (there are no healthy, realistic alternatives), but how he's deployed remains a question. Backe could shift Joel Lindpere into the middle, but the Estonian has been on fire playing left midfield of late (including 4 goals in their last 3 games). On the other hand, playing Ballouchy centrally will leave NY pretty soft down the middle. Ballouchy is the odd player that covers lots of ground, but never really gets in many tackles; in his days with the Colorado Rapids, he won the club's "beep test" for fitness, yet was often derided as lazy because he never seemed to be involved defensively. Ballouchy will also tend to drift forward, which would send NY right back into the diamond formation they wanted to be done with when they traded De Rosario to us.
Up front, there are no glaring weaknesses or problems. Luke Rodgers has been nursing a heel injury and could theoretically be rested after having played midweek, but he was replaced by Juan Agudelo after only 56 minutes thanks to the result being in hand by that point. Agudelo would start over Rodgers if Backe does rest the Englishman, though, so it's not like we catch a break either way. Thierry Henry, meanwhile, will line up slightly behind the front line and also slightly to the left, an area that he has always naturally drifted to. NYRB possesses enough quality at forward that even a good performance can be marred by one moment of inattention; in the 4-0 loss, NY essentially went 4 for 5 on scoring chances. There is no more ruthless team in the league up front; if we give away chances, we will give away goals. To get a win, the defensive effort will have to be the best we've mustered in some time (think suffocating FC Dallas a few weeks back).
Beyond Henry's drifting and Lindpere's charging runs from midfield, United will have to contend with Dane Richards, who will take up his customary role high on the right wing. Daniel Woolard, like just about everyone in MLS, will not be able to keep up with Richards. The job in that case is about anticipating what Richards will do before he starts his run. Little things very early in these developing plays - say, Pontius being in the path that Richards wants to run - can make all the difference.
Going forward, DC needs to make good use of Najar on the right. Lindpere is responsible, but Roy Miller is inconsistent in his decision-making. If our players can find Najar isolated against Miller - particularly if it's a counter after Lindpere has jumped forward - we should be able to create chances every time. Davies and Josh Wolff both have a speed advantage over Ream and Mendes as well, so it might not be a bad idea to give NYRB some of the counter-attacking play that they used so well against us.
I'm also very confident that De Rosario will have a big game. Whereas McCarty will be looking at this game as an awkward match against his old buddies, De Ro will absolutely be playing with a chip on his shoulder. He's the kind of player that takes being traded personally, and he has often used such snubs - real or perceived - to fuel strong performances. Given that NY will be without their best defensive midfielder as well, this should be a game where De Rosario finds plenty of room to create chances.
Ultimately, this is arguably the single best moment to be playing New York. They're on a short rest, they're missing the player that made our last game against them such a problem, several starters have injuries, they're adjusting to a new formation, and the expectations from fans and pundits - in Matthew Doyle's case, both - are that this game is a walkover for NY.
The 4-0 win they got at RFK was deceptive, however, and the reality is that NYRB is an inconsistent club that is capable of both tremendous displays and of being quite mediocre. Don't believe the hype; this game is absolutely winnable. United will have to apply some different tactical wrinkles, but those are ultimately easier to implement than dealing with the abilities of Marquez and Tainio to spot gaps faster than our young defense could cover them up. The last meeting between the clubs exposed a soccer IQ gap, but since then DC has closed that gap down significantly - young players learn fast - and NY is missing two of their three smartest players. "Winnable" doesn't mean easy, though; this will have to be a performance at least as good as our win in Portland or outplaying the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center.
Finally, it is worth noting how vital the first goal will be. Yes, in soccer you can say that about every game, but it's far more important than usual. It's not just about confidence for our young group; a lead will allow NY to possess without having to attack. They're a top-notch team at keepaway, and we have not done well when forced to chase the game. A lead for NY changes the game tactically and would likely serve to emphasize our faults, so it is imperative that we strike first.