D.C. United hasn't had a playoff game since November 1, 2007. That's the stark reality. No current United player was with the club at the time. A person starting college that fall would have their degree by now. It's been a long damn time, but we're back where we belong.
Naturally, the fates have handed us the most appropriate opponent for this long-delayed return: The lying, cheating, dastardly New York Red Bulls. NYRB is a team that United has traditionally tormented at every opportunity, going all the way back to the first playoff series both clubs ever played. In the three postseason meetings, United has come out on top every time.
History doesn't win games, however. This year's United won't have Marco Etcheverry winning last-moment penalty kicks or Raul Diaz Arce available to convert. We won't have Earnie Stewart to call on when it's time to defy physics to avoid being called offside (see item #7) and score a killer goal. This year's team needs to make history for themselves.
On the topic of this year, we're looking at a season series that has been very even. United crushed the Red Bulls 4-1 back in April, but followed it up by being comprehensively outplayed for the first half before fighting back well to lose 3-2 in one of the higher-quality games of the entire MLS regular season. The last match, at the end of August, saw United go up 2-1 in a tight game only for Wilman Conde to score the goal of his life in the 86th minute. These two teams match up in such a way that goals and drama are likely to follow no matter the conditions, location, or circumstances.
All that said, we'll be seeing a different NYRB than the one we saw back in August. Hans Backe is on his third first-choice GK of the season and will be without several first-choice players (as well as a couple of intriguing replacements). If that doesn't sound like positive news, consider the word that Designated Player Tim Cahill is at best a game-time decision due to a calf strain picked up in training this week. Drunk Uncle is going to have to earn his paycheck for once, rather than simply send out his squad of millionaires and hope they can win in spite of his instructions.
The Red Bulls have favored a somewhat narrow 4132 recently, and despite the injuries that is unlikely to change:
I hope you enjoy the throwback Metrostars uniforms (didn't have a white with red trim option). Anyway, the question marks are entirely in the midfield. Dax McCarty has had a stellar season in the deep role Teemu Tainio will probably take, but Backe seems to look for any way possible to move him to some other role. The word out of NYRB camp is that if Cahill can't play, McCarty will play in his spot; in other words, the same role that he was unable to succeed in during his time playing for Good rather than Evil.
If Cahill can play - and since this is the playoffs, "questionable" is more like "probable" - McCarty will likely end up having a right-sided role. Backe doesn't like to use Sebastian Le Toux as anything other than a sub in the final 15 minutes, and late-season addition Lloyd Sam (a speedy right winger) will miss out with an injury. If Backe were smarter, he'd play Jan Gunnar Solli on the right and use McCarty deep, but Backe has shown a propensity for doing the strange thing when there is a different, more straightforward option available.
Joel Lindpere is also a question mark on the left, because Backe seems to disapprove of the energetic Estonian's defensive play. It's not a question of work rate, but rather positioning. Solli could end up starting out there as a more defensive option, as could McCarty (yes, it's ridiculous, but it happened as recently as their second-to-last game of the season).
The other option Backe might consider would be a flatter 442 with McCarty and Tainio alongside each other (with McCarty being the one that gets into the attack more often). That would lower Lindpere's defensive responsibilities, but Backe has only seemed to like to call on Solli on the right if the formation is narrower.
In terms of form, NYRB is in an odd place. They went 1-1-1 in their last three games. That loss was to the Chicago Fire at Red Bull Arena, where their use of a high line and offside trap ended up being their downfall. The draw, a 0-0 result against Sporting Kansas City, was actually the best performance; NYRB owned possession and were one of the only teams all year to throw the Sporks off their game. The win - 3-0 at Philly - looks impressive, but was actually quite even on the balance of play. The Red Bulls finished their chances ruthlessly, while the Union did what they always do and wasted their opportunities. Henry wasn't happy, particularly with their second half performance.
Psychologically, there are always issues for NYRB. Backe is not a good man-manager, and he has some odd characters to deal with. There are team-first guys like McCarty and Pearce who generally perform well no matter what, but they line up alongside a moody Henry and everyone's least-favorite scumbag, Rafael Marquez. There's also Lindpere, who used to be like McCarty and Pearce but has become very hit-or-miss in terms of focus after years of dealing with Backe generally being MLS's most puzzling coach.
Finally, there's feast-or-famine Kenny Cooper, who has managed the least convincing 18 goal season in MLS history by a country mile. There are games where Cooper is on and can't miss; there are games where Cooper is anonymous despite playing next to Henry, who could make your average pick-up game striker look good.
United needs to be the team that's made of sterner stuff amidst all this angst and sadness. That will probably come down to big moments, particularly early in both halves. Remember Chris Pontius going in hard but fair on Henry before scoring the opener back in April (of course you do, it was beautiful)? That didn't just make the score 1-0. In fact, the tackle that sent Henry to the ground feigning a facial injury was just as significant as the goal. NYRB did not recover from the sight of their leader and inspiration being unceremoniously dumped to the ground. If United responds well to things like that - the big tackles, the moments after a scuffle or a huge save, etc - we can seize control of the mental game, which will be more important than it normally is.
Defensively, United will need to find a way to disrupt NYRB's possession game. Allowing them time to get into a rhythm would be courting disaster, because the Red Bulls simply have too much skill and will pick us apart. United has done well for the most part in approaching games against the Red Bulls with some extra energy, and it'll go a long way in this game.
In particular, the players to pressure will be Marquez and whoever ends up in the defensive midfield role. Marquez's ability to play out of the back and switch the point of attack caused us problems in 2011, and if we give him time he will find Henry and/or Cooper in dangerous spots. Fortunately, if there's one thing Lionard Pajoy does well, it's harass defenders when United is not in possession. If Pajoy can reach his normal standard in that department, we should be able to frustrate Marquez. That will play in our favor, because Marquez loses focus easily and is an awful center back when he gets distracted.
Stopping Tainio/McCarty will be more about not giving whoever it is an easy option to find Henry, for the most part. Tainio tends to be a bit stagnant in possession, but has a better passing range than McCarty. If the Finn gets the start, United has to pressure him for the same reasons they need to pressure Marquez: He can switch play nearly as well if he has time to look up and measure his pass. If it's McCarty, the job is more about dictating where he passes and then tracking his next move. McCarty thrives in playing quick combinations, so following his run after he moves the ball along is just as important as preventing him from being able to make too many forward passes.
Dealing with Henry will require a team-wide effort. Henry likes to drop off and also prefers to play towards the left side of the attack. If our methods for dealing with other deep-lying players continues, we'll see Marcelo Saragosa taking up that zone on a regular basis. Henry hates physical players like Saragosa, so we may see him drift deeper or further to the wing (which will mean Lindpere's runs will start becoming more and more towards the middle rather than staying wide).
The "team" part of the equation is cutting off the service to Henry. The guy is incredibly difficult to deal with if he gets a lot of the ball, so the way to stop him is to keep his number of touches as low as possible. Cutting off the passing lanes to Henry will require a strong display across the field in terms of awareness, anticipation, and communication. Players will have to be quick to step up or step back, and the rest of the group has to adjust in case those sudden movements - which disrupt our shape - go wrong.
NYRB is a respectable team on set pieces. Henry's service is - big surprise - excellent, and they have strong targets. Markus Holgersson has his share of goals, while Cooper is always a threat in the air. Even guys like Pearce and McCarty (he's an expert at sneaking in late, and has a good leap) are able to make things happen in the box. If Cahill plays, he could be threat #1 despite being no more than average height for a midfielder. Cahill has the leaping ability of a basketball player (or maybe it's Aussie Rules football?), and made his bones in England by using his ups and his sense of timing to win aerial battles over bigger, stronger players.
What I'm getting at is that fouling or needless corner kicks are to be avoided. NYRB's lack of speed means United should be able to avoid late tackles, but the Red Bulls manage space well and can put players in spots where a foul is their only option. Again, anticipation and awareness will be huge; if our players can defend on their feet rather than lunging in, they should be able to come up with the ball without giving up a free kick.
Going forward, United should be able to create chances. There are plenty of vulnerabilities: Marquez, even when focused, is pretty far from nimble these days, so players will be able to buy space with a fake or draw a foul when his tackle is late. Markus Holgersson is also lacking in agility, and would prefer to spend the game winning aerial battles. Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon need to make a few runs with the ball into the central portion of the field and force these guys to deal with it rather than just staying wide all the time.
Speaking of the wings, there's a contrast on how to approach each fullback. Connor Lade is very determined and has good speed, but he's also the smallest player left in the playoffs. Pontius has a significant strength advantage on Lade, and should look to simply shoulder his way past the little guy from time to time. The options available to Pontius - physical advantage if he goes wide, speed advantage if he cuts in on Holgersson - are frankly mouth-watering.
DeLeon's choices aren't as good. Pearce is a quality defender with USMNT and Bundesliga experience as a left back. I'm not saying DeLeon can't trick his way past him, but it will be more difficult than what Party Boy will see on the other side. That brings me back to my point about DeLeon cutting inside to get at Marquez. We can't afford to always have DeLeon cutting in, but he should go there at least half of the time (especially since Andy Najar's marauding runs add an element Pearce doesn't see too much in MLS).
On Filibuster, I came out in favor of starting Maicon Santos and playing a 442 rather than using Branko Boskovic in the 4231. It's purely playing this match-up, and more specifically trying to take advantage of Marquez. Santos gets under the skin of most of the players he faces because he's strong and plays with an edge. There's a bit of a macho air about MFS, and he seems to make his opponents take it personally. Marquez is not good at the mind-games side of things, and I think Santos is the kind of guy that will drive him nuts when we're in possession. Plus, Marquez's lack of quickness makes him vulnerable to the inevitable cutbacks Santos will attempt in his never-ending quest to hit bombs with his left foot.
One more little wrinkle we'll need to see from United involves getting someone from the central midfield to come forward enough so that we have options for combination play beyond the forward/forwards. Our goal in Chicago saw Pajoy and Boskovic draw plaudits, but watch the replay again: It's worker bee Saragosa making the pass to Boskovic in space on the left. I'm not saying Saragosa has to be a serious goal threat or create tons of chances, but he and/or Perry Kitchen need to offer themselves up as an option underneath the attack, and when they get the ball they need to play it quickly (preferably one-touch) into a dangerous spot. NYRB's slow center backs will struggle with this kind of coordinated movement if United can pull it off, and it'll only happen if one of our holding midfielders helps the attack.
The impact of swapping the order of the first and second legs isn't something I would be too concerned with. United was always going to have to come out and score goals (that's plural), and we were always going to need to seize control of the home leg from the start. That has not changed. Rather than wonder about how worrisome it will be to play extra time away, United should focus on the fact that playing at home is a chance to build a strong lead.
NYRB has been fragile early in games all year, and they may be missing an experienced player while also playing another good one out of position. An aggressive United side could take total control of this playoff pairing if we start the match well. If, however, NYRB is allowed to ease into proceedings, we could find ourselves in need of a scoring draw or a win at RBA. This series may hinge on starting the game at top speed, as that's how we can turn the supposed disadvantage of hosting the first leg into a positive.