D.C. United's first playoff game in five years was a strange one. Despite thoroughly controlling the first half and edging the second on the balance of play, what fans will remember are the bad moments: Chris Pontius telegraphing his penalty kick, allowing Luis Robles to make the save; missed sitters by Nick DeLeon and Branko Boskovic; arguably the worst goal Bill Hamid gave up all year (yes, he was bumped by Markus Holgersson, but that should still be saved); and Andy Najar getting himself two yellow cards in about 15 seconds.
Even some of the good moments were strange. United's goal came thanks to a
brilliant finish errant clearance from Roy Miller, while the best chance during the 10v11 period of the game was the 75th minute moment which saw Lionard Pajoy's somewhat flimsy penalty kick claim and a Pontius shot saved at point-blank range. New York created one actual shot on goal, and seemed thoroughly content with playing a conservative game of keep-away the longer the game wore on.
The second leg probably won't be quite as odd as all that, but you never know. Hans Backe went off-message to say that he was surprised tonight's game wasn't moved to earlier in the day due to the nor'easter that will ensure miserable conditions throughout. Dwayne De Rosario has been upgraded to probable on the injury report, yet told the press that he was going up to Red Bull Arena "for moral support" only. One simply cannot be sure what's next in this series.
That said, one thing is pretty likely: It sounds like the Red Bulls will field nearly the same team as they did at RFK. Rafael Marquez was the one injury doubt after getting pulled at halftime with a calf problem, but Backe gives him a 90% chance of starting. With that being the case, I expect only one change:
If Marquez can't play, I expect the same change we saw in the first leg: Miller comes in at left back, and Heath Pearce moves into the middle. Ideally, of course, we'd see both Miller and Marquez, but we aren't that lucky I suppose. Whichever plays is a weak link in a beatable NYRB back four. If it's Marquez playing, the weakness is down the middle, where he can lose focus at key moments and is also a known hothead. If it's Miller, then we have a far more inviting match-up for DeLeon because Miller is a significant step down from Pearce in just about every category.
The one change I expect is the return of Kenny Cooper up front. Sebastien Le Toux was used on the road to help NYRB counter with speed, but ultimately United did such a good job of denying Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, and Joel Lindpere space that Le Toux ended up being totally anonymous. In a game Backe will (rightly or wrongly) expect his side to control, Cooper is far more likely to return to the starting line-up.
That change underlines the main difference between the approach of the Red Bulls away and how they'll play at home. On the road, NYRB was trying their best to simply take the life out of the game, play slow, and always play the safest pass rather than go forward. At home, the former Rotmasters will look to use their possession game as a weapon rather than as a shield.
For United, that means the job of compressing space and forcing negative passes or turnovers will be more complicated than in the first leg. At RFK, the Red Bulls were simply waiting for our mistakes to happen; at RBA, they will try to put us on our heels with quicker circulation of the ball and more risk-taking when it comes to passes. Stopping that will require building on the strong showings we got out of our central block of Perry Kitchen, Marcelo Saragosa, Brandon McDonald, and Dejan Jakovic.
In particular, McDonald needs to be very sharp, as Henry's tendency to drift left of center means he'll be facing BMac more often than not. For McDonald, a good game won't mean winning a physical battle with Henry; it'll mean not being fooled into going out of position when Henry looks to pass, and also staying marked up on Henry when someone else is looking to set up the World Cup winner. It's a mental challenge much more than a physical one.
One plus for United is the weather forecast. Weather.com currently has the conditions at kickoff as 37 degrees, rainy, and winds blowing north at 28 mph. In other words, it's going to suck. However, as any sports fan can tell you, the worse the weather gets, the less an intricate approach to play works. NYRB's possession game and focus on out-thinking opponents is a poor match for the conditions, which will likely make quality spells of play hard to come by. This game will be far less about 15 pass sequences than it will about winning second balls, set pieces, and a shoot-first approach to attacking.
The loss of Najar for this game might seem like an issue, but Robbie Russell should be up to the challenge. Look for him to take few risks going forward, and instead focus on the energetic Lindpere (as well as helping out with Henry). Lindpere isn't so fast that he can just go past Russell effortlessly, but it will be important for Russell to avoid leaving gaps. If he's going to step up to snuff something out, he has to be sure he's going to get there in time. Otherwise, NYRB will look for a quick combination to give Lindpere time to charge into the box (rather than cross early, which he doesn't like to do until late).
One thing United wasn't able to do quite as well as I'd have liked was to get after defensive midfielder Teemu Tainio. The Finn managed to complete 94 of 107 total passes, allowing NYRB to get something resembling a rhythm in their attempts to hold the ball until the clock expired. If Boskovic starts again, he'll have to do more on the defensive side of the ball to force Tainio into lower-percentage passes. If instead we see Maicon Santos and a 442, he and Pajoy will have to work out who will drop deeper in an attempt to force Tainio to play longer and/or more hurriedly than he did in the first leg.
Going forward, United should be able to create chances. We talked about Marquez/Miller earlier, and one common refrain after the first leg was how much of a mismatch Pontius had in attacking NY right back Connor Lade. Lade always works very hard and has good quickness, but is slower and smaller than Pontius. Furthermore, he seemed unsure of what to expect out of Party Boy, and seemed to default towards preventing the cutback move we like to call the Pontius Special. The downside for Lade is that Pontius can still stay wide and get around him (that's how he created our first great chance at RFK).
Simply put, United needs to go all-in on that side of the field. The more we get the ball to Pontius, the more Pontius will be going at Lade. There's just one problem: Long cross-field balls won't be a good idea given the conditions, as both the wind (ruining the flight of the ball) and the wet surface (forcing long passes to skip out of bounds) will make such passes hard to pull off. United is going to have to feed Pontius on the ground, and that's something NYRB can - and even with Backe's eccentric choices, probably will - be ready for.
That's where DeLeon comes in. In the first leg, he was less a directly involved participant than someone who was trying to help other people get involved in the game. However selfless his work off the ball was, we need him to be a bigger factor in terms of going to goal and in terms of playing the killer pass himself. DeLeon will have to find a way past Pearce from time to time, and he'll also have to find a way to create chances from 30-40 yards out. Cutting inside might be a good start, since that could expose Marquez.
Creating threats on both flanks will in turn open up the middle, where either Boskovic or Santos will need to use their powerful left-footed shots on a regular basis. In sloppy conditions, any shot on frame has to be considered a good move forward. If either of those two can simply keep their shots low, it's going to be very difficult for Luis Robles to deal with both the initial save and the potential for the ball to slide underneath him, or off his glove and in. United's mantra on the night should be "low, hard, and often." Kitchen and Saragosa can also contribute in this regard, as both have shown the occasional glimpse of being able to latch onto a half-clearance and go to goal.
At some point in this game, it's likely one team will be desperate for a goal. If that's United, look for either the return of the 4132 or - and I think this is more likely - a 3412 featuring either Boskovic or De Ro underneath a pair of strikers. I expect Hamdi Salihi to get into this game either way, but if we're down you can bet your last dollar that he'll be featured as well.
If it's NYRB, there are more possibilities. They could go to a back three with Lade moving up to right midfield, or with Le Toux coming in on the right (probably for Lade). In any case, expect Henry to drop underneath and become more playmaker than goal threat, as that's what he tends to do whenever NYRB is getting desperate. We could see an odd-looking 433 with Le Toux and Lindpere playing wide on either side of Cooper and Henry playing as the attacking midfielder. Backe has done some strange things, and Henry's unbreakable desire to play as an old-school #10 usually doesn't exactly fit the plan and instead has to be accommodated in somewhat unorthodox fashion.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, United simply needs to out-fight the Red Bulls. Bad weather games always tend to go to the hungrier, harder-working team because those teams tend to pounce on mistakes first. This is going to be a sloppy game of lost touches and misplaced passes, so the team that is winning the lion's share of 50/50 balls will have a distinct advantage.
Sometimes soccer can be simple, and I think this is going to be one of those games. The team that can dig deeper - provided that catastrophic mistakes are avoided - is probably going to get the win. It's fair to say that United has done a great job of that on this eight-game unbeaten run, as no team has out-fought us (or even ended up even in that admittedly subjective category). Tonight will require matching or exceeding the standard we've set on the run into the playoffs.