Any D.C. United fan worth their salt looks over the schedule when it comes out for certain games. There's the historic battle between MLS's two most successful clubs with the LA Galaxy. Maybe you look for the Seattle Sounders due to the headlines generated in the last couple of years. It could be some other team thanks to the guy down the hall who is, for some unknown reason, a diehard Fire or Rapids fan (almost no chance he's a Rapids fan, but whatever).
We all have our games we get excited for, but there's one game we all get up for: United's archrival, the hated and totally unlikeable New York Red Bulls. How irritating are they? They keep talking about the La Manga Cup like it means more than, say, your last win at beer pong. They see themselves as a big club despite having never won anything. They are a corporate billboard. Despite having the money to sign huge international stars, they are still inept.
However, they are also scoring goals in bunches right now. Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper are both - along with Chris Wondolowski - tied atop the MLS scoring standings with 7 goals apiece in just six games. Henry also has 5 assists, which is the kind of form to break MLS records in both categories. They put up three straight three-goal wins (4-1, 5-2, and 4-1 again) before slowing down a bit in a 2-2 home draw with the San Jose Earthquakes.
That game looms large over tomorrow's showdown. Henry said that the Quakes "gave [them] a lesson in football" in the second half of that game, and San Jose dominated despite having to substitute winger Shea Salinas and center back Victor Bernardez (their best defender) both before halftime. The Salinas injury was due to the continued disgraceful play of Rafael Marquez, who was suspended 3 games for football-tackling and then kicking Salinas. Meanwhile, NYRB will also miss a player due to an injury caused by an opponent, as left back Roy Miller is out with a knee problem caused by Marvin Chavez's reckless tackle (Chavez was also suspended).
Marquez and Miller will be joined in the stands by three other notable starters (Wilman Conde, Teemu Tainio, and Juan Agudelo). That disorganization, along with an NYRB defense that was being bailed out by their attacking firepower (10 goals allowed in 6 games is a pace to concede 57 in a season), points to a team that is not going to be able to live up to the hype.
We at B&RU make fun of Hans Backe maybe more than anyone in MLS, but this week at least he has some big adjustments to make to his 442:
I mentioned the missing players in the opening portion of this piece, but it's more vital for our purposes to know about their replacements. Starting in the back, Conde will be replaced by Stephen Keel. For United, that's a positive development; Keel is a big, physical guy, but he's not very quick or agile when the ball is on the ground, and he's also a bit slow with his decision-making. Conde is no Jamison Olave these days, but he's got far higher soccer IQ than Keel.
Making things worse for NYRB is that Keel is being partnered with another slow of foot and mind kind of player in Markus Holgersson. The Swede was supposed to be NYRB's version of the Emiliano Dudar signing, but he has not adjusted to MLS well at all (either that, or he just isn't very good). If United can move well without the ball while also maintaining a one- and two-touch approach, the NYRB center backs will find the game going too fast for their liking.
Miller's replacement at left back will be young Academy product Connor Lade, as NYRB's paper-thin roster offers Backe no alternatives. Backe is high on Lade, which is unusual for a guy who holds the college game (Lade was at St. John's last season) with roughly the same low regard as a grumpy old man might have for the music of today's kids. The rookie is not an imposing presence, but he has respectable speed and avoided making any big mistakes against San Jose despite being thrown into a game that saw the Red Bulls under a lot of pressure.
United should look to attack Lade early to see if he might cough up a chance or two based on nerves or due to lacking the experience to be at his best from the opening whistle. The expectation right now is that Danny Cruz - precisely the kind of player a nervous, inexperienced youngster would not want to see - will be starting for United. Hopefully, Cruz's relentless style will give us an advantage on that flank.
Marquez's suspension couldn't have come at a worse time for NYRB, as their other quality defensive midfielder - Tainio - is out injured for the next few weeks. Both players offer a great combination of passing range and vision, but they don't have any other players who can offer that. Given Backe's strange refusal to use Joel Lindpere in the central position he played in Europe, it's almost certain that we'll see Iceland u21 Victor Palsson in his place.
Palsson is not a big name, but he apparently did quite well in the first half of the Scottish season with top division side Hibernian. MLS's first ever Icelandic-Portuguese player is an all-action kind of midfielder, covering tons of ground and getting his fair share of tackles in while trying to support the offense. He and Dax McCarty are actually rather similar players overall.
These absences in central midfield and defense are a big problem for NYRB, as they typically rely on skillful players there to act as the platform for their possession game. Conde is their best passer out of the back, and both Tainio and Marquez - who picked us apart in this fixture last year with his long passes - are missing as well. This means NYRB will have to adapt to playing a different style based on early passes out of the back towards Kenny Cooper, or going long over the top for Dane Richards down the right. Henry will also likely drop deeper, as he did when Marquez was suspended at the beginning of the season. Good news for us: That last tactic didn't work at all, as it reduced Henry to a distributor only, moved him further from goal, and also deprived Cooper of a partner.
United should also look to apply pressure in this portion of the field. Dwayne De Rosario, Maicon Santos, and our other starting forward should look to force the center backs into hurried passes and turnovers, while our whole midfield should get narrow without the ball so guys like McCarty - already a bit conservative on the ball - are forced to play backward all game long.
Out on the left, Mehdi Ballouchy has moved above the out of form Lindpere on the depth chart. While Ballouchy is one of those classic MLS players that are usually traded as a makeweight, he does play well coming in from the left and combining with Henry (who could make anyone look good). Dealing with him will require strong communication and positional awareness from Robbie Russell, as well as an assist from Cruz or Andy Najar at right midfield.
While both NYRB left midfielders like to come inside, Richards offers a different challenge. The Jamaican has blazing speed and stays wide to isolate the opposing left back on the dribble, but he's also become better at losing his marker while the ball further away and then making a dangerous run into a goalscoring position.
Daniel Woolard has a tough job on his hands, and our left midfielder - likely Nick DeLeon - can help quite a bit by simply getting in the way. If Richards can't make his runs due to an obstruction, or if he gets bumped slightly before taking off, he becomes a pretty unremarkable player (not to mention that his temper can sometimes get the better of him when he's being shut down offensively).
Up front, United will have a lot to deal with. Of all people, Backe has finally convinced Cooper to play as a target forward, and the returns have been instant. Cooper is tall and powerfully built, but has in the past struggled with putting it to good use; his tendency to go wide right has driven plenty of fans and coaches nuts over the years. Our back four will need to be ready for Cooper to look to turn at the top of the box, while also being ready for his elusive runs when a player gets into a crossing position on either flank.
Henry, meanwhile, tends to play most of his game in the left-center channel and slightly underneath Cooper, which means that Russell, Brandon McDonald, and Perry Kitchen will likely be seeing a lot of him. The play of that trio may be the biggest factor if United is to keep NYRB contained. Communication will be vital, as will the focus to always have someone aware of Henry's whereabouts and in between him and the goal. Easier said than done, but that's how it is against top players.
Going forward, we touched on how DC should attack through the middle with smart runs and quick combination play. However, we should also be looking for DeLeon and our forwards to try to get behind Jan Gunnar Solli at right back. Solli is a threat going forward, but he's not actually a very good defender (stunning, since his natural position is in the midfield...good work Backe). If NYRB coughs up the ball in the midfield, DeLeon should be looking to streak forward quickly, because Solli will likely have jumped forward to aid the attack.
While the Red Bulls are the team getting more attention in the media and sitting higher in many Power Rankings, they enter this game quite vulnerable. The schedule-makers have given us something of a gift, as NYRB will be far below their best in terms of their lineup, and will have little available on the bench (unless you're intimidated by guys like Tyler Ruthven or Corey Hertzog). This is a defense that United should be scoring goals on, and that defense will be lacking the normal cover it gets with both first-choice central midfielders out.
On the other hand, Henry and Cooper are in outstanding form, and Richards is always a threat. You don't score 15 goals in 4 games - as NYRB has done coming into this one - without being really dangerous going forward. United will need to be very sound in possession and very focused and aware in the back, or this game could turn into a shootout (or worse). The return of Dudar helps quite a bit, but every United player will have to take a big step up from how they played against the Montreal Impact on Wednesday.