Given their lengthy injury list, the New York Red Bulls - and I hate to say it - deserve some credit for still being near the top of MLS's Eastern Conference. It's not just the injury to Thierry Henry, enormous though that is. Rafael Marquez has missed more games than he's played in; Wilman Conde has endured numerous muscle injuries and an arrest; and underrated defensive midfielder Teemu Tainio is probably out for the season (this is actually good news for him, as there was talk that he'd have to end his career prematurely).
On the other hand, NYRB has hardly been impressing over the last seven weeks or so. While they reeled off five straight wins after being demolished 4-1 at RFK (a day late, but still the best birthday present I got this year), the opponents were unimpressive - the inconsistent Houston Dynamo were the best win of the bunch - and the Red Bulls were outplayed in just about every game. They were getting the job done, but their success didn't look sustainable.
Even that arguably lucky streak is now just a memory. In June, the Red Bulls were eliminated from the US Open Cup by the Harrisburg City Islanders, lucky to only lose 3-1 in Chicago to the Fire, and then clawed out a draw in Vancouver by sticking firmly to a defend-and-counter approach. It's fair to say that New York hasn't had an impressive result since thumping Columbus 4-1 in Ohio back on April 7th.
All that said, we're still talking about a team with weapons. Henry should be back after hamstring and calf injuries kept him out for weeks, Kenny Cooper is near the top of the league goalscoring charts, Joel Lindpere is still really good, and they've scored a set piece goal in each of their last two games (bizarrely, one is being credited to Dax McCarty despite Markus Holgersson very clearly getting the last touch). Few MLS teams have NYRB's level of technique and soccer IQ spread throughout their team, which makes for an interesting challenge for D.C. United.
NYRB has been using Cooper as a lone forward for most of the time that Henry was out, but with his likely return, expect a 442:
The biggest issue is what NYRB will do on the flanks, because normal starter Dane Richards is suspended due to yellow card accumulation. Richards is a unique player for the Red Bulls, and none of their other wide options has the kind of speed that worries teams. We'll get into that issue in a moment, but suffice it to say it's a big one for Jersey.
Hans Backe's options are to pick two players from Lindpere, Jan Gunnar Solli, Connor Lade, or Mehdi Ballouchy. While Lindpere and Solli seem like the most likely choices, Lindpere could end up being needed centrally as Marquez is short of match fitness (if Lindpere is in the middle, McCarty will take over the more defensive role). Lade is, by far, the fastest of the group, but is a specialist left back and is also the least skillful. Ballouchy will have the advantage of being fresh, since he didn't travel to Vancouver on Wednesday due to issues with his green card, but he brings problems - inconsistency, and a tendency to drift from wide left into the space Henry likes to occupy - of his own.
If Backe wants to go really attack-minded, he could opt for Ballouchy centrally and play more of a true diamond with McCarty at the base. In that scenario, Solli and Lindpere would almost certainly get the wide roles and play them in a more narrow fashion.
There are also problems in the back. Holgersson sprained his ankle on the BC Place turf and is out. Conde was rested for that game, but had to leave training with muscle tightness the next day. If Conde is unable to play, look for Stephen Keel to get the call. Like Holgersson, Keel is big and strong, but also slow and prone to questionable decisions once the game is played at a high pace. Keel would play right-center back, with Pearce moving to the left-center spot.
If Marquez does play, he can be a very big factor if given time on the ball. His ability to spray long passes from deep spots has hurt us before, and if he's in United's attacking players will have to do extra running to always pressure him. If Marquez doesn't get time on the ball to pick his head up, his ability to impact the game is severely curtailed. There's also his famous temper. Getting in his face is always what sets him off, so physical play and constant pressure could get us the fun sight of seeing one of soccer's great heels get his marching orders.
Speaking of pressure, United should look to apply high pressure throughout the game. I touched on the loss of Richards earlier, and this is where it makes a big difference. Without him, NYRB doesn't have the kind of speed anywhere in their attack to make teams think twice about playing a high line, which compresses the space in which they can play. A high line requires consistent high pressure from front to back and from right to left, so every DC player has to be ready to work very hard throughout. It's not an easy way to play, but if done properly it should work wonders.
Why is that? For one, the Red Bulls are a smart, technical team, so giving them time is inviting disaster. Furthermore, their game in Vancouver ended at 1am EST, was on turf, and was in friggin' Vancouver. For understandable reasons, MLS teams tend to do poorly when forced to fly cross-country, and they're not even flying home.
They're also going to be on their third game in seven days; even if that was a homestand, it would be tough. Instead, they played a daytime game in Chicago last Sunday, went home, flew out to Vancouver, and now have to play a rested DCU with too many injuries and not enough depth to have rotated more than a couple of players in the squad. This is a team we should be looking to run into the ground. Without the ball, that means constant and ferocious pressure; with the ball it means quick passes, quick thinking, and good movement off the ball.
Dealing with Henry will once again require a team-wide effort. In particular, Perry Kitchen, Robbie Russell, and Brandon McDonald - assuming the latter two start - will see a lot of him, since he plays underneath Cooper and prefers to drift to the left. The best thing to do is to limit Henry's touches by cutting off the passing lanes to him. Getting between him and Cooper will be a major factor, as will forcing Lindpere (or whoever ends up on the left if Marquez is out) to play towards his central midfielders or backward rather than giving Henry the ball.
Going forward, NYRB is vulnerable. While Brandon Barklage was a popular player here, we all know that he's still a conversion project at right back. He struggled with the trickery and movement of Davide Chiumiento, particularly when isolated. Meanwhile, left back Roy Miller has long been the clear weakest starter for the Red Bulls, and we should be able to create chances down the right wing and also between Miller - who is poor positionally - and the rest of the back four.
Conde's injuries have left him with the same rust he had when he signed after being let go by Mexican club Atlas after a long recovery period following ankle surgery. This is a guy who has barely had a run of games in a year, and it has shown in his speed of thought. If he plays, I don't think he has the quickness any more to make up for being a step behind mentally; quick combinations and early through balls could find him wanting.
If Keel plays, we should be looking to keep the ball on the ground more often and attempting to outfox him rather than win repeated aerial duels. To put it another way, Hamdi Salihi and Chris Pontius might have more success against him than Maicon Santos, though it will be awfully hard to keep our leading scorer on the bench at kickoff.
The bottom line is that this game has been timed perfectly for United. NYRB is beat up, missing key players, in need of big performances from guys that have been out for weeks, and will be dog-tired from their travels. Meanwhile, we're rested up, full of confidence, and have the shortest injury list in MLS. If there was ever a time to play the Metros, it's today.
United can have plenty of success today via some pretty simple ideas: Hard work, intensity, quick thinking, and getting the details right. Frankly, given the state of NYRB right now anything less than a win would be a big letdown. The gods of timing have set this one up for us nearly perfectly, and MLS Cup contenders turn opportunities like that into three points every time.