Tonight's friendly against Paris Saint-Germain is many things for D.C. United. It's a chance to get in action against unfamiliar opponents, hopefully allowing a team with two straight losses to work out some kinks and get closer to top form. It's also a chance to strike a blow for MLS and for United as an individual team; the club has a long, proud record of doing well at RFK in this sort of game.
Finally, of course, is the "shop window" aspect, because let's be honest: PSG can afford to pay a lot more money than MLS, or pretty much any other league or team in the world. The odds are long for that sort of thing, but other French teams will likely want to scout this game on video, and manager Carlo Ancelotti has plenty of friends in Serie A and in England, too. Don't pretend that United's younger players aren't thinking about that side of it.
Scouting a team for a friendly is always a tricky endeavor. The lineups tend to be more experimental, and players that are close to (but not quite) 100% fit tend to sit out or play less. At a club like PSG, with players coming in seemingly by the busload, pretty much any player could start.
Still, we can be certain of a few things: Ancelotti has confirmed that Zlatan Ibrahimovic will start tonight, giving fans at RFK the treat of being able to say they were at his first-ever game for the Parisian side. Fellow new acquisitions Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marco Verratti should play some part. Stars who aren't new to the club, like Javier Pastore and Jeremy Menez, should also present a real test for United, while at least one - Mohamed Sissoko - will miss out with an injury.
Formation in previous WFC game (look up)
Ancelotti told the PSG website that he plans on playing a 433 with Zlatan, Menez, and Kevin Gameiro as his forward trio. The rest of what follows is a guess based on their 1-1 draw with Chelsea last Sunday (they played a different formation, complicating things).
Both Gameiro and Menez can play on either flank, so listing them as right and left-sided is a bit of a coin toss. Don't be surprised if they switch flanks fairly regularly, either. All three of these players are national team members, with Zlatan (Sweden) and Menez (France) having played in this summer's Euro 2012 (Gameiro barely missed out for France).
It won't get easier when PSG makes the inevitable mass substitution at halftime, either. Ezequiel Lavezzi, fresh off an outstanding season with SS Napoli, will probably be joined by Peguy Luyindula and Guillaume Hoarau - who at 6'4" won't be much smaller than Zlatan in the central role - if Ancelotti decides to replace his entire front line. All three have at least a handful of caps for their national teams, with Lavezzi being first choice for Argentina.
The midfield will see plenty of options as well. Clement Chantome could even start where Mathieu Bodmer is listed, while Brazilian attacking midfielder Nene is probably competing with Javier Pastore for one role if Ancelotti wants to play 433 full time. I also anticipate seeing Blaise Matuidi either sub in for Verratti or actually start over him in the holding role.
In the back, this is the set of four that faced the same guys Chris Pontius just torched. However, we could easily see that mixed up. To make things simple, here's a quick list of who could play where:
Right back - Christophe Jallet or Milan Bisevac
Right-center back - Alex or Diego Lugano
Left-center back - Mamadou Sakho or Zoumana Camara
Left back - Sylvain Armand, Siaka Tiene, or Maxwell
Followers of English soccer will recognize Alex, the former Chelsea center back, while World Cup fans should remember Diego Lugano from the Uruguayan squad that finished fourth in 2010. Big shock: Most of these guys have played for their national teams, and we're not talking about Luxembourg or Andorra here.
Rather than try to go in depth of a team I admittedly don't see much of and one that has undergone a vast amount of change this offseason, I'd prefer to highlight the players I'm most excited to see. We'll start with the obvious: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He's built like a beast of a target forward, but has the ability to do the kind of tricks we associate with smaller, quicker players. You hear the term "world class" thrown around too often these days, but Ibra actually deserves it. The only thing that could overshadow his play is if he says something awesomely arrogant to the press.
Lavezzi and Pastore would be the star attractions with any other club. The Argentine duo both burst onto the scene in Serie A, and neither did it at one of the traditional giants (though Lavezzi's old club Napoli, where Diego Maradona played for years, was big-time in the 80s). Lavezzi tends to drift to the left, so the 433 will suit him. He's a livewire kind of player, full of ideas and energy. Pastore, meanwhile, is a high-scoring attacking midfielder. He has the kind of skill you should have when you play for Argentina in that role, but also loves to burst into the box to get on the end of service. If you somehow get yourself a Ligue 1 fantasy team, you should think about picking him up.
Finally there's Verratti, who at 19 is being called "the next Andrea Pirlo." That is monumentally high praise, as Pirlo has been the best deep-lying playmaker in the world for many years. Verratti nearly made Italy's Euro 2012 squad despite having only ever played in the Serie B with Pescara. This move is a major step up for him, and we should be getting an early glimpse at a guy that could become a superstar in world soccer.
So how can United beat a team with this much talent? Effort will be crucial, as will sharpness. The Black-and-Red will care more about this result than PSG's players, and unlike them we aren't in preseason. Those are significant factors. We might see long spells without the ball, but if the 2010 squad could beat AC Milan, this far stronger United team can take down one of the richest teams in the game.