There is no rivalry in MLS quite like the one between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls. Seattle and Portland may have history dating back to the original NASL; the Galaxy and Chivas may be the only true city derby; Toronto may be about to set a league record for traveling supporters in Montreal. None of them can match the Atlantic Cup rivalry in terms of strange incidents, though. Last year's playoff series by itself probably contained enough oddities for a decade in most American soccer rivalries. Things. Get. Weird.
That said, one thing that isn't weird is an offseason of upheaval for the former MetroStars. Off the field, Red Bull global director of soccer Gerard Houllier showed up the day after this totally awesome thing happened, and essentially just started firing people at random. Technical Director Erik Soler was replaced by understudy Ricardo Campos, said to have a deep understanding for the vagaries of MLS. Or maybe his job was taken by new Sporting Director Andy Roxburgh...or new General Manager Jerome de Bontin. Yes, all of these people hold jobs roughly equal to what Dave Kasper does here in DC, by himself.
Lastly, comical head coach Hans Backe was unfortunately let go, and replaced by
Gary McAllister Paulo Sousa Mike Petke, beloved by the club's masochistic supporters but lacking any head coaching experience. Petke's path to the job is quite similar to how Ben Olsen became United's head coach. Both are beloved former players, both had experience only as assistant coaches before taking over, and both were not the club's public first choice. One is tempted to note that Petke comes to the job with no real experience playing for a truly good head coach (whereas Olsen had Bruce Arena as a mentor), but the situations are close enough.
Predictably, the roster was also remade. Gone are players ranging from the actually good (Kenny Cooper, Sebastian Le Toux, and Wilman Conde), to the useful sub (Jan Gunnar Solli, Stephen Keel), to the utterly disastrous (Rafael Marquez). Replacing them is an odd mixture: An international star (Juninho Pernambucano), quality MLS starters (Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola), respectable MLS role players (Eric Alexander, Kosuke Kimura), and total unknowns (Ruben Bover).
The result of all this shuffling is not shocking: Two disappointing results on the road - both involving conceding crucial late goals - and two different formations. In their 3-3 draw with Portland, NYRB played a 4231 that looked normal on paper but had some unusual wrinkles (things like a virtually stationary defensive midfielder and two players switching two roles at will). At Buck Shaw Stadium, they moved to a 442 with oddly rigid roles for the forwards and wingers who both have plenty of experience in central roles. Adding to the uncertainty: both right-sided starters against the Timbers were replaced against the Quakes.
The main issue is whether Petke can afford to start ancient midfielder Juninho. He sat out of the loss to San Jose due to a calf strain, but was able to train Wednesday and Thursday. Petke says he's good to play, but no one is quite sure if he's actually fit to start.
This is important, because Juninho likely dictates the formation. If he can play, they'll use him as a deep-lying playmaker. He was that immobile holding player I mentioned before, but it could work due to the effort Dax McCarty (alongside him) and Tim Cahill (in the attacking midfield role) put in. Generally speaking, you can get away with one passenger in a midfield trio if a) he's really skillful and b) the other two guys run like maniacs. This is how it would look in practice:
The question marks in the back and at right midfield are in place in either formation, so we'll get to them later. The real question I want to point out here is with Thierry Henry and Espindola. In Portland, Henry started the game as the lone forward, but he and Espindola switched after three minutes and more often than not played as pictured above. The idea was that Espindola's speed would give vertical space for Henry to move into coming in off the left wing.
In actual practice, Henry didn't get himself involved often enough in the build-up, while Espindola had to subsist more on laughable mistakes by Mikael Silvestre than on actual service from his teammates. Against United, it wouldn't shock me at all to see these roles reversed, or at least more consistently swapped in the run of play.
With Juninho in, NYRB is a far stronger possession team. It's not just about having the numbers in the midfield; Juninho was a UEFA Champions League regular for years with Olympique Lyon, and despite his age has the kind of vision and passing range that frankly are unmatched by any other current MLS player. He was also better at free kicks than David Beckham when Becks was at his very peak.
If Juninho can't play, United is probably catching a break. Sure, I doubt Juninho would be able to avoid the furious harassment of Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa, but a player of his quality has been dealing with tight marking and physical play for his entire career. Even if his lack of mobility made him no more than a metronome for the Red Bulls midfield, his ability on free kicks could turn the game on a dime.
If Juninho can't start and Petke goes with the 442, it'll look like this:
This time, the attacking questions are a little different. Henry and Espindola will definitely play, but I doubt they'll have the strange roles they had in San Jose. Both players stayed resolutely in one channel - Henry in the left-center region, and Espindola right-center - and as a result they struggled to connect at times. I'm not sure if this was an instruction from Petke or simply two players who don't know how to play together yet, but it didn't create much danger for the Quakes, who ended up having each of their defenders make some kind of mistake on the lone goal they conceded.
The questions elsewhere are more customary. Alexander is probably safe as a starter after scoring last week and bringing some size to what is otherwise one of the smallest teams in MLS. However, he can play any midfield position, so we could see him go to the left side for Jonny Steele, who was anonymous in San Jose and tends to pick up pointless yellow cards (which is never good in a rivalry game).
If Alexander plays on the left, we could see Bover return to the starting role he had in Portland. Who is this, exactly? Bover is a very slight 20 year old Spanish winger who came out of the RCD Mallorca academy and has had illustrious stops at English 7th division side Halesowen Town and Spanish 3rd division outfit CD San Roque de Lepe. Most likely, though, we'll see Alexander on one flank and either Steele or Connor Lade (who has followed up his totally unjustifiable Camp Streudel call-up by not playing a second thus far) on the other. Lloyd Sam was brought in last season to hold down right midfield, but seems to have found his way into Petke's doghouse.
The questions in the back both have to do with the fullbacks. On the right, Kosuke Kimura started the opener but struggled badly against Darlington Nagbe. Petke tried to shield him by sending in Brandon Barklage to play right midfield ahead of him as the game slipped away from the Red Bulls, and in San Jose he gave the former United man the start. Barklage did better than Kimura, but looked slow laterally.
How slow? Ramiro Corrales - the last remaining MLS player to have appeared in games back in the league's inaugural season - rounded him on the dribble. Lade could also slot in here, but the smart money is on Barklage retaining his role given the incentive he has in playing against us.
Left back brings us to Roy Miller, who has become the #1 running joke in MLS of late. For those not in the know, it was Miller leaving his arm bizarrely extended to concede a 90th minute penalty kick to the Earthquakes; it was Miller encroaching (how could he not learn after last year's playoffs?!) to negate the ensuing PK save from Luis Robles; and it was Miller who then declared that the encroachment was intentional, revealing a tenuous grasp on the rules of the game he plays professionally. Take a moment to really let this whole thing wash over you.
Petke, Henry, and other players have stood by Miller in his hour of stupid, self-inflicted need. However, it would not be a shock to either see a) Petke pull a player who never has been good enough to be an MLS regular and appears to be getting worse or b) Petke to bench a player clearly going through some mental issues that would compromise his play.
Petke would have two options here: Bring in Lade as a direct replacement, or move Heath Pearce to the role he's most familiar with and use Markus Holgersson at center back. Holgersson had an awful time at the start of his MLS career, but by the end of last season had become NYRB's most reliable defender.
Both ideas have a flaw. United picked on Lade last season in the playoffs, and there would be nothing stopping Ben Olsen from moving Chris Pontius to the right wing to exploit that same match-up. Bringing in Holgersson, on the other hand, would disrupt the Olave-Pearce center back pairing that NYRB has used throughout the preseason at a time when stability is what the Red Bulls need. We might actually see Miller continue to start, which would be great.
Obviously, I'm in favor of seeing United feed the ball to their wingers. Pontius has at least one major physical advantage over anyone NYRB might play on either flank, while Nick DeLeon has shown that he comes up big against the Red Bulls (don't forget, he also scored against them in the regular season). NYRB's weakest starters are their fullbacks, and there's no reason to let them off the hook. If Sounders reject/Quakes back-up Cordell Cato can terrify NYRB - as he did coming off the bench last week - then our elite wingers should be able to do the same.
The other main tactic needs to be finding Dwayne De Rosario early and often. De Ro tends to do well when he has a point to prove, and he should feel like he owes the team after getting himself suspended for the first two games of the year. If NYRB is in the flat-ish 442, De Ro's movement between the lines will also draw McCarty into a deeper role, leaving either Cahill to go 2v1 in central midfield or pulling a center back further forward than Petke would want to see.
Another point worth making is something I've noticed from Robles: He's not good in traffic. When a cross is in the air, Robles has neither the size of a Michael Gspurning nor the powerful build and leaping ability of Nick Rimando. If Robles comes out in traffic, he isn't going to bust up a crowd to get the ball. For United, that means finding a way to simply be in his way on crosses and corner kicks, and provide service that tempts him off his line.
In the midfield, it will be important for United to find a way to bridge the skill gap. Cahill and McCarty have Kitchen and Saragosa beat as a pair in terms of touch, passing ability, and experience. Where our double pivot can make up the difference is physical strength and athleticism. Cahill and McCarty are both at an athletic disadvantage (save maybe in the air, where Cahill's leaping ability is worth noting), and that opens the door for our less glamorous pairing to even things out. If central midfield resembles a back-alley brawl more than a Queensberry Rules boxing match, we should be able to stop NYRB from holding steady possession.
That will contribute to our defensive goals. The job against Henry is always the same: Deny him time and space, and force him to pass the ball off so some other, less skillful player has to beat us. This is easier said than done, though at least Henry's tendency to drift towards the left means he won't be hard to find.
His fellow forward Espindola also likes to drift wide, but like Cooper before him is working on being more of a central presence. Espindola is a pesky kind of player who never stops working off the ball and has respectable speed to get in behind the defense on through balls or anything played over the top. Dejan Jakovic in particular is going to have to be on his game to help neutralize the Argentine, but just as vital is maintaining pressure on the ball to prevent those kinds of passes.
We'll also have to look out for deep runs from Cahill (and McCarty, to a certain extent). It would be disappointing if this is a problem given our double pivot system, but if Henry draws some extra attention we could have an issue. Team-wide communication will help, as will some extra effort from our wide midfielders tracking back (allowing our central players to hold their positions rather than having to fire out to a flank).
Set pieces will also be an issue, even if Juninho isn't taking them. We've seen Henry score direct from a free kick on us before, and his service on corner kicks has been good thus far in 2013. Olave has a goal after Portland couldn't properly clear a corner, and looked dangerous several times against San Jose. He and Cahill - an expert at finding space in crowded penalty areas - are the key targets to shut down on an otherwise small team.
In terms of psychology and morale, United has a major advantage. This DC squad has as much character and willpower as any team in MLS. After all, one of these teams rallies around #TCHUB, while the other complains about minor flight delays. Despite having some mentally strong players like McCarty, Cahill, and Olave, and despite Petke being a massive improvement over Backe in this department, character is one of those qualities everyone on your team has to have for it to really take hold. NYRB has the individual stars, but you win games as a group.
Ultimately, this looks like a game United should win. Our strengths in attack match up with their weaknesses, we have a major character advantage, De Ro is back, they have Roy Miller, and this is a rivalry we've owned over the years.
However, there's a reason why knowledgeable people have ignored NYRB history and said they could win silverware this year: They have game-changing talent. There's also the fact that this is a weird series. Odd things happen. NYRB may be scrambling to figure themselves out right now, but then you could also point out that United has played less than 30 minutes with De Ro since the end of last August. The Red Bulls will also have revenge on their minds. NYRB may be fragile right now, but overconfidence on United's part would give them plenty of opportunity to give themselves a potentially season-changing result.