On the basis of play, the last Atlantic Cup battle between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls should have ended 3-0 or so to the former Metrostars. Stat-heads could look at possession, duels, completed passes, shots, and every other metric one can come up with. The number-averse could just watch the game: One team was clearly better in virtually every facet, and that team was wearing white. If not for Bill Hamid's heroics and two shots by Fabian Espindola that smashed into the crossbar, NYRB would have registered their most decisive win in this series since winning 4-0 at RFK back in 2011.
After the game, Mike Petke was quite pleased despite the disappointing 0-0 scoreline. Any head coach worth their salt knows that such a performance will be rewarded with a lot more wins than draws or losses, so there was nothing to really worry about. The Red Bulls had recovered from the Roy Miller debacle game in San Jose in style, and surely good things would follow, right?
Well, not so much. Thanks to a combination of poor form, injuries, and national team call-ups, NYRB hasn't fielded the same team consecutively since that game. Meanwhile, the performances have been all over the map. First, they were outfoxed in Montreal by an Impact team that plays with a similar approach based on skill and soccer IQ. Then, in a home game against Philadelphia, they ended up needing a great piece of skill from Thierry Henry to squeeze out a win against a Union side that was not very good on the day. Finally, last week, they gave the hapless Chicago Fire their first win of 2013 by essentially turning off the moment they took a 1-0 lead through Jamison Olave.
A big part of their problem is that they simply don't know yet how to play on the road. NYRB has squandered three leads in their four away games: 3-1 at Portland, 1-0 (in the 82nd minute) in San Jose, and 1-0 at Chicago last week. In those games, the Red Bulls took advantage of big mistakes by their host but eventually gave up an equal mistake (or two) of their own while also inviting pressure with sloppy play and a lack of coherence going forward.
The aforementioned injuries have played their part. Thierry Henry twisted his knee late against United, while Fabian Espindola picked up a hamstring strain soon thereafter. Tim Cahill has been fighting a calf strain picked up while playing for Australia for weeks now. Peguy Luyindula wasn't supposed to be fit for 90 minutes straight after signing with our trophy-free rival, but has had to play up top by himself repeatedly. Perhaps as a result, he pulled up with a hamstring strain in Chicago and is probably out for tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the back four has seen changes as well. Kosuke Kimura has slowly but surely lost the right back job to Brandon Barklage, even though Barklage gave him an opening by getting suspended for the game against Philly. Markus Holgersson appeared to have taken advantage of Roy Miller being Roy Miller with a couple good showings at center back (Heath Pearce moving to Miller's position on the left), but was absolutely dreadful against the Fire. It's probably wishful thinking to hope for Miller to return for the Red Bulls - he hasn't played a second since his handball and intentional encroachment against the Earthquakes - but Petke is choosing from some pretty poor options in every spot right now.
With all this in mind, I expect to see the Metros in a 4411:
In the back, the question marks are down to form. While I expect Petke to stick with this group, he should at least be thinking about making a change (and probably would do so if he weren't looking at Miller, the long out-of-sorts Kimura, and center back Digao, mostly known as Kaka's brother).
Further forward, the injury issues up top also dictate this formation rather than a more aggressive 4231. The situation seems to change every day. Earlier this week, the word was that Espindola was more likely to start, with Henry subbing in early in the second half. Next, it was sounding like both were looking like probable starters. As of Thursday, Espindola was being talked about as "unlikely to start." As this is being written before the Red Bulls - or United, for that matter - have updated their injury report, I'm going to assume Henry will start, and that Espindola will probably only play as a late sub. In fact, we could see Henry replaced by Espindola if the situation allows it.
Normally I'd be wary of using this year's Chicago Fire as an example of anything other than what not to do, but they confounded the Red Bulls last week in a couple of different ways. First of all, NYRB started that game in a 4132 designed so that Dax McCarty would be deep in the space that Chris Rolfe likes to occupy. The idea was a reasonable one, but it had one problem: Rolfe wasn't in that space. Instead, he pushed up high as a true second forward (rather than his normal wandering, "is he a midfielder or a forward?" routine).
The Fire threw New York off, and it took about 20 minutes to solve. McCarty had no one to defend, so he was always running extra yards to get near Chicago players. NYRB switched to the 4411 seen above (but with Luyindula instead of Henry), and within two minutes Rolfe was dropping off the front line to play in the newly open space left by McCarty pushing forward. This cat-and-mouse game continued throughout: NYRB would drop McCarty deep, Rolfe would stay high. McCarty would play alongside Juninho, and Rolfe would drop off.
United can cause a similar level of confusion, and we'll have a much better player orchestrating that in Dwayne De Rosario. We need to see De Ro - assuming he plays up top rather than at the point of a diamond, which is a popular preference on B&RU - use his positioning to dictate to NYRB what they do tactically. If McCarty plays deep, De Ro should push up alongside our #9 (hopefully our actual #9, and not a certain #26) and leave Dax with nothing to do. If the NYRB midfield is flat, De Ro will have plenty of space between the lines to exploit.
Last time out, it was the Red Bulls dictating to United. McCarty and Cahill both freely traded who would drop back to pick the ball up from the defense and which would join the attack, and their movement more or less broke our Perry Kitchen-Marcelo Saragosa double-pivot. We never came to grips with New York in central midfield, and that was the platform from which they dominated the game. This is our chance to create a similar platform against a team that bleeds road goals (nine in four games thus far).
Another problem Chicago shined a spotlight on was that, on the wings, NYRB can be had. United's wingers are faster than the Red Bull fullbacks, and our outside backs are faster than Eric Alexander and Jonny Steele (both of whom have spent more time playing central roles as professionals). I've been harping on this all season, because it should be something this team takes advantage of every week. Our wide players - Chris Pontius in particular - need to deliver the kind of performance they're capable of, because the Red Bulls are a team that won't be able to cope.
Another thing Chicago got right was their mentality. Chicago was excited to play and aggressive about battling for the ball, and the Red Bulls seemed put off by it. It was no accident that the rugged but mostly unremarkable Dan Paladini scored the Fire's first goal via sheer hustle and fearlessness, and it was also not a surprise that a physical player like Maicon Santos scored two more. NYRB's defenders - particularly Holgersson and Pearce - looked irritated at having to cope with guys that were aggressive, physical, and busy. United needs that kind of hungry approach, or we risk allowing a comfortable, positive NY team to grow in belief. Chicago relished the chance to get their season back on track, and New York shied away from the challenge.
In the midfield, NYRB has struggled a bit with how to best use Juninho, while the Brazilian veteran seems a little unsure of his teammates as well. They won't be able to replicate the confusing midfield exchanges Cahill and McCarty pulled off in March with the ancient Brazilian also on the field; Juninho simply isn't dynamic enough. The idea when playing all three central midfielders has been for McCarty to do the dirty work while Juninho sets the tempo and Cahill provides the attacking endeavor. That will be pretty dangerous if they ever get it going, but United can defuse the situation by harassing Juninho at every turn.
The former Olympique Lyonnais star has looked increasingly frustrated with people being in his face all the time and MLS referees often letting hard challenges go while calling him for a small jersey tug. There is no good reason for United to let a player with this much skill get comfortable and start connecting passes, because he is absurdly skillful. Instead of it being about Juninho the metronome, United needs to pressure him constantly and make it more about Juninho the midfield statue.
In spite of their Jekyll and Hyde performances, the Red Bulls have been dangerous all season from set pieces. Juninho's delivery hasn't quite been up to expectations (Taylor Twellman basically trashed it at every opportunity last week, even when his intended back post corner resulted in Olave's goal), but the Red Bulls still have great targets. Olave has two goals and is still the same beast as he ever was in terms of athleticism. Cahill has a well-earned reputation for being tremendous on set pieces despite his size, and Holgersson has a couple MLS goals since arriving from Sweden as well. Juninho's delivery doesn't have to be special if United isn't very sharp on every single corner kick and/or free kick within 40 yards.
Defensively, the Black-and-Red need to be positionally sound and stay aware of their surroundings at all times. With Espindola not fit to start and Lloyd Sam not getting much time at all, the Red Bulls don't have a speedy starting forward or midfielder, nor do they play very direct. Instead, it's all about managing space and escaping markers. Guys like Alexander, Steele, and Henry don't beat you with speed and power; they beat you by thinking faster and being skillful enough to make the final pass count. In particular, Alexander has done well at right midfield in getting himself into goalscoring positions.
United can do themselves a lot of good by doing two things well: Communicating and crowding the middle. The first one is always a requirement, but gets special mention when you play a high soccer IQ team like NYRB. Staying organized and sorting out marks sounds easy, but the devil is in the details. As for clogging up the center, the Red Bulls are playing two natural central players on the wings along with three more central midfielders. Naturally, they're going to try to break through down the middle regularly; sealing off that avenue of attack will force them to attack from areas that they aren't so good at playing from.
Of course, there's always the danger of Henry doing something special because he's Thierry Henry. His tendency to drift towards the left has been less pronounced this year, but with no forward partner he'll probably end up testing Brandon McDonald and Chris Korb a bit more often than Dejan Jakovic and Daniel Woolard. Denying him the (narrow) openings with which he can do the spectacular is key; if Henry is passing off to other players, we're all going to be a lot more comfortable.
If this game comes down to any one thing, it'll be mentality. The Red Bulls have only truly been up for one game all year, and it was against United at home. Their road form has pointed to a team that isn't there yet on and off the field, and that means we should be able to assume the role of the positive, attacking team. The Red Bulls are already talking about playing a defensive game at RFK; there's no reason to leave them the option of being the aggressor.
It's not just about attacking vs. defensive play, though. United needs to be the excited team on the field trying to set things right, just like NYRB was back in March. The teams that have beaten the Red Bulls have, to use a cliche, wanted it more. United needs to be the team on the front foot in terms of style, but also in terms of desire and in terms of the occasion. The season has started, but we have yet to see a DC game in which United has taken things by the scruff of the neck, and doing that will likely push NYRB back into their vaguely unhappy, "can we do this some other time?" sort of mindset. When they get into that kind of mood, they're one of the worst teams in MLS. When they get comfortable and are excited about playing, though, they can do what they did to us at Red Bull Arena.