The US Open Cup draw is based on geography, but it's rare to see it play out like it did for MLS's Atlantic coast clubs this year: D.C. United beat the Philadelphia Union 3-1, while the New England Revolution were emphatically beating the New York Red Bulls 4-2 in Boston (like us, the Revs played at a smaller site; unlike us, they went more urban rather than less).
As a result, United gets a chance to avenge 2011's 3-2 defeat (best known as Brankostock) that kept us out of that year's Open Cup proper. The Revs, meanwhile, will be looking at this as a chance to correct what they'll see as an aberration. The 0-0 draw these two teams played to a couple of weeks ago is the odd result in the last five for the Revs, who in the two games before and two games since combined for 17 goals. That's 17 in their last five games; by contrast, United has 11 goals in competitive games for the entire season.
Unlike Revolution teams of the past, Jay Heaps has put all his chips on a bet that a team that focuses on attacking first and foremost can succeed in MLS, even when said attack is cobbled together from guys traded away from Chivas and Vancouver, a draft pick, an Academy signing that can't legally drink, and a Bayern Munich reserve team reject.
That's the case, though: Juan Agudelo has looked good as a lone striker in the 4141 Heaps has put together. Lee Nguyen has been more consistent in the middle than his previous wide role. Kelyn Rowe is in the chase for the MLS assist lead. Diego Fagundez has been a revelation since given the chance to start regularly. Saer Sene has recovered from a torn ACL last year without losing much in the way of form, even as his role is somewhat different from the one that saw him score 11 goals in two-thirds of a season in 2012. With help from Juan Toja, Dimitry Imbongo, and Ryan Guy, this is a front five that almost can't stop scoring goals.
That said, since United managed to stop them from scoring, things haven't gone that well. That win over NYRB in the Open Cup was a good one. The Revs started ten second-choice players against a Red Bulls team that was close to full strength, yet thoroughly dominated the match. In the end, the 4-2 scoreline flattered the losing side.
The follow-up is where the problems come in. New England took a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes in Vancouver, but fell apart mentally and tactically after Andrew Farrell's 23rd minute red card. In the 20 minutes that followed, the Whitecaps scored three times, and then made it 4-2 midway through the second half. A late goal for Imbongo gave the Revs a chance, but the 4-3 loss ultimately showed that this New England team, for all their attacking quality and recent good form, is still lacking in terms of mental strength.
Of course, that game was eleven days ago, so there's the age-old question of how New England will respond having had a break. Will they still have lingering issues that needed a game to work out, or will they be refreshed and re-focused on what worked before? United will naturally hope that the Revs haven't yet worked through the issues that came up, but with young teams it can really go either way.
The break has also had an impact on who the Revs can call on. Heaps says he can be "more aggressive"" in who he selects than he has been in previous Open Cup matches. Heaps is also helped by the return of some injured players: Clyde Simms is back in training after weeks out with an MCL sprain, and the above link says that only Juan Toja and Kalifa Cisse (both questionable) are potentially unavailable.
On the other hand, the Revs have two issues that could see them play less than their best side. New England badly wants to get back into the playoffs, as they haven't qualified since 2009. Teams in that situation have largely tended to play reserves until the semifinals of the Open Cup, with the idea being that ultimately a playoff appearance will resonate more with their front office and with non-hardcore fans (rightly or wrongly). In the short term, the Revs also have the harsh reality that their next game is Saturday in California against Chivas USA. Sure, the Revs should be able to mix in reserves and beat an abysmal Chivas team, but I have an inkling that they'd prefer the 3 points over the spot in the semis.
As such, I'm expecting a mixed A/B team. Heaps will retain the 4141, but some starters will only be available off the bench:
That's a lot of question marks, but it's not as complicated as it might appear. In goal, Bobby Shuttleworth is the starter but veteran Matt Reis has played in both Open Cup games so far. I look at this as basically a 51/49 proposition, as Heaps may be treating the Cup as the competition for Reis (this is often how European coaches use things like the Europa League or their respective cups). If Reis does play, he will almost certainly end up taking a penalty kick if the match goes to the tiebreaker.
Andrew Farrell will definitely start, as he's suspended for New England's next MLS match. While he's a theoretical possibility at center back or defensive midfield, Heaps has no true right backs to call on, so look for the #1 overall pick from this year's SUPER draft to play his normal role.
At center back, I expect AJ Soares to start; the question of where comes down to who starts with him. If Jose Goncalves - the player most responsible for the Revs suddenly being so stingy in the back - starts, Soares will be at right-center back. If Stephen McCarthy gets the nod, Soares will be at left-center back. The decision will likely be based on whether Goncalves is better at the game-every-three-days grind due to his experience in Europe, or if his being older means that Heaps has to preserve him.
Left back is a difficult one to call. Darrius Barnes is better as a center back and at right back, but then youngster Tyler Polak has gotten the nod in previous rounds. Chris Tierney is the normal starter, but has had enough injuries and questions about his overall fitness over the years that I think he'll be rested. If Barnes is preferred, his long throw-ins are the best in MLS (yes, better than Matt Besler and Sheanon Williams; they just get more attention because they're full-time starters).
Scott Caldwell has recently done quite well at defensive midfield and appears to have broken the merry-go-round method of selecting between three candidates (Simms and Cisse being the others). However, the short turn-around here makes me wonder if Heaps won't give Caldwell a rest if possible. At issue is the fact that both of the older players are fighting through or coming off of an injury, while Caldwell is apparently 100%. If Simms is truly back to full fitness - unlikely given he only just returned to regular training on Monday after weeks off - then I'd expect him to start.
On the wings, I have a feeling that Chad Barrett will be given a start. Which side is down to who the other winger is, though with the Revs switching their wingers constantly it doesn't matter that much. I assume Fagundez will get the call over Sene due to the fact that the lanky Frenchman has only just been able to start matches in the past month or so. Overuse of a player coming off of a significant injury is a good way to send them back to the injured list, whereas Fagundez has no known issues in his past to worry about. If Heaps wants to be more conservative, he could also opt for Ryan Guy on either flank.
Centrally, Rowe has been arguably the top player in the entire Open Cup, and between his youth and fitness levels it would be a surprise to see him left out. The question is who will partner him: Nguyen is clearly first-choice, but isn't known for being extremely fit and routinely suffers a lot of fouls. Toja would be an easy pick to spell him, but he's dealing with a back problem. Guy could also be used centrally, though he and Rowe would be somewhat redundant as a pairing.
Up top, I'd have slotted in Jerry Bengtson but his recent, controversial departure from the Honduras squad during World Cup qualifying didn't result in him making the bench for the Revs despite being available. You have to wonder whether he's carrying an injury, or if he's mentally in the right place for Heaps to call on him. As such, I'm slightly leaning towards seeing the hard-working but technically limited Imbongo start instead. Agudelo is the first-choice player here, but his injury history would indicate that two starts in three days is a risky move if Heaps is focused on chasing a playoff spot.
The changes - especially if guys like Nguyen and Agudelo are kept out - will make it easier for United to follow the plan that saw us get a shutout at Gillette Stadium against a team that has otherwise been the hottest offense in MLS. Then again, calling it a "plan" indicates that there was more to it than just staying organized, taking care of the ball when we had it, and defending with a real sense of pride in winning individual battles (personified by Ethan White driving Agudelo to distraction).
The job should be easier because the second-choice players for the Revs are not as gifted with the ball and lack the quality of movement that has made New England so good going forward. While this mixed group will be more athletic and harder-working defensively, players like Barrett and Imbongo lack much in the way of subtlety on and off the ball.
That's where United can take advantage: By applying pressure in the middle third. Since the Revs will almost certainly be playing some reserves, and said reserves aren't as good off the ball, we can afford to trust our back four to track the runs those players will be making; the payoff from the risk is to neutralize guys like Rowe and Nguyen, as well as forcing turnovers off of less skillful players like Barrett or Guy. If we could do it on the road against New England's best, then it stands to reason that we can succeed in the same manner against a lesser version of the Revs.
Going forward, it's vital that United repeats what we've seen in most of our recent outings (dreadful second half against TFC notwithstanding): Quick movement of the ball. While our attack has hardly been a terror, we have seen United create goalscoring chances at a higher clip than we were doing when we were at our worst, and it's mostly down to the ball being zipped around rather than the pedestrian pace we often saw in May.
With the Revs playing five in the midfield, it's important that no one tries to hang on the ball for long. Throw in the great work ethic most of the potential reserves-turned-starters can offer, and maintaining a good tempo becomes a paramount concern. It'll be a hot night at the Soccerplex, and if the Revs want to send in worker bees for this game, we can use that "run first, think second" mentality to our advantage by making them chase shadows. They'll tire out, and ultimately a tired team with another competition to fall back on isn't going to fight as hard as a team for whom this match means everything.
Going forward, left back looks like the spot to attack most often regardless of who starts. Tierney is slow for a fullback, Barnes isn't really familiar with the role, and Polak has very little pro experience (though he is regularly appearing for the Rochester Rhinos, New England's USL-Pro affiliate). If Tierney is the starter, we should look to play our right winger in behind while mixing in some attempts to get Chris Korb up for an overlapping run at speed. With the latter two potential starters, United should look to play combinations; rather than set up a pure test of speed, the idea will be to force uncomfortable players into making difficult decisions when faced with multiple moving parts.
If Goncalves is rested, United will be catching a break. He's the organizer for what is otherwise still a new - they've been settled for barely two months - and youthful back four. Soares tends to be very good at scrambling to provide the kind of emergency defending that makes highlight reels, but those instances happen because he struggles at anticipating things early enough to prevent them from ever becoming dangerous. As I said before, resting Goncalves means Soares would be the center back next to the troublesome left back spot, giving United even more of a reason to be heavily right-sided. Personally, I'd go so far as to switch Nick DeLeon and Kyle Porter to give Amish Sisqo a chance to torch the Revs like he did Raymon Gaddis and the Philadelphia Union in our previous USOC game.
Set pieces are naturally a concern, especially if Tierney starts. The likely Revolution starting eleven will feature some good aerial targets (Farrell, Soares, and Imbongo in particular). The Revs haven't been that good at turning free kicks into goals, but with Tierney's ability to deliver good service and big, aggressive targets, they're always going to be a threat. Nguyen is also a potential danger to score directly from a free kick if the shot is within 25 yards of goal. It would behoove United to defend intelligently and avoid going to ground unless it's absolutely necessary.
This game could very well come down to mentality. We've seen United match up well against a Revs side in far better form and with more talent on the field, and that was on the road. At home, in a competition that quite frankly means more to us than it does to New England (it always has, but in 2013 the difference is obviously very acute thanks to our last-place status), we should be able to better that showing.
The final point worth making is that, when a match matters more to one team than to the other, the start becomes magnified. If United can jump all over the Revs, the confluence of factors - highly motivated opponent, sauna-esque weather, match in LA on the weekend, playoff chase - could help push New England into losing the mental edge that is required to be at or near one's best. The sharp, high-tempo showing United delivered in our last visit to the Soccerplex would go a long way towards giving the club a semifinal berth rather than seeing 2013 essentially fizzle out on all fronts in June.