After opening the Carolina Challenge Cup with a 2-1 win over the tournament's hosts, the Charleston Battery, DC United will have an opportunity to virtually lock up a second consecutive Challenge Cup title against the Chicago Fire, who also won their opening game (1-0 over Toronto FC). Tonight's game starts at 5pm EST and will be streamed live at dcunited.com.
This game will be a much different proposition for United, as the Battery were content to bunker in for the entire match and had only just started their preseason. The Fire will be fitter and sharper all over the field, and not just because of the gulf between MLS and USL-Pro. Unlike Charleston's approach, which was more or less to park the bus and hope to get lucky (credit to them, it almost worked after that gift penalty), Chicago will attack. They might not be Barcelona, but this will be a much more serious test for DC's ability to defend.
So what can we expect out of DC? What about a Chicago team that has made a lot of changes?
On United's website, assistant coach Chad Ashton openly said that the Black-and-Red were both planning for a formation they don't see often (more on that later) and prepping a different group of players from the group that knocked off the Battery. Steve Goff's observations from training gave us a fuller picture of the situation; with Jed Zayner, Dejan Jakovic, Clyde Simms, and Branko Boskovic training separately from the main group, it would appear that at least four starters from the Charleston match will sit against Chicago. On top of that, Devon McTavish's concussion issues continue, and rookie outside back Chris Korb is not training due to a minor shoulder injury.
Assuming that the aforementioned players will all either sit out or be used only in cameo roles, it's time for an educated guess at the lineup we'll see:
Certain things seem more likely than others here. Starting in the back, I think Olsen will want to give Pat Onstad more minutes, as he seems highly likely to start in the season opener, at the very least. As for the defense, we've seen Ethan White tried both centrally and at right back, while Rodrigo Brasesco (who apparently played both right back and centrally in Uruguay) has only played in the middle. There's a chance that we could see them swap roles, but I think the above alignment is more likely. Perry Kitchen probably got precious little out of the Charleston match, since the Battery barely attacked, so he should start today and log more minutes against an MLS opponent.
The midfield is more intriguing to me. Olsen has used Fred centrally in the preseason, and after Dax McCarty played 82 minutes against Charleston, I'm expecting to see that look again. That means converting to a diamond midfield, with Kurt Morsink playing deep as an anchor midfielder (McCarty and Simms, when paired, are closer together). I'm on record as being pessimistic about Fred's ability to play as a traditional #10 due to his penchant for turnovers, but even I'll concede that there's no harm in really investigating the possibility in the preseason.
Up top, it seems highly likely that Charlie Davies will play for most of the game. I have Josh Wolff listed as more of a hunch than anything else, but with him playing 78 minutes, Chris Pontius going 79, and Joseph Ngwenya playing 90 in the last match, we could see Blake Brettschneider get a start here as well. At the very least, I'd bank on the rookie seeing minutes at some point.
Speaking of likely subs, there aren't going to be that many to figure out. Conor Shanosky will probably see time at either center back (for Kitchen) or defensive midfield (for Morsink). Stephen King should also get time as a sub, possibly as early as halftime, but guessing who would make way is a bit tricky. It could be either winger, with Fred going wide, or it could be the Brazilian himself. Andy Najar will probably make an appearance at some point, but my gut tells me that Olsen may use this game to have a look at him as a forward. I expect Joe Willis to get some minutes here as well; maybe at the hour mark, or even at halftime? McCarty, Woolard, and Chris Pontius may come in as subs in the last 20 minutes, but that's likely going to be the most they'll play.
As for Chicago and their formation, it appears that Carlos De Los Cobos has committed to playing a 3412. From the outside looking in, it looks like a big risk. While certain Fire players fit the formation well (Cory Gibbs at left-center back, Bratislav Ristic at right midfield, and Marco Pappa in the hole all come to mind), it also will require big things from rookie Jalil Anibaba - the likely starter on the right side of that back three - and new-to-MLS center back Josip Mikulic. There are also some ill-fitting pieces, with Gonzalo Segares probably not enough of an attacking force to succeed at left midfield (he's less of a wingback and more of a traditional left back, though he has filled in further up the field in emergencies).
A bigger issue is where, if at all, Patrick Nyarko will play. Nyarko is Chicago's most reliable creative force, and seemed to have found his place as a right winger with little defensive responsibility. With the defensive work a real problem for him at right midfield, and the Fire's new all-Uruguayan strikeforce (Diego Chaves and Gaston Puerari), it may be that De Los Cobos has chosen a formation that keeps one of Chicago's very best players on the bench.