We always knew this would be a big game.
September - the month when the MLS season has always taken a step up in terms of seriousness - is right around the corner. The pessimist will have noted that D.C. United's underwhelming loss in Montreal has the Impact just one point behind us for the Eastern Conference's last playoff spot. More ominously, there's the Columbus Crew hovering close (4 points back with a game in hand) following the signing of Federico Higuain, who looks like he could be a truly outstanding player.
On the other hand, the optimist looking up the table will see that a United win over the untrustworthy, vile, stinking pile of excrement known as the New York Red Bulls would take our heroes in black up to third place. We'd be just 2 points behind whatever acronym the former Metrostars want to call themselves and only 4 points behind Sporting Kansas City (with a game in hand on both). The Sporks just lost striker Teal Bunbury to a season-ending injury, to boot.
As much as United's summer has been full of stops and starts, the door is frankly wide open for United to finish in 1st place. We could also drop to 6th or 7th. To quote a friend's puzzling campaign slogan for a high school class election: "It's go time."
The Atlantic Cup is on the line. All that is good and right in the world is represented by United; everything wrong, ugly, and cowardly will throw on a Red Bulls jersey. Not only can United take a big step towards a playoff spot; not only can we put yet another one over on our eternal rival; we can strike a blow for good things like a nice pint of beer or the laughter of children over awful things like traffic jams and ticks.
So yeah, pretty much the biggest game in world history.
On Sunday night, Hans Backe sent out a very compact 4141 to survive in Kansas City, and his strategy quite fortunately paid off. Despite attempting just 2 shots all game - and none until the 65th minute - and putting none on goal, NYRB stumbled into a 1-1 draw after Kei Kamara provided both teams with a goal.
That's probably not going to be the plan tonight. Thierry Henry was away for the birth of his son - no word on whether he's been capped by the US yet - but will be back for this one. That, and the fact that United simply doesn't apply the same kind of relentless pressure as KC does, will ensure a return to the 4132 NYRB has been playing for a little while now:
There are plenty of reasons for the question marks here: Veteran-heavy team, they're on short rest (even worse than us), and even Backe never knows what the hell Backe's going to do. Wilman Conde at left back? It doesn't make much sense, but that's where he played against Sporting. Joel Lindpere sitting the bench? Jan Gunnar Solli and Connor Lade both playing every wide role? Par for the course.
In the back, the issue is whether Conde will move into the middle and Heath Pearce - more experienced at left back - plays what was once his natural position. Roy Miller is a defensive liability, but Backe's preferred center back pairing is Pearce and Markus Holgersson. It could well be that Conde ends up on the bench, which means a spot for Miller and a smile on my face. The Costa Rican isn't particularly bad at most things, but loses focus and can get disconnected from a back four that already has speed issues. Solli could also play left back, but that seems doubtful.
The wide midfield roles are also up for grabs. Solli - who came to NYRB as a central midfielder, was immediately turned into a right back, and these days plays on the left more often than anywhere else - and Sebastian Le Toux are the most likely starters, but both went 90 at KC (Solli did come off in stoppage time, but close enough).
Running the flanks against KC is a thankless, draining task, so Backe could opt for fresher legs. Lindpere only played 20 minutes against Sporting, and would slot in on the left if he gave one of these two a rest. New signing Lloyd Sam is expected to be eligible to play, but it's not confirmed yet as to whether he has all of his paperwork in order. He can play on either flank, but I would be surprised to see him get thrown to the wolves in such a vital game.
Obviously we all know that an MLS team featuring Henry will mostly rise and fall by his play. When NYRB visited RFK back in April, everyone in black did a great job of condensing the space Henry had. When he tried to drop deep into the midfield, Chris Pontius did something totally awesome. It is imperative that this quality team defending is repeated, particularly from whoever ends up at right back, as well as Perry Kitchen in defensive midfield. If Henry has time, he will make goals. If someone else is forced to run the show for NYRB, United will be in a strong position.
Now, you might be saying "Wait...didn't the Red Bulls just spend millions to add an attacking midfielder?" Yes, they did, but Tim Cahill is not a playmaker. He's always been more of a threat to score goals - especially in the box on crosses - than he is to set people up. While Cahill's position is similar to a #10, the fact is that he's more of a facilitator in possession who then storms into the box once the ball is shuttled wide. Cahill has outstanding timing and his leaping ability is virtually unmatched in MLS. If you doubt that someone of Cahill's average height is really a threat in the air, just note that KC decided to put the 6'4" Kamara on him when defending set pieces.
So what does that mean for United? Everyone in the center of midfield, as well as the center backs, will need to note where Cahill is running, particularly when the ball gets wide. Further, giving up set pieces would be a big mistake. NYRB has Cahill, of course, but also Kenny Cooper and Holgersson (3 goals this season) as targets. United has struggled with set piece marking, and we frankly are at a size deficit without Robbie Russell - an additional six-footer - and the fearless Daniel Woolard.
In possession, United would do well to not only harass Henry, but also get after McCarty. We saw that, under the pressure an attacking midfielder has to face, McCarty can't think fast enough. Between Dwayne De Rosario, Lionard Pajoy, and either Branko Boskovic or Marcelo Saragosa in central midfield, it's important to force McCarty into hurried passes. Ideally, United will be able to funnel his passes to the right half of the NYRB back four, where Lade and Holgersson often treat the ball like a ticking time bomb.
Going forward, the Black-and-Red need to force Miller to defend as often as possible. Crossfield balls to our right side should be to the target rather than into space, so that Andy Najar or Nick DeLeon can isolate Miller and dribble past him. On the other flank, Pontius will have a big advantage in size and strength over MLS's smallest starting player. Lade is a bundle of energy, but he's still only a rookie and the mental side of his game is raw. Quick combinations will leave his head spinning, so De Ro and others should look to drift over and help Pontius or DeLeon get in behind down the left.
A big reason for United's 4-1 victory in the spring was that we simply had more energy and desire to force NYRB into turnovers. Backe complained that the Red Bulls handed us the game with their mistakes, but he apparently didn't notice that most of those mistakes were forced errors. The team that can most effectively compress the center of midfield defensively while pushing wide with the ball - that's a lot of running, folks - will likely control this game.
In most aspects, these are similar teams. Both have a superstar withdrawn forward, both prefer to field a muscular target man, both like the 4132, and both have defensive issues. The one area where one team has a decisive advantage is United's wing play going forward. Solli is well-rounded and responsible, and Le Toux's endless hustle throws off most teams, but neither has the skill level of Najar, DeLeon, or Pontius on the ball.
That means that a United victory will probably require pressing that edge all night long. Taking advantage of Lade and Miller will underline the lack of speed NYRB has centrally, and they like to play a high line to boot. Getting in behind, whether via the dribble, the through ball, the long ball, or the switch - should not be a problem. If United can feed the wingers, we should expect plenty of goals. At the same time, containing Henry and tracking Cahill are tough jobs, and anything less than a top performance in those departments will mean goals against.
Finally, it's important to not rest on our laurels. We've been great at RFK this season (and NYRB has been poor away, for that matter), but the stadium doesn't play the game. You don't get to brag like this by birthright, or because of the past. You have to win that right every single game. Just because NYRB will be tired and they aren't strong on the road doesn't mean United will just win this game. The hunger has to be as strong or even stronger than it was back in April. If United wants to win this game and the big games to come, they have to mean more to us than to the other guys.