If D.C. United are going to be one of the rare MLS teams that survive being paired with a Liga MX club, they're probably going to have to get past the increasingly common 4231 formation. Good teams using a 4231 troubled United somewhat regularly last year, especially once Davy Arnaud became unavailable due to concussion. Queretaro isn't locked into the formation by any means - Victor Manuel Vucetich won the CONCACAF Champions League playing a 442, and tried a 4321 against Tigres last Friday - but the most likely lineup for los Gallos Blancos tomorrow night is as follows:
Goalkeeper Tiago Volpi is arguably Queretaro's biggest weakness. He is a talented shot-stopper with good reflexes, but his judgment on crosses and set piece service is simply not of the standard MLS fans are used to seeing. Between Volpi's inability to make contact with anything in the air and an overall smallish team, United should be feeling very good about their chances of snagging a set piece goal. If the service is good, it will fool Volpi more often than not.
Right back George Corral is much less of a vulnerability. He does his defensive work in a tidy and calm manner, and when he does attack he usually creates danger. Corral isn't going to spend all game flying up the wing, but when he does make the choice to go forward it's almost always the right moment to do so. It's no accident that Liga MX teams tend to shift their attacks elsewhere.
So if not Corral, where do they attack? Mostly down the Queretaro left, where Jonathan Bornstein - finally freed from Tigres and the bad loans they sent him on - has become first choice for Vucetich. Bornstein is who he was in MLS: Mostly solid, and good going forward, but he can be caught going the wrong way due to his slow speed of thought. Bornstein just recognizes plays a split second slower than he should, and teams in Mexico try to make a point of emphasis to attack him. On the other hand, if you let him get forward, he's still getting involved with goals. Queretaro got their 2nd goal Friday against Tigres after his fake on Jurgen Damm nearly put the touted winger on the ground, freeing the former Chivas USA man to serve the cross that was eventually converted.
In central defense, Juan Forlin and captain Miguel Martinez are first choice. Forlin is a smart, composed defender who always seems to be scanning the field. If he has a flaw, it's that he's probably under 6' tall and is not exactly built like a traditional center back. If United can get physical with Forlin, they might make something happen.
Martinez, on the other hand, is powerfully built (if not exactly tall himself). Where Forlin comes off as cerebral, Martinez is emotional and brave to the point of being reckless. Take Queretaro's recent 2-1 loss at Cruz Azul: Martinez got himself a yellow card in the 1st minute for a studs-up tackle (a call he argued furiously), and followed it up with an all-or-nothing tackle inside the box less than 10 minutes later. Martinez reminds me like a more physically strong, angrier Facundo Erpen in that he sees every tackle as one you have to dive into with full force. United should look to get him on a yellow card - it probably won't take much to do that - and then see if he won't get himself sent off.
I mentioned that Martinez is the captain for a reason: Queretaro as a team loves to get stuck in. This is a tough, mean-spirited bunch. They don't go in for too many cheap shots, but they tackle hard all over the field. A decent MLS comparison would be Sporting Kansas City, but with a lower number of elbows to opposing heads. United needs to be ready for a battle tomorrow night.
Vucetich has a decision to make at defensive midfield. Nery Dominguez cost Queretaro roughly $1 million this winter, but has not started very game since transferring over from Rosario Central in Argentina. Mario Osuna got his first caps for Mexico in 2015, but has just 4 appearances this season. They're probably Vucetich's best options, but if he's nervous about either one he can go with the experience of 34 year old veteran Mario Jimenez (whose wonderful volley was the finish to the aforementioned Bornstein cross against Tigres).
Ahead of those two will likely be Luis Noriega, who joined Queretaro this season from Puebla. It's an odd look, as Noriega doesn't tend to take up the kind of positions we associate with someone given the central attacking midfield role. He plays the position a bit more conservatively, and looks to facilitate the front three before he attacks the box himself. Sinha is another option here, but the 39 year old played 71 of his 170 total Clausura minutes on Friday. United will probably see Sinha get into the game if they've got a lead or are holding onto a draw, but not from the start.
More of the danger will come from the flanks. Angel Sepulveda has looked good on both sides since coming to los Gallos Blancos from Morelia, and Vucetich is likely trying to sort out who plays across from him. Colombian winger Yerson Candelo is often a threat on the right, but in a high-intensity game his soccer IQ isn't always there. Take, for example, his appearance against Tigres on Friday: He came in as a sub in the 61st minute, picked up an avoidable booking in the 69th for exposing his studs in a tackle, then got a second yellow in the 80th minute after a lack of attention saw him get beaten down the wing. Still, if he plays, Candelo's speed and direct approach will be a major worry.
Vucetich has two forwards who can also play on the wing. Carlos Fierro never really turned out to be the player he was hyped as becoming when he came out of the Chivas Guadalajara academy, but he's still a skillful and feisty player. If he or Candelo start, Sepulveda will play on the left. However, I think the most likely outcome is Paraguayan international Edgar "Pajaro" Benitez, who has had some injury issues this season but played 61 minutes against Tigres. Benitez has always struck me as a guy who thinks of himself as a striker who gets stuck on the left wing rather than someone who embraces being a winger. He's never been the highest-scoring attacker, but his movement and work rate kept him in strong lineups with Toluca for years.
Up front, Emanuel "Tito" Villa was rested against Tigres after having started the previous 6 games. That's probably because he will turn 34 the day after this first leg is played rather than any statement on his ability. Much has been made of Villa leading the CCL in scoring thus far, but 5 of his 6 goals came against the semi-pros that make up Belizean club Verdes FC, and he didn't score a goal in either of Queretaro's road games. Villa isn't a natural target man thanks to the fact that he's about 5'9" and not particularly fast. However, his first touch is good and his off-the-ball movement is excellent. If the Black-and-Red aren't paying attention to him for a second, they're risking a goal against.
Former MLS players Luis Gil and Camilo would be likely to get involved here if not for their respective pasts. Gil is cup-tied via his appearances for Real Salt Lake in the group stage, while Camilo has only very recently started training after a 2015 ACL tear. There is some talk of Camilo making the bench tomorrow, but it seems like a stretch.
Vucetich's substitute options will probably consist of players we've already discussed. Candelo seems almost sure to come on, either to freshen up the attack if Queretaro needs a goal or to add some speed if the home side is in the lead and United is starting to get stretched in pursuit of a goal. I'd expect him to replace Benitez - with Sepulveda going to the left - rather than Sepulveda. Fierro will probably come in for Villa up front in almost every imaginable circumstance. Sinha could replace Noriega or even one of the defensive midfielders if Vucetich wants more creativity on the field, while big target man Luis Madrigal could also be an option if they want to pump it long and hope for the best.