The situation D.C. United faces tonight is not a good one. Queretaro has a 2-0 lead after the first leg of this CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal pairing. We've seen this story too often in the past few years, and for United the ending has always been the same. Positives from last week's game in Mexico aside, United has a deep hole to get themselves out of. Here's how they can pull it off:
The math here is simple: If United gives up a goal, the away goals tiebreaker would mean that they'd need to score four times to advance. Scoring 4 goals in any competitive soccer game is hard. United didn't score 4 goals in 90 minutes against lower-level opponents like the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Montego Bay United, or Arabe Unido last season. In their last 87 competitive games - that's the full 2014 and 2015 seasons, plus last week's first leg - they've scored 4 or more goals on just 5 occasions.
As bizarre as it is to start off a piece about a team that needs to win by 2 or 3 goals with talk about shutouts, United's hopes hinge on keeping Queretaro off the scoreboard.
This is linked with the first key. If United comes out running around like a bunch of lunatics, they are handing Queretaro a great chance to get that back-breaking away goal. Playing soccer in a panic can be effective against a tired, frazzled opponent in short bursts, but it almost never works as a tactic that starts at kickoff. United needs to be composed and in control of proceedings, not playing desperation soccer with long balls, early crosses, and shooting thoughtlessly.
That goes for the crowd, too. People need to realize that a 0-0 scoreline at halftime is just as good in this scenario as being up 2-1. United simply isn't the team that can engage in a track meet and see who finishes better. Remember: Queretaro has 810 competitive minutes of soccer in 2016 to United's 90. They're the sharper team in front of goal. If this becomes a shooting competition, United's odds aren't good at this point in the season.
"Patient" doesn't mean sluggish, though. United needs to keep the ball moving at a good clip so the visitors are chasing and fouling. Tired teams make mistakes, and this being CONCACAF, we're more likely to see a referee who will use his cards liberally than we'd normally expect in MLS play. United also needs to establish some forward momentum in the early going. They need to give themselves more confidence that the goals are coming, because barring a totally unprepared Gallos Blancos side, United is probably going to need a goal or two in the latter stages of the match.
Make the set pieces count
In the first leg, our suspicion that Queretaro was weak on set pieces proved to be correct. Steve Birnbaum is a matchup nightmare for the Liga MX side, and only the shot-stopping of Tiago Volpi kept him off the scoresheet. Bobby Boswell also had a headed shot attempt after a half-cleared corner kick. Volpi is good at a lot of things, but he does not come for set piece service effectively. On top of that, Queretaro has a physically short group of players, and their attempts to mitigate that failed badly enough that Birnbaum's scoring chances all came when he was marked by just one woefully overmatched defender.
We've already talked about how United isn't as sharp in terms of attacking movement and finishing right now. This is how the Black-and-Red balances that particular scale. United's service was pretty decent at Queretaro, and it has to be at least as good tonight. There also needs to be a commitment from United's lesser targets to follow the initial runs up. In what are likely going to be rainy conditions, there may be rebounds, or poor clearance attempts that give someone outside the box the chance to play it back into a dangerous spot.
Here's how important I think set pieces will be tonight: Without a set piece goal, I do not see how United will go through.
Get Nyarko involved
Patrick Nyarko got his fair share of touches in the first leg, but between the positions he found himself in and his own conservative choices in moments that could have seen him attack, fans can be forgiven for wondering what his impact was in the first leg. With United needing chances and goals, that can't happen again.
This isn't a one-step plan. Queretaro, mindful of previous opponents going after Jonathan Bornstein, made an effort to stem United's ability to find Nyarko, and the Black-and-Red seemed just fine with accepting what was on the table. As a team, United will need to make an effort to find Nyarko more often. More obviously, Nyarko himself will need to be more aggressive when he gets the ball. Another game with 0 attempted dribbles is not going to cut it.
One way United can and should involve Nyarko is by using the fact that they're pretty dangerous on the left to make space on the other side. Fabian Espindola likes to drift left, and that's where Chris Rolfe is going to be lined up too. Nick DeLeon seemed to play left of center more often than not as well. If that group can connect 3-4 passes out on the left, they'll draw numbers; Queretaro will collapse towards that side of the field, trying to pin United against the touchline. That's the plan, though. Once Queretaro commits to taking the ball on the left side, United needs a quick outlet - Luciano Acosta and Marcelo Sarvas, most likely - or a long switch to the right, where Nyarko will probably have plenty of room to isolate Bornstein and try to dribble past him.
One big save
This one's simple. United is going to have to take risks going forward, and if the score is 1-0 or 3-1 in the late stages, those risks are going to leave plenty of room on the counter. Barring a situation in which United just runs Queretaro off the field, or maybe a scenario where Queretaro ends up with 9 men, advancement is going to come by a very narrow margin if it's coming at all.
In all of those hypotheticals, Andrew Dykstra is going to have to make one big save. He had some smart saves in Mexico, and he looked sharp enough in the preseason, but he doesn't have a game-changing, jaw-dropping save yet this year. It's not exactly fair to pile this on one player, but Dykstra probably needs to rob Queretaro of a seemingly sure goal sometime tonight. The game is probably going to get stretched, and that's when goalkeepers have to bail their teammates out.