Tomorrow’s game looks like it’ll be a tough one for D.C. United. The New York Red Bulls are unbeaten in 10 games, including two straight 1-0 wins. United’s oldest rival is 10W-1D-2L at home this year, the second-best home record in MLS behind FC Dallas. United may be missing Taylor Kemp for a second straight game, and left back is not exactly a deep position for United these days.
However, likely the most important absentee at this point is Luciano Acosta, United’s playmaker. Since United made the move to a 4141 formation, Acosta has seemed far more comfortable, and has 5 assists in 11 appearances in that formation (along with two goals). It’s not just the formation, obviously, as United’s aggressive mid-season trades upgraded the starters on the right wing and up front., but it seems safe to say that Acosta has looked better and better the more time he’s gotten in a formation that suits him.
United doesn’t have another player that truly resembles Acosta’s style of play. Sure, there are playmakers on the roster, but Lucho’s footwork, trickery, and his constant work away from the ball are all things that won’t be easy to replace. That’s a shame, because at Red Bull Arena, United is going to need someone able to break pressure and slice up a defense that doesn’t give much away.
Let’s look at Ben Olsen’s options, making one assumption: Having not heard about Jared Jeffrey’s status, for the purposes of this article I am assuming he will still be unavailable due to a concussion:
Starting the German rookie in Acosta’s spot is the most straightforward choice here. It doesn’t require altering the formation, and Buescher has experience (albeit in college) carrying the bulk of his side’s attacks through the middle. We also saw Olsen go this route when he opted to rotate heavily for a recent midweek game in Montreal.
Buescher’s field vision is arguably broader than Acosta’s, though that tendency to spread play wide also comes with less of a tendency to break lines vertically (as Acosta does well at). He’s also got a more potent long-range shot; that golazo way back in March against Queretaro was no fluke. However, Buescher is not as good with the ball at his feet as Acosta, and against NYRB that might be a big problem. The Red Bulls have built everything about how they approach the game around their high press. Being able to beat someone on the dribble, or at least escape tight quarters to maintain possession, is a hugely valuable trait. It’s also not really Buescher’s strong suit at this point.
On the other hand, being able to swing the ball to Patrick Nyarko (if he’s available), Lloyd Sam, and Lamar Neagle against the NYRB fullbacks - who are very much the weak point in their lineup - is a different way to solve that problem. If Buescher can spread the ball quickly and dangerously, the Red Bulls will have to keep their fullbacks deep, and that means dropping off their line of engagement. Forcing them to alter the way they press has usually been an ingredient for any team that beats the Red Bulls, especially since Jesse Marsch has not shown much of a plan for that scenario.
Compared to Buescher, DeLeon is better at escaping pressure, and is more likely to lead a counter by carrying the ball upfield quickly. He’s also a more physically robust player, which might help against a Red Bulls midfield has no qualms about abrasive play. He’ll also be the more defensively secure choice, and we’ve also seen DeLeon - who until recently was an unquestioned starter for United - look highly motivated coming off the bench. Plus, he got his first goal of the season to cap off the rout of the Chicago Fire, which may help him show some more confidence on the attacking side of things.
Of course, that last part is theoretical. DeLeon has been a very safe player to add to your lineup, but being overly safe is in and of itself a risk in soccer. After all, a team that is unlikely to score more than one goal is also just one mistake away from having no real chance of winning games, and United needs to be winning games right now. DeLeon is probably raring to go for this game, but can a midfield comprised of him, Marcelo Sarvas, and Rob Vincent create enough to keep United in this game?
Switch back to 442 for a game
One of the things United did when making their mid-season moves was add real competition up front. Patrick Mullins has made an immediate impact, leaving fellow forwards Kennedy Igboananike and Alvaro Saborio more or less alternating as subs for the final 15-20 minutes up top. With Acosta unavailable, though, Olsen could be considering pairing one of those two - or even Lamar Neagle, who has two goals in the last three games - with Mullins and reverting to a 442 formation.
There’s a certain logic to it. Mullins played a ton of 442 at the University of Maryland, where he had to be his team’s top goalscorer while also being their creative hub as well. Whether the idea is Mullins playing underneath a target man in Saborio, or trying to hold play up for the runs of Igboananike, United could trouble the Red Bulls by being more direct and hoping their wingers could create enough crosses for a pair of forwards to convert.
The downside is one we should probably be familiar with by now. NYRB’s 4231 and their high pressure both serve to overwhelm opposing central midfield duos, allowing the Red Bulls to dictate the terms and pin their opponents back throughout. It also leaves no one with a clearly defined role screening the back four, which is quite dangerous given how well Sacha Kljestan is playing this year. United has made themselves tough to beat playing 442 against the Red Bulls over the past few years, but "tough to beat" in this case has still meant "often beaten."
Still, the potential combinations of forwards and wide midfielders are stronger this time around than they’ve been in years, and the transition into a solid defensive shape never gets more simple than playing with two lines of four. Like it or not, United will be defending pretty often tomorrow, so that may be part of the thought process here.
Those are the three most likely options, but we’ll also have an option for Other (and if you go that route, please lay your plan out in the comments). And now, the poll: