With Dwayne De Rosario serving the final game of his two-game suspension tomorrow, D.C. United will again be without its most important attacking piece. We've already given you our thoughts on the probable lineup and a scouting report of this weekend's opponent, Real Salt Lake. So let's dig a little deeper into some of the possible replacements for DeRo tomorrow and what implications would come from a given selection.
John Thorrington as attacking midfielder
Let's call this the status quo option. Thorrington played as the central attacking midfielder in United's 4-2-3-1 formation in Houston last weekend. It didn't really work. United spent most of the match chasing the Dynamo's possession game, and Thorrington failed to do the things you'd expect a #10 to do when we have the ball - making killer (or at least good) passes, showing deep to release pressure on more defensive players while in possession, making late runs into the box. His discomfort that high up the field showed, as he failed to see passes that could have unlocked the defense and tried to dribble his way out of double- and triple-teams that he seemed not to see coming; Thorrington was reacting, not anticipating. This is somewhat understandable, though, as Thorrington just isn't a #10 and probably won't ever feel at home in that part of the field. He's more comfortable farther from goal with a midfield partner alongside him.
Luckily, based on what Ben Olsen said to media after a training session earlier this week, this ain't gonna happen. Using Thorrington out of position was a decision specific to playing at Houston and trying to shut things down in the middle of the park on the road.
Marcos Sanchez as attacking midfielder
This is what we saw a bit further into the second half last weekend, when Sanchez entered for Thorrington and moved into the same role. A more technical player than the man he replaced, Sanchez injected much needed creativity and ability to hold the ball in tight spaces. United even started coming into the game more until James Riley's fluky own goal changed everything.
Putting Sanchez here would be a bit of a gamble, but could be worthwhile. Using three central midfielders, as the 4-2-3-1 does, would nominally outnumber the contingent from RSL's 4-4-2 diamond. But RSL's outside midfielders stay so connected to the central midfielders that you can almost label all four of their mids as central players. So even with a better possession player in place of Thorrington, United could find themselves outnumbered in the center on Saturday, but with fewer players elsewhere on the field to counteract that dynamic.
Chris Pontius as second forward
Playing a set 4-2-3-1 last weekend also saw Lionard Pajoy left on an island for most of the match. D.C's possession game provided him with virtually no service. On long balls from the back, even when he got into good position to receive them, the Colombian was often left to battle two men in orange yards and yards away from from his closest teammates. Even if he corralled the ball, he didn't have options, and we either cycled the ball back to our own half or turned it over. Given all this, it might make sense to forego a third central midfielder and instead give Pajoy a partner on the forward line by shifting to a 4-4-2. If we're going to be outnumbered in the middle of the park anyway, why should we let a lone forward be outnumbered up top as well?
We know Chris Pontius can play as a forward, and he spent some time last year defending as a #10. He could combine the two roles, defending by dropping in between the wide midfielders (most likely to be Nick DeLeon and Marcos Sanchez in this scenario) and marking Kyle Beckerman but then moving forward in the attacking phase of the game to work with Pajoy more directly than Thorrington or Sanchez did last week. If our wide midfielders stay wide, this has the added benefit of spreading out RSL's midfield while they defend and providing an extra moment of transition for them when they regain possession. If DeLeon and Sanchez pinch inside and allow our fullbacks to overlap, that puts RSL's outside midfielders in positions to make quick decisions and could force mistakes and mismatches.
In RSL's last match, a 2-0 win in San Jose in which they could have trailed 3-0, the makeshift Real back line had trouble dealing with the interplay of two forwards. Switching to a 4-4-2, at least in attack, would give them another does of the same. Hopefully we'd be rewarded with better finishing than Chris Wondolowski provided (and how often do you get to say that?).
Carlos Ruiz isn't going to get the start, as he's not yet 90 minutes fit. We might see Rafael come in with a surprise start, but there's a reason that would be a surprise at this point. One thing that would intrigue more than a few United fans would be moving Nick DeLeon inside into that central attacking midfield spot. But I don't think any of these are particularly likely. My money is on one of Sanchez (as midfielder) or Pontius (as forward) - which probably means it will be something completely different.
So, which would you like to see? Give us your pick and let us know why in the comments.