Today is not going to be easy for D.C. United. MLS teams have faced this precise deficit in twelve aggregate situations, and only two have advanced. No one has pulled it off since 2004. Furthermore, the New York Red Bulls have only lost one of the ten games they've played since switching to a 4231 featuring Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander in the engine room. There's also the fact that Thierry Henry is a) Thierry Henry and b) may well be on the verge of retiring. He's not going to want to let his career end without one more trophy, and his teammates don't want to be the guys that helped cause him to retire under what would be sad circumstances for the team from north Jersey.
"Not going to be easy" is a long way from impossible though, and with that in mind I'm calling an audible. Rather than the normal scouting report, I'm going to look into a few things that have to happen for United to silence the doubters and keep this fun season going.
1. United cannot let the Red Bulls spread the field out.
In the first leg, NYRB rolled out a sequential gameplan. They were actually shaky in the early going, but not so shaky that stage one of their plan (getting Henry and Lloyd Sam to spend significant time out along the touchlines) had to be shelved. Henry and Sam spent the rest of the game isolating fullbacks repeatedly, and when Henry wasn't doing that he was dropping behind the attack to be a playmaker (mostly still from wide positions).
That was bad enough, but once the Metros got their fullbacks into the attack there were simply too many numbers around for United to cope. The Black-and-Red were forced to play deep, which is problematic enough. NYRB is too good going forward to simply defend your box without seriously risking a goal against. Today, one goal against will leave United in a "Lonely Grave of Paula Schultz" situation.
It's not just in the back that this is an issue. If the field is stretched out horizontally, the 3v2 in central midfield that United will face playing a 442 against NYRB's 4231 will require an inhuman amount of work from Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud. United has been great at neutralizing this numerical problem all season, but that's because they've never been pulled so wide as they were at Red Bull Arena last Sunday. If it happens again, United will have to pretty much bury every shot they take to still advance.
2. The Red Bulls can't have McCarty or their wingers as options when playing out of the back.
Since moving to the aforementioned 4231, the Metros have reaped two major benefits: First, having two holding midfielders starting in deep positions has shielded their defense, which is arguably the weakest in the entire playoff field (including the teams that are already out). Second, it gives them more of an opportunity to play safely out of the back and keep the ball on the ground.
That second point is mostly down to McCarty's endless work rate. He's the one who drops off closer to the defense to make the passes easy, because the Red Bulls do not have a single truly trustworthy starting defender in terms of being comfortable on the ball. United dealt with this well at RBA at first thanks to some extremely high pressure - Fabian Espidola was standing at the edge of the NYRB penalty area on a 2nd minute goal kick to prevent Luis Robles from playing short - but eventually lost their way.
Part of that problem is down to point #1. The other issue was that New York - forced to try something new - found out that they could connect with Sam and Henry through their fullbacks. United's wide midfielders have to tuck in a bit out of necessity, and that opened up passing lanes between Sam and Richard Eckersley at right back as well as Henry and Roy Miller on the left.
United clearly has a reasonable plan in terms of reducing McCarty's impact on the game, and that needs to be repeated in conjunction with some preventative measures down the flanks. Sean Franklin and whoever is at left back need to step higher and get closer to the winger on their side so that Eckersley and Miller no longer have a straightforward twenty-yard pass to make with no obstacles. Those two aren't great problem-solvers, and if the easy pass isn't there they'll make mistakes.
Point #2 plays into point #1. United can't get stretched, and forcing NYRB's defenders to play the ball to Alexander or going long will help prevent that.
3. Passes into the attacking third have to be better.
This one isn't something tactics can fix. United was not actually very bad in terms of their overall passing accuracy, but most of the passes from the midfield into attacking positions were poor. It's worth noting that even with the sloppiness that we saw throughout the first leg, Untied still carved out some chances and wasted a few more decent situations with bad decisions. This is not by any means a defense that United can't break, but the scoreline requires breaking them throughout the game. If Los Capitalinos can't use the ball better in crucial moments than they did on Sunday, there might not be enough looks to produce the requisite number of goals needed to advance.
4. Win the mental battle.
Let's be honest: If you had no MLS knowledge and just got yourself Football Manager 15 and narrowed your choice down to United or NYRB, you'd take NYRB's roster if you wanted to win MLS Cup faster. The top-line talent is the deal-breaker in this scenario; United simply doesn't have an Henry or a finisher like Bradley Wright-Phillips, and that's what usually wins games in FM.
However, video games aren't reality, and soccer games aren't won by who has the best individual in their ranks. This may not be Hans Backe's group of headcases, but the Red Bulls are pretty clearly the lesser team when it comes to intangibles. United doesn't have a single player as prone to disastrous mistakes as Ibrahim Sekagya...or Roy Miller...or Richard Eckersley. United doesn't have the institutional memory of failure after failure after failure. After the first leg, United isn't even burdened by being considered the favorite. The pressure is largely on the Red Bulls to not screw this thing up.
This series has been full of Metro meltdowns, and they have the players on the field to make those mistakes. We almost saw one in the first leg, when Ambroise Oyongo absolutely should have been sent off for his two-footed, studs-exposed lunge on Sean Franklin.
United just needs to create a situation that prods the Red Bulls into awful decisions with the ball (Sekagya and Eckersley are prime candidates here, and Robles isn't exactly Nick Rimando on the ball either). There also needs to be a controlled edge to their play. We've already seen Miller try to choke Arnaud at RFK this season - another red card missed by the referee and then by the MLS Disciplinary Committee, who I will now publicly say are terrible at what they do - and he's not the only hothead the Red Bulls will field. Jamison Olave has lost his composure more than once in his career, and guys like Eckersley and McCarty have a tendency to jump into situations they'd be better to avoid.
What I'm advocating here is a talkative United that puts a little extra in tackles. It won't take anything dangerous or too blatant; instead, United just needs to get under NYRB's collective skin. If this game gets heated, the team that's more likely to do something stupid is the Metros, and we'll probably need the help.
5. Espindola needs to relax.
In the first leg, United managed to find Espindola enough times to score what would have been a crucial away goal. It didn't even require an adequate performance, which is not a good sign for the Metros. However, every time Espindola got the ball, he was trying to be the hero. It started with his early, ill-advised attempt to shoot from about 45 yards out after he had done so well to strip McCarty, and it never really ended. Espindola was too tense throughout, and I'm of the opinion that his non-reaction to when Olave whiffed on Nick DeLeon's cross from the right is largely down to him having too much going on in his head to be in the moment.
United's other field players need to be a little more dialed-in for this one, but I'd actually prefer to see Espindola bring it down a hair. His starting point in terms of intensity is already so high that his "relaxed" is where most people max out. Espindola needs to trust his teammates, and that is more likely to happen if he's not on the verge of freaking out.
6. Bill Hamid needs to deliver yet another star performance.
Hamid has been United's best player on the balance of the entire 2014 season, and he's had more than one game where he appeared unbeatable by any soccer team on earth. The Red Bulls are going to play counterattacking soccer unless/until United takes a three-goal lead, and they're very good at it despite having only one particularly fast attacker (that'd be Sam). Even if United plays very well, there are going to be situations where they get in behind. That's where Hamid has shined over and over this year, coming off his line at the right time and staying big long enough to intimidate shooters and make saves. If United gets through this one, Hamid is going to come up with 2-3 enormous saves.