Last week, D.C. United had the odd situation of MLS holding a "rivalry week" in which we played the New England Revolution. Sure, the Revs broadcast team talked about it as if United-Revs is one of MLS's most heated rivalries, but that doesn't make it true.
Despite the presence of Jay Heaps and a stretch of the mid-oughts where both teams battled for supremacy in the East, few United fans really care about the Revs. Your old-school fans look to the biggest cities in the country for their teams to hate, and the newer fans often bring up Chicago or Seattle. Philadelphia has made some good progress despite their short existence. The Revs? Like Columbus, they're simply not our rivals.
This week is different, obviously. The New York Red Bulls - or, as they'd like you to call them, Red Bull New York/New Jersey MetroStars - have been United's most hated foe since 1996. There is no rivalry quite like it in MLS, since the games are usually full of strange incidents (going all the way back to shootouts being taken out of order, and including last year's comically undeserved 0-0 draw at Red Bull Arena). As such, they're tough games to predict.
This Red Bulls team is also a tough team to scout, since they've really been two distinct teams in their five games in 2014. I wish we were playing the team that doesn't have Jamison Olave and Thierry Henry, because that team looked like an unmitigated disaster. The fact that the Red Bulls managed a point in Montreal without those two has less to do with good tactics or heart and more to do with the Impact also being pretty terrible at this point.
I'd love to tell you more about how every Red Bull mistake at the back was amplified without Olave there to put out the fires - they could have easily been 3-0 down by the 13th minute in Montreal - or how one-dimensional their attack was without Henry. It'd be fun, because when isn't Metro failure fun?
Unfortunately, that won't be the team we face. RFK doesn't have turf, so we can't take advantage of NYRB's antiquated views on what constitutes a good surface. Olave will marshal the defense, Henry will start up front, and United is going to have to play better than what we saw against the Revs last week in order to take three points.
That said, the Metros have yet to put together a good performance. 1-1 draws at home against Colorado and Chivas are hardly results to brag about, and their other 1-1 tie at Chicago was against a Fire team that hasn't been particularly impressive either. They're still a team looking to break out, and that's why they're currently behind United in the standings. Take a second to enjoy that fact.
Last week, Mike Petke tried to cover up for Olave's absence with a 4141, but the results were deplorable. Part of the issue was that Dax McCarty was rested for the first half due to a chronic back issue (with replacement defensive midfielder Eric Alexander arguably the worst player on the field for either team), but even when McCarty came in at halftime it just didn't work well. Olave's back, and you can bet that McCarty won't be rested, so I'm expecting a return to the 442 NYRB has played for about a year straight:
The only real question mark is in central midfield, where Petke has made some odd choices this season. Peguy Luyindula isn't a stalwart defender by any means, but he's scoring goals - almost accidentally, given his stumbling goal against the Impact and his shoulder strike against Chivas - and adds a range of passes that the other options simply don't bring. Bobby Convey (!) and Alexander have gotten looks in this spot as well, but Convey is no central midfielder and Alexander is coming off of a horrible display, so I'm expecting Luyindula to get the start.
Tim Cahill and McCarty were sensational against United last year as a central midfield duo, but the Australian isn't listed there or up front because he's dealing with a hamstring strain. Cahill pulled up against Chivas less than two weeks ago, but his past is littered with fast recoveries from both injury and long flights. It was no surprise to hear Petke talking about being able to include him in the gameday squad, but we're likely to only see him for 20-30 minutes.
The lack of spots up for grabs is not to say that this is an ideal NYRB eleven. Richard Eckersley has done well enough at everything other than tackling inside the box, but is out with an ankle sprain. Kosuke Kimura, who is thankfully OK after a scary collision saw players from both teams waving for assitance, should deputize. Kimura will work his socks off, but has been mistake-prone both in terms of position and in terms of his decisions with the ball. United should be looking to get after him with regularity.
In central defense, Olave will likely be partnered by Ibrahim Sekagya rather than lost Hanson brother Armando. The Spanish center back, aside from having deserved a red card in most of his MLS appearances thus far for head-hunting aerial challenges, has a hamstring strain and is questionable to the point that Petke may prevent Homegrown center back Matt Miazga from joining the US under-20s.at the Dallas Cup.
Sekagya has been very good in terms of emergency defending (including at least two clearances off the line this season), but his ability to think ahead and prevent danger from ever starting is pretty low. Given the fact that Olave is already among the best emergency defenders in MLS history, it's safe to say that Sekagya isn't the ideal partner for him.
Rather than aiming service at whoever is being marked by Sekagya, United should instead look to create chances from the right-center area of the field. Sekagya can be confused by quick combinations, and had trouble tracking Marco Di Vaio's runs. Sure, everyone has trouble with Di Vaio, but Sekagya occasionally looked like a deer in the headlights. If Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola can stay high, playing an early ball in behind might unlock the defense. Yes, Olave will come steaming in to save the day, but that's why you need two runners: The first guy to pursue the initial ball and draw Olave, and the second to be available in the space Olave vacated for a first-time pass.
In the midfield, United should look to be very abrasive and physical. McCarty is a tough player, but you can't tough your way out of being that small when you're up against someone like Perry Kitchen. Luyindula has the opposite problem: He's got the physical tools to survive a midfield battle, but he's a converted forward who never looks that comfortable when confronted with aggressive central midfield play. As has been the case for a couple years now, United needs to dictate the terms in central midfield. If it's about technical ability, we're going to have problems. If it's more blue collar, we have the advantage.
Earlier I mentioned that the Red Bulls have been a bit one-dimensional, and normally you'd expect that the one dimension is Henry. Thus far in 2014, you'd be wrong. So far, the NYRB attack has been badly reliant on the play of Lloyd Sam down the right wing. Last year, Sam had a hard time convincing Petke to give him starts, but this year the English winger has been the best Red Bulls player not named Olave.
For United, this is the biggest source of worry. Christian has not convinced yet, and Sam is precisely the kind of winger that you'd look for if you wanted to cause our left back some problems. Sam is very direct and thrives on creating 1v1s both along the touchline and in the right corner just outside the box. Christian needs to be tight on Sam early so that he's less of an option in the build-up, and simply has to deliver good defending whenever Sam does work himself into isolation (and it will happen).
That can't be it, though. United, as a team, is going to have to work hard to support Christian. Cheating a bit to force the Red Bulls to play elsewhere would be a start, and we'll need to see some diligent tracking-back from whoever starts at left midfield. Given Nick DeLeon's enthusiastic performance on both sides of the ball against New England, I'd lean towards using him on the left side to start.
On the opposite wing, Jonny Steele has been started every other game, but I expect that pattern to break this week. First of all, NYRB doesn't have another option there beyond Bobby Convey, who has hardly justified Petke's enthusiasm for giving him starts. Steele delivered a goal last week - back post, from a Sam cross...hope you're reading this, Sean Franklin - and has generally played well for the Red Bulls against United. However, Franklin does have a significant speed advantage, and his relentless overlapping may force Steele to be positionally conservative. That in turn will lower his ability to influence the game at the other end, which would contribute to NYRB's rather simple methods of attack.
What are those methods? With and without Henry, there has been a distinct penchant for early balls designed to make use of the speed NYRB has in Sam and, when he's playing, Bradley Wright-Phillips. Montreal's slow defense, when faced with the choice between pressing to prevent the pass or standing off to better cope with the run, chose the latter. It was a bad choice, though mostly because the Impact defense looks unable to cope with most under-14 teams right now.
United should look to pressure the ball so that these passes are off the table. Jeff Parke will see a lot of Wright-Phillips due to Henry's tendency to drift to the other side of the field, and Parke won't win that footrace. Plus, as we already talked about, protecting Christian from Sam's ability on the run is vital. This is going to take a team-wide effort, and it's not just about trying hard. United can't just sell out to send numbers at the ball initially, because NYRB has the smarts to simply make a safe pass and then have that player look over the top. United needs to press intelligently, maximizing the impact of the pressure without being reckless in terms of sending three or four people after one person in possession.
Normally Henry gets more attention in these pieces, but he's been a bit off-form this season. There's also his checkered history in this rivalry; for every goal or big play, there's also a moment like getting stripped by Chris Pontius just before Party Boy scored, or letting Roy Miller take a free kick with the season on the line. Still, Henry is Henry, which means he is capable of single-handedly undoing United's plans.
The best way for United to lower the chances of that happening would start with playing Perry Kitchen as a right-center midfielder (assuming the 442 from last week stays in place). Henry's tendency to drift left of center and move underneath demands getting Kitchen nearer to him so that he can't peacefully function as the fulcrum for the Metros.
That's just one step in the process rather than a cure-all, though. Boswell is going to have to be extremely sharp in his anticipation of Henry's movement. The good news is that Boswell's time in Houston coincided with the Dynamo being a difficult opponent for the Red Bulls, and Boswell played the exact same right-center role with Houston as he does with United. He should be well-schooled in the art of removing Henry as an option and forcing the Red Bulls to find someone else to create and/or score their goals.
One potential strength that United has over NYRB is on set pieces. The Red Bulls don't have a particularly big or strong team once you get past Olave, and with Cahill not starting (and carrying an injury) they'll lack their best target on the offensive end as well. Against Montreal, the Red Bulls ended up using Sam - who has no real zeal for defending - to mark Di Vaio, and in the end were extremely lucky that the Italian didn't score from a corner.
It's an issue that extends throughout the team. Alexander, if he plays, is a hulking presence but doesn't play like it. Sekagya, for all his athleticism, isn't necessarily as enthusiastic about contact as most MLS center backs are. McCarty is very underrated for his timing and his fearlessness, but he's still generously listed as 5'8". NYRB just didn't look up for the battle in the box against the Impact, and Luis Robles is hardly the sort of muscular keeper that can barrel through traffic.
When you stack United's likely targets up with the guys that will be marking them, you get a very favorable situation that the Black-and-Red need to take advantage of. With Olave back in the fold, goals might be hard to come by in the run of play. United can mitigate that fact with some good service and by being aggressive inside the box, and with a lead United should be able to take advantage of a Red Bulls team that already wants to stretch the field wide as is.
The timing of this game is good for United. The Red Bulls are a long way from being a cohesive side, they have several starters missing, and several players that will start aren't at their best. However, United has hardly been great thus far, and the big defensive errors that we've seen in all four games must be eliminated for this one. The Red Bulls are far short of their best, but then you could say the same thing for United. Ultimately, this game could come down to being the team with fewer mistakes, and given the defensive frailties both sides have shown, the team that controls more of the ball.