On Sunday, D.C. United fans will have the opportunity to see a very effective team that has come a long way since a nightmarish 2013. Sure, they're lacking in star power for the most part, but they're very well-drilled, they're committed, and they are among MLS's best in terms of punishing mistakes from the opposition. Playing out of a 442 and fielding a team made up of youngsters, bargain bin pick-ups, and veterans who were thought to be past it coming into the season, this team will not get your heart pumping, but they do get results.
I'm of course talking about Chivas USA. Surely that opening didn't remind you of anyone else, did it? Alright, fine, I admit it: The similarities between the Goats and United are so numerous that I could afford to leave out the fact that both teams can't be 100% sure they won't be moved in the near future, or that both teams have a #7 who used to be a star in Seattle.
In soccer, when two teams that are this similar play each other, the results are usually not exactly thrilling. As they say in boxing, styles make fights. In this case, we have two teams that are winning games by grinding results out and playing solid defense. If one side were lacking in confidence, we might see the other primed to take advantage. Instead, United has had a half-season run that's arguably as good as any since 2007. Chivas, meanwhile, have won four straight for the first time since 2008. These two teams are good at what they do, which means this one figures to be a game won by the team that makes the fewest mistakes.
Still, there are differences. United's good form has gone on for most of the season, whereas Chivas got their four straight wins after a dismal 1W-4D-7L stretch. Chivas has only scored 20 goals on the season, and have an odd penchant for scoring just one goal (which they've done in eleven of their eighteen games). That's also why their current winning streak has been defined by grinding out wins rather than sexy soccer. Before beating the Vancouver Whitecaps 3-1 last week, they had picked up three straight 1-0 wins.
Their sudden turnaround didn't require re-inventing the wheel. Rather, Chivas simply started getting the basics right and have cut down on the mistakes. The return of guys like Oswaldo Minda and Marvin Chavez from World Cup duty - yes, somehow, Chivas had two guys at the World Cup - has certainly helped, but a bigger factor has been the simplification of the team's tactics and the emphasis on defensive organization. The Goats are all on the same page when they don't have the ball, and they've become very good at stepping up as a unit to catch teams offside.
Normally I'd be noting that, after spending most of the season rotating through variations on a 4231 or 4132 all year, they've finally settled on a 442 that will be very familiar to United fans. However, there is speculation out in California that they could go to a 451 on the road.
It's not just for defensive purposes, either. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about their 3-1 win in Vancouver was how they flipped the script on the Whitecaps in terms of formation. They started in a 442, which dn obvious disadvantage in central midfield against the Whitecaps and their 4231. Chivas didn't exactly cancel that out, but they worked very hard to mitigate it by staggering their central midfielders - generally sending the player closer to the ball after it while the other central midfielder dropped underneath - and adding in a temporary third man by getting either wide midfielder or the second forward to drop back.
Later, after the Whitecaps picked up a red card and switched to a 441, Chivas made a move into a 4231. It was a very clever move that paid off instantly, as Marky Delgado - playing "attacking midfield," but really acting as an initiator of pressure - won an interception, played a sublime combination with Mauro Rosales on the right, and curled in a perfect cross for Erick Torres to nod home.
In other words, Chivas was prepared for the Whitecaps tactically, but were also able to spring a surprise once the game set them up to do so. That 4231 might actually work rather well against United's 442, and while I doubt Wilmer Cabrera will change his starting formation after winning four straight I could easily see him moving to it if United starts to take control.
Like I said, though, the 442 is what's working right now for Chivas:
There aren't many question marks here. Eriq Zavaleta will probably continue at center back after being tabbed to replace Bobby Burling, who is out with a torn meniscus. Zavaleta is a young conversion project, having previously been a striker and who Sigi Schmid needed a year to even figure out what to do with before loaning him to the Goats under the expectation that he'd be treated like a center back full-time. I'm not the only person who thinks they might be better off using Andrew Jean-Baptiste, but a) he's only just back to making the gameday squad after a lingering hernia issue, and b) Cabrera has not trusted the former Portland defender much this season.
Further forward, there's little doubt in my mind that Mauro Rosales and Marvin Chavez will start. However, in Vancouver Rosales was used as a second forward for the first ten minutes and then for another few minutes before Chivas settled on him at right midfield and Chavez up top. Leandro Barrera has been a very good facilitator with Chivas, but Cabrera will likely prefer the speed of Chavez to go with Cubo Torres.
Out on the left, Eric Avila has gotten a few starts after spending most of the season at right back. Avila was never a natural there, however, and is back to his roots playing wide. He is listed as questionable with an ankle sprain apparently picked up at BC Place, however, and Delgado did very well after replacing him at halftime in that game. Given that Delgado has been involved with big, game-winning plays of late, I'm thinking we're more likely to see him.
Where Avila is more of an inverted winger who wants to cut in and go to goal himself, Delgado plays the wide role a bit like Nick DeLeon does. He tucks inside and works hard defensively - arguably, his natural position is in the engine room - while looking to facilitate for others in passing combinations when the Goats attack. Despite his reputation as being more of a "worker bee" than anything else, Delgado does have the skill to play the final ball, and he can cross fairly well with his right foot.
Despite their recent success defensively, Chivas has a couple defensive vulnerabilities. As I mentioned above, Zavaleta is inexperienced and he often finds himself having to scramble to defend rather than reading the game and calmly snuffing things out. From what I've seen, he's not particularly aware spatially, which means Eddie Johnson, Luis Silva, and Chris Rolfe should be able to confuse him with their movement off the ball.
United would also strongly benefit from getting Sean Franklin and Chris Korb forward. On the right, Franklin would be overlapping at Tony Lochhead, who is by far the slowest starting left back in MLS. DeLeon is clever enough to help spring these opportunities, and if United is playing at speed we don't necessarily need Franklin to do much more than fire in a low cross behind the defense for Johnson or Silva to attack.
On the other side, getting Korb forward would actually help the defense. Rosales doesn't have the legs to keep attacking if he also has to chase Korb to help his back four out. If Rosales is having to defend, he'll have a hard time involving himself in the attack as a crossing threat, which would be huge. If Cabrera wanted to fix this issue tactically, he'd have to switch Chavez and Rosales. The problem for Chivas is that Rosales is more comfortable coming in from the right than already starting in the middle, and moving Chavez wide means that it will be harder for them to counter by going over the top.
Another good way to create chances against Chivas would be to rely less on through balls and more on beating defenders on the dribble. The offside trap Chivas is running has been very effective, but as a team they aren't the best 1v1. It's easier said than done, but United's attackers need to take the responsibility to create some penetration in this manner so that the offside trap isn't such a comfortable method for Chivas.
Through the midfield and in terms of having useful possession, this is going to be a tricky game for United. With Fabian Espindola injured, United has seemed comfortable being the side with less possession. Chivas, meanwhile, is even more accustomed to that scenario. United is going to see more of the ball, but will have to keep the tempo up. I mentioned responsibility before, and here's where it applies. United's attacking players can't simply take the easy pass and let someone else take the risks of creating; if that's how things go, Chivas will get the sort of game they want to see.
Of course, no piece on Chivas is complete without a look at Torres. Cubo has scored 13 goals despite often having to play a target man role he is not at all suited for. The danger with Torres is the sort of thing we've seen from poachers over the years: You give the guy one chance, and he will score. He's got goals in five straight games at the moment, too, so it's not just a theoretical danger.
Cubo is outstanding at escaping his marker and anticipating where space will be rather than where it currently is. With players like that, you need to do two things at once: Obviously the back four needs to be extremely well-organized and strong in terms of communication. Even more important, though, is being sharp enough as a team to deny Cubo any service. If Rosales isn't able to get going as a crossing threat or dipping inside to play through balls, and if Delgado can't find opportunities to come inside and combine, Torres won't have opportunities to shoot. Given that this has all the indicators of being a low-scoring game, United will have to serve up a comprehensive defensive performance to win.
In terms of set pieces, I like United's chances of getting something done. The Goats are not a big, powerfully-built team, and in watching them I've noticed that they struggle to block opposition runs. Bocanegra is still very good in these spots, but the rest of the team can be had. Zavaleta is the most physically imposing player Chivas will field tomorrow, but he let Carlyle Mitchell - a player with no significant record of scoring goals - have the run of the Chivas penalty area last week. Mitchell scored a goal, and later should have received a penalty kick after Zavaleta was reduced to desperately pulling his jersey.
After that, things get worse. Chivas may have big players to mark Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum, but they don't have a third player who can stick with EJ, and they really don't have guys further down who can reliably mark Perry Kitchen. Chivas simply isn't a very good team in the air. In a game that has a strong chance of being 1-0, this may be United's best avenue of attack.
At the other end, it looks like Cabrera has wisely invested some time in rehearsing some runs to make up for the lack of size. Their first goal against the Whitecaps involved three runners staying very close together to create a traffic jam that Pelletieri emerged from to head the ball past David Ousted. Rosales is still excellent on corners and free kicks, so United is going to need to be very focused to prevent these runs from ending up with a Chivas player getting to the service.
In the end, United will win or lose this game based on the little details. This isn't necessarily a "first goal wins" game, but there's a chance that it plays out that way. One team will catch the other at a moment they fail to communicate, or when they cough up the ball with one too many men forward. Fortunately, United probably has more avenues to find that goal than Chivas does; unfortunately, Chivas has their star attacking player in top form while United's is still coming back from injury. This is a very tricky game that will require a very intelligent, consistent performance throughout. For the first time in ages, Chivas is no joke.