We all know by now that D.C. United will be without Fabian Espindola for the next few weeks and that Cristian Fernandez has decamped for his native Spain, never to return. So, what's a team to do, missing their most important attacking player and their only starting-caliber natural left back?
That's what we're here to discuss.
Before we proceed, though, you should know that it's been a long couple weeks for me, as I've just had a big filing deadline at work come two weeks into the World Cup, and of course, there's the infant that suddenly started living in my house. So things could get a little bit weird further down in the column. Just so you're forewarned.
4-4-2: Stay on Track
This is the most boring and most likely scenario. Ben Olsen just plugs the gaps he's got in his team sheet with similar-ish parts. Chris Korb plays opposite Sean Franklin at fullback, and either Luis Silva or Chris Rolfe pairs Eddie Johnson up top in the 4-4-2.
Pros: It doesn't overreact to two missing pieces. We have quite a few players with flexible skill sets, and in first place, it's too early to equate Rolfe's moving from midfield to forward with rearranging the deck chairs.
Cons: BORING. More substantively, though, trying not to change much when you're down a guy who has been involved with 15 of your team's 22 goals is like not trying to change course once you know there's an ice berg ahead. (Sorry for the multiple Titanic references.) United's attack wasn't quick, incisive or creative enough in Saturday's 1-0 loss to Seattle, and Espindola's absence was sorely felt. It might be that Davy Arnaud's return to midfield, pushing Lewis Neal either to the outside or to the bench, will improve things, but we could just as easily see a repeat performance against a Toronto FC side that's becoming infamous for packing it in and striking on the counter.
4-3-3/4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1/whatever: Own the Midfield
Except for Saturday's loss, where Seattle had no interest in possessing the ball in any serious way, United have typically lost the possession battle thus far in 2014. Yes, possession is overrated as a statistic - blah blah blah - but United have spent too much energy defending too deep in their own territory too many times for me not to be worried. A big part of why is DC's generally being outnumbered in the center of the park. Without a guy who screams "second forward" in the must-start category, though, Ben Olsen is free to try some different shapes in the midfield to see if we can do better at possessing the ball and doing something with it at the same time.
Here's one lineup suggested by our own Ben Bromley: Hamid; Franklin, Boswell, Birnbaum, Korb; Arnaud, Kitchen, Jeffrey; DeLeon, Johnson, Rolfe. I've got to say, it's an interesting look.
Pros: It plays to several players' strengths more than the 4-4-2 does. DeLeon and Rolfe are potentially closer to goal and both have somewhat less incompatible attacking and defensive responsibilities. If we keep the ball on the ground - as we did against Seattle - EJ isn't battling for aerials constantly and instead can look to combine with teammates or get in behind the defense. That midfield would be very tough for opponents to play through and could easily be modified to give it more attacking oomph with the insertion of Luis Silva or Collin Martin. Espindola could pretty easily map onto an outside forward/midfield spot with frequent interchanging with Johnson.
Cons: It creates a big workload for our fullbacks, who - as now - will be responsible for most of the width going forward but will also be left in 1v1 situations more often as the outside midfielders both push higher. Because overloading one side of the field or the other is so in vogue right now (mostly because it works at creating chances), Korb and Franklin could be put in worse than 1v1 situations with some regularity unless DeLeon and Rolfe track back, leaving EJ on an island of his own up top. We haven't seen United look very convincing going forward in this sort of formation since... well I'm not sure we ever have. Putting Fabi out wide to just one side neutralizes his unpredictability, which is his
chief weapon among his greatest assets.
3-x-x/5-x-x: Go Crazy
This was recently suggested by a reader on Twitter in the context of acquiring Oguchi Onyewu, who is training with the team right now, to play alongside Boswell and either Steve Birnbaum or Jeff Parke. That strikes me as way too immobile a combination for a back three, but there are other options if we want to get a little bit experimental. Boswell obviously will be in the XI, but rather than similarly immobile centerbacks, he'll need more athleticism alongside him. Birnbaum would do well here, as might Perry Kitchen, who has played along the back line in the past. Nana Attakora, enigma that he remains, is another option should we (reasonably, it must be said) want to keep Kitchen in the midfield.
Elsewhere, we keep Korb and Franklin as the wide men, or we replace Korb with Taylor Kemp. A midfield trio comprising three of Arnaud, Neal, Silva, Martin, DeLeon and Jeffrey could play behind Johnson and Rolfe, or else two of those central mids could support a front three with Rolfe and DeLeon on the wings. (What? I said it would get weird.)
Pros: Gives our fullbacks/wingbacks even more license to get forward with abandon. If they serve enough crosses in, eventually one of them will find the mark, right? Right? Would be a unique look in MLS - even if similar formations have caught on at the international level through Mexico, the Netherlands and Chile.
Cons: A three-man back line hasn't succeeded in MLS for longer than a few weeks since the 2008 U.S. Open Cup final at RFK Stadium. Moving Kitchen into the defense reeks of desperation, and we'd be putting even more responsibilities at Korb's feet. This kind of a system change would probably need to be thought about and worked through in preseason, not just adopted ad hoc in the midst of two months of chronic fixture congestion. Same Espindola-related issues as above.
Boring is better? I think we'll see the same ol' vanilla trotted out against Toronto, San Jose and Chivas USA in the coming weeks before Espindola returns, at which point it should become a more effective vanilla. As Ben Bromley pointed out in his lineup projection, the real questions are whether Rolfe will lineup in midfield or alongside EJ and who will take whichever spot Rolfe doesn't. (Kemp will not start for Korb. Probably.)
What system would you like to see Ben Olsen & Co. experiment with this summer? Let us know in the comments. And in the meantime, have a great Fourth of July, too!