It feels good to be back. D.C. United at Real Salt Lake is always going to hold good memories for United fans. You know you want to reminisce over last year's completely inexplicable US Open Cup final, which was the culmination of a completely inexplicable run through the cup by United. Last year's team won more matches in USOC play than in a 34-game season in the league, and likely saved four of the five or six actually competent performances they managed all year for the competition.
Done? Good, because little we learned that night will apply in this completely different game between two teams that have undergone some important changes. For one, United's methods that night - necessary though they were - likely only had a 10% chance of actually working. That's all fine and dandy for legendarily bad teams trying to pull off a miracle, but it's a waste of time for a team that could take the Supporters Shield lead with a win tonight. There are better ways to approach this game.
What is more or less the same is that RSL is among the best teams in MLS, as they have been for pretty much all of this decade. Jason Kreis has been replaced as head coach by Jeff Cassar - a former assistant - but they're still doing the things that make them an elite team in this league. They're still as good as anyone in MLS in terms of keeping the ball, their 4312 formation is stocked with a wide range of scoring threats - four players have at least 5 goals on the season, and five have picked up at least 3 assists - and they have arguably the best player in the league in three different positions.
Still, that's not to say it's been completely smooth sailing for RSL this season. Real lost their top goalscoring threat Alvaro Saborio in the buildup to the World Cup, and have been constantly rotating in players to lead the line. Being in the top five for goals against is typical of RSL, but their 27 goals conceded are well adrift of the vanguard in that category (including us, high five!).
There's also the most straightforward issue of recent form. RSL started the season with a record of 6W-6D-0L and are currently 9W-9D-4L. You don't need to be a math major to figure out that they're 3W-3D-4L in their last ten games. That form, stretched over a full season, would only be good enough for 41 points and a place among MLS's forgotten, mediocre class that misses the playoffs but isn't outright bad. The bad results in that run are not so recent, either (they've won three of their last six), but it's still an indicator that RSL is not quite firing on all cylinders.
That good-but-not-great form will be compounded by yet another example of United getting to play a team at an opportune moment. Starting outside backs Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert both collected their fifth yellow cards of the season last week for time-wasting (without being warned, and without really even taking that long either). Adding to RSL's woes is the fact that center back Aaron Maund - filling in for normal starter Chris Schuler, who was rested with a minor foot issue - was sent off for pulling down Vicente Sanchez on a breakaway.
RSL is a deep team at most positions, but outside back is their one weak spot, and it's even weaker than normal right now. On top of these suspensions, guys like Jordan Allen and Rich Balcan - who would be strong candidates to fill in - are injured. Real's options are down to using Abdoulie Mansally at left back - a position he only really knows how to attack from, rather than do the actual defending - and either using a center back wide right or giving 17 year old Homegrown signing Justen Glad his first MLS minutes of any kind.
All that aside, the rest of their team will probably look pretty familiar:
I know there are a ton of question marks there, and I said "familiar" just a second ago, but bear with me here. The back four will be very different from normal, but everywhere else things are going to be pretty run-of-the-mill. RSL has been rotating players up front since Saborio left for Costa Rica's pre-World Cup camp and broke his foot there. Luke Mulholland ceded his starting job at right midfield to Luis Gil last week in Colorado, but Gil played midweek during the US under-23 squad's training camp in the Bahamas. Cassar says that travel won't rule him out of tonight's game, but in all likelihood Mulholland - who has been pretty good all season long - will get the nod.
In the back, the options break down like this: Schuler's foot issue was a one-week thing, and he would normally start at center back. I doubt Cassar wants to throw Glad to the wolves, so he'll have to figure out whether he wants to use Schuler wide (where he has at least some MLS experience, though that was as a left back) or try youngster Carlos Salcedo there. Salcedo has apparently played some reserve games in the role before, but Schuler is the faster player so I expect to see him out wide and Salcedo partnering Borchers. At left back, Mansally is pretty much the only choice, unless Glad starts at right back and Schuler moves over to the left.
Compounding this defensive reshuffle is the fact that Kyle Beckerman was kept out of Wednesday's All-Star game with what Cassar termed "nasty feet." Essentially, Beckerman says the issue comes down to a change in the shape of his Nikes and an inability to find an orthotic that fits correctly. All laughs about nasty feet aside, the odds are strong that he'll play. If Cassar decides to rest his captain for one more game, however, the likely replacement would be Cole Grossman.
At forward, the rotation has been hard to predict. The options all have different skill sets, so it's not just a matter of who feels the freshest. Devon Sandoval is a hard-working target man who sacrifices to help guys like Javier Morales and Joao Plata get more looks on goal. Robbie Findley is the speed option, though he is underrated for being a rather abrasive player given his size. Olmes Garcia is the most skilled of the group, but he's erratic in terms of final product and his game is broadly similar to Plata's. I think we're more likely to see Sandoval, who only got 50 minutes due to Maund's red card last week, but Findley is a distinct possibility as well.
It's a very important time for these three players to produce, because RSL just spent big money to bring Argentine striker Sebastian Jaime in from Chilean club Union Española. RSL can't field Jaime without clearing a roster spot, and most likely one of these three players will have to make way. Expect whoever starts to be particularly motivated as a result.
The main challenge for United is going to be Morales, who is on track to get double digits in both goals and assists for the season. Perry Kitchen's absence will be keenly felt here, and it's going to take more than good ol' hard work from Lewis Neal or Jared Jeffrey to deny Morales the spaces he wants to play in. United will need to be extremely disciplined all over the field so that they aren't stretched horizontally or vertically. Davy Arnaud is also going to have to have a big game, as he'll need to avoid being outfoxed by Morales while providing a physical presence to disrupt the Argentine's plans. Morales can get a little hot under the collar, and the more he's upset with Arnaud or the referee, the less mental energy he'll have to devote towards soccer.
However, you can't just kick Morales and be done with it. He can convert free kicks himself, and he's also very good at serving balls in for runners. The idea is to be physical without giving away these free kicks, and it won't just be Arnaud's job. Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum are going to have to be very sharp about when they step up to disrupt things, because Morales is very good at exploiting the slightest misjudgment with a shuffle of his feet or a through ball to an alert teammate.
Plata is RSL's next biggest threat, and his 9 goals currently lead the team. The tiny Ecuadoran is arguably MLS's most elusive player thanks to his quick burst away from his marker and his sense of timing. Plata also likes to drift wide to attack fullbacks on the dribble, something United should know all about given how Fabian Espindola does his business.
Sean Franklin and Chris Korb should be ready to see Plata peeling out of the middle to either chase down through balls or to attack them with the ball at his feet, but they can't do it alone. United's midfield will need to do an excellent job of staying mentally ahead of the play and supporting their defenders so that, if Plata beats the first man, he still ends up being tackled. United can't afford to have center backs getting dragged out wide to deal with Plata. It's not just because he's small and quick; it's because RSL's narrow formation means they'll have a distinct advantage in numbers in a more dangerous area if Boswell or Birnbaum is out by the touchline.
Speaking of RSL's narrowness, it's also going to be vital that United's wide midfielders and forwards chip in to help keep the numbers even. RSL's 4312 will often look like a formation featuring four central midfielders, while United's 442 on paper has just two. RSL made the choice years ago to overload the middle and win that area of the field, and nothing has changed. Nick DeLeon usually has no issues with pinching inside defensively before moving back out wide when United gets the ball, but Chris Rolfe will have to be just as sharp in that department.
Luis Silva and Eddie Johnson, meanwhile, need to be smart about severing the connection between RSL's center backs and Beckerman. If Salcedo is at center back, United should make a concerted effort to force RSL to exit out of the back through him rather than Borchers, as the 20 year old doesn't have the sort of composure yet to always hit the right pass. If RSL is forced to bypass Beckerman even some of the time, United is in business. RSL is a team that relies on a passing rhythm, and when they're taken out of that rhythm it tends to bleed into the rest of what they do.
Going forward, United needs to quickly play the ball wide in possession. That 4v2 central midfield advantage makes it hard to keep the ball for any length of time centrally. That's the rub for RSL: The decision to overload the middle comes at a cost, and that cost is a lack of defensive cover on the wings. Franklin should have plenty of chances to join the attack, though RSL will likely work very hard to try and force United to pass wide left to Korb. DeLeon and Rolfe need to make sure they're regularly escaping Mulholland and Ned Grabavoy to find spaces, while Silva needs to do his normal good work at finding whatever seams there are and exploiting them.
I'd also like to see Eddie Johnson peel some runs out wide to receive the ball and then run - and I mean run, not his preferred slow stepovers - into the channels. Slashing runs from EJ will serve to confound this new-look RSL back four, and if they're having to drop off as a result it will make RSL's possession game that much harder to pull off. Games against RSL are usually great illustrations of how your attacking play is all tangled up in how you're defending, and how your defensive choices don't happen without consideration of what you're trying to do in the attack.
On set pieces, RSL might actually be a bit vulnerable. Borchers and Schuler are outstanding in the box, but if Nick Rimando has a weakness it's that he can't get to every aerial ball (particularly in traffic). Those two will likely mark Boswell and EJ respectively, but after that RSL has no one who is well-equipped to cover Birnbaum, and we've seen Arnaud fight his way free a couple of times as well. Assuming Silva is taking the free kicks from the start, a good game from him service-wise could be a key to scoring some goals.
At the other end, Morales is one of MLS's best both on free kicks and corners. We have the size advantage here, but Morales has enough quality with his service that RSL doesn't need to be particularly clever with their movements. You don't see them scoring goals on free headers; rather, the ball is so precise that RSL's players just have to be an inch or two earlier to the ball to make it count. United needs to keep the corner kick totals low defensively, and fouling near the box should be avoided if at all possible (not that it'll be easy against Morales and Plata).
All in all we have an intriguingly poised match here. United's wide midfielders have been in good form going forward, and Espindola's return will likely make this an even more difficult test for RSL's emergency fullbacks. However, RSL is built around Morales, and our best Morales-stopping player won't be on the plane. In all likelihood, the team that can hide their weak point better is going to be the one that controls the match.