Proximity breeds contempt. D.C. United has a closer rival these days, but for most of the capital club's existence the team that applied to was the New York Red Bulls, who were once the Metrostars, and before that were the NY/NJ Metrostars. In other countries, a four-hour trip is the longest away day of the year; in the US, it might as well be a city derby.
Physical distance isn't really the subject here, though. United only just played these same Red Bulls eleven days ago, winning 2-0 and ensuring that the Atlantic Cup will be where it belongs rather than sitting on the floor at Red Bull Arena (after all, why would they build a trophy case?). The score flattered United a bit, however, as NYRB laid siege to Bill Hamid's goal for the final fifteen minutes of the first half. Winning the game required an odd goal involving Fabian Espindola winning a header while marked by the hulking Jamison Olave and then also needed both Ibrahim Sekagya and Luis Robles to completely lose track of where they were on the field and how the ball was going to bounce.
In terms of form, it's been a mixed bag for the Metros, who are on a WLWLW run in their last five games. They have an interesting habit of disappointing against MLS's lesser sides (two losses to Chicago and home draws with San Jose, Chivas, and Colorado are good examples) but have done well against stronger teams not named DC United. They beat FC Dallas in Frisco, and got a 1-1 draw against RSL in Utah. Some of their direct playoff competitors - we're talking KC, Columbus, and New England here - have failed to beat them on the season. This franchise's schizophrenia may have quieted in 2013, but it's back in a big way this season.
United has had the luxury of playing the Red Bulls twice this season at RFK, because as an away team they're pretty poor. They don't often get blown out, but they struggle to generate offense and tend to make big mistakes to give games away. At Red Bull Arena, however, their offense comes to life; 28 of their 41 goals have been scored as the home side, including 13 in their last five home games. In other words, United probably shouldn't expect a repeat of the 0-0 draw in Vancouver. It will likely require at least one goal to get a positive result, and it may well require two.
It's no secret to our regular readers or those that follow me on Twitter that I disagree with how the Red Bulls are treated in general, and their last match was a good example. MLSsoccer ran a piece that is fairly representative of how HQ, most announcers, and most MLS pundits apparently see NYRB. Thierry Henry was breathlessly praised, and in general the reaction to the game was that the Red Bulls played very well.
I'm not going to tell you that they were awful or that Henry was poor, but the reaction is out of step with the performance. Per Opta, NYRB took five shots on the night. That's not on goal; that's shot attempts. Now, I will say that this number is wrong - Opta ignored at least three blocked shots as well as one clear-as-day shot that went wide - but even if my count is perfect, it still wasn't an impressive attacking display. The Red Bulls needed a moment of brilliance from Henry to win a game that, despite being the home team, they were second best in. They did some things well, but they also did some things poorly.
What the Red Bulls did in this game that was noteworthy was introduce a new formation. After moving from 442 to 4132 in recent weeks, Mike Petke sent his team out in a 4231 featuring Henry wide on the left and a recall for Peguy Luyindula as a central playmaker. Eric Alexander has spent the season mostly playing on either side of midfield, but ended up playing alongside Dax McCarty as a defensive midfielder. It was fairly clear throughout that those two were told to play a very conservative game, often leaving a normally expansive NYRB team keeping six men back no matter what.
There were good reasons to make the move. Stationing Henry out on the left put him up against Igor Juliao, which meant the Metros had their best player going up against KC's weakest and least-experienced defender. The move also forced the attack-minded young Brazilian to stay home at right back, which robbed the Sporks of an element they need going forward. Petke killed two birds with one stone.
It also gave Luyindula a role, something Petke knows he needs to do to get the most out of his attack. The problem has been that Luyindula is a defensive liability in both the 442 and the 4132. Well, that and the presence of Tim Cahill, who pretty much has to start due to his salary even though it's become progressively clear that he doesn't belong in the NYRB best eleven as a midfielder. The emergence of Bradley Wright-Phillips as a goalscorer has left Cahill with no proper role in either this 4231 or the 4132 (in which he struggles to make an impact and probably isn't a reliable enough passer). Cahill probably isn't going to play tonight, though, so he doesn't really merit a whole paragraph.
Guessing whether Petke will stick with the 4231 is tricky. There is less justification for it against United. Sean Franklin is a hell of a lot better than Juliao, and since Ben Olsen plays a 442 the Red Bulls won't have to sacrifice a forward to maintain numerical parity in central midfield. However, going 3v2 in that area will be tempting for Petke, who undoubtedly has noticed United's knack for ruining teams on the counter. Maintaining the McCarty-Alexander partnership with the same defense-first mindset won't let the Red Bulls play their normal brand of open, attacking soccer at home, but it will make slicing them up on the break that much more difficult.
Adding to the issue is that Petke doesn't have to drop anyone to make the shift. While I said that Luyindula is a defensive liability in the 4132, it's not as vital when they're at RBA to be strong there. I have my doubts about Petke playing an unchanged eleven due to the number of older players he started against Sporting as well. Henry is 37, Luyindula is 35, and both Olave and Sekagya are 33. Olave's got a long history of knee and hamstring problems, and overuse will bring those back to the fore. Sekagya, meanwhile, had to be substituted after 65 minutes due to an apparent ankle issue.
All that said, I am leaning slightly towards expecting the 4231, especially since Petke can quickly move to the 4132 if things don't go well:
Due to Sekagya's age and possible injury, I think we'll see Armando stepping in for him. That's a shame, because he has been awful against United this season. Armando is less agile and less adept at scrambling, but is physically stronger and will likely diagnose plays quicker. Of course, the issue with Armando is that he's basically a Spanish Hanson brother. Armando's desire to go in hard and go in early usually results in him picking up a card, and while he is good at toning it down to avoid a red, he usually becomes tentative as a result. Once his plan A of clobbering everyone is off the table, he usually struggles with putting together a plan B.
Matt Miazga has been away with the USA u20s and may or may not be back in time for the match. Miazga is probably the better option for Petke in a hypothetical situation, but given the number of games and the distance traveled he seems likely to end up on the bench.
The Red Bulls play four games in the next ten days and five in the next fourteen, so Petke will have to at least contemplate a rotation of some sort. We could see Chris Duvall given a night off, which would mean a start for Richard Eckersley, but I think Petke will save the bigger Englishman to go against Andrew Wenger on the weekend and start Duvall against United.
Elsewhere, Petke might want to give Saer Sene a start, but it would mean ditching the 4231 or playing Henry as the #10 and dropping Luyindula. More likely, we'd see some sort of 442 return. Ambroise Oyongo would be a strong candidate to start, but he's away with Cameroon right now.
That's probably it as far as rotation possibilities. Roy Miller is fortunately likely to play, as he'll depart the next day for Copa Centroamericana duty for Costa Rica. Petke would get slaughtered by Red Bulls fans if Henry didn't play against their biggest rival, and the same goes for Wright-Phillips. Lloyd Sam could be held out for Ruben Bover, but Sam's ability to be a threat along the right touchline opens up so much space for the Red Bulls, and despite his improved performances of late it is likely that Petke will be targeting Taylor Kemp.
United's attack will want to focus on Duvall. Despite what you may have read from the NY-based press about the rookie, the fact is that teams pick on him because he's a clear weak link. He may one day be a Chris Korb-esque player for NYRB, but at the moment he's someone you go at. Sporting's right-sided players repeatedly looked to switch the ball to Graham Zusi on the left to attack Duvall. United might want to mix that tactic in, though the best way to take advantage of Duvall's inexperience is going to be feeding Espindola when he drifts wide left. Duvall also doesn't get too much help from Sam defensively, so there should be gaps to attack on that side of the field.
With replacements cycling in and Miller being Miller, we should look for Nick DeLeon and Franklin to create some chances. While Henry drew praise for his willingness to defend against KC, on many occasions he was not actually the person defending the area ahead of Miller. That's not a knock on Henry, who gets paid to attack rather than defend, but the reality was that McCarty had a lot of extra running to do to cover that side of the field.
If Petke opts for the 4231, that's a crucial thing for United. If Henry stays high and McCarty has to fly out to the left side to prevent Miller from being overloaded, the Black-and-Red should look to move the ball back into the middle from wide. After all, if McCarty has sprinted out to the left, we'll likely have Alexander more or less alone to defend zone 14. That's a perfect opportunity for Luis Silva, because there will be plenty of spaces for him to exploit and in all likelihood some opportunities for him to shoot from just outside the box. If the Red Bulls keep Henry on the left, United needs to make them pay for the adjustments that requires in the defensive end.
Defensively, United is going to have to put a lot of work in to deny NYRB space. The field at Red Bull Arena is larger than RFK's, and that suits the home team. United has usually done a good job of containing Henry during open play, but the focus can't be on the French World Cup winner alone. If Luyindula is given time, he has a knack for playing killer balls. With Wright-Phillips and Sam on the field, that's a big problem.
Franklin and Bobby Boswell need to have excellent games. Henry loves to drift into the right-center channel that those two will be defending, and the Red Bulls as a team mentally depend on Henry for their confidence. Generally speaking, when NYRB sees Henry contained, no one else really steps up to carry the team. It's an important battle on the soccer side, obviously, but it's also a key spot on the field to win in terms of winning the mental game.
Speaking of which, United-Red Bulls games generally contain some wild momentum swings. We saw it recently, after DCU dominated the first half-hour against the Metros before the game did a 180 on us. United has relied on mental toughness and composure all season, and this is going to have to be an exemplary display in that department. Staying focused on the big pitch at RBA is crucial defensively, and the Red Bulls are a team that can lose their way when they don't quickly take charge of a match.
On set pieces, Henry is actually more hit-or-miss than people think. However, when he does get his service right, the ball is usually placed in a perfect spot rather than the normal "close enough" we see from other players. NYRB's issue is that, beyond Olave, they're short on targets. Armando, for all his macho aggression and physical strength, is too slow to get free of markers. On the weekend we saw a similar scenario against the Whitecaps, and United actually struggled. The performance in this department has to be a lot better this time around.
Ultimately United needs to dictate what sort of game this is. If it becomes a loose, open, relaxed game in which both teams show off their skill with the ball and their creativity, NYRB will be the more likely victor. If, however, the game is tense and more about mentality than raw ability, a season sweep of the Metros is entirely possible. United needs to be strong early to set the tone, and creating a few early looks via Espindola and Silva would help keep the Red Bulls from stepping as high as they'd like. This series being what it is, expect drama.