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Oppositon 11: Who will NYCFC start tomorrow against D.C. United?

Let's talk about the players that will join NYCFC's superstars in the downpour at RFK tomorrow night.

There was a time this season where New York City FC (D.C. United's opponent tomorrow night) was the hardest team to predict in terms of their lineup. Jason Kreis was working his way through every possible variation on a 451, as well as several 442 versions and even hinting at a possible back three. On top of that, he couldn't settle on more than 3 or 4 sure starters as both the form of individual players and the group's inconsistency made change a tempting option every week.

Naturally, things have changed as Kreis has settled into a consistent 4231 formation, though the tinkering with individual players kept going for a bit longer. The inconsistent results continued as a result, but of late NYCFC has a pretty much set-in-stone front six, and they're playing their best soccer of the season. The rest of the team is getting used to the vagaries of carrying Andrea Pirlo defensively so he can be the gifted passer that he is offensively, and Frank Lampard is fit and appears interested now. It has almost certainly come too late for them to make the playoffs, but everyone involved knows that this good form and these wins will have a carryover effect for improving in 2016.

Here's how that (mostly) settled team looks:

In goal, Josh Saunders has done well while enduring a near-constant shelling. This team gives up a lot of shots, and Saunders - though very much a flawed, lower-tier starting 'keeper - has always been good at stopping shots. He's as confident and fit as he's ever been, which certainly helps. Still, he does have issues with positioning and decision-making, and can occasionally drop balls that he should hold. United needs to follow up on shots and pay attention on crosses that might become juicy rebounds. For a team that is struggling badly to score, freebies are gold right now.

The back four has been in flux all season due to injuries and the fact that this group is either a) MLS journeymen who should not be starting or b) young players with great potential whose inexperience and lack of consistency demand rotation from time to time. Injuries are the main factor for tomorrow, though, as La Liga veteran Andoni Iraola and Shay Facey - arguably NYCFC's most consistent defender all season - are both out.

Iraola has been out for a couple weeks now, so RJ Allen will carry on. Allen is not the most technically gifted or thoughtful player, but he is a decent athlete and plays with tremendous enthusiasm. The conditions tomorrow night appear suited for his robust, inelegant approach to the game. He will come forward regularly, but he's more there to provide width rather than actually participate in the attack. Angeliño is a possibility here as well, but he's only played right back once this season.

In central defense, Facey will in all likelihood be replaced by Jefferson Mena. This may actually be unfortunate news due to the weather. Mena is nowhere near as comfortable with MLS as Facey, and he makes more rash decisions, but he's much more suited to what is probably going to be a steady diet of long balls involved in this game. United needs to try to fool him into stepping too far forward, because if it's just winning headers he's probably going to have a good night. Alongside him, Jason Hernandez has been OK this season, but is still the kind of center back playoff teams don't have in a starting role.

Out on the left, Kreis has a choice to make. Chris Wingert is back from suspension and is the far more experienced choice, but Angeliño has impressed despite being just 18 years old. In particular, the young Spaniard has been a real positive for their attack thanks to his willingness to make aggressive runs. Of course, that comes with a risk that United needs to exploit. When Angeliño jumps into the attack, United needs to pay close attention. If they win the ball, they need to find someone - looking at you, Fabian Espindola - in that space to counter.

I have Wingert listed as the starter here, though, and it's for a reason. On the road, in sloppy conditions, I think Kreis is going to opt for a steadier player who will take fewer chances. United's lack of speed all over the field also means Wingert's main weakness is less likely to be exposed. If Ben Olsen does something radical (i.e. change formations), Miguel Aguilar would be great choice if Wingert is on the field.

Everywhere else, NYCFC is pretty much set. Pirlo will set up shop in the deep areas of midfield, and United has to do a more thorough job of harassing him than they did at Yankee Stadium. We'll have more on the site tomorrow about that topic, so I'll move on to Andrew Jacobson. The ex-United midfielder is the legs of this midfield, as both Pirlo and Lampard aren't covering a ton of ground given their age (and Pirlo being Pirlo). United should look to pull Jacobson around; eventually, the amount of things he has to do will overload him either physically or mentally, and that's when holes will open up.

Out on the right wing, Mix Diskerud has quietly rounded into the kind of form NYCFC expected out of him from the jump. He's very much an outside-in player who will always look to come inside either to combine or to run into space vacated by David Villa or Lampard. United really needs to force Diskerud into playing more like an old-fashioned winger here. The more time he spends attacking and defending within a yard of the touchline, the less influential he'll be.

Out on the left, Ned Grabavoy has seized the job after an injury layoff. This might seem odd given Thomas McNamara's goalscoring exploits and his clear chemistry with Villa, but Grabavoy is a Kreis favorite who makes better defensive decisions. Grabavoy is going to play from the left just like Diskerud on the right, which makes this NYCFC team an extraordinarily narrow team. At home, it works great because their field is MLS's least spacious. On the road, it has caused problems. As with Diskerud, United will want to see Grabavoy having to try and beat people down the wing rather than getting inside to combine.

Up top, Villa has delivered on the high salary NYCFC put up to bring the Spanish World Cup winner to these shores. If not for Sebastian Giovinco and NYC being outside the playoff places, he'd be a potential MVP winner. It's the second straight game that the Black-and-Red have faced a striker with an amazing resume, but Villa and Didier Drogba are very different players. Villa will look to avoid all the physical clashes that Drogba thrived on in Montreal. Rather, his approach is about losing defenders to run the channels - for United, Sean Franklin and Bobby Boswell need to be particularly alert - and play one-touch soccer on the edge of the box. Villa's finishing ability is still world class, so giving him any unobstructed look at goal is a recipe for disaster. This needs to be United's best defensive performance in ages if they're going to keep him under wraps.

Off the bench, Kreis has some good options even with his recent, nonsensical decision to drop McNamara entirely. Patrick Mullins has produced some good numbers in limited minutes as a striker. I'd expect him to sub on for one of the wide midfielders, but Villa will move out to the left wing in that instance. Both players will swap spots during attacking moves, giving United's left flank a very difficult problem to solve.

Kwadwo Poku tore DCU apart at Yankee Stadium, and is likely to get into this one for any of the central midfielders. Poku's speed and strength are the keys to his play, and United needs to make sure to confront him immediately rather than let him build up his stride while carrying the ball. NYCFC can also get more athletic by bringing on Khiry Shelton as a winger. Shelton is arguably more of a striker, but with Villa and Mullins around he ends up using his speed on the wing. He's not a one-dimensional fast player, though, and United should be wary of his ability to get into goalscoring positions from the flanks.