D.C. United and New York City FC are opposites in more than one way right now. United, barring a crazy sequence of events, is headed to the playoffs even though they've gone winless in six. NYCFC, barring a crazy sequence of events, is not going to the playoffs despite winning three in a row and playing probably the best soccer they've ever played as a club.
The Black-and-Red badly need a good performance, a win, some goals, really anything to hang their hat on right now. Here's how to make it happen:
Spread them out
There are a lot of reasons this is a good idea. NYCFC plays on MLS's most narrow field, first of all, and any team will suffer when forced to cope with something they're not used to. More importantly, Jason Kreis - despite playing a 4231 - has his team set up to attack by staying very narrow as a group. His outside midfielders are not going to provide width, and only one of his fullbacks is going to really provide much help in that department.
By spreading the field in possession, United will force their central midfield - you know, with the 36 year old and 37 year old starting - to cover a lot more ground than they'd like to. Making Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, and Andrew Jacobson run is going to help United tire them out, and it also has its benefits defensively. If Mix Diskerud and Ned Grabavoy are having to help defend the flanks, they won't be in good starting positions on the occasions where NYCFC forces a turnover.
Make Pirlo's visit to DC a horribly unpleasant experience
United's object in this game as far as Pirlo goes should be to make him never want to come back to this city again. Last time these teams met, the Black-and-Red scored via a Pirlo turnover, but also conceded a critical goal because they failed to close him down after a turnover.
As Pirlo has gotten more comfortable over the weeks, it's become more and more important for teams playing NYCFC to ruin his night. That doesn't mean fouling or man-marking him, either. What we're talking about is a coordinated effort to make sure that the areas Pirlo takes up - generally deep in the midfield, and slightly to the right of center - are areas in which he can't face upfield. That's going to take some smart work from United's front six no matter whether Ben Olsen opts for a formation change or not. If the 442 remains, that job likely falls on Fabian Espindola (or possibly Chris Rolfe if Alvaro Saborio is benched). If we see a move to some kind of 451, we might see someone like Michael Farfan principally responsible for leading the charge against Pirlo.
However, no one player should be seen as solely responsible for dealing with Pirlo. United needs someone always present to block Pirlo from turning up the field and facing United's goal with the ball. He shouldn't be able to receive the ball comfortably, and when he does get it he needs to be forced to play sideways or backward.
Don't concede any cheap set pieces
Pirlo is Pirlo, and he can put a free kick wherever he pleases. NYCFC's lack of particularly notable targets doesn't really matter, because Pirlo is so accurate that hard runs are likely going to be rewarded. That means United needs to defend on their feet and avoid being isolated when NYC has the ball whenever possible. Tackling is going to be difficult enough on a rain-saturated playing surface, so United needs to make sure every tackle attempt is well-considered. As a road team, NYCFC has actually scored more goals (8) from set pieces and penalties than they have from open play (7).
Games in these conditions are regularly settled by set pieces, and with Pirlo over the ball United will be at a disadvantage. The only way to mitigate that is to make sure Pirlo doesn't end up standing over the ball very often.
Do not concede the first goal!
This isn't NYCFC specific advice. United has been falling behind to everyone for a while now, and it's clearly long past the time where this issue should have been fixed. United's top priority is to stay organized, avoid mistakes, and be hard to play against. In recent times this club has given away goals far too easily and far too regularly. This has to be a "little things" performance where United makes the visitors earn it. Anything less and we're probably looking at another loss.
Be the aggressor
NYCFC is very comfortable going forward, but they're not a good defensive team. Furthermore, they're not a team built for a scrappy game. On both fronts, United needs to be aggressive. This isn't a team you sit deep against, because they have the ability and the creativity to pick teams apart. United needs to put them on the back foot and expose their weak back four for what it is.
Furthermore, United needs to do something to both jolt their confidence while sapping the Light Blues of theirs. I'm not saying DCU needs to run around kicking everyone in sight or anything like that, but they do need to be feisty all over the field. Lately United has been passive for too long in games, only getting mean when they've been slapped in the face with a goal or two against. They need the Espindola who plays while nearly enraged. They need Bobby Boswell to make some hard-but-fair physical statements as early in the game as possible. They could probably use Jairo Arrieta as a starter more than Alvaro Saborio, if we're being honest, but that's just one player.
The whole team needs to be abrasive. It's time for this club to start taking the idea of teams seeing them as an easy mark personally. It's time to see this team get back to being a pain in the ass to play against.