Two teams who have not been good down the stretch will meet tomorrow when D.C. United hosts the New England Revolution in the knockout round of the MLS Cup playoffs. United enters the game mired in a 2W-1D-6L stretch in which goals - save an outburst against Chicago - have been at a premium. The streaky Revs, meanwhile, enter this one with a 1W-1D-3L record in their final five games.
Unfortunately for United, that one New England victory was in their final game, and it coincided with Charlie Davies breaking a 571 minute scoreless streak to boot. It was the kind of game the Revs needed, and one that will likely see them feeling full of confidence at RFK Stadium.
That's not to say that the Revs are the kind of team that picks itself when everyone's healthy and in form. Jay Heaps has cycled starters on both wings, up front, and at right back all season long. Some of that is purely tactical, and some of it is to simply make sure everyone in his deep set of attackers gets enough games to feel involved. However, there have been moves based on form as well, and at least one change in the aforementioned positions seems assured after London Woodberry's ankle was almost certainly sprained in the Bronx.
The interest in cycling players for various reason into the team has not lead to tinkering with the formation or the system. Heaps plays a 4231 designed to speed through the middle third and into the attack as quickly as possible, but without hoofing long balls forward. Tomorrow night, that should mean a lineup like this:
In goal, Bobby Shuttleworth made a jump up in quality around the middle of last season and has mostly maintained that in 2015. However, a year ago he was playing pretty much up to his ceiling as a goalkeeper; right now, he hasn't been bad by any means, but he's not quite as likely to produce a blinding save. He probably won't be making any big mistakes though, so if United snags a cheap goal it will probably have to come from a field player.
Three players in the back four will walk into the team. Chris Tierney is a very good attacking fullback whose set piece delivery could be very important in what will be a rain-soaked game. He has improved his ability to deal with physicality over the past 2-3 years, and his positioning has gotten better with age. I do still think he can struggle with straight-line speed, so we could see Ben Olsen opt to return Chris Pontius to the right after playing his more familiar left-sided role in Columbus.
The Revs have no real center back depth given that Darrius Barnes suffered a severe knee injury that ended his season months ago. In the event of an injury, Jermaine Jones will probably have to drop back (something USMNT fans know he is not at all suited for). Andrew Farrell struggled back in March and April with his new role, but has gotten better with time and is now doing pretty well overall. Jose Goncalves has not shown the form he had in winning the 2013 Defender of the Year award in 2 full seasons, but that's not to say he has been bad (or even mediocre) since then.
That said, this duo does have flaws. Both seem to have instincts towards being the center back who steps up into midfield rather than being a natural combination where one person steps and the other covers in behind. Perhaps more importantly given that the conditions are not going to allow for a whole lot of tidy soccer on the ground, they aren't the strongest pairing when it comes to defending crosses. They've come a long way, but it strikes me as something neither of these players will ever be great at. Both could use a Steve Birnbaum as a partner, basically, but that player doesn't exist on the 2015 Revs.
Right back would have been a question mark even without Woodberry's injury. Curiously, all the possible candidates for the job have Maryland roots: Woodberry and Jeremy Hall both played for Sasho Cirovski in College Park, while Kevin Alston is a Silver Spring native. Woodberry has the most starts at right back of the trio, but most of those came between April and mid-July (during which he started 15 of 16 Revolution games). He appeared to have won his job back for their trip to Montreal 10 days ago, but some bad luck against NYCFC saw him end up with what looked like a clearly sprained ankle.
That means Alston or Hall, and both bring different qualities. Alston is more of a traditional fullback, using speed and competitiveness to battle with opposing wide players and getting into the attack here and there. Hall, meanwhile, was an attacking player in his youth career and has bounced around MLS both in terms of his clubs and in terms of where he plays on the field. The Revs seem to prefer that he plays as a conservative fullback due perhaps to his lack of consistent games in the position.
In the engine room, Scott Caldwell has quietly had 2 strong seasons as New England's anchor man. In a midfield that tends to play at full speed and surrounded by flank-swapping wingers, a true #10 who has tons of positional freedom, and a roving #8 whose desire to be everywhere at once is both his greatest strength and biggest weakness, Caldwell has a ton on his plate. The fact that he often goes unnoticed is actually a great advertisement for his quality. His positional discipline, composure, and swift reading of the game are the platform that the rest of the Revs need to careen downfield. If he has a weakness, it's that he can be pushed around a bit. The trick is actually getting to him while he has the ball, which is nearly always off his foot within two touches.
Jones is a player that likely requires little introduction. His arrival turned New England from a soft team drifting through 2014 into the MLS Cup contender they ended up becoming. Jones will enthusiastically get stuck in - here's hoping that his tendency for studs-up tackles is caught by Mark Geiger - but the biggest thing he does for the Revs is set the tempo. He's not so much a metronome as a ball of energy that can also spray the ball around. When New England needs someone to drive them into the attack, it's usually Jones pushing them into top gear.
The flanks are tough to predict because Heaps has been rotating players all season. On short rest, he may well end up cycling Diego Fagundez in on the left, leaving the right wing between Kelyn Rowe and Teal Bunbury. However, I think the conditions are going to dictate leaving Fagundez out. Of the trio, his game is the least suited towards playing in a bog. On the other hand, he's the most well-rested of the bunch.
Rowe is the most active of the three, buzzing around and looking to combine with Lee Nguyen as often as possible. He also has the most diverse set of skills of New England's wingers, and constitutes a real threat for United. Bunbury is a more straightforward player, using his size and speed to perform the target winger role. Of the three, I think he's the most likely starter given that a) the weather will be horrible and b) Taylor Kemp has struggled with size and speed at times scattered throughout 2015. Don't be at all surprised if the Revs start the game with repeated attempts to force Kemp into a 1v1 physical battle with Bunbury.
Nguyen started the season off ice cold - 1 goal and 2 assists in 14 games - but has recovered to finish the season with 7G/10A. What makes Nguyen such a threat for New England is primarily his dribbling ability in the crowded center of the field. Nguyen can receive the ball in a phone booth and knows when to keep it moving and when to try to fake past someone. He's not big on the flashy stepovers so much as he is good at taking a ton of very small touches before giving a simple lean or look one way and going the other. United can't let him face goal with the ball at his feet, as that's the primary method the Revs use to create chances in the box.
Up front, I'd normally say Davies is the sure starter after he broke his goalless streak on Sunday. However, Heaps has gotten both CD9 and Juan Agudelo to buy into a rotational policy, and as a result I think Agudelo is very close (maybe a 45% chance) to getting the start here. Davies has both of New England's goals against United this year, though, so that might help Heaps make the call. Davies will look to get in behind a little more, while Agudelo's first touch and size give him more of a target man presence. After watching Jack McInerney consistently lose any and all markers with his movement and one-touch play, I'd be just as worried about Agudelo as I am Davies.
Off the bench, the non-starting forward and winger will definitely get into this one, and we could well see Agudelo used as a winger as well. If Jones is injured, needed in central defense, or if the Revs are trailing late, look for Daigo Kobayashi to come in. Kobayashi is a skillful passer of the ball who will add a more crafty element to central midfield, and he could also sub in for Nguyen if Heaps wants to close the game out. Andy Dorman is also an option if the Revs want to get tough in central midfield.