Norman Stansfield, one of cinema's great villains, would describe the playoffs as whimsical this year. D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls will square off for the second straight year, and the fifth time in their respective histories. Of course, those histories are starting to indicate less and less as time goes on. These are no longer the pathetic Metrostars with an empty trophy case; the Supporters Shield ended up in their still very spacious trophy case for the second time in three years last weekend.
This may also be the year that the Red Bulls have enjoyed their best success over United ever. The two matches at Red Bull Arena were totally dominated by NYRB, while the one game at RFK carried with it a heavy sucker punch: An error from United's best player giving the Red Bulls a stoppage time equalizer that their play didn't really merit.
Part of what makes this Red Bulls team strong is the consistent midfield and attack Jesse Marsch has been able to trot out. Injuries and international call-ups have seen them cycle players in and out of the back four all season, but the midfield and front line have been mostly untouched all season long. Lloyd Sam's 27 starts and 31 total appearances are comfortably the lowest numbers of any of Marsch's preferred front six; Bradley Wright-Phillips and Felipe have appeared in every game MLS game they've played this year.
That takes out any mystery here as far as the lineup goes. Marsch will continue in the 4231 that has worked so well all season long:
Luis Robles is the easiest starter to put into this sort of graphic in the entire league. The 2007 United draft pick (side note: Don't get mad at Tom Soehn here. Robles never really had intentions of playing in MLS due to the punishingly low salaries available to rookie non-starting GKs at the time) has started and finished every game for NYRB since sitting the bench on Septembe 22, 2012 in a 1-1 draw against New England. That's 106 straight regular season matches (not to mention 9 more playoff games to boot).
Fans who have seen fit to follow the Red Bulls, for whatever reason they have (likely either self-loathing or huge enthusiasm for energy drinks), will tell you that Robles is at least as good as Bill Hamid and should probably start all USMNT games for the next 10 years. That's the calmer group, too; the rest will say he should also coach the team, or that the United States should consider naming itself after Robles. This is all wrong. Robles is a very good MLS goalkeeper, probably the best of the league's second tier. By the end of next year, he may even edge ahead of Nick Rimando, depending on how the 36 year old ages. As of today, though, he's safely behind Hamid, Rimando, and David Ousted.
Robles does still have excellent reflexes, though, and that means his pure shot-stopping abilities are his best trait. While he will occasionally let shots past him that he probably shouldn't - particularly low shots that could be kicked away or shots at his near post - the rest of the time he's just flat-out tough to beat. He has good speed, so when he comes off his line he usually gets where he need to go...that is, unless he's obstructed. Robles is not going to bulldoze a path to the ball due to his frame, and United might be able to box him out and capitalize.
Right back is the only question mark, and that might be a stretch. Sal Zizzo - previously a right back only in emergencies for KC and Portland - has started 5 straight games in the position heading into the playoffs (and 6 of 7). Connor Lade had held the job for most of the season, but Zizzo's speed and bustling nature have seen him push ahead of late. If Marsch wants experience there, he'll go with Lade, but I'd rate that as a major shock.
In central defense, 20 year old Matt Miazga has been the best Red Bulls defender this season. Normally that would sound like terrible news, but the fact is that Miazga is a legit prospect for the national team. He has the right set of athletic gifts, but he is also more comfortable on the ball than is typical for MLS center backs. Perhaps more importantly, his reading of the game is at least 5 years ahead of where it should be. Miazga's only real weakness is his temper; he is right up there with MLS's most quickly angered players, and has seemingly never understood why any foul has ever been whistled against him.
Damien Perrinelle was firmly a back-up for Mike Petke, but under Marsch he has looked like a solid, reliable central defender. It's to his credit that he held off Premier League veteran Ronald Zubar once the oft-injured French veteran was finally healthy (though Zubar also helped with some major gaffes when he did play). Between him and Miazga, the Red Bulls are physical, aggressive, and very tough to beat through the air. Perrinelle's lateral quickness may be their biggest weakness, but it's not like he has feet of stone.
Kemar Lawrence - once on trial with DCU, which should be very aggravating whenever it's brought up - has been a revelation at left back. His enthusiastic, high-speed play for the Red Bulls has seen him linked with a Premier League move less than a full year after he was playing for Harbour View FC back in Jamaica. United needs to make sure Lawrence is accounted for when he comes forward, and he usually has the attentiveness to cover back when things go wrong. I'd suggest picking on Zizzo first while looking to force Lawrence into deep, predictable crosses when NYRB is in possession.
New York's biggest strength all season has been their central midfield trio. It didn't look like it would work at first, with Felipe playing the #8 role and Kljestan as the #10. Both had far more experience in each other's spot in this set-up, but Marsch absolutely nailed it by flipping them. Felipe's passing and reliable touch makes him a good linking midfielder for this group, while Kljestan's incessant ability to find seams and rove around looking for danger has more than made up for his natural chops as a traditional playmaker. Kljestan's mobility eventually earns him easier passes, so he doesn't have to show the kind of skill that, say, Ignacio Piatti does.
Holding it all down behind them is another man with a history with the Black-and-Red. Dax McCarty has been among MLS's best defensive midfielders for two years running despite being used in two different approaches and with 2 new partners in the center to figure out. If McCarty has a weakness, it's his size; United probably needs to make sure his inability to push Perry Kitchen or Markus Halsti around becomes a storyline here, because McCarty's dynamic approach to the #6 role fits in well with Kljestan's hunting for space and Felipe's tempo-setting.
On the right wing, Lloyd Sam has straight-up been a United killer since entering the league. In fact, I'd argue that over the past 2-3 seasons there has been no player to trouble United more than the English-born, Ghana-representing winger. Last year, Sam stayed on the touchline and played like a throwback to a different era in the game. In 2015, he's diversified his game and is now a huge threat coming inside, or running the channels. His 10 goals and 7 assists this season prove that he can do it against other teams as well. If United is going to win this game, containing Sam - via a combination of strong individual defending and a strategic attempt to lower the number of passes he sees throughout the match - is an absolute must.
Mike Grella will line up on the left, and he was not supposed to be a starter on this team. When brought in for a preseason trial, Grella was seen initially as just one more guy filling out the training camp roster. Grella kept making a difference though, even as he was playing a left wing role that differed from the position he played in England's lower divisions and at Duke in college. The career goal poacher has suddenly found the role he belonged in all along, as a goal-dangerous and very tricky option on the left side of midfield. United needs to restrict Grella's ability to be on the ball inside the box; the more he's out on the touchline, the better.
Up front, Bradley Wright-Phillips has proven his doubters wrong by succeeding without Thierry Henry. The secret? He, like Sam, has become a far more diverse player. BWP is now a harder player to track because he's better at dropping off the front line to help possession, and he's shown a far sharper passing ability than he ever displayed with Henry around. Tracking Wright-Phillips is tough, because he has a finely-honed sense for when to fade off the center back's shoulder and when to burst ahead of his marker to get the final touch.
Off the bench, BWP's brother Shaun Wright-Phillips has been used regularly since arriving, and in multiple positions. SWP has ended up in all of the attacking midfield spots, and even has a few minutes playing in the engine room. He doesn't have the speed that he used to be noted for, but his experience in the Premier League has resulted in some very experienced off-the-ball play.
Gonzalo Veron - a player the supposedly blue-collar, tight-budget Red Bulls acquired by spending a whole lot more than United can afford - has popped up on either wing or as a striker despite saying he sees himself as a central playmaker. He frankly has not adjusted that well to MLS, and seems perplexed about what decisions to make in relation to what his teammates are doing. Marsch has, more than once, brought them in as a double sub for his starting wingers.
Other options include Sean Davis (usually a move designed to freshen up central midfield), and on a few occasions Marsch has even brought Zubar in as a fifth defender. United should actually pay close attention if that happens, because NYRB has not responded very well to sorting out their spacing in those moments.