Figuring out how LD Alajuelense will line themselves up - and more importantly, how they'll play the game stylistically - to face D.C. United Thursday night has been a bit tricky. It's hard to watch Costa Rican league matches in the US, for one. There's also the issue of having two first-choice starters suspended; in particular, LDA head coach Oscar Ramirez has kept his cards very close to his chest on numerous potential replacements for right back Kevin Sancho.
There's also their CONCACAF Champions League history, which in recent times has been based around a 4231 formation and defensive solidity being preferred to attacking in numbers. La Liga may not have the same formation as United, but their CCL play has indicated a very similar mindset. They can certainly play some very good soccer, but when push comes to shove the object is to keep a clean sheet and be opportunistic at the other end.
However, this season things have been different. Up until a couple of weeks ago, Alajuelense was topping the Verano table playing a 4132 with very little sign that they had previously been a cautious team. In their last match, LDA used Ariel Rodriguez - who had played as an attacking midfielder in the group stage - as a deep-lying playmaker underneath an aggressive trio of midfielders. The central attacking role went to Armando Alonso, who scored three goals in Group 6 playing as a lone striker. There's no ball-winner, and despite a quasi-diamond shape in the midfield neither wide man has a shuttling responsibility.
The result is a squad that sends tons of numbers forward, and against some of Costa Rica's lesser clubs Alajuelense has been an attacking steamroller. However, in recent weeks things have gone south. Their last three games have been a draw with Universidad de Costa Rica, a loss to Limon FC, and a home loss to archrival Deportivo Saprissa. That's a 0W-1D-2L streak against the team in 11th place, the team in 10th, and the side that has taken LDA's spot in first place. Despite all their attacking intentions, they've only scored twice in those three games.
It would make a lot of sense for Ramirez to revert to his previous use of a five-man midfield, and it's not something that would shock me. However, the most likely player to step into central midfield and help - Juan Gabriel Guzman - just had his contract torn up by LDA yesterday for what the club called "serious misconduct." There are options that I'll mention below, but that move makes me reasonably confident that Ramirez will stick with the 4132:
The starting goalkeeper job has been a question for weeks, but signs have recently pointed to Dexter Lewis being the man who will step in for the suspended Patrick Pemberton. The press in Costa Rica said whoever started the match against Limon would be the CCL starter, and that was Lewis rather than Alfonso Quesada. If that weren't enough, our own Ryan Keefer is down in Costa Rica and he has this to say:
In front of him is likely going to be a back four featuring Kenner Gutierrez, Jhonny Acosta, Porfirio Lopez, and Leonel Peralta. Those center backs are much shorter than we see in MLS: Lopez is around 5'10" before you count his (very tall) hair, and he's the taller player in the duo. Both have caps for Costa Rica, but United fans may be more familiar with Lopez's disastrous 2012 season with the Philadelphia Union.
Gutierrez is an interesting case. He has emerged as the most likely right back with Sancho unavailable, but he's not a right back by trade. Unsurprisingly, that means he plays the role in a conservative style. When he does come forward, it's more to support the attack than it is to overlap. If Ramirez does revert to last fall's 4231, Gutierrez has some experience as a ball-winner and would be the most reasonable choice to partner Ariel Rodriguez. In that case, Elias Palma - also a specialist center back, and possibly carrying a knock - would step in at right back.
Peralta is the more positive fullback, but he's not necessarily a relentlessly attacking player. If Ramirez really wants to engage in a shootout, he'll instead opt for winger Diego Calvo. Calvo moved to left back late against Saprissa this weekend as Alajuelense chased the game, and also came on in that role against Limon last week. It's unlikely, but after Peralta struggled in Costa Rica's clasico one must wonder if his spot is secure. Youngster Juan Pablo Vargas is the other option, but he has precisely one professional appearance to his name.
Ariel Rodriguez is the deep midfielder, but his major role is to start attacking moves. Unlike what we usually see in MLS, where deep midfielders are pure ball-winners or anchor men, Rodriguez is not a remarkable force on the defensive side of the ball. His previous experience in the CCL was further upfield, and Alajuelense relies on him as the key to their possession game.
The rest of the midfield is a bit less predictable. Johan Venegas will probably start if he's cleared to play, but that looks more and more like a gameday decision. The most likely replacement for him would be Alvaro Sanchez, who wears the #10 but plays more like a classic winger. He's a significant threat with his speed, but can sometimes suffer from bad decision-making. Similarly, 32 year old Pablo Gabas will start only if he turns out to be fit. He's a natural central attacking midfielder who has a powerful long-range shot and is good at serving up corners and free kicks. LDA doesn't really have a good replacement for him, which is why Alonso awkwardly stepped in against Saprissa.
On the left, Ronald Matarrita could be an important player for La Liga. I said earlier that no one really plays the shuttling role that a diamond needs, but Matarrita has a skill set that would allow him to succeed in that job. He might be best viewed as an indication of how things are going for LDA. If he's connecting and facilitating for Rodriguez and Gabas (or Alonso), Alajuelense is keeping the correct balance in the midfield. If he starts jumping up high into the attack like a winger - which he did against Saprissa - it means that Alajuelense can be caught out on counterattacks.
Up front, Jonathan McDonald is likely going to play the role of target man. He's not a big guy, but the former Vancouver Whitecaps trialist is energetic and physical to the point of being overaggressive. He might not have a stellar goalscoring record over the years, but he's a constant distraction who makes life tough for center backs. I'm not sure who will partner him, though. Alonso should get the job if he's not used in the midfield, but Jose Ortiz is very much in the mix. Alonso is a clever striker with a tendency to demand to be the focal point of his team's play. Ortiz, meanwhile, is probably only 5'7", but he's fast and just as physical as McDonald.
I mentioned Calvo earlier, and he's almost certain to sub in at some point. Sanchez will probably play too if he doesn't start. There's a lack of defensive depth, so the other options to enter the game off the bench are forwards like Francisco Rodriguez or Alejandro Aguilar. One intriguing possibility is that Ramirez could go all out to get an early lead, then bring in someone like Yvanilton Almeida to move from the 4132 to a 4231.