I'll just get straight to the point: Liga Deportiva Alajuelense has no particularly strong reason to change what worked so well for them in last week's 5-2 win over D.C. United. I could just cut and paste last week's piece on their probable lineup without having to make more than one or two minor tweaks. The only real news is that winger Diego Calvo apparently didn't travel with LDA, and has been replaced by right back Jose Salvatierra. Attacking midfielder Pablo Gabas was also left out after failing to overcome an injury, but he wasn't in the 18 last week either so it's not a big deal for our purposes.
Based on what we saw last week, here's a very slightly changed formation graphic for your edification:
Most of these changes are just to confirm a player will start. Alonso will be the attacking midfielder in the absence of Gabas, Johan Venegas and Ronald Matarrita should start on either side of the midfield, and with Alonso occupied elsewhere we'll see Jose Ortiz up front again. The only issue, really, is whether Salvatierra - coming back from a long injury layoff - is given a start for fitness purposes. That might seem reckless in a knockout game, but I'd wager that a 5-2 lead is safer than LDA's pursuit of the Costa Rican title. If there's a game to get him into, it's this one. I still expect Kenner Gutierrez to start, but don't be surprised if Salvatierra gets into the game if United isn't making a serious push at a stunning comeback.
Rather than rehash old material, I'd instead like to look at two possible formations that Oscar Ramirez could use. The chances of him using them from the start are not particularly great, but I can't rule them out. Ramirez is a bit of a tinkerer, and many Central American clubs have changed formation from game to game in CCLs past. Even if they're not the starting choice, there's a decent chance that we see one of these two looks as the game wears on.
First, there's the 4231 they played in the group stage. Without Gabas, there's a problem: No playmaker in the attacking midfield position. Alonso is a natural striker who basically plays a facilitator role in possession and then tries to make late runs into the box. Without Gabas, I think this "4231" may look suspiciously like a 442 going forward, as Alonso's instincts will carry him into the space left by having only one true striker on the field:
It would be awfully harsh to remove Ortiz - who scored twice and generally didn't miss the giant channels United left for him to run - but there's no real room for him in this formation. Jonathan McDonald is the target man, and unless Ortiz is pushed out to the wing (where Venegas and Matarrita are much more natural fits) he'd have to make way for Yvanilton. There is also the option of Salvatierra playing right back and Gutierrez going into defensive midfield, but I'd expect Ramirez to want to maintain his back four from last week.
In this formation, Alajuelense sends fewer numbers forward and prefers to connect passes in the midfield. It's not just that there are fewer players upfield; in their CCL games, a 4231 meant a different mindset as well as different positions. This would let LDA slow the game down, which is a) exactly what United needed to do last week and b) a great way to remove hopes of a comeback at RFK.
The other option is a 541, something we saw in the final 6+ minutes in Costa Rica:
Elias Palma is the defender that would step in to create the back five, which is an easy fit for LDA. The problems are in the midfield: Asking Alonso to play a starter's chunk of the game alongside Ariel Rodriguez probably won't work, but Alonso is also a more important player to the team than Yvanilton. One solution could actually see Matarrita move into the middle - opening up a spot for Ortiz or Alvaro Sanchez - but that would still leave Ramirez choosing between Alonso and McDonald up top. In other words, it's not the formation that gets their best eleven on the field.
However, the 541 may come into play as the game wears on, so we might as well talk about it. Anyone that remembers Costa Rica during the World Cup will be familiar with the basic workings: This formation is a 541 defensively, but when the counter is on it rapidly becomes a 343; the wingbacks become the new wide midfielders, and the wide midfielders move up as forwards. Alajuelense does not have the added wrinkle of fluid position-swapping that Costa Rica did in Brazil with Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell, but they did look familiar with a more straightforward implementation in the closing stages against United.
The idea in this formation will be to force United to do something special to score. With this many players back, it's a huge pain to do much through the middle. However, there are some vulnerabilities: If Rodriguez and Alonso don't quite have a handle on who should drop deep when, and the three center backs don't know who should step up, there can paradoxically be space in the middle of what should be five tightly-packed defensive players in zone 14.
The other weak point is wide, where things can go wrong in a hurry. If United can get into the space behind the wingback, we'll see Gutierrez/Palma on the right or Lopez on the left having to leave the middle to pressure the ball. That's how you create disorganization against a back three or a back five: Force the center backs out of their roles on paper, and then take advantage quickly. "Quickly" is the key word, as with this many defensive players on the field the windows of space disappear in the blink of an eye.
Tomorrow, we'll get into the tactical lessons from the first leg and what United has to get done if there's any hope of adding a new chapter to club lore Wednesday night.