Maybe it's just me, but it seems like D.C. United's last game took place sometime last year. Two weeks is a long time when you're still in the early stages of coping with CCL defeat, I guess. In any case, the Black-and-Red are back on the field this Sunday to take on the dastardly low-lifes that call themselves the New York Red Bulls. Or Red Bull New York. Or Metro, singular, is a) weird and b) recalls their most inept years. Whatever their name is, clearly they're confused.
It was a busy offseason in north Jersey. Some of that - like the retirement of Thierry Henry - was unavoidable. There were some good moves made, too, like outmaneuvering the LA Galaxy to sign Sacha Kljestan. However, Henry's departure was somehow relegated to a second-tier story by the bizarre choice to drop Mike Petke - the only successful coach this MLS original has ever had - for Jesse Marsch.
Petke is a beloved figure at Red Bull Arena and brought a seemingly cursed club their only trophy, but he got his walking papers because new sporting director Ali Curtis apparently prefers the style of play and bottom-to-top planning of Marsch. It's a huge risk, though, as Marsch's one season as a head coach of a pro team saw the expansion Montreal Impact pretty much meet expectations for an expansion side. They weren't horrible, but they missed the playoffs by 11 points and were extremely streaky. Marsch's Impact won just once (over the worst team in MLS in 2012, Toronto FC) in their opening eight games, and over their final eleven games had both a five-game winning streak and a six-game winless streak. They never quite figured out how to keep goals off the board despite committing to a defend-and-counter approach.
We'll look further into Marsch's gameplan tomorrow, but the short version is that the Red Bulls will maintain Petke's 4231 formation while making some big changes to some important concepts. One is out of necessity: With no Henry to ruin defensive structures single-handedly, there's a bigger emphasis on a collective attacking approach where everyone has to contribute a bit more in ways they didn't last year. Bradley Wright-Phillips has to be more of a hold-up man than last year, while Lloyd Sam needs to add more goals to his game.
The other change is that Marsch's intention is to build a team that high-presses as aggressively as anyone in MLS. His ill-chosen figure of speech when talking to angry fans after the change of the guard was to note that this team is named for an energy drink. In their first - and only - game of the season, NYRB held up their end of the bargain. They surged forward in waves to press Sporting Kansas City from the opening kickoff and kept it up for most of the game. It's rare to see a team go to KC and press harder than the Sporks, but that's exactly what they did en route to taking a 57% share of possession (an edge they only expanded a little bit after Matt Besler was sent off midway through the second half).
With that out of the way, let's look at the lineup they're likely to send out Sunday evening:
Let's start in the back, where there are major issues. Jamison Olave was replaced in the offseason by European journeyman Ronald Zubar, who pulled his hamstring against the Sporks and appears highly unlikely to play Sunday. He was replaced by US under-23 center back Matt Miazga, but Miazga struggled pretty badly. Subbing into the late stages of a game at center back is an awfully difficult gig, but part of the problem may be that Miazga spent much of the preseason training with Red Bull Leipzig for reasons only understood at Red Bull HQ. He's young and raw, and now he's got to help anchor a defense that, in total, has 32 MLS appearances. Needless to say, United needs to attack him as often as possible, particularly by using Jairo Arrieta's runs off the ball.
Miazga will be partnered by Damien Perrinelle, who Petke seemed unimpressed with last year. Marsch likes him a bit more, but I have to say I think Petke's read on the Frenchman was more accurate. He's good enough to be on a respectable MLS roster, but not as a starter. It's not so much that he has a glaring weakness; rather, Perrinelle seems to be decent at everything but has no particular strengths either.
The fullbacks are similarly unconvincing. Kemar Lawrence will replace DCU fan favorite Roy Miller, who twisted his knee in training last week and has been declared out by the Metros. Lawrence - whose nickname, "Taxi," is fantastic - will be up for this game both due to it being his MLS debut and because his previous attempt to get into the league was a failed trial with United. He's not a bad player by any means - 13 caps for Jamaica at just 22 years old - but he's going to be raw and will likely struggle for a few weeks with the speed and style of MLS. United should expect to see him get forward, however, as he does have a history of speeding into the attack.
Chris Duvall got some brief Rookie of the Year talk last season, but it was only because there were so few rookies getting starts at the time. Duvall is a bit like a lesser version of Chris Korb: He's fast, he's a competitor, but he's definitely beatable both 1v1 and from combination play. I frankly love the idea of pitting Chris Rolfe's skill and smarts against Duvall. Needless to say, I expect United to be able to break through repeatedly from multiple angles, so we should be able to test Luis Robles regularly.
If the NYRB back four is a weakness, the central midfield is a strong point. Dax McCarty is very comfortable doing the dirty work in a high-press system, even if he doesn't provide the typical anchor presence that other pressing teams in MLS (like KC or New England) prefer. He's always working to be an option in the passing game and will be very busy defensively. He's also surely aware of how vital he's going to be with the defensive absences. Luring him out of the middle will be key, as United needs to expose the center backs as often as possible.
Further forward is the curious case of Felipe - who is a scumbag - and Sacha Kljestan. The assumption when the Metros traded for Felipe was that he would take over from Peguy Luyindula as their attacking midfielder, while Kljestan would step into the #8 role that he played at Anderlecht. This was tried in preseason, but in the opener Marsch opted to play Felipe underneath Kljestan.
It's an interesting ploy, and it underlines how important pressing is for Marsch's side. Kljestan saw a ton of the ball against Sporting, but he struggled at completing anything vertical. Instead, he looked better at moving the ball laterally to both wingers while Felipe - in the slightly less congested deeper area - offered up more of a playmaker's disposition. So why not switch them? Well, Kljestan is able to cover more ground and is a better ballwinner, and for a high-pressing team that means he'll be trying to win the ball off of players more known for defending than attacking. I don't expect Marsch to switch them into their more natural roles any time soon.
On the wings, Sam is the man to watch. He had a golazo against KC, and he's had plenty of success against United since coming to MLS. Of course, Marsch now has Sam cutting inside more than Petke - who used him to provide width so that Henry and Luyindula had more space - ever did. Either way, he's a big threat due to his dribbling ability and speed. No matter whether it's Taylor Kemp or Korb starting Sunday, a strong performance is required. It also can't just be United's left back coming up big; the players around Kemp/Korb are going to have to help out.
Mike Grella - another former United trialist - is not a natural left winger, but through hard work in the preseason he fought his way into what is an open position. With Henry's retirement, NYRB has no one on their roster that prefers to play as a left winger. Grella's career has mostly been spent as a striker, and while he has the work rate to help his team down the flank he isn't a particular talent as a crosser and is also nothing special cutting inside to combine. His main threat will be attacking the back post when Sam hits crosses. If Marsch makes any attacking changes, it'll be here, with Sal Zizzo a candidate.
Up top, Wright-Phillips is being asked to do some things that he's less comfortable with. Last year, BWP didn't have to play with his back to goal so much because NYRB would find Henry's feet instead. It's not a natural thing for him; he got the Golden Boot playing as a poacher rather than as a target man. He's not really built for it, but Marsch's system requires him to have at least moderate success holding the ball up for Kljestan, Felipe, and Sam. United will have a distinct physical advantage here with Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum both being taller and (much) stronger than BWP.
As for subs, Zizzo will definitely come on at some point on one wing or the other. Marsch also seems smitten with new signing Anatole Abang, a teenaged target man from Cameroon. If Abang does come on, look for Marsch to remove a central midfielder (probably Felipe) and go to a 442 rather than withdraw Wright-Phillips. I also think we might see Dane Richards, who has come back to MLS after a couple years in England and Norway. Richards is the same player he always has been: He's got elite speed, but there's not much going on between the ears. That raw pace is still a threat in MLS, though, so United will need to be alert if/when he enters.