Carl Robinson has been pretty consistent when it comes to how he wants his Vancouver Whitecaps side to look. They'll play a 4231, the emphasis is on speed, and the pace of games should be high. Possession would be nice, but the first look from every Whitecaps player tends to be vertical. Perhaps most importantly, everything is supposed to go through Pedro Morales, the Chilean playmaker who may be the most dangerous long-range passer in MLS since Marco Etcheverry.
D.C. United will not have seen too much of that watching the Whitecaps beat Real Salt Lake 1-0 last week, however. Morales was suspended, and rather than plug in the multiple potential back-up #10s into his typical formation Robinson switched gears. Vancouver played a tight midfield diamond, correctly judging that RSL's version of a 433 is not good enough at creating from the wings. RSL eventually self-destructed - picking up two red cards that, despite the baying of the Rio Tinto crowd were richly deserved - but VWFC were the better team 11v11 as well.
The knock on Robinson the past couple of years has been a lack of a Plan B, but this was evidence that it's not a completely accurate assessment. The diamond is a demanding formation to use mentally, with Jason Kreis saying more than once that it takes about a full season of work to get right. The Whitecaps didn't hit the heights of the RSL of old, but they looked rather comfortable with the diamond despite having not previously used it in 2015.
However, with Morales back and the Whitecaps at home - where they're 14W-8D-4L with a +16 goal difference against the East since joining MLS - there's little reason to expect the diamond to stick. Instead, United should expect to see the 4231:
David Ousted will start in goal, and the Dane has quietly become one of MLS's best goalkeepers thanks to a knack for stopping 1v1s and through a strong sense of how to position himself. He's also the key organizer for the back four. That's a vital role, because this group is too aggressive and too impatient as is. Ousted's communication is probably the only thing keeping them from devolving into chaos.
Still, as individuals we're talking about four (well, at least three and possibly four) good players. Steven Beitashour has a World Cup on his resume - he was on the Iranian side in Brazil last year - and has won a Supporters Shield in MLS. While he hasn't quite built on that charmed 2012 season, he still remains among MLS's better right backs. He's not the overlapping threat he was in San Jose, but that's a tactical decision from Robinson. He wants his fullbacks to be more selective going forward due to the numbers that push forward from the midfield. In fact, United should be looking to counter whenever Beitashour does decide to roll the dice, as it will likely mean that the Whitecaps only have three or four players back.
It's a similar issue on the left, where young Homegrown defender Sam Adekugbe has displaced MLS vet Jordan Harvey over the past month or so. Adekugbe is a fast, strong, and enthusiastic player, but in some cases that can work against him. He's less choosy than Beitashour, and in some cases he shows a tendency to overlap just when Vancouver's left winger needs that space. He's also one of the many Whitecaps players who have shown a pronounced tendency towards picking up avoidable yellow cards.
Speaking of avoidable yellow cards, the Whitecaps will likely start a center back duo that apparently wants to get suspended for accumulation as soon as possible. Kendall Waston is the most physically imposing player in MLS, but he often seems to forget that there are ways to succeed at soccer without simply being big and strong. United isn't going to win any headers against him, but he's prone to mistakes when the ball is kept on the ground.
Robinson would be better off selecting young newcomer Diego Rodriguez alongside Waston, as Rodriguez appears to be a far more calm defender. However, Rodriguez has been injured twice and suspended for two games since arriving in British Columbia, so it would be a mild surprise to see him selected tomorrow. Instead, I expect another start for Pa Modou Kah, who is - like Waston - overly aggressive and reckless. Kah does not appear to have learned much from his error-strewn time with Portland, and he tends to make all-or-nothing decisions way too often.
In the midfield, Matias Laba has recovered from a poor (by his lofty standards, anyway) start to 2015 and is back to being arguably MLS's best midfield anchor. The young Argentine sees things well in advance, takes up great defensive positions, and keeps the ball moving in a simple and tidy manner. His willingness to stay home and his ability to spot danger before it really develops is huge for Vancouver, as it's what allows so many other players to go forward.
He'll be partnered by Russell Teibert, who appears to have found a home as a linking midfielder after starting out as a winger, and then being subjected to a bizarre experiment at left back. Teibert is a confident, stylish player on the ball who helps the Whitecaps maintain whatever possession they manage. He's more of an assistant to Morales, though, as he will look to switch the point of attack and/or go long when the Chilean is otherwise occupied. Most MLS teams ask players in this position to partner the chief defensive midfielder, but Robinson gives Teibert a bit more leeway to attack.
Morales is a huge threat due to his ability to distribute, and he doesn't just stay in the old-school #10's position. Morales likes to drop off towards where Teibert and Laba are before playing through balls for Vancouver's track team up front. There will be times where his positioning makes the Whitecaps look more like a 433 team. If Morales has a comfortable game, United is going to cough up a ton of chances. If there's one battle to win in this game, it's keeping Morales quiet.
The wings are both a bit of a question. Mauro Rosales returned from injury last week, but only as a late sub. In his absence, Nicolas Mezquida has played well as a right winger who drifts inside. However, Mezquida is more of a natural central player than a true wide man. Complicating things further is the recent run of good form from Darren Mattocks, who has played on both flanks and scored Vancouver's goal in Utah. Robinson has the luxury of picking any of these three based on who he thinks is the most challenging match-up for United, though Rosales may still only be fit for a substitute's role.
It's a somewhat similar situation on the left, where Mattocks may be on the verge of displacing Kekuta Manneh. Manneh can be electric, but there are games that pass him by as well. Mattocks, meanwhile, is less of a threat on the dribble and more of a threat inside the box. If Rosales starts on the right, I'd expect to see Mattocks coming in from the left looking to be the back post threat all game long. If not, things become murkier.
Up front, Octavio Rivero has half of Vancouver's 10 goals in 2015. He's not much of a target man due to his size, but he's still a well-rounded striker that United is going to have a tough time containing. Rivero has a great knack for losing his marker and despite his size has scored on a few headers due to his timing and leaping ability. I am encouraged by the fact that United's last two games have seen some improvement on the "dealing with a lone striker" front, but Rivero is going to be a huge test.
Check back tomorrow morning as we scout the Whitecaps and look for the ways in which United could come up with a result against the league leaders.