Yesterday we discussed the "who" when it comes to the Vancouver Whitecaps, so today we'll talk about the "what" and "why." D.C. United will face a team tonight that in a lot of ways is their opposite. The Whitecaps can spend seven figures on a classic #10; United's 442 doesn't have a space for such a player, while financially such a move is apparently not going to happen until the club moves southwest by a couple of miles. Vancouver wants to play vertical soccer based around speed; United prefers a more controlled tempo thanks in part to a lineup that doesn't feature any elite speed going forward.
That doesn't necessarily make the Whitecaps a massive challenge. "Styles make fights" is the saying in boxing, and this will be an intriguing battle where both sides are good at something the other doesn't do that well. More than anything else, this will be a game that hinges on who can dictate the game's terms. If it's a track meet, United is in deep trouble. If the tempo is more measured, United's tendency to deliver a big moment of skill to turn a tight game would be a significant advantage.
The Whitecaps do have something that, on the surface, looks intimidating: They lead MLS with 16 points on the season. However, that's something of an illusion. Like United, Vancouver has won a couple games in which they were second-best. On Filibuster this week, our guest Jon Szekeres made it abundantly clear that VWFC hasn't yet fired on all cylinders. It's noteworthy that a team with a dominant 14W-8D-4L home record against the East has merely one point from two such games in 2015.
Still, a winning team is generally a confident team, and the Whitecaps are coming off of a shutout victory at Real Salt Lake. They may not be in top form, but they should have no issues in terms of belief right now. Robinson has his team in the right mindset to get results, and last week's tactical switch to a narrow diamond 442 was impressive. That's generally not a formation a team can successfully adapt in a short timespan, but the Whitecaps did so on the road, at altitude, against a team that should know that formation inside and out.
So we know Vancouver is confident and flexible, but what else makes them tick? Generally, the first thing one notices about the Whitecaps is their ability to play direct without simply hoofing long balls up the field. There's a point to Vancouver's choice to go over the top so often. They're almost always the fastest team on the field, so vertical play suits them well. On top of that, the turf at BC Place appears to play faster than other turf fields (which always play faster than grass).
That speed forces teams to adapt their normal approach. High pressure is always a risk, but against Vancouver the stakes are higher. Pressing high without the ball - or taking risks in possession for that matter - opens teams up to isolation and leaves acres of space in behind for Vancouver's speedsters to take advantage. The fact that Matias Laba and Russell Teibert are good options to break pressure elevates the risk factor, too; even teams that pressure intelligently may be helpless if Vancouver's engine room simply connects a couple one-touch passes.
For United, that's likely going to mean a conservative approach featuring a low pressure approach. This goes back to dictating the terms. What United wants is a slower game in which there isn't much space in behind, so that guys like Darren Mattocks and Kekuta Manneh can't put their speed to much use. For all the flair the Whitecaps can put on the field, teams that have stayed organized and connected have managed to cause them some problems. United leans towards that mindset on the road anyway, so it's a matter of doing well at something the Black-and-Red should be good at by now.
Another issue is whether the game takes place on the flanks or in the middle. United prefers to stay narrow and - by playing two wide midfielders who both dip inside regularly - tends to attack more through the middle than virtually anyone else in MLS. That's an interesting fact here, because the Whitecaps have a great strength (Laba) and their biggest weakness (a redundant center back pairing that tends to be rash and aggressive) are both in that region of the field.
If United can connect some passes to the right or left of center without having to play out to the touchline, they may be able to pass around Laba rather than having to beat an elite anchor midfielder straight-up. That would allow United's forwards to put Kendall Waston and Pa Modou Kah to a test on the ground, which is where they're vulnerable. If United is playing through the air, then things are going poorly. If we're seeing through balls and attempts to combine in a way that tests the center backs in terms of decision-making, however, United should be able to create some significant chances.
Keeping things narrow will also help DCU on the defensive side of the ball. A narrow game will congest the space available to Pedro Morales, which is probably going to be right at the top of Ben Olsen's pre-game talk. If Morales has time to pick his head up, it's going to be a long night. He's a magician on the ball, particularly with his ability to play runners in behind without making them break stride or change their angle. What United needs to do as far as he's concerned is make his life a living hell.
That doesn't just mean that Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud need to be strong, however. Morales is a big fan of dropping deeper into the midfield, sometimes creating the appearance of a shift from 4231 to a 433 with Laba at the bottom of the midfield triangle. This is simply Morales hunting space; the 10-15 yards he sacrifices by dropping off are no big deal when he can serve the ball on a dime over long distances. When he drops like this, he usually goes right or left of center as well, which means United's wide midfielders need to be vigilant. Pressing Morales will require them to help the DCU engine room, and there will even be times where United's forwards need to drop in and help out. It's going to take a cohesive team effort to make sure Morales is quiet.
The Whitecaps are also more comfortable looking to attack down the wings, so a narrow game should allow United to keep them wide and reduce them to predictable crosses. That won't make the job a walk in the park by any means, as Octavio Rivero has a tremendous knack for getting into good positions and beating defenders to service, but keeping the Whitecaps slow and predictable will go a long way towards shutting them down.
One weakness that Vancouver seems unable to shake is a tendency to pick up yellow cards. No team in MLS has more bookings than the Whitecaps, and that's due to a combination of factors. Vancouver has some physically aggressive players in the back - Waston and Kah, but also the young left back Sam Adekugbe - but they're also prone to committing fouls based on anger or on a lack of thought. This Whitecaps side can be provoked, and they can also be a bit too eager to commit professional fouls in transition.
This should be a good reason for United to attack a little more on the dribble than we normally see. Quick combinations could also work well, but United needs to be willing to risk getting kicked or barged over in the early going so that the Whitecaps are having to worry about a second yellow all game long. Waston will already have to worry about another yellow, as he'll be suspended if he picks up a card tonight or next week. Today's referee Dave Gantar is not afraid to go to his pocket, and United needs to make sure that becomes an advantage.
On set pieces, the Whitecaps are going to be dangerous. Waston is right up there with Aurelien Collin or Ike Opara in terms of being a goalscoring threat as a center back, while Kah and - assuming he plays - Darren Mattocks are also very good in the air. Throw in Morales serving the ball in and Bill Hamid probably not being fit to travel, and it becomes clear that the Black-and-Red need to be very sharp about not fouling whenever it's possible. Clean, intelligent defending is going to be important all game long.
Going the other way, Vancouver can be a bit disorganized and a bit lacking in terms of focus. United has recently shown a touch of trickery on set pieces, and that might be useful again tonight. It also goes without saying that DC has been ineffective when it comes to attacking from the run of play. On the road against a good team, set pieces are already a tempting place to look for goals. In the context of this game, they're even more appealing.