Plenty of D.C. United fans have been dreading the next few days all season. It's not out of particular fear of the New England Revolution - strong team though they are - or the Portland Timbers. It's the fact that both games, on turf and across a continent from one another, take place just four days apart. The number of MLS teams who are satisfied with their schedule over the years can probably be counted on one hand, but even with the low standards involved it's safe to say United was dealt a bad hand this time around.
However, before we complain too much, let's not forget that the Revs are probably not too happy about the timing of this game themselves. This game is going to kick off roughly 68 or so hours after their bus pulled away from Sporting Park. United, by contrast, is going to have an extra day to recover. Moreover, the Revs had to play a KC side known for pressuring all over the field and being physical. If that weren't enough, the Sporks were in a more prickly mood than normal; the game was played at a high speed throughout, meaning there was a lot of sprinting; and New England spent the entire second half chasing a deficit rather than trying to take the air out of the ball.
In other words, United may actually be catching the Revs at the right moment. It might not help that much in Oregon late on Wednesday, but let's face it: Conference games are worth a lot more in MLS than non-conference games. The Revs are a competitor for playoff spots (well, with these two teams compared to the East's dregs, let's go ahead and say "seeding"), and the Conference winner gets a CONCACAF Champions League berth. Getting to face a tired Revs side is a gift, even if our first reaction right now is to be upset about the cross-country turf double.
Jay Heaps was smart enough to anticipate this situation and opted to rest some regulars in KC. That, plus a yellow card accumulation suspension for Andy Dorman, has really simplified predicting his team for tonight's game. That means a 4231 that looks like this:
Let's start in goal, where Bobby Shuttleworth was replaced by Brad Knighton mid-week. There's not much of a controversy here, though. Since about July last year, Shuttleworth has taken his career up a level and is now a pretty solid goalkeeper that most MLS clubs would trust. Knighton, meanwhile, made a crucial error on one KC goal and generally looked shaky in terms of his decision-making throughout. Unless he gets hurt in the warm-up, Shuttleworth is starting tonight.
Moving on, it seems highly likely that London Woodberry and Chris Tierney will be the fullbacks. Tierney is pretty much assured of a start after being given a rest mid-week. Woodberry has recently taken over the right back job, but he went 90 in KC. If Heaps decides he needs a rest, I would expect Woodberry's fellow ex-Maryland Terrapin Jeremy Hall to step in. However, Woodberry has only recently been a starter, so he doesn't have the heavy miles on his legs that would make taking a game off more of a necessity. I expect him to start, which means both outside backs will be dangerous crossing threats rather than just Tierney (as has been the case in the past with the Revs).
In central defense, Andrew Farrell should return after a game off. Really, Heaps can't continue the bad idea that is Jermaine Jones at center back, because Dorman's suspension and an injury to Daigo Kobayashi means there's no other realistic option to play the linking role in central midfield. Even if that weren't the case, I'd expect Farrell and Jose Goncalves for this one. It's abundantly obvious that Jones simply isn't cut out for the aerial duels and the low-risk play that come with central defense. We can only hope a certain national team coach has also realized that the luxury features Jones brings at center back - particularly in possession and in opening up the whole playing surface - are not worth the fact that he is bad at several entry-level center back duties.
Where was I? Right, moving on to the engine room. Jones probably won't need a rest given his past with Schalke 04, and in any case Heaps doesn't have many options. On the incredibly long-shot chance that Jones is rested, I suppose we could see someone like Kelyn Rowe or Steve Neumann step in, or perhaps Kobayashi (who has been listed as "questionable" for about 2 months straight without making a single appearance in a gameday squad). Realistically, though, we'll see Jones alongside Scott Caldwell as the #6.
Teal Bunbury will return to the starting lineup after playing just 36 minutes on Wednesday. Bunbury has been in stellar form of late, and he presents a very difficult challenge due to his speed and strength. Lee Nguyen went 90 in KC, but it seems likely that he'll play at least an hour tonight due to the importance of the game. Nguyen has been nowhere near as good this year as he was in 2015, but the Revs have adjusted by feeding the ball to the flanks more and more.
The left winger role is a bit less clear. Juan Agudelo has been first choice for about a month, but he went 90 minutes - the majority of which were doing the running as a lone striker - in KC. Rowe and Diego Fagundez both started in the same game, but were subbed off after 54 minutes as Heaps tried to jump-start his team's flagging hopes. With Agudelo's less-than-outstanding track record when it comes to fitness in mind, I can't help but wonder if Rowe doesn't get the start for this game.
Up top, Charlie Davies went just 36 minutes against Sporting and will return to his starting job tonight. CD9 saw a four-game scoring streak end in New England's 1-1 draw with Toronto recently, but he's still been a factor (including playing a big part in New England's second goal against KC) due to his ability to split and confuse opposing center backs. While I think the USMNT return talk has been excessive - call me if his four weeks of good form become eight weeks - I do think United's top job in this game is going to be being smart about which center back is tracking Davies at a given moment. Communication will be crucial.
Off the bench, the two non-starters on the left will probably come in, either up front or on one of the wings. I also don't think Davies will go 90 up front, as Heaps is usually smart about using his attacking depth to keep his strikers fresh, so look for Agudelo to spend some time as a forward regardless of whether he starts or not. The last sub will probably just be used for energy. It could be Kevin Alston coming on for Woodberry, for example, or - if the game is more or less decided one way or the other - it could be Neumann for Jones or Nguyen in the middle.