For the only time in 2015 - well, barring an MLS Cup pairing way down the road - D.C. United will face Real Salt Lake tonight. RSL is in an odd place at the moment: They've won two straight and have just one loss in their last five league games, but are also outside the playoff spots in the West and have a -4 goal difference on the season. That one recent loss was to the lowly Colorado Rapids, but on the other hand Javier Morales has a goal or an assist in three straight games.
They've also been a bit unpredictable throughout the season in terms of formation and starters. Injuries have been a major factor, as have Jeff Cassar's attempts to get a 433 formation to work out. That has seen Cassar bring back the diamond 442 that RSL was previously known for, as well as a sprinkling of 4231 as well. However, they've won two straight in the 433 and appear to have turned the corner when it comes to playing their new formation more fluidly. That means they should set up like this tonight:
In goal, Nick Rimando was listed as questionable before his strong performance in the All-Star Game and has since been downgraded to doubtful. However, he did make the trip to DC so perhaps "doubtful" still means "questionable." If the ex-United keeper can't play or is rested with an eye on his long-term health, Jeff Attinella will step in. Attinella is a pretty solid back-up, but it is worth noting that RSL has conceded 10 goals in his 6 appearances while they've only given up 17 in Rimando's 22 appearances. It's arguably a bigger drop-off than United is suffering right now at the same position.
Tony Beltran has had a very strong season at right back, and he came through his ASG appearance unscathed. While Beltran is not the sort of eye-catching attacking fullback that tends to collect a lot of praise, he locks his side down defensively more often than not and doesn't turn the ball over.
Left back has been a bit more flexible this season. Demar Phillips was brought in with the expectation that he would be the starter, but Abdoulie Mansally has made plenty of appearances due to Phillips getting hurt or being away with Jamaica at the Copa America and the Gold Cup. Mansally - who was on trial with United before joining RSL - has used those games to push ahead of Phillips.
The Jamaican is doubtful tonight anyway, so Mansally will carry on. He's got good speed and physical strength, but it was only a few years ago that he was a forward/winger and that still shows through when it comes to his instincts and the speed with which he makes defensive decisions. If Nick DeLeon and Chris Korb can repeat last week's showing down United's right, we could be in for another productive attacking evening for the Black-and-Red.
In central defense, injuries have been brutal for RSL. Jamison Olave has missed 8 straight games with a quadriceps strain, while Chris Schuler has just one appearance since April 5th. Cassar's next best center back is offseason signing Elias Vasquez, but the Guatemalan missed time during the Gold Cup. Aaron Maund has had to play more than expected, while 18 year old RSL homegrown defender Justen Glad has also logged some minutes in central defense as well.
Olave is still out for this one, and Schuler is considered doubtful (which, given his lack of minutes played and his long history with injury, probably means "out"). Maund and Vasquez are the likely choices to start this one, and while both are comfortable on the ball we should see this as RSL's biggest weakness on the night. The movement and soccer IQ United can put on the field with Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio should be very difficult for RSL's available defenders to cope with.
Of course, they'll have some help from the midfield in the form of Kyle Beckerman, who has been away in recent weeks with the USMNT. Beckerman has a long history of playing well at RFK, so we should expect him to do everything he can to shield a vulnerable back four. Luke Mulholland had been filling in for Beckerman - and doing surprisingly well in a much deeper role than he's played in the past - but will in all likelihood move into left-central midfield.
The third man in this midfield group is Morales, and he's been in electric form recently. If United wants to win this game, limiting his opportunities to go forward will be critical. Morales has just about everything in his bag of tricks: He's a threat from long range, but if you sell out to block the shot he'll dance past you on the dribble and try to get inside the box. He's still every bit as good at seeing passes that no one expects as he ever was, and he looks energetic right now despite the higher physical demands - both in terms of there being one less midfielder to help out and in terms of RSL's move to a higher tempo style - placed on his 35 year old legs.
The look diagrammed above is the more likely alignment for RSL, but they could move Mulholland back alongside Beckerman and play Morales as a high-point in a more old school 433 look. Don't be surprised if that's a response Cassar makes should United have initial success tracking Morales and compressing his space. It will be fascinating to see whether Ben Olsen plays Perry Kitchen or Davy Arnaud in left-center midfield, as whoever ends up in that spot will see more of Morales initially.
The front three has one certain starter: Joao Plata will line up on the left, and the pint-sized Ecuadoran's return to fitness has been a big help for RSL's recent success. He's also the key player that makes the 433 viable; without him, RSL doesn't appear to have a capable left forward on the roster. Plata's main threat is his dribbling ability; simply put, he's a scheme-breaker who can turn an organized defense into a mess within two or three touches. Korb is going to have to be very tight with Plata, but the best way to dull his influence is to make it really difficult for RSL to find him in the first place.
Sebastian Jaime is very likely to start, but there is a question about which role he'll take. The Argentine has finally started to figure MLS out, but looks more comfortable playing as a center forward rather than out to the right. However, as RSL Soapbox illustrates, the Utah side is far more effective as a team when Devon Sandoval is playing. You should read the whole piece, but this is the most pertinent line:
When Devon Sandoval is on the field RSL is scoring a goal every 65 minutes. When he is not on the field the team is scoring every 181 minutes.
Sandoval's play as a hard-working, physical target man may mostly be about sacrificing for his teammates, but it gets the job done. On the road, I expect Cassar to stick with Sandoval for his defensive attributes rather than push Jaime into the middle. However, if Cassar wants to surprise United bringing Jaime inside would be a good way to do it (with Olmes Garcia starting at right forward instead of Jaime).
Speaking of Garcia, he'll almost certainly come in off the bench as a sub. My guess is that he'll replace Jaime, but if United has a lead he might instead come on for Sandoval in the alignment just discussed. Luis Gil could also see time, though Mulholland - the most likely player to come out in that case - has played the full 90 in seven of his last ten appearances. Former Maryland Terrapin John Stertzer is another option, particularly if RSL is looking to protect a lead and wants to solidify their midfield. Luis Silva will enter that rotation soon enough, but he's still considered doubtful with the same muscular injuries he had before the recent trade that sent him to the Wasatch Front. In other words, we probably won't be seeing him.