There's more than a little bit of unknown to New York City FC, even 24 games into their first MLS season. D.C. United will have to sort out a team that has played, by my count, 5 different formations and has very recently signed several new players and/or had players become eligible due to the opening of the transfer window. Jason Kreis has been trying to figure out what to do with a roster he doesn't have a particularly high degree of control over.
It is possible for this piece to discuss every single one of those formations, but quite frankly this is being written the day of the game. There's just not enough time. Plus, it seems to me that Kreis is going to give the 4231 he used against the Red Bulls at least a couple of games to gel before he'll consider moving on. This team is already something of a mess, so further instability will just make things worse.
Kreis has other problems anyway. The problem for NYCFC isn't talent - if you were playing a video game, you'd want to take their roster - but rather how the players all fit together. Frank Lampard is 37; Andrea Pirlo is 36. Neither of them cover much ground these days (Pirlo, to be fair, never did). Andrew Jacobson isn't dynamic enough to make up for it alone, and there's no natural width to keep teams stretched all the way out. NYCFC is often run into the ground as a result.
United might not be facing both aging midfielders, however. Lampard pulled out of practice early yesterday due to a quadriceps issue, and is being called a "game-time decision." At his age and coming off of a game on Sunday, I think this makes him less likely to start tonight. However, that is probably the only change involved from that loss against NYRB:
In goal, Josh Saunders has done about as well as he can behind arguably the weakest back four in MLS. He still makes odd decisions from time to time, and he doesn't have the best ability at holding shots and crosses, but he's hardly been a weakness.
Let's talk about that back four, which has recently seen multiple new faces but no real change in success. Andoni Iraola has had a great career with Athletic Bilbao, but at 33 he seems to lack mobility and has so far seemed a bit confused by MLS's tendency towards hectic play. On the other side, Angeliño - an 18 year old who made his professional first division debut last month - has actually fared better than the veteran. MLS seems to fit the Spanish youngster's exuberance well, but he runs into issues when he becomes too interested in going forward. United will be able to catch him out of position if they're alert and can play quickly.
In central defense, Shay Facey appears to be the most likely starter. His partner at this point will probably be Jefferson Mena rather than Jason Hernandez, but both are possibilities. Mena is an outstanding athlete, but his positioning is questionable and he can be fairly rash in terms of decision-making. Hernandez is the smarter player, but he's not the biggest or strongest center back; with Facey significantly undersized for the position, Mena is necessary to defend in the air. NYCFC lacks size and phyicality all over the field, so Mena is also vital on set pieces.
Pirlo's defensive midfield partner is Jacobson, who is steady and dependable but not particularly great at any one thing. The amount of running he has to do to support Pirlo has reduced his ability to make runs into the box or be present as a long-range shooting option. As I said earlier, he's not the sort of midfield dynamo that seems to be everywhere at once, and that means attacking NYCFC through the middle in transition is very much a possibility.
Pirlo's defensive issues don't mask the fact that he's an extravagantly talented passer of the ball. United absolutely has to make his life a living hell in central midfield, because given time and space he is a surgeon with the ball. The Red Bulls showed the way forward by being straight-up mean to Pirlo. Whatever thanks for Pirlo's contributions to good aesthetic soccer Davy Arnaud might have, this strikes me as a job he's well-suited for.
Further forward, Mix Diskerud is coming off of arguably his best performance since coming to MLS. Against the Red Bulls, he started on the right flank but he and Thomas McNamara switched flanks a couple of times throughout the match. United needs to be aware that both players will be looking to come inside; NYCFC is not a team that gets down the touchline to whip crosses into the mixer. In particular, Diskerud looked dangerous making runs into central positions off the ball.
McNamara is not a subject I want to discuss. I was bordering on ecstatic when United grabbed him in the Chivas USA dispersal draft, and his play since Kreis finally got around to starting him has been excellent. Coming in off the left wing, McNamara has 4 goals and 2 assists in only 908 minutes, and he's won several penalty kicks as well. His ability on the dribble is vital for NYCFC, who otherwise lack for cutting edge in their midfield. McNamara is the player that gives their attacks a point. It's no coincidence that NYCFC is MLS's most left-sided home team.
The attacking midfield position will go to Lampard if he's fit to play, but as I said before that seems unlikely. Kreis has used several players in that role, and the graphic above doesn't even list all of the options. Ned Grabavoy has also played in this spot, but an adductor strain means he's questionable to play at all. Diskerud could move inside, though his history as a #10 is not exactly stellar.
However, the most likely outcome if Lampard can't start is a rare appearance from the opening kickoff for Kwadwo Poku. The Ghanaian has been a game-changer for NYCFC coming in off the bench, where his high-energy, direct style of play causes chaos and chances every time. NYCFC fans have been so impressed that many are demanding that Poku play as a starter, even after the big names arrived. Kreis has preferred to keep him as the ace up his sleeve, but after watching Ignacio Piatti and Montreal disrupt United's possession game by pressuring Perry Kitchen, I think Kreis might roll the dice and give the popular Poku a start.
Up front, the list is mercifully short. David Villa has been directly involved in 18 of NYC's 31 goals (13 goals, 5 assists) and is having a monster of a season. Somehow he doesn't get the fanfare of Kaka, but in my book he's been the best non-Giovinco attacker in MLS this season. His runs off the ball are as smart as they come, and he uses his first touch and his spatial awareness to function as a back-to-goal striker despite being all of 5'9" and 148 lbs. United's entire back four needs to be extremely sharp to prevent him from running the channels successfully. If he gets shooting opportunities, NYCFC is going to have goals.
Off the bench, NYCFC doesn't have a lot to offer (particularly if Lampard is out of this game entirely). Mehdi Ballouchy could come in on the flanks, while Patrick Mullins could be brought in if Kreis wants to move to a 442 in pursuit of a goal (which we should expect unless NYCFC is winning this game late). If Lampard is able to start, look for Poku to replace him or Jacobson for the final 20 minutes.