Four days ago, this piece would have been all about how D.C. United would have a significant advantage over the San Jose Earthquakes due to things like familiarity and players playing their correct positions. That doesn't sound like a high bar to clear, but the Quakes were playing Chris Wondolowski in central midfield, giving a start to new signing Anibal Godoy literally the day he arrived after getting his visa processed, and trying to figure out who would replace the injured Matias Perez Garcia as their #10.
You can ignore all that, though, because Wednesday night they went to Kansas City and utterly humiliated Sporting by a score of 5-0. If anything, 5-0 is a flattering scoreline. It was a bloodbath, and that's even with both teams essentially taking the last 20 minutes off.
What happened? Dominic Kinnear got back to his roots, turning the loss of Perez Garcia into a net gain by switching to a dead simple 442. Wondo moved back up front, and San Jose abandoned most pretenses of possessing for long periods. They pressed higher than normal, won turnovers, fed their speedy wingers, and hit crosses. Rinse, wash, repeat. It was actually a bit like United's 3-0 win last year at KC, where the Sporks were given a taste of their own medicine from kickoff, except San Jose's speed on the wings was even more potent against KC than counters up the gut were in 2014.
It's not a particularly attractive formula for soccer, but I doubt Kinnear or the Quakes care a bit. Remember, this is the coach that was happy to set piece and long ball teams to death in the past, and this is the club that brought us the Bash Brothers. I know season 2 of True Detective was widely disparaged - too much in my book, not that that's why we're here today - but the line "Maybe your worst self is your best self" comes to mind with the Quakes. Even if Perez Garcia were off the injury report, it wouldn't matter. The Quakes have found their way forward, and they're going to stick with it. Aesthetes, hide your eyes.
So how is it going to look on paper?
United is fortunate to face San Jose on short rest, as Kinnear will be forced to rest some players. He can still put pretty similar players in, but it's something. However, the options to rest defensive players are few and far between. As such, it's safe to expect David Bingham in goal, Marvell Wynne at right back, Victor Bernardez and Clarence Goodson in central defense, and Shaun Francis at left back.
Bingham is nothing special in goal, but he doesn't lose games for the Quakes either. Any weaknesses he has are often masked by the fact that his center backs are giants who love to win crosses and block shots in the box. Bernardez, however, is starting to show a bit more poor judgment this season; United might be able to drag him out of position.
On the right, Wynne is pretty much unbeatable for speed but is vulnerable to players with skill and guile. As a result, don't be surprised if we see Nick DeLeon spend some time at left midfield today, or if Chris Rolfe is peeling out left regularly. Left back Francis is also pretty fast, but is only starting because Jordan Stewart ruptured his Achilles tendon last week. He's OK 1v1, but his positional sense isn't great.
The main place the Quakes can rotate is in the midfield. KC found both Cordell Cato and Shea Salinas unplayable Wednesday, but they went 90 and 88 minutes respectively. Kinnear has never been that big on rotating his players, but he has the option to do so here. Sanna Nyassi could pop up on either wing, but he's better on the right. He may actually have more speed than Cato or Salinas, but he's less skillful on the dribble compared to the former and a far worse crosser than the latter. Still, he's very much an option today. The other choice is left winger Leandro Barrera, who is a very tricky dribbler but who is firmly Kinnear's 4th choice. He could still play, but it'd require Kinnear to rotate on both flanks.
In central midfield, the Quakes have similar depth. Rookie Fatai Alashe and Godoy - a starter for Panama these days - are first choice, but Alashe played 82 minutes and Godoy 90 mid-week. If he rotates someone in, the choice Kinnear makes will be telling: If JJ Koval is brought in, expect a very conservative performance. However, newcomer Marc Pelosi (formerly an American hopeful at Liverpool) could indicate a more open approach. Pelosi's ability to spread the field out with his passing range would certainly help San Jose feed their wingers, but at a fairly remarkable cost defensively.
Up front, Wondo is a sure bet to start. We're talking about a guy who played in the Gold Cup third-place game in Philadelphia and then went 70 for San Jose at Vancouver the next day. He's borderline indestructible. For those of you that only think of that World Cup miss when you think of Wondo, remember that we're also talking about the first MLS player ever to score 10+ goals in six consecutive seasons. He's not perfect, but he's always dangerous because he can finish with either foot, with his head, and is insanely brave inside the box. When he's in the game, United needs to be marked up well at all times.
The other striker position may see a change, as the Quakes have rolled out Quincy Amarikwa pretty regularly since acquiring him in a trade with Chicago. Amarikwa is no one's idea of a high-end MLS striker, but you can't argue that he's a relentless worker who very much enjoys playing physically despite not being a towering presence. Amarikwa's hard work and hold-up play are not glamorous, but they fit Kinnear's gameplan perfectly. He's got 4 goals and 2 assists in 7 appearances since swapping the Windy City for the Bay Area.
However, that work is taxing, and Kinnear has options. Adam Jahn is another physical target man, and unlike Amarikwa he towers over most players in MLS. The sacrifice here is that Jahn does not cover the amount of ground Amarikwa does. On the other hand, his height means the Quakes don't have to serve dangerous passes over the top for him to run onto; it's easier to just hoof the ball in his general vicinity and let him win the header. Other than Nyassi for Cato - which I rate as almost a coin flip - this may be the most likely rotation.
Off the bench, every player I've mentioned as a rotation option could come in. Another move Kinnear can make is to push Cato to right back and remove Wynne for a more attacking player. If he feels he needs more guile in his attack, Tommy Thompson is the only other choice aside from Pelosi. Thompson could play as a second forward, a #10, or on the left side. The only problem with the highly touted youngster? A failure to turn his undeniable technical ability into a tangible, on-field product. Pelosi's arrival seems to have pushed him further down the depth chart, but Kinnear may need him today if United is defending a lead.