The fate of MLS's Eastern Conference - and possibly the Supporters Shield - may well hinge on tonight's game between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls. Any game between MLS's first rivals is going to be heated and tense, but as has happened in recent years it now also involves two actual good sides. This would be a big game if the clubs didn't have 20 years of antipathy to look back on.
Jesse Marsch's Red Bulls have pretty clearly had the advantage this season, too. They had United on the rack for 90 minutes in Harrison (which, interestingly, is in New Jersey despite the team's name...imagine that!) and only won 2-0 due to a strong outing from Bill Hamid and some emergency defending by everyone in black. A few weeks later at RFK, Perry Kitchen's brace appeared to have handed United a win in a game they merely edged rather than controlled. Unfortunately, a Damien Perrinelle goal soon after Kitchen's second gave NYRB life, and their 90th minute equalizer - from a Hamid bobble, no less - was a true gut punch.
While Marsch and new GM Ali Curtis were roundly mocked for their grandiose preseason talk of 1000 page binders and promises of playing in the style expected from a team named to advertise for an energy drink, the clarity of their vision has resulted in a very consistent team. NYRB plays a 4231, and the starters are pretty much entrenched at this point:
Normally I'd expect more rotation here given that NYRB played on the road Wednesday - losing to Chicago, which snapped a 5W-1D-0L streak - but four days is seen as being enough recovery time to physically be ready to play at a high level. There will be some moves, though, and they're mostly defensive: Perrinelle will in all likelihood return to his starting role over Ronald Zubar, who defended poorly while managing to score a goal. Zubar was brought in to be NYRB's top center back in the offseason, but he's been injured for roughly 95% of the year and only got to start on Wednesday due to Perrinelle being suspended.
The other possible switch is at left back, where Kemar Lawrence is questionable with a hamstring strain. The Jamaican is having a breakout season for club and country, and his missing out would be pretty significant. Anthony Wallace has played well enough in his stead, and will start if Lawrence isn't ready for this one. The difference? Lawrence is faster, smarter, and more dangerous going forward. However, Wallace has a decent long-range shot - in his early days in MLS, he was used as a defensive midfielder more than left back - and is plenty athletic himself. Double agent Roy Miller is still kicking around, but probably only makes the bench here if Lawrence is completely unavailable.
The rest of the back four is from the NYRB academy. Connor Lade was pretty much buried by Mike Petke, and wasn't getting time under Marsch either until Chris Duvall fractured his leg a while back. Lade - who kept busy playing for NYRB 2 in the USL - has been pretty solid since then though, using his speed and fearlessness to overcome the fact that he's the smallest player in just about any game he plays in. Still, it's worth noting that fit-again Chris Pontius has completely bullied Lade in the past; if Pontius (or even Conor Doyle) is called on at left midfield, United will have a physical mismatch to pick on all day long.
The final defender is Matt Miazga, who only just turned 20 last month, has been a revelation since Zubar's injury left Marsch with little option but to start him. Miazga has all the raw tools you'd want in a center back, and will very likely be a starter on the Olympic team in qualifying come October. Miazga's weaknesses include being impatient - he's 20, so big surprise - and having a pretty pronounced temper. Whenever you see NYRB involved in some kind of argument or shoving match, Miazga will be in the heart of it. United needs to use those issues against him, because if he makes a rash decision Perrinelle isn't the best guy to have scrambling to put out fires.
Behind them is Luis Robles, who you have likely heard being praised as history's greatest goalkeeper and the founder of these United States on any MSG broadcast in which he makes a routine save. Robles is an excellent shot-stopper, but his footwork isn't the best and he can struggle at coming for high balls in traffic. United might be able to fool him into leaving his line at the wrong time, and they can definitely lure him into coming for a cross that he won't be able to do anything about. Provided that cross isn't near the 6'4" Miazga, the Black-and-Red might be in business.
In the midfield, Dax McCarty and Felipe have been first-choice all season in the engine room. McCarty generally does very well at keeping the ball (though not as well as some of the ecstatic praise he's gotten would have you believe). The main thing that helps McCarty is that he can cover so much ground without getting caught out of position that often. He pops up in shooting positions regularly, he flares out wide to help out more than any #6 in MLS, but he always seems to get back where he should be in the end.
Aside from being MLS's most underrated provocateur, Felipe's counter-intuitive role has really panned out for NYRB. He's a natural playmaker, and that's how Marsch used him in Montreal. Here, however, Felipe's close control and eye for an aggressive pass are used to feed the front four as quickly as possible. He's less playmaker and more fire-stoker. Aside from brushing off his cheap shots and dives, United needs to make sure he's not getting clean looks from just outside the box. Felipe can pick out either corner when given an angle, and United has been coughing up more uncontested long shots than usual in recent games.
If there's going to be rotation, it'll be on the wings. NYRB had laughable flank depth in the first half of the season, but since then they've acquired Shaun Wright-Phillips on a free transfer and spent millions on Gonzalo Veron (note: This doesn't stop them from talking up a small budget narrative; they're like a rich person wearing a thrift shop t-shirt and claiming to be just as broke as everyone else). Still, I think they'll roll out the starters, which means Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella.
Sam is maybe the biggest threat on the field. He's always brought his A game against United, and this year he's diversified what he can do. The guy who just stayed out on the touchline trying to stretch teams out so Thierry Henry had room is now just as much of a threat coming inside to combine or run at center backs. He's still going to look to go 1v1 with Taylor Kemp first, but Sam's a more complete player in 2015 than he was in 2014 (where he was dangerous enough anyway). United can't just say "OK Kemp, play really good!" and hope that this is enough. There needs to be a comprehensive effort to keep NYRB from feeding Sam the ball. Cutting him out of the game is more likely to work than shutting him down on the dribble time and again.
Grella has kept his spot despite the money spent on Veron and the reputation of Premier League veteran SWP. A lot of this is down to work rate, but Grella has also shown plenty of audacity and a knack for the unexpected going forward. He's earning his spot on both sides of the ball, in other words, and United need to keep him stuck out wide. Unlike the diverse talents of Sam, Grella prefers to cut inside and get into the box (which makes sense, since before joining NYRB he spent most of his career as a striker).
Sacha Kljestan was thought of as Marsch's #8 when brought in, but his tackling and ability to cover plenty of ground is so important to NYRB's high-pressure game that he sits in the #10 slot. That's not really his job; you're not going to see Kljestan doing a Diego Valeri impression tonight. Instead, Kljestan drives his team into the attack and directs their pressure when they don't have the ball. This is a major concern, because United struggled badly with Ignacio Piatti - much more of a #10 than a hard-running tackler - doing the same thing a few weeks ago.
Bradley Wright-Phillips is not scoring at even half the rate he was last season, but he's still been one of MLS's best strikers. Like Sam, he's shown that there's more to his game than simply converting chances created by Henry. In United's first visit to RBA, BWP was regularly dropping off the front line and then looking to send runners in behind, something the 2014 poacher was supposedly incapable of doing. United needs to do a far better job at sorting out who steps with him and when in those scenarios.
Off the bench, SWP and Veron are both probably going to play 20-30 minutes. Wright-Phillips is quite a bit like Sam, though at 33 he doesn't have the speed he used to. On the other hand, he and his younger brother have shown immediate chemistry as an attacking combination. Veron, meanwhile, may actually prefer a central role but looks creative and enthusiastic playing on the left. If NYRB really needs a goal, I'd expect to see teenage target man Anatole Abang come in (with BWP moving to the left wing). Abang is a bit one-note as a big body who throws himself around looking to cause chaos, but he has 4 goals on the year. United will have to shift gears defensively to cope with him.