On one hand, D.C. United has not timed tonight's game against the Montreal Impact very well. United has 4 losses and a draw from their last 5 outings, while Montreal has won 3 and tied 2 in the same span. It can be argued that the Black-and-Red haven't played a truly good game against MLS competition in months; Montreal appears to be playing their best soccer since Didier Drogba took the field.
On the other hand, this may be exactly the time to play the Impact. Outstanding center back Laurent Ciman is suspended after picking up two yellow cards Wednesday night, while winger Andres Romero will also be in the stands due to yellow card accumulation. On top of that, Ignacio Piatti missed Wednesday's game to be with his ailing father back in Argentina; it appears highly likely that he won't be back in time for tonight's game. That's two of Montreal's three best players, and Romero won the team's Player of the Year award last season, and as far as Ciman and Piatti go Montreal have no similar replacements to slot in.
Since Frank Klopas was fired at 1am a few weeks ago, interim boss Mauro Biello has maintained the same formation and overall strategy, but has given minutes to a few players who were previously frozen out. That factors in to making their 4231 a bit unpredictable for tonight:
Evan Bush has been solid in goal all season. He's not a match-winning goalkeeper, but he won't cost Montreal games either. At right back, things are far less predictable due to their midweek game. Ambroise Oyongo started at right back Wednesday, but it's been a revolving door under Biello due to the barrage of midweek games the Impact have been dealing with. Hassoun Camara subbed in against Chicago for his second appearance in the past couple of weeks since returning from an injury that kept him out from late April. He could be in line for a start, but we could also see Nigel Reo-Coker - a natural #8 who has filled in at right back plenty of times this year - or Eric Miller.
I'll try to be brief about the differences. Camara is the most prototypical right back, but he's prone to rash challenges and can be caught too far forward. Oyongo was strictly a left-sided player with the Red Bulls, but has spent more time at right back than anywhere else since moving to Quebec. Reo-Coker may offer the best service of the lot, but he's not a natural to the position and can sometimes get lost in the defensive rotations right back involves. Miller is more cautious, but his inexperience has left him struggling for time even when the Impact are short of healthy fullbacks.
Ciman's absence more or less requires a recall for Wandrille Lefevre. He and Victor Cabrera have been battling to be Ciman's partner since Biello took over, but both players seem to be better paired with an organizer who can also do most of the passing out of the back. In other words, they're not just worse than Ciman; they're also an incompatible pairing. United should be able to create some danger down the middle as a result, and they probably don't need to rely on awful mistakes from this CB duo like they did last time.
On the left, Donny Toia has blossomed into a solid, physical defender this season. He's grown so much, in fact, that Montreal has even used him at center back twice (despite his being 5'9" in studs). Toia is never going to wow anyone with his overlapping runs or his crossing, but he's a reliable passer thanks to his time as a defensive midfielder and he can be a dogged, combative presence.
In the engine room, normal starting duo Marco Donadel and Calum Mallace played no part mid-week. Donadel should walk right back into his starting spot, where he's arguably the most yellow card-prone player in MLS. Donadel's main job is to break plays up, and while he usually has tactical fouling in mind rather than pure aggression in mind it doesn't stop him from picking up cards pretty much every time he plays. United will need to compress his space on the ball, as he's an underrated passer over long distance. With Ciman out, Montreal's defenders will look to find him as soon as possible so he can switch the point of attack.
Mallace was clearly a starter under Klopas, but Biello seems less convinced by the Scot. Kyle Bekker - acquired in a mid-season trade and then utterly ignored - has suddenly picked up 2 starts and an appearance as a sub in Montreal's last 3 games. I expect Biello to rotate him out tonight for either Mallace or Patrice Bernier, who fans dedicated some tifo and some chants to Wednesday night.
Biello is more connected to Montreal's fanbase than any coach they've had in MLS, and it's not inconceivable that he goes for the aging club captain from the start over Mallace. Ciman's absence is again a factor here, as Bernier is even better as a distributor than Donadel. If Montreal feels like they need to make up for not having Ciman, Bernier makes some sense (though pairing him with Donadel will leave the Impact short on quickness and athleticism centrally).
Romero's absence strips Biello of a fresh option on the flanks, as the Argentine only played 18 minutes mid-week (scoring the game-winner in the process). With Justin Mapp questionable due to a toe contusion, Biello may be forced to move Johan Venegas - the likely stand-in for Piatti in the middle - out to the right wing. Dominic Oduro is also an option, but he just played on the right for 88 minutes Wednesday. On top of that, he may be needed up top.
I have Eric Alexander listed here as the attacking midfielder, but he hasn't seen much action in Montreal after looking very good with NYRB previously. Alexander isn't really a natural playmaker, but he's smart enough to get himself into good positions and has soft feet and some passing chops to create for others. Venegas will be preferred over him if Mapp can play or if Oduro ends up being available for flank duty, but I think this is the more likely outcome.
On the left, Dilly Duka should probably start despite going 90 mid-week. Biello needs these points, and Venegas is needed elsewhere. The only other choice is Maxim Tissot, but the academy product has only rarely started for Montreal no matter who the coach is. Duka loves to beat someone on the dribble before either going inside to go to goal or looking to combine on the edge of the box. If he gets jammed up during that first step, though, he can be contained. Sean Franklin's 1v1 defending is going to be put to a stern test tonight, in other words.
Up front, I expect Drogba to start even after playing the full 90 twice in the past 7 days. The Impact are still not entirely secure in terms of getting into the playoffs, and Drogba's entire time with Chelsea saw him regularly playing mid-week games and then recovering for the weekend. The other issue is a simple lack of other option. Oduro played 88 minutes against Chicago, and he's the only other realistic choice up front. Injuries have demolished their forward depth, and it seems highly unlikely that second-year academy product Anthony Jackson-Hamel starts this important match. Look instead for Drogba to play 55-65 minutes as Montreal attempts to win the game early.
Off the bench, pretty much every player I mentioned as an alternative option is a possibility to enter as a sub. In particular, I'd expect to see Reo-Coker come in for a central midfielder, and if Oduro doesn't start he'll be the man to replace Drogba. Oyongo, if not used as a starter, could sub in as a winger, but I think Biello will want to get Mapp some minutes if he's at all available.