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Opposition 11: Who will NYCFC start against D.C. United?

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Villa and Pirlo aren’t the only players of note for the Pigeons

Early in the season, Patrick Vieira tinkered a lot with New York City FC’s formation and starting eleven. Every week it seemed like a new look, with a 3223 and several other looks given a shot. D.C. United didn’t have the benefit of catching NYCFC during that stretch, though, and since they’ve settled on a 433 and a fairly consistent lineup, the Pigeons have been one of the better teams in MLS.

Of course, another major factor on that front was Frank Lampard providing NYCFC with a secondary goal threat. That probably undersells Lampard’s scoring outburst: 12 goals in 15 games is one of the best runs of goalscoring form for a midfielder in MLS history. On a team that already has Golden Boot contender David Villa, NYCFC was able to turn a lot of fairly even games into wins with simple, ruthless finishing.

Lampard is injured right now, though, so while the 433 has been maintained, there have been some adjustments:

Josh Saunders will get the start in goal, which is good news for United. Aside from not being particularly quick laterally, Saunders makes poor decisions in terms of whether to stay on his line or not. To make matters worse, he has high confidence in his ability with the ball that can’t really be justified. United will look to pressure Saunders repeatedly in an effort to force bad clearances or easily-won long balls.

Right back has been an open question for a while now, and Vieira has two very different answers available. Jason Hernandez has spent most of his career at center back, and he plays right back like a center back would. RJ Allen is a far more attacking presence, but that leaves major gaps at the back. It’s hard to discern a pattern with Vieira’s choices here - recently Allen started at home against a dangerous FC Dallas side, but Hernandez got the nod against the lowly Chicago Fire - so this one’s more or less a toss-up.

There’s no such confusion at left back, where Ronald Matarrita is the unquestioned starter. The Costa Rican is among the most attacking fullbacks in MLS, and his ability to jump into the attack provides the width that makes it hard to shut NYCFC down. Of course, that comes with a risk, and United should make every effort to look for Lloyd Sam in behind Matarrita whenever NYCFC attacks break down.

Frederic Brillant has been a good (not great) emergency defender, but he can struggle when it comes to anticipation during the earlier phases of attacks. That isn’t helped by the situation next to him. Jefferson Mena doesn’t look like an MLS starter most weeks, but unless Maxime Chanot is fit again after a back problem, he’ll start once again. Even if Chanot is able to play, NYCFC’s back four is clearly the weakest part of their team.

Defensive midfielder Andoni Iraola was originally signed to be a right back, but at 34 he lacked the mobility to do the job. He has ended up being the solution as a #6, but that lack of mobility is still an issue (particularly in a midfield featuring Andrea Pirlo). United needs to make sure they’re leaving Iraola with quick combination play to deal with. Teams that send runners through Iraola’s space and overload him with defensive work tend to find success.

Getting back to Pirlo, it’s critical that United works intelligently to make sure he’s never on the ball with time to pick out a pass. Of course, every team playing NYCFC says that, and Pirlo’s been facing that general plan for over a decade. Everyone in black tomorrow will need to be alert to the team’s shape so that someone - Jared Jeffrey and Luciano Acosta most often, but always someone - is in Pirlo’s face. Restricting him to simply playing backward or sideways is vital.

After his injury, Lampard’s spot in the midfield was originally given to Steven Mendoza, which was a strange choice by Vieira. The Colombian is a winger/forward by trade, and it wasn’t long before he was swapped with Tommy McNamara. Mendoza picked up a hamstring strain in the next game, but in any case McNamara will be in the midfield until Lampard comes back. McNamara is a huge threat to score from long range, and his creativity and movement between the lines are a huge part of what makes NYCFC so dangerous. He won’t pop up in good scoring positions as Lampard does, but he’s still a big problem for United.

Up front, Khiry Shelton is having the best stretch of his pro career recently. The US under-23 has 1 goal and 5 assists in his last 232 minutes played, and as Matt Doyle pointed out last month, in the context of minutes played his numbers are ridiculous. Shelton has a winger’s speed and a target man’s aerial ability, making him a physical mismatch United will need to cut out of the game. Shelton doesn’t make that easy, though, because he’s just as comfortable staying wide as he is slashing into the middle to attack areas vacated by David Villa.

So about Villa...he is, in my opinion, the league MVP this year. He’s the focal point of everything NYCFC does, and he’s had this season despite the constant rotation around him, the home field that doesn’t help NYCFC play their style, and for much of the season he’s had to do it without another potential Best 11 player helping him out. Villa’s movement off the ball is fiendishly clever, and he’s a brilliant finisher.

United would do well to deny him service left of center, where he likes to set up, but Shelton’s push into the lineup has made things more complicated. Villa is more than happy making a decoy run, and what’s worse is that he knows full well that a good forward’s involvement in a play doesn’t end when that sort of deceptive movement drags someone out of position. Keeping Villa quiet means making it hard to find him, but it will take a damn near perfect game to truly silence the Spaniard.

Mendoza could possibly return from that hamstring strain we mentioned before, but most likely he’d probably be coming in off the bench. That leaves the left wing role to rookie Jack Harrison. At this point, Harrison’s biggest threat is on the dribble. He’s got plenty of flashy moves, but unlike a lot of young players he knows they need to be focused towards penetration and creating chances rather than simply showing off. Harrison has an eye for a diagonal ball, too, making him very dangerous in transition.

We’ll probably see Mendoza sub into this one for either Harrison or Shelton. The Colombian is another threat on the dribble, and offers a boost in raw speed over Harrison. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see defensive midfielder Federico Bravo come in, regardless of the scoreline. Bravo could free McNamara to move to the front line, or replace him (or Pirlo) to add some steel if the Pigeons have a lead to protect.

The non-starter from Allen and Hernandez could replace the other, with Allen entering if NYCFC needs a goal and Hernandez coming in to give the team a more conservative look. Forward Tony Taylor is another option up front, and should United be up a goal, they need to prepare for some very aggressive formation choices from Vieira. That loss back on September first saw NYCFC move into a 3412 at halftime, and then a 334 to close the game out. Vieira has no fear about taking that kind of risk, and he’s also willing to go to five in the back if it’s United throwing numbers forward late.