In some ways, D.C. United is about to play a San Jose Earthquakes team that is a better version of themselves at the moment. Both teams make no apologies for their focus on results over style. Both have a small Argentine #10 who may find himself out wide or on the bench. Both teams rely on crosses for a lot of their offense. What most United fans mean when they use the term "Bennyball" as a descriptor rather than purely as a nebulous insult resembles Dominic Kinnear's Houston Dynamo teams of the past more than anything else, and his Quakes are pretty dang similar.
That means a classic - or is that quaint? - 442 formation that mostly relies on wingers and fullbacks to pump crosses in for offense, and a forward duo willing and able to do a lot of work as a pair that might not get that much support. They're also a combative team all over the field, and more than anything else they're built to get into two banks of four when the ball turns over. Kinnear's side has won both of their home games, and while no one's giving them a prize for shutting out the Colorado Rapids, they did also manage to largely frustrate the defending MLS Cup champions in a 2-1 win. This won't be pretty, and it won't be easy.
Let's talk about that 442, shall we?
Coming off the international break, Kinnear has long tended to put his top players back on the field unless they're actually hurt. If they're not carrying an injury from their national team duty, they're going to play. For guys like David Bingham and Chris Wondolowski - both were called up for the USMNT, but neither played a minute - this is a no-brainer. Bingham's call-up is a bit odd in terms of his actual ability, but with Bill Hamid injured, Nick Rimando nearing the end of his career, and the US Olympic squad needing goalkeepers for their own games, the rapidly improving Bingham is one to watch. He's not a spectacular GK, but rather one that gets the fundamentals right and makes few mistakes.
The back four is missing some faces, but it has nothing to do with the international window. Jordan Stewart tore his achilles tendon last year and has not yet begun to train, leaving left back open. Shaun Francis - a fringe Jamaica national team option - would normally step right in, but he has missed two games with a quadriceps strain. Center Line Soccer says he's back training and available for this game, though, so there will be a competition between him and rookie Kip Colvey. Francis has plenty of speed, but he can lose his way on the field and has made his share of mistakes. Colvey, like most rookies, is still finding his way as a pro. In either case, it's a spot United needs to attack.
The other missing starter is center back Clarence Goodson. The practice report linked above says he's still out with the same back issue that kept him off the field for San Jose's 3-1 loss to the Galaxy. He'll be replaced by Andres Imperiale, a well-named Argentine the Quakes snatched up from Costa Rican giant Saprissa this offseason. The issue here is that Imperiale and his partner, Victor Bernardez, are a bit too similar. Both players want to be the man who steps into the midfield to break up plays, and both go in hard on tackles. United might be able to catch them being overly aggressive.
On the right, Marvell Wynne is the same as he ever was. He has track star speed, and his physical strength and leaping ability make him near impossible to beat physically. However, his decision-making and positional awareness are still suspect. United needs to make sure he's chasing the ball and having to make a lot of decisions very quickly. If you keep it simple against Wynne, you might as well just kick the ball out of bounds. Chris Rolfe has the smarts to get away from him if United can give him some options on the left.
Going back to the international call-ups, the Quakes lean heavily on two starters for Panama. Anibal Godoy's arrival was a key moment for San Jose last year, and quite frankly I'm envious of what he's doing for their central midfield. He's a tough-as-nails natural #6, yet he's also a very tidy passer who keeps the San Jose wingers and forwards supplied with the ball in good spots. He's precisely what United could use right now, basically.
You might be wondering why his name is not on the graphic above. Well, he was subbed out after 38 minutes in Panama's narrow 1-0 win over Haiti on Tuesday, and in Panama they're reporting that he has a minor knee sprain that will keep him out for 3 weeks:
¡NADA GRAVE! Aníbal Godoy estará 3 semanas sin jugar con el Earthquakes. Sufre un esguince en la rodilla izquierda. pic.twitter.com/tS0j5ViWnQ— El Marcador (@elmarcadortv) March 31, 2016
That leaves San Jose in a bit of a bind. They got lucky that Fatai Alashe only played 24 minutes in the first leg and none in the second for the US under-23s. He'll be well-rested and will jump right into the lineup, but the Quakes don't have a clear option to partner him. Marc Pelosi hasn't played a minute this season due to treatment for chronic knee tendonitis. Kinnear has long been seen as distrustful of Tommy Thompson, who in any case isn't ideally suited to a double pivot. The only healthy player who naturally fits here is Matheus Silva, a 19 year old Brazilian with just 4 total MLS minutes to his name.
Given that United will also be doing deep down their depth chart in central midfield, the other option Kinnear has is to play a 4132 and play either Thompson or Matias Perez Garcia as an attacking midfielder ahead of Alashe in the deep role. Normally this is only a look Kinnear goes to when his flat 442 isn't getting results, but he's a more clever tactician than people give him credit for being. If he doesn't trust Silva or Thompson in a double pivot, this is the look he'll shift to.
Of course, Perez Garcia's availability for duty in a central position hinges on how fit San Jose's other Panamanian international is. Alberto Quintero - who was once rumored to be close to signing with the Black-and-Red - played 90 minutes on the wing for los Canaleros on Tuesday, and that followed a 71 minute shift this past Friday. If he has no injuries, he'll play, but if not we'll probably see Perez Garcia playing on the right. That's a very different look, as Perez Garcia is a natural playmaker who will always look to drift inside.
Quintero, meanwhile, has upgraded right midfield for the Quakes. Last season's options, Cordell Cato and Sanna Nyassi, were both pure speedsters. Quintero is a more skillful dribbler than either of them, but more importantly he's a smarter player. He knows where and when to find space to combine, and he has a long history of being a slippery, difficult person to track. Taylor Kemp will also need to bring his A game as far as emotional intelligence, as Quintero is a well-known provocateur who will do whatever it takes to get calls.
On the left, Simon Dawkins - who would be an option for a central spot in the 4132, and even on the right wing if Quintero were rested - is first-choice but picked up a red card against the Galaxy for a ludicrous tackle. The situation here is far more clear than the other spots: Shea Salinas will step in for the England-born Jamaican national team regular. Salinas has always been a hard-working, fairly speedy winger, but when he came into MLS he had the kind of crossing ability you'd expect to see from someone goofing off in Lot 8 after a couple beers.
Those days are long gone. Through constant work on it, Salinas is a threat whenever he gets a chance to cross now. He can be a pretty uncomplicated player going forward - his 3 goals last year were a career high, and in his 8 full seasons he has scored 1 or 0 goals in five different years - but what he does, he does very well. United will want to funnel him inside and force him to be something he's not. If Salinas is having to spot combinations to get into the box, he's going to be less comfortable than he'd be staying wide and being an old-school winger.
San Jose's front line should be worrying for the Black-and-Red. Wondolowski and Quincy Amarikwa are both relentless workers who love the physical side of the game. Whatever you may think of Wondo at the international level, the dude has gotten double-digit goals in MLS for 6 straight seasons (including 14 or more in 5 of those seasons). He already has 3 goals in 3 games in 2016, so nothing has changed. Wondo's game is built primarily around his ability to read where the ball is going to end up inside the box and his tendency to shed markers. Wondo does a simple thing - standing in a defender's blind spot - extremely well, and that requires awareness from every United defender (and even the central midfielders). Communication and awareness are the keys against him.
Amarikwa - a late bloomer like his strike partner - has always been very difficult to play against. He's quick, agile, and has tremendous balance and physical strength despite not being particularly big. That makes it very tough to knock him off the ball, and he welcomes that physical contact. Amarikwa has also long been very skilled at drawing calls by making legal contact look more like a foul than it is. He's not a diver so much as an exaggerator.
The former Colorado, TFC, and Chicago man is also an underrated set-up man. Since arriving in San Jose midway through last season, he has 5 assists in 20 games (a rate that would give him 8 or 9 over a full season) to go with 7 goals. Amarikwa isn't necessarily playing brilliant through balls or anything like that. He knows that's not his game, and instead he tends to find Wondo or others crashing the box with simple passes or knockdowns.
From the subs bench, players like Perez Garcia and Thompson - if they don't start - are both options to add some craft in the midfield (particularly if San Jose is not winning). Swiss designated player Innocent Emeghara missed most of 2015 with a knee injury, and while he's apparently not fit/sharp enough to get starts, he has made the bench for every Quakes game this season and played 13 minutes against LA a couple of weeks ago. Innocent can play up front or on the left wing, and offers good speed as well as skill on the ball.
If San Jose prefers a more physical option, Adam Jahn appears to have an edge right now on Mark Sherrod in the battle to be Kinnear's preferred giant target man. Chad Barrett would be in contention, but he seems a week or two away from playing due to a groin strain. Finally, if the Quakes want to get more conservative, one option we could see is Francis ending up at left midfield with Colvey at left back.