It seems too early in the season for this, but tomorrow D.C. United will face the New England Revolution for the second time in 2016. You might recall the first meeting, a 0-0 draw in Massachusetts, that stands as this season's only example of a game where United was reduced to simply hanging on for dear life defensively. Thanks to some backs-to-the-wall bravery and a huge let-off in stoppage time, United brought a point home against their fellow MLS original.
It's been a bit of an odd season for the Revs, who have moved from their long stretches of being hot or cold to being erratic from game to game. They've seen two different opponents score three goals in a match, were involved in last week's nonsense in Orlando, and yet their other games have been uneventful (0-0, 1-0, and a couple of 1-1 draws). They've had some good moments, but they've also looked like a train wreck at times.
Jay Heaps has, in the past, stuck with a consistent goalkeeper, back four and central midfield triangle while constantly rotating his wingers and striker based on form and tactical requirements (not to mention keeping his attackers physically fresh, which is important for teams that play home games on turf). This year, that has been less of a reliable truth. Diego Fagundez has locked down the left wing role, while injuries have meant Teal Bunbury has essentially had a guaranteed starting role either on the right or up front. Kelyn Rowe, Charlie Davies, and Juan Agudelo have all missed time, causing the previously deep Revs to give time to rookie Femi Hollinger-Janzen (who they didn't actually sign until after the season began).
Their injury problems aren't restricted to the attack right now. Jose Goncalves didn't make the bench against Orlando City, apparently due to some sort of knee injury. Our friends at The Bent Musket note that Heaps seems optimistic about his return in the near future, but if not this week, at least for the [next] week" is probably an indicator that the Revolution captain is on the doubtful side.
None of those injuries will push the Revs away from their 4231 formation, though:
Bobby Shuttleworth has been mostly consistent this season. When the Revs have been routed, it wasn't his fault, and his growth from years past seems to have continued this season. He's still fairly emotional in games, but it doesn't seem to impair his judgment. While he's not likely to put in a player of the week sort of dominant performance, he has the trust of his teammates for a reason.
At right back, London Woodberry will start unless Goncalves is declared fit to play. Woodberry is a solid enough right back who had the mental strength to bounce back after FC Dallas more or less gave up on him after a season back in the days before Oscar Pareja harnessed their academy's ability to produce players. Still, replacing him with Je-Vaughn Watson after the Jamaican veteran became available was a bit of a no-brainer, and United will prefer to see the former Maryland defender, whose tendency to recognize danger too slowly will make him vulnerable against a team that, between Fabian Espindola and Taylor Kemp, leans to the left in the attacking third.
If Goncalves is out, Watson will pair with Andrew Farrell in central defense. It's not a position that Watson has much experience at in MLS - we're talking 6 or 7 games spread out over a six-season MLS career - but it's worth noting that both Heaps and Pareja both emphatically stated their confidence in his ability to play center back. Against Orlando, he made an early mistake in giving away an avoidable penalty kick but rebounded with some top-notch emergency defending as the second half wore on.
The issue he and Farrell might have is that both players seemed to want to drop off against the Lions. With no one stepping forward to snuff plays out, the Revs were a bit vulnerable between the lines. United isn't ideally set up to exploit that, being in a 442 with no attacking midfielder, but the fact that they play with two withdrawn forwards may still turn it into an advantage. The trick is to either make Farrell and/or Watson step up in a way they don't feel comfortable with - opening up passing lanes to break into the box - or to punish them for sitting so deep by creating in the pocket that creates.
Left back Chris Tierney is a huge part of the Revolution attack, as Rob Vincent found out at Gillette Stadium. New England relentlessly attacked down the left in an attempt to set Tierney up to cross, and for good reason. He can compete with anyone in MLS in terms of crossing the ball, and he's often the main source of width for an attack whose wingers all - for various reasons - aim to slash inside whenever possible. United needs to make him defend a lot more this time around, because he doesn't have the speed to compete with Patrick Nyarko or Lamar Neagle.
In central midfield, Scott Caldwell has regularly played very well yet gets nowhere near the recognition of New England's other "young" (most of them are 25 or older now, which seems to be forgotten) midfielders. He's a cerebral holding midfielder, so most of what he does - intercepting passes and denying passing lanes - draws less praise than big tackles that catch the eye. On a team that loves to transition through the central third as fast as possible, Caldwell's ability to keep the ball moving is invaluable. For United, preventing him from playing forward will go a long way towards short-circuiting the Revolution attack.
Next to him, Gershon Koffie is precisely the kind of defensive midfielder who catches the eye in the ways Caldwell does not. His speed and work rate can make it seem like he's everywhere at once, and few players play a more blood-and-guts sort of game than the Ghanaian. However, Koffie's bravery and aggression are a double-edged sword: He can be fooled into running himself out of position, and his approach to tackling makes him a huge card magnet.
Fagundez will start on the left wing, though I do wonder how long Heaps lets him keep this job without a rotation. He was spectacular in the season opener against Houston, but that first impression ended up not being a trend. People are still talking about Fagundez like he's on fire, yet since that 1 goal/2 assist showing he has just 1 goal. Heaps has subbed him out of three straight games, and in Orlando he was the first player to be replaced. If United is to keep him quiet, they're going to have to look out for his diagonal runs on the dribble while also making sure to prevent him from sizing up any long-range shots.
The biggest threat for New England, by far, is Lee Nguyen. Unlike a lot of MLS playmakers, he's not all that concerned with setting the tempo of the game. We're not going to see him drop deep and start attacking moves. Instead, he will stay high and look to use his dribbling ability to either open up looks for others or to pick his way into the box on his own. United has usually done an alright job on Nguyen, but he grew in influence as the last meeting wore on. There needs to be a strong connection between the midfield and defense to make sure he doesn't have room to operate.
The right wing starter likely depends on how fit Davies is. If it's Bunbury, the Revs will work hard to emphasize his size and speed. Kemp has improved in dealing with that kind of direct, physical wing play, but he's still at a disadvantage if United lets that happen. Bunbury is particularly dangerous at the back post when Tierney is crossing the ball in.
The other option is Rowe, who presents a very different challenge. Rowe will mostly look to come inside looking to combine, using his technique to connect short passes with Nguyen or whoever is starting up top. If forced to stay out on the wing, however, Rowe can be neutralized to a certain extent. That's much better than the alternative, because Nguyen likes to look his way due to his clever movement off the ball.
If Rowe starts, we will likely see Bunbury playing up front instead. He has all the tools of a strong forward in this set-up, but Bunbury doesn't really offer himself as a back-to-goal option often enough. As a forward, his runs and decisions can lack much in the way of nuance, and he often seems to be thinking just one step ahead rather than two or three. However, he did score as a center forward in Orlando, and his speed might be a worry if he can isolate Bobby Boswell.
If Davies starts, we'll see a stronger target presence despite the fact that the former United striker is not really a physically imposing player. Davies has great balance and coordination, though, and he uses that to hold off significantly larger defenders. That in turn boosts the volume of opportunities that fall to Nguyen and co. in the midfield, which is why the Revs are so much better with Davies up front.
Off the bench, it sounds like Agudelo might be able to play some part. He could play up front or on either wing (with the right flank the more likely of the two). If Davies doesn't start, you can bank on him subbing in around the hour mark, which will probably mean Bunbury moving to the right or coming off. Heaps also loves to use Daigo Kobayashi to add a more positive element to his engine room, though the Japanese veteran didn't have a good game last week in replacing Caldwell and leaving Koffie with most of the defensive work. One final option is Hollinger-Janzen, who in his cameo appearances has played a bit like a more raw version of Bunbury on the wing.