Normally D.C. United's opponent today, the Vancouver Whitecaps, poses few real questions in terms of their lineup. Carl Robinson has mostly set his team up in a 4231, and only one or two positions were ever really in flux. There's plenty of good depth for VWFC, but the hierarchy on the depth chart was pretty easy to figure out from afar.
However, this week the Whitecaps have had to deal with a lot. Last week, in their 0-0 draw with the LA Galaxy, they saw three critical players - Pedro Morales, Matias Laba, and Kekuta Manneh - all leave the field before halftime. Morales and Manneh both had to be substituted with injuries, while Laba was sent off for a studs-up tackle. Morales has been confirmed as out - Robinson was in fact already planning on resting his Chilean designated player anyway - while Manneh appears to have a solid chance of returning:
Caps practising getting sent off today. OK I made that up. No Morales but Manneh is training. Teibert back. #vwfc— Marc Weber (@ProvinceWeber) April 5, 2016
On top of that, Robinson and the Whitecaps made some offseason moves that indicated that, at the very least, they'd like to have the option of playing a 442. Masato Kudo was brought in from Kashiwa Reysol of the J-League, and they also acquired veteran target man/provocateur Blas Perez from FC Dallas. They've used a 442 this season as well, though last week's lineup graphics saying they played in a 442 against the Galaxy were false.
On top of that, players who didn't need help to leave the field also missed some time in training this week:
Still no Bolanos today. No Rivero either. #vwfc— Marc Weber (@ProvinceWeber) April 6, 2016
I'm not going to read too much into that, though. Christian Bolanos, at 31 and having just traveled for Costa Rica's World Cup qualifying effort, likely just needed a rest day. Octavio Rivero's playing style welcomes contact, and Robinson was probably just giving him a maintenance day with an eye towards a schedule that still has 29 games left in it.
All of this makes it a bit tricky to predict a Whitecaps lineup for tomorrow. Let's start with the possible 4231, which I think is the more likely choice at the moment:
The defense - a group that hasn't conceded in 218 minutes, including a shutout of the high-scoring Houston Dynamo - is set. David Ousted is the best goalkeeper in MLS not named Bill Hamid, and the Dane brings a well-rounded skillset to the field. He's a strong organizer, good in the air, makes sound decisions, and he's also capable of making the big save while rarely making any mistakes.
Young right back Fraser Aird might be someone United targets. Aird won the job over Jordan Smith (another young player) only to be tormented by Ignacio Piatti in the season opener and then dropped. He's come back from that, though, and he has been more solid since then. Of Vancouver's two fullbacks, he is the less aggressive going forward, though he can still hit a pretty decent cross.
In central defense, Kendall Waston and Tim Parker have formed a very strong partnership. Waston is MLS's most physically imposing field player, and the only player in MLS that would have any sort of edge in the air on Steve Birnbaum. Floating crosses in with Waston around is pointless, but he can be drawn into mistakes by teams that play quickly on the ground. Parker, meanwhile, is a smart and mobile player who also happens to be a strong 6'2". It's no accident that the Whitecaps had the joint-best defensive record in the league last year.
On the left, former Philadelphia Union defender Jordan Harvey is a constant source of energy. His game isn't exactly refined, but Harvey will fling himself into harm's way defensively while offering a constant overlapping option when Vancouver goes forward. He's even managed 9 goals in his MLS career, which is a high total for an outside back who doesn't take free kicks or penalties. However, that attacking impulse will leave space for United to counter into, and guys like Marcelo Sarvas and Nick DeLeon need to be looking in that direction immediately following a turnover.
Laba's suspension will almost certainly see Andrew Jacobson step into a defensive midfield role. Jacobson only joined the Whitecaps a month ago from NYCFC, but since arriving he's had to play center back during the international window and stepped in for Morales in the 19th minute last week. Jacobson isn't the most mobile defensive midfielder, but his range of passing is respectable and he has a hammer of a shot.
Who his partner will be is unclear. Russell Teibert would be the choice on paper, but he has only just returned to full training after offseason ankle surgery. That leaves him more or less where Markus Halsti is: Unlikely to be named to the matchday squad, much less play. Last season, the Whitecaps seemed high on Honduras under-20 national team prospect Deybi Flores, but I suspect that we might see Homegrown player Kianz Froese instead. Froese was not available last week due to a concussion, but has passed protocol and would add a craftier element than Flores, who tends to be more about covering tons of ground.
The attacking trio is fairly easy to call. Cristian Techera is a player for United fans to watch out for. There are broad similarities to Michael Barrios, who scored twice for FC Dallas in the Black-and-Red's last home game. Both are very fast players from South America - Techera is Uruguayan - and both are among MLS's smallest players. Techera, in fact, may be smaller than Luciano Acosta.
However, that lack of size hasn't been a problem for Techera since arriving in MLS. He had 7 goals and 5 assists in just 22 appearances for the Whitecaps last year (though he hasn't factored into a goal yet in 2016). If anything, Techera takes up more narrow positions than Barrios tends to, meaning that he's going to look to goal more often. Taylor Kemp and Bobby Boswell will have to be very sharp in terms of communication, because Techera has a speed advantage over both of them.
With Morales out, Nicolas Mezquida is the natural choice to step in. Another young Uruguayan, Mezquida might not make jaw-dropping plays but he does a lot of things right. Rather than control the tempo, Mezquida will look to be a consistent option for his teammates while often playing one- or two-touch to keep defenses chasing the ball. His emphasis on combination play doesn't give him too many chances, but it can open up opportunities for the rest of the attack.
Manneh, assuming he's fit, will start on the left wing. The young Gambian is currently living in the US and driving across the border every team in pursuit of American citizenship, which would allow him to play for the USMNT. That's not a pipe dream, either. Manneh is an electric player gifted with extraordinary speed and excellent dribbling skills. The Whitecaps often look to open up the field and break forward by swinging the ball out to Manneh in full flight. United's best tactic on that front is to prevent those crossfield balls and get a body on Manneh before he starts sprinting.
Up front, Rivero has retained Robinson's faith despite a pretty pronounced scoring slump. Then again, it's not like any other striker has staked a claim to the job. This is from MLSsoccer.com's power rankings:
In their last 16 matches across all competitions, Vancouver forwards have scored just one goal. It was by the since-retired Robert Earnshaw to cap a 3-0 blowout at the end of last year. 'Caps fans, this is not great.
Rivero has gone 11 games since scoring in competitive play, and like any striker, that drought is hurting his confidence. However, he does everything else that the Whitecaps ask of him. He's always available to run in behind and stretch the field vertically when Vancouver wants to push upfield quickly, and he's also more than willing to play with his back to goal and supplement possession. Despite not exactly looking imposing, Rivero is a sturdy, physical player who will never make it easy on opposing center backs.
If Robinson opts for a 442, the wingers will start a bit deeper and Mezquida will probably lose his place to Perez (though Kudo is certainly in contention as well). Perez is the same player he ever was: A back-to-goal target man who tries every trick in the book to gain an advantage. He will foul opposing players. He will dive. He will pull defenders down and then look for a call his way. At 35, Perez isn't as agile as he used to be, but he can still get away from his marker to finish. If he gets the start, United can expect a battle that will require composure as well as physical strength.
Bolanos could find himself starting on the left if Manneh's injury last week keeps him from starting (or, perhaps, on the right with Techera going to the other side. Otherwise, he's a probable option off the bench. In the 4231, I'd expect to see Perez come in for Rivero at some point, while if Robinson opts for a 442 then Kudo is probably going to come on for Perez (who is not really 90 minutes fit any more). It wouldn't surprise me to see Flores replace Froese in central midfield if the Whitecaps have a lead to protect, but we could also see energetic attacking midfielder Marco Bustos - yet another youngster from the Whitecaps Residency program - make a cameo as well.