For D.C. United, it's an interesting moment to be playing the Vancouver Whitecaps. They're missing two key starters, and they aren't scoring goals from open play. However, United has very recently played a short-handed team that shares some broad similarities with Vancouver, and that ended in a rout. The Black-and-Red badly need things to go better this time around. Here's what they need to get right to make that happen.
Both Whitecaps fullbacks are vulnerable, but for different reasons. On the right, Fraser Aird is a young player who has had some struggles against players attacking him on the dribble. His inexperience is the bigger issue, though, as he can get disconnected from the rest of the defense (allowing opposing attacks to isolate him). United created a lot via Lamar Neagle last week, and they need to make sure he's getting plenty of the ball again tonight.
On the other side, United's right midfielder - it looks like Patrick Nyarko will be fit to start, with Rob Vincent the likely replacement if he can't go - will have to play a more nuanced game. Vancouver's left back, Jordan Harvey, tries to win his individual battle in part by simply overwhelming opposing right wingers with defensive work. Harvey will bomb forward whenever possible, and he will not tire. Responsibly tracking Harvey is going to be huge for United, as Sean Franklin will have plenty on his plate going up against Kekuta Manneh.
Here's where the nuance comes in: Harvey attacks in part to leave his opponent too deep or too tired to take advantage of his sometimes questionable positional choices. Between that and the age-old fact that an attacking fullback leaves spaces in behind, United can't just be satisfied to have Nyarko or Vincent containing Harvey (as Vincent, barely, did with Chris Tierney in the 0-0 draw with New England).
There's room to create in behind Harvey, and that's something United needs to make sure they take advantage of. It doesn't necessarily have to be the right midfielder doing the job. Fabian Espindola and/or Chris Rolfe can drift out there too, and whoever is looking for the ball in those spots will need central players looking their way in terms of distribution.
Set piece defense
Let's break down where Vancouver's six goals have come from thus far in 2016:
Open play - 0
Counters - 0
Own goals - 0
Set pieces - 2
Penalty kicks - 4
Those are strange numbers, to be sure, but let's put the oddness aside for a second and focus on the fact that a third of their goals have been from set pieces. Kendall Waston is the premier set piece target in MLS, while Tim Parker is also very good in these spots. Harvey is an underrated threat due to his fearlessness and quick first step, and their absences in midfield will mean a spot for Andrew Jacobson (a far better target than the man he'll replace, Matias Laba). Even with the quality of delivery taking a hit with Pedro Morales out, this is a genuine problem.
United, meanwhile, has been unacceptably poor on set pieces. They've already given up three in just five MLS matches, which just can't stand for a team that needs to be a tough nut to crack even at the best of times. However, there have been signs of improvement. FC Dallas was well-contained from dead balls (not that they were contained anywhere else), and United rather comfortably held off a San Jose team that banks on creating plenty of goals from free kicks.
Two games without a set piece goal is the most modest streak possible, and today United has to make sure it extends to three. That means Steve Birnbaum needs to respond to the toughest marking assignment he'll see this season, and it means Bobby Boswell has to use all his experience to contain the more agile Parker. Players like Neagle and Marcelo Sarvas might also find themselves in a tough battle with someone like Jacobson. Everyone - the man-markers, the guys marking space, and Travis Worra in goal - needs to bring their A game. The Whitecaps don't give up much at the back, so conceding just one set piece goal will significantly dent United's chances of getting a win.
Thanks to Morales being injured and Laba being suspended, United will face a team fielding a midfield with zero total minutes working as a unit. Assuming Vancouver opts for their preferred 4231 over the 442 they've used here and there, Andrew Jacobson play the role of the #6. Nicolas Mezquida will set up as the attacking midfielder, and either Kianz Froese or Deybi Flores will be Jacobson's partner in the engine room.
That lack of familiarity would be reason enough for United to make sure they pressure ferociously in the central portion of the field. Unfamiliar midfields end up making mistakes in terms of spacing, and they will often need to take a moment to sort out each other's intentions. Those split-seconds here and there add up, and United needs to make sure that slow play is punished.
On top of that, the individuals involved also point to this being a good idea. Jacobson is a solid enough defensive midfielder, but his first touch has never been the greatest. He also tends to need too much time to size his passes up when he wants to switch the field, which is an opportunity to prevent the Whitecaps from breaking out via their speedy wingers.
Next to him, Froese and Flores are both just 19 years old. Froese is the more technically gifted of the two, but his choices in traffic can be a bit carefree. Flores, meanwhile, is a bit too jittery on the ball, and he has also been caught dawdling on the ball rather than making decisions quickly. Further forward, Mezquida is a tidy player, but he's not the kind of guy who can dominate proceedings. He needs others to help him create the combination play that he prefers, but if he's cut off from those teammates by pressure he can be neutralized.
If DCU can harass Vancouver's central midfield trio, they should be able to dictate the terms of how the game is played while also protecting their fullbacks from the speed of Kekuta Manneh and Cristian Techera.
The Whitecaps are coming all the way across the continent to play a road game in difficult weather conditions while missing arguably their two best players. This is a team United needs to get after from the opening whistle. Letting an unfamiliar group build confidence with a slow tempo won't be helpful at all for the Black-and-Red. It was lost in all the negativity that followed the 3-0 home loss to FC Dallas, but in their last home game United started fairly well. It wasn't a brilliant, buzzing start by any means, but they were on the front foot and were doing pretty much all of the attacking on display until some huge errors at the back gifted Dallas a goal that took the wind out of DC sails.
United needs to match or exceed that start, because the Whitecaps are an excellent defensive team. They are perfectly capable of coming to RFK and shutting the Black-and-Red out if the home team isn't firing on all cylinders. Plus, it's not like VWFC's attack gives teams a lot to fear these days. None of their forwards has a goal in 2016, and starter Octavio Rivero's drought extends back to early September of last year.
In other words, United has every reason to seize control of this game and dictate exactly how and where the game will be played.
Good choices from (and involving) the fullbacks
One of Vancouver's best assets is the speed their starting wingers possess. Manneh on the left and Techera on the right will be the two fastest players on either team tonight, and probably by a decent margin. On his day, Manneh can be borderline unplayable due to his dribbling ability and his knack for putting so much fear in fullbacks that he ends up not having to beat them until he gets right to the edge of the box. Techera, meanwhile, has a great nose for goal despite not being an inverted player on the right.
Even without Morales and his best-in-MLS long-range passing ability supplying them, United's fullbacks can't afford to make mistakes tonight. That's an issue on multiple fronts: It's obviously a huge worry at the back, but if Franklin and Taylor Kemp are non-factors going forward, United's attack suffers greatly. It will be very hard to win this game if those two are pinned back for 90 minutes, because you can't win without scoring a goal at some point.
That's why we'll need to see very intelligent, alert performances from both Franklin and Kemp. Both will have to find a way to join the attack without being exposed, and both will have to stay connected in defensive phases so they're not just going 1v1 or having to turn and chase.
This also involves United's central players to a certain extent. Remember the second Dallas goal from a couple of weeks ago? Kemp pushed up high in an attempt to gain an advantage with United in possession, but rather than find him via a build-up, we saw Boswell lump a 50 yard pass in his direction. Ryan Hollingshead won what became a 50/50 ball in the air, and his header enabled Dallas to go straight into the space Kemp had vacated.
This is a horrific passing decision, because it both gives Kemp no chance to really do anything useful while also allowing Dallas to immediately take advantage of Kemp's aggressive choice to move upfield. This is also why teams sometimes favor an aimless long shot following a half-cleared corner rather than an attempt to combine at the top of the box: One mistake and you'll see yourself facing a fast-moving counter while your side is not even close to being in their proper defensive shape.
Against Vancouver, United cannot afford that kind of pass. If Franklin or Kemp pushes into the attack, United's choices with the ball need to be made with the possibility of the counter-attack in mind.