Tonight, D.C. United will face a New York Red Bulls team that has largely disappointed in 2016. Ten games into the season, and the defending Supporters Shield winners are clinging to a playoff spot - just ahead of United, actually - by the total wins tiebreaker. Six losses in ten matches constitutes their worst run of form since starting the 2014 season by going winless in the first six games of the year.
What went wrong for a team that didn't lose any key starters and is playing the same overall style? First of all, Jesse Marsch attempted to experiment with some new formations, trying two different versions of a 442 (a flatter version and a box midfield, or 4222) during the preseason. This may have been a reaction to the Columbus Crew exposing all of their tactical weaknesses in the playoffs last fall, or it may have simply been an experiment by a coach who really only had a Plan A last year.
In either case, it didn't take. The Red Bulls seemed to struggle with their defensive spacing through the midfield, while Bradley Wright-Phillips went ice cold in front of goal at the same time. On top of that, NYRB were hammered by defensive injuries. Back on March 19th, they were forced to remove both starting center backs due to hamstring strains (Gonzalo Veron, who started the game as a forward, came off for the exact same reason). Other than right back Sal Zizzo, their defense has been a constant revolving door due to those injuries and attempts to incorporate new faces.
Eventually, Marsch got wise and returned to the 4231 that served his side so well last year. It didn't fix things immediately - the first couple of games after the return were 2-0 losses at home to Sporting KC and on the road at San Jose - but a breakout second half against Orlando carried them to a 3-2 victory. Since then, NYRB has beaten Dallas 4-0 and gone on the road to get a draw against OCSC. Wright-Phillips scored three times in those outings, and they acquired an apparently healthy center back in Aurelien Collin. It would have been good to play this game a month ago, in other words.
In any case, here's how they'll line up:
Luis Robles, currently on the longest active starting streak in MLS, is a lock to start in goal. Fans of the Metros will assure you that he is the greatest goalkeeper in human history and should be starting for the USMNT. This is false. However, Robles is pretty safely either fourth or fifth best in MLS, and his sharp reflexes and quick burst off his line make him tough to beat. If Robles has one flaw, it's dealing with traffic inside crowded penalty areas on set pieces. If United can cleanly block his approach to the ball, we may see him flap at a cross or drop something that leads to an empty net.
Zizzo was transitioned to right back last season after a career as a winger, and he has held the job despite a push for time from more natural defenders like Chris Duvall and Connor Lade. Still, Zizzo has about 75% of one pro season as a right back, and that inexperience can show when combined with his natural instinct to go forward. Lamar Neagle will also be the physically stronger player if the two are battling for position or a loose ball. It wouldn't surprise me to see United look for that match-up frequently.
On the other side, Kemar Lawrence has struggled badly a year after drawing rumors of Premier League suitors and seven-figure transfer fees in 2015. Over at Once a Metro, they have a pretty credible theory as to why. Even with NYRB's improved form and the more familiar formation, Lawrence has continued making big errors that have lead directly to goals (including one last week). The Black-and-Red have to pressure him, and they have to stay alert when he's on the ball in the defensive third. It would be impolite to pass up gifts, and Lawrence has been handing them out this season.
In central defense, the Red Bulls have improved from a talent perspective with Collin. However, they may have taken a step back in terms of fit, as he and Ronald Zubar are both brawny, physical, aggressive players who want to step up ahead of the back four and make big, eye-catching tackles. Neither is a natural organizer, and Collin's time in MLS has proven that without an elite player like Matt Besler directing his energies, he can be reckless. Zubar has a similarly high risk/high reward thought process.
That means United should look to tempt the center backs into stepping forward together, or at least to catch one stepping out by sending a runner into that space. Luciano Acosta is going to have to be brave in this one, using his quick feet to avoid the crunching tackles both players put in, but he's got the eye for a pass to make them pay when the right runs are made.
In the midfield, Dax McCarty has been pretty poor in 2016. However, he is rounding into form much like NYRB as a team. Those two things are related: McCarty's energy and his ability to read the game - both from anticipating opposition attacks and knowing where his teammates are - are vital for how the team from Harrison, NJ plays. Still, even with his improving form, McCarty is not yet playing like the Best XI defensive midfielder that he was last year.
Alongside the former United player is Felipe. Please take a second to be angry at his continued existence, and then breathe. Felipe has been NYRB's second-best player this season, adding some goalscoring to his normal duties when Wright-Phillips couldn't finish. Felipe is the linking midfielder in this set-up, tasked with connecting McCarty to Sacha Kljestan. He's also the most amoral player in MLS; if anything, Felipe seems to relish the idea of diving, taking cheap shots, and verbally provoking opposing players. United needs to stay composed, because he's also shown a tendency to take things too far when he can't get a rise out of his opponent.
I qualified my statement on Felipe's play this season as being the second-best NYRB player because Kljestan has been far and away their best. His 6 assists lead MLS, and when you throw in his 2 goals he has played an active role in about 62% of his side's goals. Per WhoScored.com, only Diego Valeri provides more key passes per game. Here's a helpful gif explaining the kinds of situations that Kljestan has thrived in:
If United is going to win this game, neutralizing Kljestan is job #1.
On the wings, Lloyd Sam has been very quiet all season but continues to start because he has no real challenger for his job. Veron is not a winger - he'll probably get some minutes on the wing tonight, but that has yet to work out since NYRB shelled out millions to bring him here because he's really a forward - and former Georgetown Hoya Alex Muyl has only just started to push his way into contention.
Nonetheless, Sam has been a United killer over the past two seasons. In 2014, he did it by staying very wide and by getting around anyone that came his way on the dribble. That pulled the Black-and-Red out of their defensive shape, opening up gaps and causing DCU to scramble. In 2015, he did it more by attacking the channel between the left back and center backs. In either case, Taylor Kemp (and Bobby Boswell, for that matter) need to deliver big games defensively. If Kemp is isolated against Sam, he needs to contain him. If this becomes Sam's breakout night for the year, it's going to be a long game for United.
On the other side, Mike Grella has been delivering some highlight-reel dribbling moves while sharing the team goalscoring lead with Wright-Phillips and Felipe. Grella doesn't really want to stay wide much at all, though, and NYRB relies on Lawrence to provide their width on the left. Instead, Grella will look to attack diagonally, either getting inside the right back or going 1v1 with the right-center back. Sean Franklin and Steve Birnbaum will need some help from the midfield in narrowing Grella's options; if he's kept wide, he tends to be a non-factor.
Up top, Wright-Phillips has found his confidence in front of goal, and that's terrible news. BWP scored four times against United last year, and he gets the job done with his movement. He's not a physically remarkable player in any way: He's got adequate speed, adequate aerial ability, and by MLS standards is not very strong for a striker. What he does very well is understand space, in terms of making dangerous runs that get him free to go to goal as well as the sort of run that makes space for others. United's communication and awareness across the back four need to be outstanding as a result, and Travis Worra needs to be very swift in coming off his line to deal with the threat of BWP running in behind.
Off the bench, Veron and Muyl seem likely to make appearances (with Veron coming on shortly after the hour mark in most cases, while Muyl tends to get scraps at the end). Sean Davis is also likely to appear, but the game state will determine his role. If NYRB is trying to seal the deal, he'll probably come in for Kljestan. If they're behind, he could come in for McCarty and take over as a more risk-taking defensive midfielder. He could also come in for Felipe, with Kljestan moving into the #8 role. If Marsch is getting really desperate, or simply sees a chance to rest BWP, he could bring in target man Anatole Abang. Finally, if his injury-prone back four suffers yet another problem, Duvall will most likely come in regardless of who needs to come off.