Most of the time, these pieces covering D.C. United's next opponent refer to a pretty familiar formation, with an emphasis on possession, or pressure, or direct play being the real difference. That isn't the case with New York City FC, whose head coach Patrick Vieira has been unafraid to attempt new things all season. He spent plenty of time in the preseason sending NYCFC out in an old-fashioned W-M formation (we'd call it a 3223 today), and then when the games got real he tweaked it into what most resembled a 3241. It made an otherwise pretty weak NYCFC roster worth watching, at least.
However, in the past month, Vieira has stuck with the more common 433. It's easy to see why: NYCFC doesn't have the defenders to effectively play out of a back three, and when push comes to shove it's hard to do anything with six midfielders except be bogged down in the midfield. At first, this formation still retained some strange traits (namely, a midfield trio in which Andrea Pirlo and Mix Diskerud were tasked with significant defensive duties), but of late Vieira has started to make a little more sense. The 433 has a proper #6 - Federico Bravo - protecting the back four, and Pirlo being stationary has become less of an issue.
Here's how it should look this weekend:
Josh Saunders will start in goal, and that's good news for United. Saunders was already not that great of a goalkeeper in the best of times, and right now he seems to have no confidence whatsoever. His decision-making process has seen him out of position a few times, and he's let in more than his fair share of soft goals. The Black-and-Red need to make sure they're testing him early and often.
Right back has been a problem for NYCFC. Spanish veteran Andoni Iraola was signed last year to be the starter, but has spent more time injured than not. RJ Allen, after recovering from an injury of his own, scored against Montreal only to depart injured less than 20 minutes later. The ankle sprain he suffered against the Impact will keep him out on Sunday.
That leaves former United homegrown defender Ethan White, who as DC fans likely recall is not really a right back. He can fill in, but in terms of technique he's not that comfortable coming forward and putting in crosses. As a natural center back, White is also not particularly smooth in terms of judging angles as a right back. United might not be able to beat him athletically down the flank, but they should be able to pull him out of position.
Central defense is also a problem, though at least in this case the Pigeons have some natural fits to call on. Frenchman Frederic Brillant arrived after spending some time at lesser Belgian clubs, and has not looked like a diamond in the rough since joining NYCFC. The speed of play in MLS seems to catch him off-guard a handful of times a game, and he doesn't have any particularly great physical gifts to cover it up.
Partnering him is MLS veteran Jason Hernandez. Hernandez has decent speed and plenty of MLS experience, but he's been the kind of player who starts for bad teams in this league for a long time. It's mostly down to his positioning and judgment. They're not outright bad, but they're not good either. As a result, the Light Blues are vulnerable to attacks up the middle (though targeting Brillant is the better idea).
United fans may remember Ronald Matarrita, NYCFC's left back. Last year, in the CONCACAF Champions League, the Black-and-Red found Matarrita more or less unstoppable playing left midfield for Alajuelense. However, the energetic young Costa Rican is more at home as a left back. He will attack frequently, as Vieira does not ask his team to play conservatively even on the road. However, that has left the space behind Matarrita exposed more than once this season, and United will look to feed Patrick Nyarko quickly after turnovers.
Bravo has taken over as the anchor midfielder, and it's easy to see why. Bravo is a pure, natural #6 who anticipates play and does what he can to protect the flimsy NYCFC back four. Bravo - like Luciano Acosta, a loanee from Boca Juniors - has little interest in breaking forward or opening up the game himself. Instead, he wants to keep things simple, win the ball, and feed Pirlo (or, if he's covered, someone else nearby).
Speaking of Pirlo, the Italian is still as precise as ever with his passing over distance and his free kick service. Giving him time on the ball, or handing out cheap free kicks, is a recipe for disaster. However, Pirlo comes with a big risk: He doesn't really run or tackle any more, and he'll play left of center in part to benefit from being around the energy of Matarrita. Don't be surprised if United sets Marcelo Sarvas up in this general area in order for the Brazilian to take advantage of the space that results from Pirlo's stationary nature.
Mikey Lopez fills out the midfield, and that's a direct result of needing someone to do some extra running with Pirlo on the field. Lopez is probably no better than the fifth or sixth best midfielder on the NYCFC roster, but he's on the field because he fits a very specific need. Vieira needs someone that won't stop running, and that's Lopez's main attribute. He probably won't make anything happen going forward, but he will try to help connect the front line with the rest of the midfield when possible.
On the right wing, Vieira seems to be leaning towards Khiry Shelton of late. However, he has also given Steven Mendoza plenty of time (even though Mendoza may be better on the left) lately, and Tony Taylor has also put together nearly 400 minutes on the season. Why such a jumble? All three players are young, fast, and very raw. Shelton may have the most promise of the group, and Mendoza is the best dribbler, but all three are very incomplete players. That said, Taylor Kemp can't be caught cheating forward, as he won't be able to catch up to anyone in this trio.
The Pigeons are basically only as good as David Villa can make them be. The Spanish veteran is pouring himself into every minute of every game as a center forward, and he was SB Nation's player of the week based on his two-goal performance last Saturday. Villa doesn't have much in the way of size, and he's not even that fast any more. How is he still one of MLS's most dangerous forwards? Villa has tremendous soccer IQ and vision off the ball, and he's a razor sharp finisher. United is going to have to be extremely organized and aware of Villa at all times, as giving him even one half-chance is trouble.
On the left, former United midfielder Thomas McNamara - hey, those three offseason weeks between the Chivas USA dispersal draft and the 2014 MLS expansion draft count - has transitioned from a spot in central midfield to the left forward role in Vieira's 433. Aside from inspiring a cult-like allegiance, McNamara is a problem-solver who will often drop off the forward line early in the play to combine before then trying to push into the box as the second scoring threat. He's an inventive, resourceful player, and Sean Franklin will have to be sharp to keep him disconnected from the rest of the team.
Off the bench, Vieira will call on Frank Lamp...haha, just kidding. Frank Lampard will be enjoying the fruits of his gigantic paycheck back home in England while this game is going on. Instead, look for Mendoza to come in as one of the wide forwards as the first sub option. Diskerud has fallen out of favor in part because NYCFC can't hide his lack of defensive impact in a midfield that already carries Pirlo, but he has been getting into games off the bench.
The third sub could go a lot of different ways: Kwadwo Poku could replace Lopez if NYCFC wants to push for a goal late, but with McNamara available to do that as well, Poku might not make the trip. Former Maryland striker Patrick Mullins could come on as a center forward, with Villa moving to the left. Last week against Vancouver, Vieira moved to a 541 in the final minutes to protect a lead, bringing in right back Iraola for Pirlo and asking his wide forwards to push back into the midfield.