Coming off of a 1-1 draw on the road last week, D.C. United faces New York City FC in a precarious position. The Black-and-Red are above the red line, but the visitors trail them only due to goal difference. However, with NYCFC having conceded eight goals in their three road games in 2016, United will be solid favorites to push their way up the table. Here's how they can make sure that happens:
Attack without fear
It's easy to see an NYCFC lineup with David Villa and Andrea Pirlo and assume that the best choice is to focus on defense. However, NYCFC has shown no ability whatsoever to defend away from home. Those eight goals against in three road games are no accident. Patrick Vieira still has a flawed roster, and while his tactical preference for attacking play has been entertaining, it doesn't really help his team win games.
Vieira has made some concessions toward the defensive side of the game. Midfielder Mikey Lopez has replaced Mix Diskerud entirely due to his work rate, and both Pirlo and Thomas McNamara have been pushed into more attacking positions to make room for Federico Bravo, a natural anchor midfielder in NYCFC's 433. That hasn't turned the Pigeons into a rock-solid outfit by any means, and it's only been attempted at Yankee Stadium thus far, but it's at least some indicator that Vieira understands that his team can't rely on Villa to make up for their problems.
So it might have been better to host NYCFC a month ago, but they're still very vulnerable at the back. Goalkeeper Josh Saunders appears to have lost confidence with every passing game, right back has been a revolving door, and they may have the worst center back pairing in MLS at this point. Throw in Ronald Matarrita's attacking bent at left back and Pirlo's stationary style of play in the midfield, and United should be able to create a plethora of scoring chances.
Andrea, meet Marcelo
Shutting down a player like Pirlo is a team job, but if United can make sure that Marcelo Sarvas sets up in Pirlo's general region of the field - that is, playing the Brazilian as United's right-center midfielder - they can give the Italian legend a real match-up nightmare. Marcelo is relentless, aggressive, and active on both sides of the ball; Pirlo would prefer the game have as much of an abrasive edge as your average game of chess. Nick DeLeon and Patrick Nyarko will need to chip in on Pirlo, of course, but the more he sees of Marcelo the better things will be for the Black-and-Red.
Ask Villa to go do something else for the evening
It's going to be a nice night, and he might want to go out for a stroll on the Mall instead. Or, failing that...
Never lose track of Villa
David Villa is a dream Designated Player. He is desperate to win soccer games first and foremost, and is doing everything he can to save a team that, with even a slightly lesser striker, is arguably the worst team in the league. He was spectacular last week in their win over Vancouver, and he probably realizes that this team will only go as far as he can take them.
Villa's ability to escape markers only to pop up in space and on the ball makes him a very tough player to cope with. He embraces the value of playing quickly, employing accurate one-touch passing along with flicks and feints designed to free his teammates. Due to Villa's tendency to go left - he'd probably prefer to play out there rather than as a center forward - it is likely that Steve Birnbaum bears the largest share of responsibility for Villa today. However, the entire back four needs to be alert and connected throughout, as Villa can score from just about anywhere in the attacking third. Travis Worra's communication skills will be tested as well.
Left side lockdown
After Villa, McNamara is NYCFC's goal threat. He's a problem-solver between the lines who has shown plenty of invention, and he will look to play off of Villa whenever possible. Behind him, Pirlo plays the left-center midfield role now that Vieira has accepted that Bravo is a necessity in the deep role. On the back line, Matarrita will attack all day long.
In other words, NYCFC's attack largely revolves around their left side. Matarrita's relentless energy coming forward helps cover for Pirlo a bit, while McNamara's link with Villa naturally moves their attacking center of gravity that way as well. Nyarko and Sean Franklin are going to need to step up and deliver big games, but they'll have to do it in different ways.
For Nyarko, dealing with Matarrita is going to mean a heavy defensive workload. The former Alajuelense man has kept things fairly simple on the ball, but he's always charging forward as an option. He is the main source of width for this otherwise narrow team, and if Nyarko simply manages to take him off the table for 90 minutes he'll have played well.
Franklin, meanwhile, is going to be presented with more of a mental challenge. McNamara has shown an ability to beat people on the dribble, or with movement off the ball, or in passing combinations. That last category might be his weakest point of the three, but he's looking to combine with Villa (meaning a minor mistake can still be made up for by the Spaniard). Franklin needs to be very sharp to protect United's right flank, and he'll need to find the right balance between stepping up to use his athletic advantage to stifle McNamara and avoiding an overly aggressive stance (which would let NYCFC pull him out of position to attack the space behind him).