A couple of weekends ago, D.C. United had to ask Jared Jeffrey to play the full 90 minutes in Houston just three days after he played 120 minutes in an Open Cup game. Getting through that second game without being a liability was an impressive feat, as sports science has illustrated that soccer players need one more day of rest than that to play at their normal level following a normal 90 minute game. It showed that Jeffrey has the toughness to fight through fatigue, the discipline off the field to take proper care of himself, and the smarts on the field to avoid running himself to a pulp early in the game.
Tonight, Real Salt Lake could possibly be asking multiple players to do the same thing. RSL sent their best available eleven out for Tuesday night’s Open Cup round of 16 match against Seattle, and that game ended up requiring penalty kicks. Jeff Cassar only made two substitutions, and one of those came in the 119th minute. On top of that, Jordan Allen - RSL’s first man off the bench in most situations - came into the game in the 72nd minute but pulled his hamstring, making him questionable for tonight’s game.
That leaves Cassar with some difficult decisions to make. Last weekend, he started as many second-choice players as he could against FC Dallas in an effort to stay fresh for the Cup. The only recent starters to play in that game were Luke Mulholland and Chris Wingert, and both players have not been every-day starters for the whole season. Mulholland is in the lineup due to Sunny Obayan suffering facial fractures from a recent collision, while Wingert has often rotated with Demar Phillips at left back.
Dallas won a fairly straightforward 2-0 game against the team RSL sent out that night, and Real can’t feel all that comfortable. Sure, they’re 5 points off the Supporters Shield pace being set by the Colorado Rapids (take a second to digest that fact), but they’re also only 5 points from being outside the playoff picture in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. Punting on a league match to emphasize the Open Cup is a bold move, but doing it again might come with a steep price tag.
Predicting their lineup accurately would likely require access to Cassar’s office and notes, and I can confirm to our readers that I have not left the state of Maryland since Tuesday night. My only time in Utah was actually above Utah, flying west. In other words, this is going to be guesswork:
Let’s start with an easy one. Nick Rimando didn’t play Tuesday - Cassar wanted Jeff Attinella to play throughout their Cup run - and in any case, goalkeepers generally don’t need to be rested at the same rate field players require. We all know what this means: The best goalkeeper in MLS not named Bill Hamid standing between the posts. United needs to pay particular attention to Rimando’s distribution, as his ability to pick out runners on the other side of midfield can be a big problem for teams caught upfield. That’s a front-to-back issue: The back four needs to be ready before he’s even got the ball, while attacking players will need to be alert enough to prevent a quick punt upfield.
At right back, I suspect that Tony Beltran will be one of the Open Cup starters asked to gut out another game. Beltran is a pretty durable player, and RSL’s other right back (Boyd Okwuonu) has been given a grand total of 208 minutes in MLS play since being drafted last year. For differing reasons - Beltran’s heavy legs or Okwuonu’s inexperience - United will want to attack this side no matter who starts.
In central defense, I think we’ll probably see the normal starting duo. That means Justen Glad will pair with Aaron Maund. Where’s Jamison Olave? He has been phased out after his younger competitors for time pretty decisively won the job. Glad, at just 19, looks like a player that belongs in the long-term USMNT discussion. However, he does occasionally show poor judgment, which...I mean, he’s 19. Didn’t we all?
Maund, meanwhile, has come a long way since TFC basically gave up on him a year after taking him in the first round of 2012’s SuperDraft. As a duo, both are good in the air while being mobile (not outright fast like Olave used to be, but still not slow) on the ground. If United is going to find a gap, it will likely come with Glad being too aggressive in stepping forward or out wide to snuff out a play. Should either player need a rest, Olave is the next man up, while youngster Phanuel Kavita would get a start if Cassar goes full B team.
Wingert will start at left back after playing all of one minute Tuesday. The 34 year old has done well enough to make 10 starts this season, but the reality is that he can be exposed for a lack of speed. However, since he was never that fast to begin with, Wingert is at least used to this problem and uses his soccer IQ to cover for it whenever possible. Still, the Black-and-Red should be looking to pick Lamar Neagle out on the run whenever possible.
Normally, RSL’s central midfield involves starting two players whose combined age is 70, but it seems unlikely to me that Cassar would ask Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman to start after going 120 mid-week. With Sunny definitely unavailable, that leaves a pretty bare cupboard as far as this part of the roster goes. Former University of Maryland midfielder John Stertzer has served as Beckerman’s understudy for a while now, and I don’t think RSL will have any qualms about starting him.
Replacing Morales is a bit more complicated due to the lack of an obvious replacement. Allen has been used in that role before, but it’s not clear that he can play at all tonight. Mulholland has also stepped in for Morales, and is probably the favorite here despite playing 67 minutes last weekend and 72 minutes on Tuesday. However, you can never rule Morales out, and I would not be surprised if he entered this game as a sub if RSL needs a goal.
The issue with moving Mulholland further forward is that he’s been filling in for Sunny in a holding role. If Beckerman and Morales both have to rest and Allen’s hamstring stops him from playing, RSL will have to send out Omar Holness. The UNC product was linked with United before the draft by a few pundits, but made news more recently after having a seizure during a game with Real’s USL affiliate. That situation fortunately cleared up without any long-term concerns, but at this point Holness looks very raw at the MLS level.
On the right wing, Juan Manuel Martinez (you can call him Burrito) has been first-choice all season. However, at 30 it seems like he might be used as a substitute in this one due to his Open Cup exertions. That’s good news, because Martinez is arguably MLS’s best dribbler (not to mention his 5 goals on the season). Due to Allen’s injury, Olmes Garcia would be the first option to replace him. Garcia is also a threat with the ball at his feet and when running in behind, but his decision-making remains a work in progress.
Yura Movsisyan is among the players that seem more likely to be asked to bounce back and play tonight. The powerfully built Armenian international struggled at the start of his return to MLS, but has scored in each of his last three appearances (as well as having a goal in four consecutive starts). He’s not necessarily the most clinical finisher, but works very hard and makes smart enough runs that he guarantees himself multiple looks per game. If Movsisyan is rested, Devon Sandoval - who works even harder but often looks to sacrifice his own looks to set up others - would step in.
Out on the left, Joao Plata has been very good in 2016. If he has recovered from the Cup, he’ll be a player United has to focus on. Plata’s mix of trickery on the ball and creativity can unsettle any defense in MLS, and he helps balance out RSL’s attack (both wide starters have 5 goals on the year, while Movsisyan has 6). Plata is more likely to start than Martinez because the options to replace him are Martinez himself or Allen.
Off the bench, pretty much every single player I mentioned as a player that will likely be rested should be available. It would not surprise me at all to see Morales and Martinez brought in if United is holding onto a lead, while Beckerman would probably enter if the home team is looking to close up shop. Should Cassar go with a lineup full of players that played in the Open Cup, don't be surprised if we see early subs for players in their 30s.