It’s been a few games since D.C. United faced a team with some major variables in their lineup, but that’s what they’ll be dealing with tonight against the Portland Timbers. Caleb Porter is dealing with incorporating new faces, numerous absences - especially in central midfield, where his team was already thin - and possibly looking at a formation change after spending most of the year in a 4231.
The idea behind Porter’s experiments with a 442 is to get an extra goal threat - in this case, Jack McInerney - on the field. Portland has not exactly struggled to score this year (they’re tied for seventh in goals scored league-wide), but from June 29th’s 1-0 loss to the Galaxy through the end of July they managed just 5 goals in 7 games. That run included being shut out four different times, and it’s hard to see Porter seeing that trend and failing to act.
Since giving a 442 a try, they’ve scored 5 goals in 2 games. From their perspective, that’s the good news. The bad news is that they struggled to break down CCL debutants CD Dragon, needing a stoppage time goal from Diego Valeri to win 2-1 at home, and their 3-0 win over Sporting Kansas City is a bit misleading from a tactical perspective due to both teams picking up first half red cards. The lesson United should take from that game isn’t so much about the Timbers playing 442, but rather is all about how PTFC can destroy a team by sitting deep and then playing on the counter.
It’s a distinct possibility that Porter will keep the 442, but to do so he’ll have to shuffle the deck. Diego Chara picked up a silly red card against KC, and while guys like Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, and Fanendo Adi get most of the attention with Portland, it has to be said that the Timbers aren’t a playoff team without a high-end defensive midfielder. The problem is exacerbated by Ben Zemanski almost certainly missing out due to a groin strain, leaving Porter with little option but to move a starter from somewhere else on the field into the middle to partner Jack Jewsbury (the last defensive mid standing on the Timbers roster). Here’s what it would look like:
Jake Gleeson stepped in when Adam Kwarasey was injured a couple of months ago, and has drawn raves about his performances. Kwarasey’s rights were sold to Norwegian side Rosenborg, and the New Zealander is now Portland’s #1. He has proven to be a flashy shot-stopper with no fear in the penalty area. However, lost in the hoopla over his undeniable knack for making difficult saves is the fact that his footwork and positioning have left him needing to make difficult saves in the first place.
Right back Alvas Powell left last week’s game with an injury, but all signs point to him being able to play tonight. In the 442, Powell’s willingness to get forward maintains a wide presence on the right, as Valeri will be moving into central positions on a regular basis. However, Powell’s positional defending remains raw - he’s still only 22 - and United should be looking to expose him. There should be a real emphasis on feeding Patrick Nyarko in this game as a result.
In central defense, Liam Ridgewell is considered probable after missing a little bit of time with a calf strain. That’s not great news for DC, as the English defender has been very good in MLS. With Nat Borchers out for the season, getting Ridgewell back means a lot for PTFC in terms of organization, defensive leadership, and the speed/quickness to make plays around the box. His partner will be either Jermaine Taylor - a decent enough MLS defender who is better at emergency defending than at diagnosing threats early - or Amobi Okugo. The former United trialist’s passing range seems to be what Portland was interested in, and the early signs are that they see him as a center back more than a defensive midfielder. However, he may be needed further forward tonight.
Left back Vytautas Andriuskevicius - mercifully, you can call him Vytas - is a very recent signing, and it’s hard to say too much about him at this point given that his Portland debut was last week. However, Porter really wants his fullbacks pushing into the attack, and having a true left-footer playing left back certainly helps. Vytas was playing in the Dutch top flight as recently as last year, so it stands to reason that he’s going to be at least decent. Still, this is likely the hottest weather he’ll have ever played in (I don’t think the heat index gets above 100 in Lithuania, Sweden, or the Netherlands), so United should make him work.
Jack Jewsbury is an experienced player in central midfield, but at 35 he has understandably slowed down quite a bit. This needs to be a point of emphasis for United. Luciano Acosta needs to get on the ball in spots where he can test Jewsbury’s lateral quickness as well as his ability to track a runner in transition. If United can force Portland to sacrifice in order to help Jewsbury out, they’re going to have an easier time all over the field as a result.
Jewsbury’s partner is a pretty big question mark. Portland could use Nagbe there, which would certainly help them in the speed department, but then they’ll have to field a less-than-ideal left midfielder in a system designed to bring both wide midfielders into central spots during attacking phases. Okugo has plenty of experience as a defensive midfielder, and Porter could also give Ned Grabavoy a game here.
Nagbe and Grabavoy are both capable of playing on the left, but if Nagbe is needed centrally I suspect Porter will choose the speedy Lucas Melano. On one hand, the threat of Melano just dusting everyone else on his side of the field can single-handedly change games, and it certainly would stretch a United team that would otherwise likely tilt towards crowding Valeri on the other side. On the other hand, Melano’s final product has left Timbers fans very frustrated all year long. He’s not the perfect fit for this alignment since he’s a very north-south player, but he is fast enough to cause Sean Franklin some real trouble. Jack Barmby is also an option, but Porter seems to prefer to use him as a substitute.
We’ve talked around Valeri being on the right, so let’s address it right now. People think of Valeri as a pure 10, so this might seem like an odd choice. However, Porter has probably fielded Valeri right of center - be it in a 4231, a 433, or in this 442 - over 10 times since the Argentine came to MLS from Lanus a few years ago. It hasn’t had a major impact on him, either, and Valeri should be in any intelligent discussion of this year’s MVP award. Containing him will require a very intelligent, alert performance from both United’s left-sided players and the spine of the team. If Nyarko and Taylor Kemp can muster up a consistent attacking threat, that will help push Valeri’s starting position out into a traditional right midfielder’s spot, which would certainly help.
Up top, Adi is comfortably on course to top 15 goals for the second straight year. He may occasionally glance towards a larger European payday, but for now he’s still here and still engaged. That means dealing with probably the best target man in MLS. Adi is a huge problem when he’s posting up on defenders because he has soft feet, the quickness to turn and go for goal, and the soccer IQ to know when to pass instead. Portland used to see long balls as unpalatable, but these days they have no problem playing into the big man and looking to run off of him. Given United’s struggles with CJ Sapong earlier this year, this is a real concern.
Partnering him will be McInerney, who has been a real thorn in United’s side regardless of whether he’s playing for Philly, Montreal, or Columbus (remember that 5-0 loss to the Crew last year?). Jack Mac is a clinical finisher who stays busy off the ball, and he has learned how to play more quickly to make up for his lack of size or any special athletic gifts. McInerney also plays every game like he’s been personally insulted, and will try to get under the skin of anyone that gets near him. United has to remain composed, as a red card in today’s heat is likely going to be a disaster.
Let's talk briefly about the 4231, which remains in the mix:
In this instance, Portland will use Melano as their second man into the box, while Powell’s runs from deep won’t be quite so critical. The key here would be United’s central midfield making the game as difficult as possible on Valeri, who will have good options to play triangles with Nagbe and Barmby/Grabavoy.
Off the bench, I would expect to see Barmby get into this one on the left wing regardless of formation. If Melano isn’t starting, he’ll come on as well (and he’ll be a big threat if Portland is protecting a lead). Grabavoy hasn’t played much, but Portland is short enough in the midfield that he might get involved as well. New arrivals like Steven Taylor - who played for Timbers 2 in an effort to build his fitness - and Gbenga Arokoyo most likely didn’t make the trip due to their both having signed during the European offseason. Darren Mattocks is listed as questionable, and if he’s healthy we could see him make an appearance here (either up top or on the left flank).