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Opposition 11: Who will the New York Red Bulls start against D.C. United?

Suspensions have left NYRB short-handed on the wings

Heading into D.C. United’s game against the New York Red Bulls, there are plenty of angles to discuss. Since United last played, both Orlando City and the New England Revolution have won games (the Revs, shockingly, have done so twice). United has slipped to eight place as a result, and now face a team that hasn’t lost in ten outings. The Red Bulls, with a win, will have the best home record in MLS. Oh, and United will have to do it without Luciano Acosta, whose replacement is unclear.

The Red Bulls have issues of their own, though. Starting wingers Mike Grella and Alex Muyl both got yellow cards last week in Vancouver, getting themselves yellow card accumulation suspension. NYRB is not a particularly deep team on the wings; recent signing Daniel Royer replaced Lloyd Sam (now wearing Black-and-Red), bringing the number of true wide players available on the roster up to three. If Marsch is going to stick with the 4231 that has worked very well for two full seasons, he’s going to have to finagle a decent showing out of someone playing opposite of Royer.

His other option is to once again attempt to play some sort of 442, with the options being the 4222 (a box midfield, basically) or a more customary 442 in which the wide men pinch inside often to help press. Marsch has been trying to make the 4222 work all year, but he’s had about as much success as Gretchen Weiners trying to make "fetch" happen.

Here’s how the 4231 would look:

Luis Robles was carrying an injury recently that endangered his consecutive games played streak (he’s nearing four full years on that front), but if his knee was able to get through playing on turf in Vancouver, he’ll probably be starting on grass, at home, against his side’s top rival. Judging from his mobility in Vancouver, it seems like he’ll be able to play up to his normal level in this one.

Chris Duvall seems to have decisively won the right back job at this point. Last week, with Kemar Lawrence unavailable due to Jamaican national team duty, it seemed more likely that Duvall - who is in many ways NYRB’s answer to Chris Korb - would switch wings, leaving a hole that Sal Zizzo would fill. Instead, Zizzo was on the left for an evening, and that job will go back to Lawrence for this afternoon’s game.

In central defense, Ronald Zubar and Aurelien Collin have established a physical, aggressive partnership. That’s something United could exploit, as both players are better stepping up to make tackles than they are at being patient and blocking passing lanes. We’ll also have to monitor what kind of mood referee Jair Marrufo is in, as we’ve seen both of these players get away with red card offenses against United over the years. If the match is officiated more strictly, these are two of the most likely players to get their marching orders on either side.

Dax McCarty returned from a tibia fracture last week, playing 76 minutes and seeming to be more or less at full fitness. However, there was a bit of rust in his play (though that could perhaps be attributed to the turf and the fact that their game against the Whitecaps was simply not a good exhibition of soccer across the board). He’ll be fired up for this one as always, though, and it would be a surprise to see anything but a full 90 minute performance from McCarty.

Felipe - B&RU’s least favorite player for the second year running! - spent last week playing higher up the field, in the role people expected him to play when Sacha Kljestan arrived. However, with Kljestan back from USMNT duty, he’ll slide back to the #8 role he’s been very effective in all season long. Kljestan, meanwhile, is an MVP candidate as NYRB’s attacking midfielder thanks to his league-leading 15 assists, and his set piece delivery is a major, major threat in this one.

That brings us to the wings. Royer seems very likely to start, but it’s hard to say which side he’ll be on. His rep coming over from Denmark was that he plays more on the left than the right, but sure enough last week he came in on the right for Muyl. He could show up on either flank today.

That isn’t really a big quandary for Marsch, though; he knows Royer is a true winger, and brought him in to fight with Grella and Muyl for a starting role. It’s filling the other side that will pose a problem today. Gonzalo Veron has very consistently appeared more comfortable as a forward, and has only rarely appeared compatible with his teammates or NYRB’s style. Shaun Wright-Phillips made his name in England as a very traditional right winger, but at 34 his speed is gone, and on the rare occasions he’s played for the Red Bulls (he has just 121 minutes played in 2016), he’s spent time in the middle instead. Homegrown player Derrick Etienne is another option on the right, but he also is probably more comfortable in the middle.

However, maybe the most likely scenario is to give the job to Zizzo, who spent most of his career as a right winger. Zizzo can be pretty one-note going forward - he’s a "go down wing, cross ball, repeat" wide man - but his defensive workrate matches pretty well with what the Red Bulls require from their right winger. Muyl has been successful despite not exactly being an elegant or particularly clever player by simply working hard, showing persistence, and avoiding dumb mistakes. Zizzo is capable of doing that sort of thing.

Up top at least, the Red Bulls have no reason to worry. Bradley Wright-Phillips is tied with David Villa for the MLS lead in goals scored, which is all the more remarkable considering that he was scoreless after the first seven games of the season. Since then, he has 17 goals in 21 games, including goals in four straight and eight goals in NYRB’s last seven matches. BWP’s movement off the ball has troubled just about everyone in MLS this year, and right now he’s burying his first big chance seemingly every week. That’s not good news.

If Marsch opts for the 4222, this is what it’ll probably look like:

The same back four and defensive midfielders will be in place, with Kljestan moving to the left and...well, someone playing as a right-center attacking midfielder. This would make room for Omer Damari, an Israeli international who has looked far more dangerous than Veron since coming over from RB Leipzig on loan (that is, being transferred from his company’s Leipzig office to their Harrison, NJ branch). Damari is most comfortable playing underneath, which dovetails nicely with Wright-Phillips leading the line.

In a more normal 442, Kljestan would again be the left midfielder, and the right side is more straight-forward: Royer would be the clear top choice, though we could perhaps see those two switch sides. Zizzo would also be in the running, but it seems like Marsch would prefer more of an outside-in approach than he could bring.

Off the bench, Damari and Veron seem bound to come on at some point. Marsch may move to 4222, or he may pull BWP for Damari if the Red Bulls have a lead. Veron, meanwhile, will keep being pushed into the lineup because of the multi-million dollar investment the "blue-collar" Red Bulls (haha...ah, it’s still funny) made in him. After that, it’s a bit hard to say who else might come in. Sean Davis did quite well standing in for McCarty during the veteran’s injury, but Marsch generally would rather not make a central midfield change unless he has to (or unless he thinks the game is more or less won already). It’s entirely possible that Damari and Veron are the only two players who come on.