Most of the talk surrounding D.C. United this week has surrounded injuries. The Black-and-Red will face the New England Revolution without Steve Birnbaum and Patrick Nyarko, and most likely Nick DeLeon as well. However, we shouldn’t lose focus of the fact that this is a big game for two teams out of the playoff spots right now, and in search of something resembling forward momentum.
United’s injuries will force changes to the lineup, but Ben Olsen has the more simple job tomorrow. United has two starters definitively out, and with DeLeon apparently needing “hernia symptoms” to clear up, it’s not too hard to figure out that he should rest rather than play on New England’s turf.
Jay Heaps and the Revs, on the other hand, are facing their third game in a week. The first of those game, a 3-0 road loss, involved playing 63 minutes while down a man. The second was a surprisingly up-tempo 0-0 home draw with San Jose. Five first choice Revolution players have played all 180 minutes in those two games, and even when you note that one of them is goalkeeper Cody Cropper, that’s a major issue.
Still, Heaps made moves to rest a few players on Wednesday night, and regardless of how much rotation is required, they’ll be playing the 442 diamond that started to work well for them last year.
In goal, Cody Cropper has finally given the Revs what looks like a long-term solution in goal. He’s shown a knack for producing at least one top-notch save a game, and has very quick feet (which allow for kick-saves, and more importantly mean he’s usually able to get set and then burst towards the ball). If Cropper has an issue right now, it’s likely going to be dealing with traffic on crosses.
Andrew Farrell is one of the players to have 180 minutes on his legs this week, but frankly the Revs probably have to turn to him again. They could also use London Woodberry out here, but Woodberry has been hit or miss when used wide. Longtime New England utility defender Darrius Barnes signed with the New York Cosmos in the offseason, reducing their options at right back. Kelyn Rowe might have come up in this discussion, but he is probably closer to starting in one of four other positions.
The Revolution made a big deal about signing two TAM-level center backs in the offseason. Benjamin Angoua, with years playing in Ligue 1, seemed to be the prize, while Antonio Delamea (at 25 years old, but with no higher-level experience than the Slovenian league) was the potential investment for the future. As an afterthought, they picked up Joshua Smith in the 4th round of the draft.
As it turns out, Delamea has been the steadiest of the bunch, while Smith used some preseason injuries to others to make a great case for himself. Angoua has failed to settle, though he did look a bit better on Wednesday than he has in previous outings. If Heaps opts for Smith, he’ll be adding the best aerial presence on the Revs not named Kei Kamara. Angoua is a bit more comfortable defending when the ball is on the ground. In either case, Delamea is the leader of the bunch and will take charge organizing.
Left back has been a major issue for this year’s Revs. Chris Tierney, after years of unquestionably holding the job, was yanked early a few weeks ago, and Heaps cited performance as the reason. The door was open for Je-Vaughn Watson, but the Jamaican veteran is probably not too popular with his teammates or coaches after foolishly getting sent off early last Saturday.
With Rowe also getting a start at left back recently, this position could end up going to any of those three players. Tierney is the best crosser and positional defender, but as ever can be exposed with speed. Watson is the fastest and most physical, but he’s a utility man rather than a natural left back. Rowe is an attacking midfielder, so if Heaps takes that risk, United should do whatever they can to feed Lloyd Sam as often as possible.
At the base of the diamond, Xavier Kouassi - who was signed ahead of the 2016 season, only to miss the whole year with an ACL tear suffered literally days after the Revs acquired him - only played 12 minutes mid-week, so he’ll be good to go here. While not quite as explosive or technically gifted as Gershon Koffie (the man he eventually replaced), Kouassi seems like a calmer presence who allows the rest of the diamond to flourish.
Scott Caldwell has done well enough playing the right-sided shuttler’s role. It makes sense: he’s always been fluent in possession, and he understands how to cycle back and help Kouassi when needed (allowing a more attacking option on the other side). However, against Chicago last weekend, he was used on the left side, so it’s still not a settled issue.
The other problem here is that Caldwell and Rowe - the two best options for the right side - are both on the list as having played 180 minutes this week. It’s essentially a toss-up as to who will play on the right. Caldwell is the more defensive option, while Rowe would be a signal that the Revs are going to take big risks to try and get themselves an early lead. If Heaps is worried about pushing both players too hard, he could turn to Daigo Kobayashi, who is steady enough but lacks Rowe’s attacking qualities and Caldwell’s mobility.
On the left side, Fagundez has only played 128 minutes in the two New England matches this week, so he’s probably going to start. Despite thriving statistically as a winger in the Revolution’s past 4231 and 4141 set-ups, the diamond may be getting the most out of the Uruguayan-born homegrown player. Fagundez’s touch in traffic, his movement, and his ability to add some drive to the Revs’ attack really works in this role, even if he’s probably not going to have a 13 goal/7 assist season like he did in 2013.
As always, Lee Nguyen is a major worry. After starting the season as a second forward, while Juan Agudelo played as an unconventional #10 who would run in from deep, Nguyen is now in his natural role as an attacking midfielder. Allowing him time and space to operate between the lines - something the diamond almost forces teams to do, as Matt Doyle outlines here - is a recipe for shipping goals. If United is going to get a result tomorrow, they most likely need to make Nguyen’s day miserable. That’s a stern test for what will be a makeshift center back/defensive midfield triangle.
Up front, Agudelo and Kamara have been fairly dangerous (though perhaps not as difficult to cope with as their reputations would indicate). They’ve combined for 5 goals, all of which have come at Gillette Stadium. Kamara is going to be difficult for United to deal with through the air without Steve Birnbaum, while Agudelo’s movement looks sharper this season than in years past.
As far as subs go, if Rowe doesn’t start, you can bank on him entering the game...somewhere. It could be at right or left back if the Revs are trailing. It could be at the #10 spot - with Nguyen moving forward - in nearly any scenario. It could be on either side of midfield. He’s been playing 2-3 positions per game for a while now, so he should be prepared to make an impact regardless of the role Heaps ends up giving him.
Teal Bunbury has subbed into nearly every Revs game this season, and will almost certainly do so again (in place of one of the strikers). He can’t be happy with the current situation, as he’s put together just 79 minutes of playing time in six appearances this year, but in those minutes he’s still managed to produce 5 shots. He’s not just coming in to kill games off.
Kobayashi is also an option. Normally he’d be preferred if Heaps wants to build more possession and slow the game down, but with the fixture congestion, he might have to play real minute on the right side of midfield no matter the scoreline.
Finally, United should be aware of the possibility of livewire attacker Femi Hollinger-Janzen coming in up front. He’s not necessarily the smoothest player, but he’s full of energy and seems to always make things happen for New England when he gets the chance to step onto the field.