D.C. United took their first tentative steps - in the form of a “just good enough” win over Philadelphia - towards having a good 2017 last week, but facing NYCFC today will be a far more demanding challenge. New York City FC boasts one of MLS’s best attacks in terms of talent, depth, and a willingness to bet they can simply outscore opponents. This is not a team that comes to your place and sits in hoping for a 0-0 draw.
Patrick Vieira will likely realize that United won’t be such a mess in transition this time around, but that won’t really affect his plans. The Pigeons play their style and let you adjust to them, rather than the other way around. That means United will be facing the same 433 that they weren’t prepared for a month ago (after NYCFC had played 4231 in their opener), and it means the same number of players bursting forward into the attack:
Sean Johnson hasn’t produced a major gaffe for NYCFC yet, but that just means he’s due for one soon. Several teams have come very close to forcing him into a blocked clearance or giveaway with the ball at his feet. Since United should be high-pressing the Pigeons throughout, they should be looking to funnel play towards Johnson for that sort of error. Even if he doesn’t clear the ball directly to a waiting Black-and-Red player, errant clearances out of bounds will be D.C. throw-ins, and aimless long balls upfield are not what the Pigeons want to do.
Ethan White was a surprise starter against United last month, and since then has been ever-present at right back. That’s something of a surprise for DCU fans, who have seen White look a bit uncomfortable with that role in the past. However, NYCFC sends so many numbers forward that a stay-at-home right back who can also comfortably play out of a back three (which NYCFC sometimes has to use if Ronald Matarrita is caught forward after a turnover) that it has worked thus far. Still, look for Ben Olsen to try and funnel play towards Patrick Nyarko tonight.
In central defense, Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens have continued to hold off Frederic Brillant. While both have seemed largely steady, the San Jose Earthquakes managed to make them pretty uncomfortable in the early going last week by pressing high and being physical. While the Quakes didn’t have much to offer beyond that, it’s something United can adapt via feisty attackers like Jose Ortiz and Luciano Acosta.
Matarrita will overlap constantly from left back, adding width to the NYCFC attack. Matarrita is one of MLS’s most attack-minded fullbacks; last week, after starting the move that ended with Tommy McNamara’s game-winning goal, he ended up popping up inside the San Jose box to get the assist as well. The risk here, of course, is that this leaves tons of space in behind, and if United can make that more of a factor than his attacking play, they’ll be on the right path.
Andrea Pirlo was in for some criticism last week for his completely unhelpful efforts defensively on San Jose’s first goal. With the personnel available around him and Patrick Vieira’s gameplan based around attacking risks and vulnerable to high pressure, the case can be made that the Italian legend is a liability. This time around, United needs to be in his face early when defending; last time out, they were not expecting a 433 with him in the deepest role, and no one seemed sure when to step to him.
To his right, Alexander Ring has turned out to be a pretty good signing. The Finland national team midfielder works extremely hard on both sides of the ball, providing bite and power to a team that would be rather soft without him. To the left, Maxi Moralez’s movement off the ball has troubled most teams, none more than United. Being prepared to track back against these two is key, because they will try to overload the defense otherwise. Plus, if you stop NYCFC when these two have jumped forward, you have a ton of space to attack Pirlo.
Out on the right, youngster Jack Harrison has seized his starting spot. Between his pure speed, his dribbling trickery, and his tendency to go right at defenders, he’s a good foil for David Villa and Rodney Wallace. Harrison forces teams to defend out to the touchline, but he can also slash inside to be a threat in front of goal. Taylor Kemp is going to have to have a big game, but the players around him will need to chip in as well to contain the Englishman.
Speaking of Villa, what more can we say about the best non-Giovinco player in MLS? His movement off the ball is second to none, he’s the best finisher in the league, and when you post him up, he’s still got a wide range of flicks to create for others (like he did for Harrison last week). Villa is a nightmare for defenders at the best of times, so at the very least United’s back four needs to be far better than they were at Yankee Stadium.
Wallace has proven to be an excellent acquisition already. The former United man’s career took off when he started being deployed as a goal-scoring, havoc-causing winger, and that’s exactly what Vieira is using him for these days. Wallace has 2 goals this season, and he’s causing tons of problems by getting into the area and making the runs that a second forward would. On top of that, his physical play and bravery often catch defenders off-guard.
Coming off the bench, NYCFC has significant weapons. McNamara replaced Pirlo last week in a go-for-broke attacking move that paid off almost immediately. He can play on either wing or in either of the two non-Pirlo roles in midfield, so you can bank on him entering the game. McNamara’s movement, creativity, and long-range shooting are all major problems to deal with, and if the Pigeons are trailing, you can be sure he’ll come in for Pirlo or Ring rather than another attacker. Vieira doesn’t have any fear of being blown out, and will take big risks defensively to get a draw or win.
Khiry Shelton is another player to worry about. At 6’3” but possessing game-changing speed, Shelton has been a real problem for United since he came into the league. Most likely, Vieira will use him as a target winger on the right side, but his tactical flexibility means we could also see him play as a second striker, with NYCFC moving into a 334. Yes, 334, not 433. Like I said, Vieira is fearless.
In the midfield, if Vieira is looking to shore things up, he could go with Yangel Herrera (a 19 year old with caps for Venezuela who is on loan from Manchester City) in the midfield for Pirlo or Moralez. There’s also the distinct possibility in the late-going that, should NYCFC be protecting a lead, they could switch to a back five. That would mean bringing in Frederic Brillant as a third center back, or possibly RJ Allen coming in at right back and shifting White inside.