This might not be the best time for D.C. United to cross the continent for a game against the Vancouver Whitecaps. After starting the season with just four points from five games, they’ve won four out of their last six games (despite having a four-game road swing bundled into that stretch). While they’ve only got one win over a truly good team - and even that came against a Sporting KC side that started with Dom Dwyer, Benny Feilhaber, and Ike Opara all on the bench - they’re certainly getting the job done against middling or lesser teams.
After struggling in the 4231 Carl Robinson has largely preferred throughout his tenure, the Whitecaps made a change, inverting their central midfield triangle and moving into a 4141. More notably, they also installed a more defensively solid group of players in those roles. Out went the revolving door of trying players as true #10s who were either not particularly special talents or just not players suited to the role, and in came the somewhat recently acquired Tony Tchani, joining pure #6 Matias Laba and defense-first box-to-box midfielder Andrew Jacobson.
It’s not the most adventurous look, but it has meant that Vancouver are very difficult to break down through the middle, and a team with two center backs (Kendall Waston and Tim Parker) who excel in the air can afford to force teams wide and defend a lot of crosses. It’s also notable that while there’s no real creative force for them centrally, all three players are good at keeping the ball, and both Jacobson and Tchani have had success swinging the ball wide for their wingers.
Of course, they won’t be able to make use of that set-up tonight. Laba picked up a silly yellow card very late against KC, getting himself suspended in the process, and there is no like-for-like player on their roster that Robinson will give those minutes to (sorry, Ben McKendry). Even though Laba has never turned out to be the Osvaldo Alonso-level player he threatened to be on arrival in MLS, he’s still a strong anchor midfielder who breaks up a ton.
Jacobson will slot back into Laba’s spot, but that just means filling a different spot. It leaves the Whitecaps with a lot to sort out:
Let’s start with the simple stuff. David Ousted is the undisputed #1 for VWFC. He hasn’t been at the level of his 2015 season for a while, though, and there remains the chance that he could come off his line for something that he has no chance of grabbing. That said, he has the quickness to make the spectacular save, and he’s really strong in one-on-one situations.
Right back Sheanon Williams was a much-needed offseason acquisition, but initially struggled. Rookie Jacob Nerwinski was Robinson’s first choice in March, but since mid-April the former Union and Dynamo fullback has held the job down. Williams is fast and physical, and plenty willing to get forward (which in turn allows Cristian Techera room to slash inside). On the other hand, Williams can often be baited into some over-exuberant choices, be it rash tackles or stepping out of a smart position.
On the left, Jordan Harvey will tirelessly get himself forward into the attack. Harvey isn’t the most technically gifted player, but he’s always willing to support the attack and can even be a modest goal-scoring threat from open play. However, that attacking tendency also leaves space in behind, and at 33 his recovery speed is not where it once was.
Center backs Waston and Parker are known for their aerial ability, and for good reason. However, neither one is the stereotypical good in the air/slow on the ground type. If anything, both players suffer from occasionally wanting to be too mobile; there are times where patience betrays this duo, and Waston is always a threat to get himself sent off. However, the Whitecaps are one of MLS’s better set piece teams going forward, and Parker scored on a glancing header from a free kick just last week.
Jacobson - a United draft pick from way back when - has plenty of experience in a deep-lying midfield role. However, he’s not as mobile as Laba, and doesn’t get the ball off his feet as quickly as the Argentine. While his range of passing is arguably better, and he brings more size and a better long-range shot, this might be good news for United. Luciano Acosta and/or Julian Buescher are active and quick enough to be able to escape Jacobson in zone 14.
Out on the right, Cristian Techera has fought his way back into the lineup after a poor 2016 (2 goals and 2 assists in 29 appearances, down from 7 and 5 in 2015). While Techera is often one of the first players subbed off by Robinson, United needs to be aware of the pint-sized winger’s ability to be effective both out along the touchline and slashing inside. His goal last week came from just such a play, as he collected a chest trap from Christian Bolaños, who was also moving inside from the opposite wing at the time.
This weekend, though, the left wing position is probably going to be played by someone else. All of Robinson’s options were busy with Tuesday night’s Voyageurs Cup game, but Alphonso Davies - who scored in that win over Montreal - seems to be the most likely solution. Davies, despite being just 17, is a very direct and confident winger whose speed and power could be a real problem. However, if he’s forced to play at a slower pace, his lack of experience can show in terms of problem-solving on the ball.
Davies is by no means a lock. Robinson could also start Brek Shea, whose straight-line, blunt object kind of game can be both a gift and a curse, or keep Bolaños wide and start Nicolas Mezquida or Russell Teibert centrally. However, it’s worth noting that Robinson’s first sub of a given game usually involves moving Bolaños inside anyway, so that preference is probably an indicator of what’s coming tonight.
Bolaños has continued to be a factor despite turning 33 earlier this month. The Costa Rica national team veteran plays the game with his brain, a much needed contrast to a Whitecaps team that is more athletic than clever in a lot of positions. Bolaños has been very good this year drifting inside from the left to set others up, but he will probably be in the middle tonight. That’s not a big let-off for United, as he’s still got the skill and the soccer IQ to unlock defenses. Bolaños doesn’t play with a ton of flash; rather, he excels at setting himself up to make simple but effective plays.
The other central role will go to Tony Tchani. The former Columbus Crew #8 came to Vancouver in the deal that sent Kekuta Manneh to Ohio, and while we haven’t seen the return of the form that helped the Crew to the 2015 MLS Cup final, Tchani is still a force to be reckoned with when he’s on his game. That’s been the problem with him forever, though: he’s not consistently on his game. If United can rattle Tchani early, he’s vulnerable to getting distracted, and when he checks out he really can become anonymous.
Up front, Fredy Montero stormed out of the gates on his return to MLS. Four goals and one assist in seven games is a good start with any new club, and Montero managed it despite only starting four of those games as he built up his fitness following a move from Chinese club Tianjin TEDA. However, his influence has waned lately, with no goals or assists in Vancouver’s last four games (and in the first three of that set, he didn’t have a single shot on goal).
Montero may not be among the Golden Boot frontrunners right now, but he’s still making himself a factor. His first touch and quick feet allow him to hold the ball up even as he’s giving away quite a bit when it comes to strength and size, and his movement helps players coming up from the midfield find big openings. United should not underestimate the former Seattle Sounder, whether or not he seems to be in a bit of a slump in front of goal.
Robinson’s first sub will most likely be Shea (or Davies, if he’s not starting) on the wing, though he could also play up front as an unconventional forward. Mezquida will also get some significant minutes, and the Uruguayan could be a boost up the middle if the starters haven’t broken through. Teibert is also an option, though as ever, Robinson seems indifferent to the Canadian international.