Much like their last outing, D.C. United is facing a team with a more or less settled lineup today. Real Salt Lake’s midfield is written in ink on the team sheet at this point, as is goalkeeper Nick Rimando. A slew of defensive injuries has not helped RSL, but it at least brings clarity to the back four. And up top, a homegrown attacker has taken over as the starting forward.
RSL often lists their lineup as a 433, but in practice Mike Petke’s group plays in a standard 4231 formation. There is little reason to expect anything to change on that front, and even last week’s late-game subs attempting to get them back from a two-goal deficit stayed within the 4231 framework, with crafty midfielder Bofo Saucedo playing what I’d call “left back” rather than left back.
Here’s what to expect at kickoff tonight:
In goal, former United goalkeeper Rimando keeps on keepin’ on. He’s still the best in the league on penalty kicks, and he doesn’t appear to have lost much in the way of quickness or leaping ability. United also needs to be alert with regards to his distribution, which is outstanding. If Rimando wants to throw or kick in a hurry, it’s probably because he’s spotted a big ol’ gap in the D.C. defense.
RSL is missing a ton of defenders. Tony Beltran is probably going to miss the whole season, while Demar Phillips and Shawn Barry are also out. Jordan Allen, who can play several positions including right back, is out long-term. That leaves them with Brooks Lennon, a 20-year-old winger, playing right back, and central midfielder Pablo Ruiz (19) playing left back. When you consider their ages and experience at their new positions, they’ve done a decent job, but those are huge qualifiers. United should be able to find some success attacking both flanks, and in particular should make a concerted effort to feed Yamil Asad.
At center back, David Horst was a late upgrade to questionable, but he’s been out for weeks and doesn’t really make sense against United’s attack. Horst is the kind of center back you used to see in the 90s: big, tough, good in the air, and slow as molasses. The issue for Petke is that if he doesn’t start Horst, he’ll have to pair Justen Glad (a future USMNT prospect) with Nick Besler, who is yet another convert from midfield. Unlike his older brother Matt, Besler is a holding midfielder, and he’s not particularly strong, or fast, or able to jump high enough to compete with United’s strikers. Ben Olsen will probably have Darren Mattocks lining up against the non-Glad starter, regardless of who that ends up being.
Kyle Beckerman got a new midfield partner this season in Damir Kreilach, who before coming to Utah was a beloved box-to-box midfielder for Union Berlin in the 2.Bundesliga. The idea of adding a mobile, physical, goal-scoring central midfielder alongside Beckerman makes sense on paper, but the partnership hasn’t borne immediate fruit. Mostly, it’s down to having a positional understanding between the two, as they have left a few too many pockets for opposing teams to play through (or in). That said, they’re both strong and willing to get stuck in, so United needs to be up for a battle in that zone. Luciano Acosta needs to keep his head, because you can be sure he’s going to be on the wrong side of a few tough tackles.
The real strength of this RSL team is in the attacking midfield trio. Jefferson Savarino, Albert Rusnak, and Joao Plata are all gifted technically, creative, and compatible. All three can beat their man on the dribble, all three have a good eye for a pass, and both Rusnak and Plata have shown the ability to strike from distance. United’s collective defending has to limit their space and prevent breakouts following D.C. turnovers, because this is one of the most dangerous trios in MLS. In particular, Nick DeLeon needs to avoid being isolated against Plata, and Ulises Segura will need to be excellent in supporting Chris Durkin so that Rusnak can’t work his magic.
Up top, homegrown winger/forward Corey Baird has surprisingly pushed ahead of RSL’s group of forwards. The plan was to start off with Luis Silva up top and let Spanish acquisition Alfredo Ortuño get acclimated, but the latter has simply not looked comfortable in MLS at this point. Silva, meanwhile, plays as a false 9, drifting off the front line looking for space and combinations, but that might not be the best style of play to pair with RSL’s midfield.
As such, Baird — previously seen as a speedy left winger for the most part — has gotten a chance instead. Baird loves to run the channels and is always looking to stretch the defense vertically. He’s a bit one-note as a forward, but with Rusnak, Savarino, and Plata all looking to play through balls, it’s still a pretty dangerous look for RSL. Last week, with just a bit more precision, Baird might have had a hat trick at Orlando, all after breaking in alone behind the Lions back four. If United gets caught flat and unprepared, they’re going to be giving up similar chances. If they can be solid in the midfield, though, Baird becomes more predictable and RSL’s chances will dry up.
When Petke turns to his bench, Silva is certainly one of the players to watch. He can be a real change-up from Baird as a forward, or he could allow Petke to move Baird into the midfield. Saucedo is another option who could show up in a few different positions. Another RSL homegrown product, Saucedo is very clever and loves the ball at his feet rather than chasing it into space. If they’d like to become more defensive, Petke could turn to Adam Henley at right back, with Lennon moving up on the right flank.