Tomorrow night, D.C. United will face a San Jose Earthquakes team that has largely been in flux all season long. Their head coach Mikael Stahre, appointed in the offseason after spending most of his career coaching in Sweden, seems to be feeling out his group while also rotating players and formations due to poor form and tactical needs. It’s been rather interesting to watch, and after a seven-game winless streak, the Quakes come into this game with a win and a draw (both on the road) in their last two outings. Stahre might be figuring things out.
That said, United’s visit is the third game San Jose will play this week, and nine players have played over 170 minutes (including seven who have played every second of both games). Stahre moved away from the empty bucket 442 that has been San Jose’s most common formation in a 3-1 win at Minnesota, and followed that up by adding a third center back to combat Vancouver’s tendency towards long balls and crosses.
At home, though, it seems probable that the Quakes will return to playing a back four, though whether it’s a 4231 or 442 of some sort remains to be seen. It’s hard to predict things when a new coach shows a tendency to tinker, and it’s even more complicated when we don’t have much evidence of how much he believes rotation is needed to keep players fresh.
As such, there are a lot of possibilities to discuss here:
The only player that seems to be a lock to start is goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell, who pushed David Bingham out of the job last season. The 24 year old is calm and composed, though perhaps just a bit lacking in terms of being able to produce truly top-class saves and in commanding his box. Still, he’s probably not going to hand United a goal on a platter.
Under normal circumstances, Nick Lima would be another sure starter, but he played 90 at right back on turf in Minnesota, and then 90 as a right wingback on turf at Vancouver (scoring a goal in the process). The Quakes don’t have much depth at right back, though, so United may get a tired version of Lima tomorrow night. If that’s the case, they should go at him regularly, because generally his play hinges on him being a bundle of energy. If Stahre wants to rest Lima, he’ll probably have to turn to German utility man Florian Jungwirth, who has played 5 or 6 positions this season and could show up anywhere along the back four or as a defensive midfielder.
At center back, Jungwirth and Harold Cummings are the favorites to start, but Stahre could rotate Francois Affolter and/or Jimmy Ockford in (particularly if Jungwirth is needed elsewhere). Cummings is very fast, but has shown a tendency to have a short fuse in the past. Normal starter Yeferson Quintana is out with an ankle injury.
San Jose has largely struggled to defend up the middle no matter who plays at center back, though a lot of that has to do with poor defending in the midfield. If Jungwirth is playing center back, United needs to make sure they’re ready to defend his long balls over the top, because he has good vision and a solid rapport with Danny Hoesen.
Lima and Jungwirth would both be candidates to play left back if Shea Salinas (90 minutes at Minnesota, 81 at Vancouver) is in need of a rest. Since they’re needed elsewhere, though, Stahre will have to choose between asking Salinas to start again or rotating Joel Qwiberg in. The Swede seemed projected to be San Jose’s starter, but between injuries and form he’s made just one appearance on the season. Either way, United should be able to create some things down that flank.
Jungwirth comes up again in central midfield, though it seems more likely that he’ll stay somewhere in the back four. Instead, it seems probable that Fatai Alashe will step in for either Anibal Godoy (who has played 180 minutes this week) or Jackson Yueill (151 minutes). Alashe will offer less in terms of passing than either regular starter, but he’ll add some bite to a midfield that is very soft defensively. So far this year, the Quakes have been a great example of why teams avoid double-pivot midfields, because they simply haven’t been able to get their balance right and shield the center backs effectively. As a result, United should be able to find space between the lines to combine, something Vancouver did to open the scoring on Wednesday.
Stahre would probably like to rotate his (not that) wide men, but his options are pretty limited due to Jahmir Hyka being out with an ankle injury. Magnus Eriksson, who has scored 3 goals and generally looks very sharp cutting inside from the right, has played every second of both games this week, while Vako (likely to start on the left) has 173 minutes in the two games. Moving Hoesen to the right is probably not on the table, but considering that Tommy Thompson hasn’t made a gameday 18 since April 7th, it’s the most likely option if rotation is required on the right.
On the left, Chris Wehan could get a look in if Stahre continues to leave Thompson out. The former Reno 1868 player ended up winning the USL Rookie of the Year award after leading the league with 12 assists, so while he hasn’t gotten much time, he’s probably an option to see minutes tomorrow on the left side. Still, it seems likely that Vako will start, and United can’t give the Georgian space to operate on the dribble. If they play him tight, they should be able to keep him contained.
Chris Wondolowski didn’t start in either of San Jose’s games this week, so he seems primed to get a start as the withdrawn forward tomorrow. There just aren’t that many other options, especially since Vako is likely to start on the left. The 35 year old has shown some age this year, but he’s still a feisty, hard-working presence who will invariably lose his marker to get looks inside the box.
Hoesen, whose 5 goals this season have already matched his 2017 total, is another player to go the full 90 twice this week. However, the Quakes attack seems to hinge around his movement and finishing ability, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see Stahre send him out for a third start in seven days. However, Quincy Amarikwa is available as well, and United has occasionally struggled to deal with him over the years. Amarikwa isn’t as refined as Hoesen, but he’s physical and fearless, and San Jose can’t afford to risk an injury for Hoesen. If there’s one spot to expect a normal starter to rotate out, this may be it.
All this talk of possible rotation has also mentioned all of the potential options for Stahre to use off the bench. Amarikwa and Wehan seem like solid bets to sub in if they don’t start, as does Alashe in central midfield. Barring some unexpected choices (as in, players with 0 appearances suddenly getting a start), the Quakes will probably have 2-3 people on the field pushing towards 270 minutes on the week, so United would do well to up the tempo as the game wears on.