Sort out an opposing team’s lineup when they’ve just fired their coach and have a game on the weekend can be puzzling, but that’s exactly what D.C. United will be trying to do in preparation for tonight’s game against Orlando City. Jason Kreis was dismissed less than a week ago after losing six straight (ending with a dreadful sequence that saw his side lose 3-0, 5-2, and 3-0 again). Bobby Murphy, an assistant coach with major duties in Orlando’s academy system, will take charge as the Lions try to finalize terms with a new, permanent appointee.
Murphy is probably not going to rock the boat in terms of formation or overall tactical plan. There’s simply not enough time, so his main job will be to keep morale high and try to address some of the smaller problems in terms of defensive shape that have seen Orlando’s form fall off a cliff. He’s done this job before, and came away with a fairly respectable record of three draws and one loss in the weeks between Adrian Heath being sacked and Kreis being hired back in 2016.
For the purposes of this article, though, the most pivotal decision isn’t really Murphy’s to make. Orlando as an organization has to decide whether the Open Cup — a competition in which the Lions are just four wins from a trophy — is more important than pursuing the club’s first-ever playoff spot. With Orlando still in the Eastern Conference playoff places, they have some wiggle room, but it feels for all the world like they’re going to prioritize Saturday’s game against Montreal over this one.
Given that we don’t expect Murphy to make major changes to his team’s tactical approach, let’s assume he’s also going to stick with the 4231 that has been in place for the last couple of months:
Earl Edwards Jr. seems like one of the best bets to get a start here. Orlando has tried to give him cup games whenever possible, and he started in their fourth round victory over Miami United FC of the NPSL. Edwards has just one MLS start to his name, a nightmarish 6-1 loss at Philly on Decision Day last year, but he wasn’t really to blame. He might not have Joe Bendik’s knack for the dramatic big save, but he’s no slouch.
At left back, Mohamed El-Munir is suspended for Saturday’s game, so it feels reasonable to expect him to start. United struggled mightily with El-Munir’s energy and his attacking play in the season opener, and that wasn’t a one-off tactical move for the Libya international. He will bomb forward whenever possible, even if it means leaving major gaps behind him. United’s best reply will be to look to their right wing when they counter, and to stay alert and track his runs when defending.
Right back is less of a sure thing. Will Johnson is not a natural there, but injuries have forced him into numerous appearances at this spot in the last month or so. Tony Rocha, a utility player, has also gotten some looks recently, but neither is truly a convincing option. RJ Allen, who has been filling in at center back due to a severe injury shortage, is probably going to be held in reserve before returning to right back this weekend.
At center back, it seems likely that Chris Schuler will rotate in, but his partner isn’t clear. Jonathan Spector is the club’s best center back, but only just made his first appearance in two months last Wednesday. Orlando may worry about pushing him too hard too quickly, in which case Amro Tarek would be the likely starter. Both Spector and Tarek are probably going to start on the weekend, so that might factor into Murphy’s choice here.
Johnson could also play defensive midfield, but it feels more like those jobs will go to Cristian Higuita and Dillon Powers. Higuita had a great run during Orlando’s six-game winning streak earlier this year, but has not done as well playing alongside Uri Rosell (a marquee offseason signing who missed the start of the year). Getting to play as the #6 suits him, though, and he should be expected to do well alongside Powers, a natural #8 who has somehow been miscast or buried on a team full of midfielders for most of his career. That said, Higuita’s tendency to get himself into trouble with the referee is a real issue.
On the right wing, Chris Mueller didn’t start last week, which may be an indicator that he’s slipping behind Josue Colman and Justin Meram for starting minutes on the wing. He’s shown that he can be really dangerous this season, though, and has 3 goals and 4 assists in just under 1,000 minutes this season. If Murphy prefers him for the weekend, though, it’ll probably be Colman, who was initially billed as a playmaker before his arrival but has largely played wide right or as a forward.
Colman could also start as the #10, but it’s also a good chance for former LA Galaxy homegrown Jose Villarreal to get a game. Villarreal has consistently managed to create danger no matter where he’s been lined up over the years, but a wide range of coaches have all tended to see him as attacking depth and nothing more. If he starts here, look for him to float around a lot rather than stick to the middle. Richie Laryea could also get the nod here, which would been less floating around and more of a focus on switching play wide or playing early through balls.
The left side is probably going to go to PC, a player MLS fans were first introduced to when he was Man of the Match against United in an Open Cup match in 2015 while playing for the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers. Back then, he was an attacking left back, but Orlando has mostly preferred to use him as a speedy winger. He’ll be eager to do better against D.C. this time around after getting a red card in the season opener.
Speaking of the opener, the man who leveled the score deep in stoppage time seems likely to start tonight. Stefano Pinho hasn’t scored in MLS since breaking United’s resistance back in March, but he did score the opener for the Lions in the previous round of this tournament. He’s not an exact replacement for normal starter Dom Dwyer, as he’s not as fast or as physical, but he’s still a decent player with his back to goal who makes smart runs into the channels.
Orlando is probably going to have many of their top attackers available off the bench, so don’t be surprised to see Dwyer and Sacha Kljestan play some part in this game even if they don’t start. Kljestan would likely come in as a straight swap as the attacking midfielder, while Dwyer could replace a winger (with Pinho moving out wide in the re-shuffle). Justin Meram could also come in wide on the left, while Rosell might make an appearance if Orlando has a lead to protect.