When D.C. United enters the US Open Cup, we normally expect to see a non-MLS opponent, and that opponent is usually looking at the game as arguably their biggest game of the year. That might not be the case for North Carolina FC, who are struggling along in 12th place in the USL’s Eastern Conference right now and coming off of a stunning 2-1 home loss to Bethlehem Steel, who scored twice after the 80th minute to shock NCFC.
On top of that, veteran center back Futty Danso left just before that game for the Malaysian league, causing upheaval to their starting lineup. The Dead Whales (here’s your explainer for that) has historically been a solid club and went to last year’s NASL playoffs before switching to the USL, but that switch meant they had to renegotiate all of their contracts.
The resulting upheaval has cost them their best player (Nazmi Albadawi, who scored a superb goal against North Carolina for his new club FC Cincinnati recently), and NCFC has struggled against any team above them in the standings. Against current USL playoff teams, they’ve posted a 1W-0D-3L record, conceding 9 goals in the process. An overall record of 3W-2D-5L indicates that they’re not doing all that much better against their fellow struggling sides.
In other words, tomorrow’s game might not be their highest priority, especially having a quick turnaround from Saturday’s loss. While the best bet still appears to be the strongest lineup Colin Clarke can put on the field, there is a distinct chance that he rotates his lineup significantly to focus on a home game against FC Cincinnati this coming Saturday.
Generally speaking, Clarke has skewed towards keeping it very simple tactically, and he’s more than willing to have his team sit deep and play long ball soccer to get a result. While his preferred formation in the league is not entirely clear, it seems likely that he’ll field a conservative 4141 in an effort to frustrate United.
In goal, Alex Tambakis is the undisputed starter. Having started in the academy of Greek giant Panathinaikos, Tambakis was also the first-ever player signed by Atlanta United, though he only made one appearance for them in two seasons. He’s one of the new faces on the North Carolina roster this year, having moved over from the Charleston Battery in the offseason.
20 year old defender DJ Taylor is the right back, and if the name rings a bell, he made a go of breaking through in the Spanish lower divisions before coming back to sign with NCFC this year. If Clarke wants to rotate the youngster out for a game, he could move Steven Miller — who has spent most of his career as a fullback, but has spent this season playing right midfield — back into this spot.
Connor Tobin is in his fifth season with NCFC, and he should captain the team tomorrow. Tobin had not made an appearance all season before Danso’s departure, but stepped right into the lineup against Bethlehem. His partner will probably Michael Harrington, a career fullback who at 32 is being transitioned into a center back role this season. This isn’t the most athletic pairing United will see this year, and forcing them to play on the turn is a wise idea in terms of tactics.
On the left, Peabo Doue has drawn some praise since moving over from the Jacksonville Armada. The Takoma Park native is a product of United’s academy, and after finishing his collegiate career with West Virginia in 2013, he has been a regular starter on multiple USL teams. If Clarke wants to give him a rest, he could bring former FC Dallas homegrown player Aaron Guillen in, either with Harrington shuttling over to the left or with Guillen stepping right into Doue’s spot.
In the midfield, it seems like a solid bet to expect Graham Smith playing the #6 role. Smith is yet another new signing for the Dead Whales, but has played all but 6 minutes of the season for Clarke no matter whether the formation is 4141 or 442. There aren’t many other options to rotate in here, so the 24 year old Pennsylvania native is right up with Tambakis in terms of solid bets to start tomorrow.
Ahead of him in central midfield, former Germany u18 Marcel Kandziora, a veteran of the German 2nd and 3rd divisions, functions as a box-to-box midfielder. Rookie Cameron Steele, who has yet to make an appearance for North Carolina, is a candidate to step in if the former Borussia Dortmund academy man is given a night off.
The focal point for North Carolina’s attack is former Toronto FC midfielder Kyle Bekker, who was a key player for the San Francisco Deltas side that won the NASL title last year. Bekker most likely fell out of MLS due to a combination of international status and a perceived lack of work rate, but given time on the ball he can hit the kind of pinpoint mid- and long-range passes that break games open. He’s also a tremendously gifted set piece threat, both as a shooter and delivering service in for targets. If Clarke wants to give him a break, we could see former United attacker Ty Shipalane (who these days is more of a central midfielder than the winger/forward he was here), but most likely Bekker will start.
Sticking with familiar faces, Austin da Luz is widely considered the heart of the North Carolina locker room. No one will ever mistake da Luz for being the fastest or showiest player, but he remains what he was when he played for United: technically sound, crafty, and reliable. Clarke could rest the 30 year old and role with Austrian winger Bernhard Luxbacher or local product Dre Fortune, but it seems reasonable to expect da Luz to get a shot at his old club.
Over on the right, we already touched on Miller, who has been first choice at right midfield for this team. There’s a decent chance we could see Fortune, who brings some speed, size, and goalscoring ability, rotate in for him. On the other hand, Miller’s defensive chops make him an appealing choice for Clarke against a higher-level opponent.
Perhaps the best chance for rotation is up front. Chivas Guadalajara loanee Daniel Rios is North Carolina’s leading scorer with 5 goals this season, but he has been subbed off in 6 of his 9 starts. Clarke has long preferred big, physical target men, and he has a few to choose from. Rios, Dutchman Marios Lomis, and Cameroonian youngster Donovan Ewolo are all 6’1” or taller, and all three have seen regular minutes this season.
If NCFC needs a goal, look for Clarke to bring in one of his non-starting forwards and move to a traditional 442 formation. If Fortune doesn’t start, he also seems like a very likely option on the wings for Clarke. Shipalane has been making cameo appearances as they try to get him back to full fitness (he was without a club to start the season), and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Clark give the former United man a few minutes regardless of the score.
On the other hand, if Clarke has a lead to protect, we could see the versatile Wuilito Fernandes come in as a fullback or winger, and Guillen could come in for the final minutes as a third center back if Clarke is anticipating a barrage of crosses. Finally, it will be interesting to see whether 18 year old Nelson Blanco, who until recently was in United’s academy, gets some time in an attacking midfield role. Most likely, it’ll require a scoreline that leaves the final minutes in doubt, but Clarke may find the youngster motivated to show United what they missed out on.