All the discussion about D.C. United’s game tonight has been about Wayne Rooney, Audi Field, and the ongoing supporters group dispute with the team. It’s easy to forget that United actually has to play another team in the middle of all that, and they can’t afford to overlook the Vancouver Whitecaps, who despite a very up-and-down season are currently in a playoff spot out west.
We’re used to seeing Eastern Conference opponents high-press and keep the ball on the ground quite a bit, and that’s not at all Vancouver’s game. Carl Robinson has his team sit deep in two rows of four, and plays classic long-ball soccer without apology. As a result, Vancouver is 2nd in MLS with crosses attempted per game (an indicator of their direct approach) and attempt the second-fewest short passes per game. In other words, they don’t really have much of the ball, and when they get it, they hoof it towards the box.
There was a spell where Vancouver was playing out of a 4231 and trying to be at least a little constructive, but a 2W-1D-5L run put an end to it. Robinson simplified everything, pushing attacking midfielder Yordy Reyna up along with Kei Kamara as a second forward, and emphasized their ability to hit on the counter through left winger Alphonso Davies. They are MLS’s most regressive team, but it works...well, it works often enough to be in a decent spot in the inferior Western Conference.
The trip across the continent is not going to change any of that, though despite having few absences their actual lineup isn’t that clear:
In goal, normal starter Stefan Marinovic has been out for a few games with a knee sprain. He’s not on the league’s posted injury report, but Vancouver outlets have been treating him as questionable. If he’s out for one more game, Brian Rowe will carry on as the starter. In either case, the Whitecaps pushing David Ousted out is bizarre, as they’re choosing between starting two run-of-the-mill MLS backups as a result.
Jakob Nerwinski has largely been the starter at right back, but Sean Franklin has started 2 of the last 6 and has 6 starts overall, so it’s not a fully settled question. Nerwinski is faster and more energetic, but we might see a motivated Franklin trying to put one over on his old team.
Doneil Henry seems to have emerged as Kendall Waston’s partner after slowly building himself back up after 15 months out due to setbacks from a torn ACL. The Canada international is physically gifted, but might still be a bit rusty in terms of his decision-making after being out for so long. Meanwhile, Waston (groin strain) is questionable, and could well miss out here. Jose Aja would be the stand-in, but Waston is arguably Vancouver’s most important player not named Kei Kamara. An Aja-Henry partnership is quite vulnerable if United keeps the ball on the ground.
Robinson has some uninspiring choices to make at left back. Marcel de Jong has never looked better than being an MLS back-up or NASL-level player since coming to North American soccer after years in the Netherlands and Germany. He’s decent on the ball and plays a rugged brand of soccer, but his quickness and decision-making are both pretty questionable. However, he usually starts because Vancouver’s other left back option at the moment is Brek Shea, who is not a left back. Don’t be surprised if Zoltan Stieber is able to routinely find a lot of space in this one.
In central midfield, everyone’s least-favorite player Felipe will likely be partnered by Efrain Juarez, the former Mexico international. Juarez made his career in Liga MX as a fullback, but Vancouver has nearly exclusively played him as a defensive midfielder, where he’s been...adequate. Egyptian midfielder Aly Ghazal is a more conservative, physical option, and there’s a real chance he gets the nod instead. United’s focus should probably be on shutting down Felipe, though, as he’s the main conduit between their defense and attack.
On the right wing, Cristian Techera’s suspension has left Robinson with few inspiring options. Jordon Mutch has a Premier League pedigree, but he has barely been able to crack the Whitecaps lineup for most of the year. He’s also a central midfielder by trade, and it’s safe to say he lacks the kind of speed we see from wide players (or any midfielder in MLS, really). Another option is Brek Shea, who would add plenty of speed and is always a threat to have a good game. With Shea, it’s just that he’s also a threat to waste a bunch of chances; you never know what you’re going to get.
Up top, the fulcrum of what the Whitecaps are trying to do is Kamara, their gifted target man. Kamara is a towering presence with basketball-level leaping ability, making him a nightmare to defend in the air. Even with D.C. fielding two tall, powerful center backs, Kamara is so good in the air that United’s focus must be on winning the balls he knocks down rather than simply trying to contain him by winning headers.
Yordy Reyna will partner Kamara, which has been a work in progress. Reyna’s a versatile attacking midfielder by trade, more Yamil Asad than second forward. However, he has had some decent games since the move to 442 by simply buzzing around, getting to loose balls and being tricky to tackle. Reyna has quick feet and is generally pretty clever, and with Vancouver fielding a team full of Absolute Units (i.e. large men), United is in trouble if he’s winning lots of free kicks.
Robinson’s options off the bench include Anthony Blondell (a speedy striker who offers a change of pace from Kamara) and Nicolas Mezquida, who can play as a second forward or possibly out on the right wing. If Shea doesn’t start, he’s also a pretty solid bet to enter the game regardless of the score. If the Whitecaps have a result to protect late on, don’t be surprised if they pull Reyna for another holding midfielder or even a center back.