Since D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls have played twice in less than two full months, let’s dispense with the prologue here. You, me, Ben Olsen, United’s players, and anyone who has been paying attention knows how the Metros are going to play when this kicks off: pressing the ball, but not as high up the field as under Jesse Marsch. They’ll look for Bradley Wright-Phillips over the top or running the channels first, but if it’s not on they’ll build from there. Set pieces will be a huge threat.
With that out of the way, let’s get right to their lineup. Unfortunately for United, Chris Armas appears to have landed on an eleven that really works, and he’s managed to succeed while rotating so that his best guys are all fresh when he wants to call on them. We’ve seen this lineup, back when the Red Bulls walked out of Audi Field with a 1-0 win about three weeks ago, and barring maybe one position we’re going to see it again today.
Luis Robles is not as good as Red Bulls fans insist he is, but he does tend to step his game up against United. It would be nice to see D.C. test him in different ways, as they normally tend to carve out angled, rushed shots with him charging off his line. That’s one of his strengths, and it’s on United to diversify their attack a bit.
Of course, that can be tough to do against an elite back four, and that’s what the Red Bulls have. Michael Murillo and Kemar Lawrence are both in the conversation to be the best at their respective positions. Lawrence certainly does more of the eye-catching stuff, with long sprints back to recover and crunching tackles, but both are excellent fullbacks. Murillo may be a bit more cautious in terms of coming forward, but a hallmark of the NYRB attack is to congest the middle with all five midfielders, and that requires the outside backs to jump up and provide width.
In the middle, Aaron Long and Tim Parker were both called up for the last USMNT camp. Dave Sarachan may not be the best coach (#Canouse4USMNT), but it’s hard to argue with that particular choice. Long, a midfielder in college and with Portland when they first drafted him, has become one of the better passing center backs in MLS, while Parker is a physical beast with enough speed and technical ability that he has been deployed as a right back in the past. They’re flat-out good, and United is going to need to be at their best to crack them open.
Tyler Adams is a sure starter, and his ability to cover every blade of grass (and on both sides of the ball) is maybe the most fundamental thing that makes the Red Bulls scheme work. He manages to be a ball-winner, a conduit between the defense and the attack, and even a tempo-setter when he needs to be.
He probably won’t need to be the latter, though, because Marc Rzatkowski has come through his adjustment period in MLS. The German has started seven of the last ten games, and he brings a more nuanced passing game to the Red Bulls midfield. They lose something physically by playing him instead of Sean Davis (who could end up starting instead depending on what Armas wants to emphasize), but it’s not too big of a deal given that Adams is Adams and the defense has found the sweet spot where their physical play doesn’t trouble MLS refs. Rzatkowski is also really good on dead balls, which is not great news when you consider how creative the Red Bulls are in that department.
Rzatkowski could also play on the right (he’d be very narrow if that’s the case), but most likely the job will go to either Derrick Etienne Jr. or Alex Muyl, both of whom are NYRB academy products who were groomed at the Red Bulls’ USL satellite (Loudoun United can’t open fast enough). Etienne Jr. is faster and more technical, though there are reasons to question his final product, while Muyl seems custom-built for a high-press team. He’s direct, he’s feisty, and he usually succeeds by simply being first to the spot and winning battles. The choice here may be a signal to whether the Red Bulls want to turn this into a game of pinball (Muyl) or not (Etienne Jr.).
It took a few games in the spring for Kaku to figure MLS out, but since then he has spent most of the season at the top of the assist leaderboard (though he was pushed off the top spot yesterday by Borek Dockal). We’ve also seen that he can produce for himself, as it was his unstoppable shot that gave the Red Bulls their win in the last meeting. Unfortunately, between him and left winger Daniel Royer, the Red Bulls have second and third goalscoring options, and that’s a big reason why they’re in the Shield race.
Royer’s off-the-ball movement is underrated league-wide, and he has quietly racked up 23 goals in 57 regular season appearances. Royer isn’t really much of a set-up man for the Red Bulls. Instead, he plays left wing as if it were just the second forward on the field. The Austrian looks to combine before getting unmarked in the box far more than he looks to play crosses in.
That brings us to Bradley Wright-Phillips, who is having one of his best seasons ever at 33 years of age. BWP has shown his passing chops this year more than he did in the past, posting 7 assists (tying a career high that took a full 34-game season to set in 2015). However, the main threat remains losing him off the ball. United seemed unable to track him early in the first meeting on Buzzard Point, with simple balls over the top turning into numerous dangerous chances as well as the game’s only goal. The job with BWP is fairly simple to explain: account for where he is and where he’s going to be. He’s just good enough at what he does that this simple task is also fiendishly difficult.
Off the bench, it feels like Muyl and Davis will almost certainly come in, with Rzatkowski only lasting the full 90 six times this year. That’s more than Etienne, who hasn’t played a full 90 in MLS in 2018. After that, we could see someone like Cristian Casseres, an 18-year-old Venezuelan who can play as a 10 or an 8, but most likely the third sub (barring an injury elsewhere) would be Romanian winger Andreas Ivan.