Today’s game between D.C. United and Los Angeles FC isn’t just promising because of the fact that these two sides are at the top of their respective conferences. It’s that both clubs play ambitious soccer with really talented players, and neither side has any particularly glaring weaknesses. LAFC is the rare team in MLS that can come to Audi Field and go toe-to-toe with United, making this game a potential thriller as well as a major test for the Black-and-Red.
With that in mind, here’s who we expect to start for the visitors:
Goalkeeper: Tyler Miller
Gregg Berhalter’s choice to bring Miller into the USMNT’s January camp was inexplicable, but that’s not to say that Miller is a bad goalkeeper. He’s a good shot-stopper, quick off his line, and LAFC trusts him to step off his line and be an option in possession. However, he is a bit gaffe-prone, and United might be able to capitalize on that front.
Right back: Steven Beitashour
The US-born Iran international has no glaring weaknesses. Beitashour pushes up into the attack regularly, but he’s not just going to run up the touchline and fire in crosses. He looks to give Carlos Vela an option to combine with, and is comfortable enough with his left foot that he can surprise teams with in-swinging service from unconventional spots.
Center back: Walker Zimmerman
A physical force with a knack for the dramatic, Zimmerman is LAFC’s best target by far when it comes to set pieces. He’s also underrated with the ball at his feet, and despite being a big, strong center back, he’s got good speed and quickness.
Center back: Eddie Segura
Segura emerged in the preseason as the best partner on the roster for Zimmerman, thanks to his speed and ability to track back and make defensive plays quickly. At 5’10”, he’s on the small side, and United may be able to beat him in the air on crosses if that sort of opportunity presents itself.
Left back: Jordan Harvey
At 35, Harvey’s maybe not as athletic as he once was, but he’s still managed to adapt to LAFC’s style of play after years of playing on more direct or defense-first sides. That said, you’d better believe United is looking at the prospect of Paul Arriola running at full speed towards him.
Right-center midfield: Latif Blessing
Bradley has turned the Ghanaian attacker into a do-everything utility man. Aside from being able to play anywhere in their front three, Blessing has done well as an attacking right back this season, and right now is an all-action central midfielder filling in for the injured Lee Nguyen. Despite being generously listed as 5’5”, Blessing has done quite well as a ball-winning box-to-box midfielder in the last couple of games.
He also has the lung capacity to jump into the attack as a late-arriving central option. He’s not a playmaker like Nguyen, but on a team with Vela and Rossi, sometimes you just need your other players to just be busy and persistent.
Defensive midfield: Eduard Atuesta
There’s a myth out there that LAFC plays without a true number 6, but really they’re just using a deep-lying playmaker in that spot. Atuesta is their distribution hub, attempting over 78 passes per 90 minutes (only 7 players in the league have a higher number). He’s not going to charge around winning tackles and getting into physical battles. Instead, look for Atuesta to occupy space defensively. Getting pressure on him will slow LAFC down, so look for United to try to reduce his influence.
Left-center midfield: Mark-Anthony Kaye
The rangy Canadian does a little bit of everything for LAFC. He’s a ball-winner, sure, but he’s also able to create chances for others (1.3 key passes per 90), break out of the midfield on the dribble (1.3 successful dribbles per 90), and facilitate the short-passing game Bradley demands.
Right wing: Carlos Vela
He could be the best player in MLS, and is the best player in MLS over the first month of the season. Vela is the undoubted star of the show for Black Thunder, leading the team in every attacking category. It’s safer to try to force him out to the touchline rather than let him get onto his left foot, but Vela has freedom to roam inside and find the game, making efforts to shepherd him out to the touchline difficult at best.
Center forward: Adama Diomande or Christian Ramirez
Bradley has alternated these two all season, and it’s not clear who will start. Diomande is more of a channel-running forward, while Ramirez skews more towards being a target man, but they’re not hugely different players. Given that United has two great center backs in terms of winning aerial duels, LAFC might go with Diomande to start.
Left wing: Diego Rossi
If Vela is LAFC’s Wayne Rooney, then Rossi is their Lucho Acosta. They’re not exactly analogous, since they both play nominally wide roles rather than being central like D.C.’s dynamic duo, but their importance is very similar. Rossi will drift inside like Vela, and the two manage to combine regularly despite the positions you see in the graphic above. Rossi isn’t necessarily going to create a ton of chances for others, but he’s busy and often ends up as the first person Vela looks for.
Injuries have deprived them of a few options, with Nguyen, Andre Horta, and Rodolfo Zelaya all out. The non-starter between Diomande and Ramirez is a sure bet to sub in sometime between the 60th and 70th minutes, and Bradley has found minutes for Jamaican rookie Peter-Lee Vassell. Vassell’s a playmaker for Jamaica’s senior national team at just 21, and Bradley seems to be using him at the moment as a Nguyen stand-in.
In terms of style of play, Bradley is strongly committed to playing an attractive, possession-based game that encourages his skillful players to put on a show. However, despite frequently playing this 433 home and away, he’s far from the rigid type when it comes to formation. Could we see some kind of 532, with Atuesta and Kaye underneath Vela, with Rossi and Diomande/Ramirez up top? It would be a surprise, but it wouldn’t be completely out of the blue. Similarly, we could see Vassell come into the midfield, with Vela playing as a false 9 and Blessing out on the right wing.
This is an experimental format for these pieces. I was thinking that I might be able to give you fine folks the information more concisely, while also possibly saving myself some time. However, I want to know what you think. If you have a strong preference for this or the way I’ve done it in the past, please let me know in the comments.