D.C. United is coming off of a match against a team that caused Ben Olsen and Wayne Rooney to use adjectives like “unusual” and “strange,” but with the San Jose Earthquakes coming to town, things are about to get even weirder. Former Argentine national team midfielder Matias Almeyda has instituted a man-marking system all over the field, which is virtually never seen in MLS. While the early impressions were that this was going to be a disaster, something has clicked into place lately, and the Quakes have just one loss in their last seven games.
Tonight might be an odd game, but it’s also going to be a tough one.
Goalkeeper: Daniel Vega
Vega, a veteran of the NASL who previously played for River Plate, seemed more like an experienced back-up when he arrived this winter, but Almeyda has stuck with his countryman over Andrew Tarbell. Vega is on the smaller side, and while he has a great leap, he can occasionally put himself in some pretty bad positions by taking avoidable risks. That said, he’s very comfortable with the ball at his feet, which is essential for how the Quakes play.
Right back: Paul Marie or Nick Lima
Tommy Thompson, once #PlayYourKids Twitter’s favorite son, has been recast as a right back after plateauing as a central midfielder. However, he’s suspended, leaving Almeyda in a pickle. Marie, a former France under-16 international who San Jose picked in the 2018 draft, has just 100 minutes of MLS play spread across 2 total appearances, and he doesn’t have Thompson’s comfort on the ball. The other option is to move Lima over to his natural position, but that means making a change at left back (where Lima has been playing this year).
Essentially, United should make a major point of attacking whichever side Lima isn’t on as frequently as possible.
Center back: Harold Cummings
A Panamanian national team regular, Cummings has been an unquestioned starter under Almeyda. Surprisingly, his move to MLS seems to have tempered his formerly rash style, as the all-or-nothing tackles he used to gamble with have been replaced by a calmer, less risky approach. Cummings may be undersized for the position, but he’s one of the fastest center backs in the league, and has leaping ability and physical strength to make up for it.
Center back: Florian Jungwirth
Jungwirth is a Bundesliga-experienced, technical player who has done a solid job at every defensive position and in central midfield during his time in MLS, but somehow he’s taken the opposite course as Cummings. While Jungwirth will look for stretches of games like a huge talent, he will also throw in two or three absolutely inexplicable choices with the ball, or a reckless tackle, or simply lose his man for no apparent reason. United will want to take advantage, obviously, but they also need to take care to make sure his passing range doesn’t become a major factor.
Left back: Nick Lima or Marcos Lopez
Lima has been solid in playing a position of need, but he definitely belongs on the right. The problem for Almeyda has been that Lopez, a 19 year old who already has a cap for Peru’s senior national team, has looked out of his depth in MLS. However, with Thompson suspended, there’s a major chance that Lopez gets another chance to prove himself after being buried on the bench for the last six weeks or so.
Defensive midfield: Anibal Godoy
Godoy has adapted to Almeyda’s man-marking scheme pretty well, which counts as something of a surprise given his normally stay-at-home approach with Panama and under previous San Jose coaches. United still might be able to shed him if the movement between Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta, and Paul Arriola (Godoy shades towards the left half of the field) is sharp enough.
Defensive midfield: Jackson Yueill
If Godoy’s ability to play this unique style is a surprise, Yueill — previously seen as too defense-averse by MLS coaches to trust full-time — becoming a key piece of the puzzle registers as a major shock. He’s been very good though, winning his battles (this approach fundamentally doesn’t work if someone is losing their duels) and routinely showing his tremendous passing range off. United can hamstring the San Jose attack if they can prevent Yueill from opening the field up.
Right wing: Vako...or maybe not
Valeri Qazaishvili, to give the Georgian’s full name, has fallen out of favor for the reasons Yueill wasn’t supposed to succeed under Almeyda. However, with Cristian Espinoza — who leads the Quakes in both assists and shot attempts — suspended, Vako is the most likely choice to step in. However, Almeyda could move Shea Salinas over from the left side, or he could go with Siad Haji, a rookie out of VCU. Stylistically, none of them really play like Espinoza, so the Quakes will probably be relying more on Yueill, Godoy, and Jungwirth to break lines from deeper spots than they normally do.
Attacking midfield: Magnus Eriksson, unless his concussion rules him out
Don’t think of this spot as a traditional attacking midfielder; Almeyda’s system hinges on others to do the creative work. This role has gone to Eriksson because he’s smart, works hard in frustrating deep-lying midfielders and making it hard to play out of the back. Offensively, the job is not all that different from being a second forward: play off the no. 9, make trailing runs into the box, and finish loose balls.
That’s why, if Eriksson is out, Danny Hoesen is more likely to step in than Vako. Hoesen is more of a true forward than Eriksson, and offers less defensively, but he’s Almeyda’s best bet without the Swede. Vako is certainly more creative, but is less of a goal threat and would have more substantial issues on the defensive side.
Left wing: Shea Salinas, probably
Salinas has done well over here despite sometimes suffering from a one-note approach (stay wide, hit crosses). He fits the man-marking system, though, because he’s gritty and combative. However, the last time Espinoza was suspended, Almeyda moved him to the right wing and started Eric Calvillo, who despite being just 21 already has four years of pro soccer under his belt.
If Almeyda goes with Calvillo and Lopez, don’t be surprised if this game ends up being all about Arriola for United.
Striker: Chris Wondolowski
Now the all-time leading goalscorer in MLS history, Wondolowski only very recently sprang to life after a dire start to 2019. He could barely even get a look at goal in the early weeks of the season, and Almeyda benched him in favor of Hoesen as a result. However, with Hoesen similarly going cold from mid-April onward, Wondo got back into the team and seized his second chance. He rang Chicago up for four goals a couple of weeks ago, and then added two more in their comeback win at TFC last weekend.
Wondolowski is a perfect fit for Almeyda’s approach, because he’s a fiery competitor who has always thrived on winning individual battles on both sides of the ball.
Once you factor in their absences, there’s not much left in terms of danger off the bench. Hoesen is a talented player who probably just needs to see a bounce go his way to get hot, though, so he’s one to watch if he doesn’t end up starting. Vako, Haji, and Calvillo could also end up being attacking subs.
Defending a lead, Almeyda leans more towards adding an extra defensive midfielder rather than moving to a back five. Look for Judson to be the option if they go that route, though the Brazilian has not exactly impressed since arriving as a TAM signing this winter.
None, really. Instead, let’s use this space to briefly explain what makes the Quakes so awkward to play against. The man-marking system Almeyda employs makes it very difficult to play out of the back, because it’s so hard to get open. This often ends with a defender (i.e. generally a less talented passer of the ball) trying to force something, which lowers the odds of the other team starting attacks.
When it works, games can get ragged and scrappy, though in MLS Almeyda’s Quakes haven’t gone about their business exactly like his Chivas Guadalajara teams did in Mexico. The key to turning the system against itself is simple: good, sharp movement off the ball combined with one- and two-touch passing going forward, and being able to match San Jose’s fight. If you out-work a team playing this way, you’ll probably beat them, which is why so few teams use this approach.