The last time D.C. United hosted the New York Red Bulls, the Black-and-Red got a rare gift from their old rivals. Jesse Marsch, still working on a 4222 experiment that to this day has yet to truly take, sent his group out for a road game in a formation built to get more out of Gonzalo Veron - the multi-million dollar player who has yet to justify even 20% of what the Red Bulls likely paid for him - rather than their more familiar and effective 4231. United wasn’t playing their best formation either (this was back when Luciano Acosta was being deployed as a second forward/attacking midfielder), but they were far more comfortable. The 2-0 scoreline accurately illustrates how the game went for all involved.
The loss clearly stung NYRB, and they’ve since been a much better team. The 4222 pops up every now and then, but the 4231 has been first choice, and Marsch’s side is 7W-5D-2L since that afternoon in mid-May. That record features a hard split between home (6W-1D-0L) and away (1W-4D-2L results, but it’s still the kind of form that would put a club on the edges of the Supporters Shield race if stretched over the course of a full season. The Red Bulls side that United barely had to get out of bed to beat back in spring is not the group that will show up this afternoon.
Here’s how that more formidable opponent is going to line up:
No surprises in goal, as Luis Robles will start for the 132nd straight league match. Robles is not the all-powerful deity fans in north Jersey will have you believe, but he is still among MLS’s best five or six goalkeepers. In particular, Robles is very good coming off his line to prevent shots from players running in behind the defense, and his reflexes are excellent. If there’s a flaw in his game, it’s that he’s still pretty uncomfortable dealing with traffic in the area on set pieces and crosses.
Right back may be the only uncertain spot in the Red Bulls lineup right now. Chris Duvall may have recently pushed Sal Zizzo out of the starting role, if NYRB’s busy week (they were in El Salvador to play Alianza in the CCL on Tuesday) is an indicator. Duvall got the start in league play against Montreal, while Zizzo was one of many players rotated in for the trip to San Salvador. Duvall is probably the better one-on-one defender, but Zizzo - who was mostly known as a right winger before being moved back last year - is more of a threat going forward.
Center back has been a major issue for the Red Bulls, as no one can seem to avoid injury. Damien Perrinelle recovered from his torn ACL last season (an injury suffered at RFK Stadium) a little while back, but has since ended up with ankle and meniscus injuries. Gideon Baah has picked up multiple knocks this season, and a tibia fracture a little over a month ago put him out for the season. Fullbacks Duvall and Kemar Lawrence have both spent time in central defense due to the wide range of injuries NYRB players have picked up.
However, that won’t be an issue today. Aurelien Collin will partner Ronald Zubar. You might remember a few things about these two, such as Zubar’s murderous tackle during last year’s playoffs that was not correctly punished with a red card, or Collin’s notorious tendency to elbow people in the face and feign innocence. Needless to say, they’re going to be extremely physical all game long. United might do well to take advantage of some of their aggression, though, with Patrick Mullins showing a knack for being able to get the ball off his feet to find an onrushing midfielder with one or two touches. Collin and Zubar both like to step out in front of the back four, and if the layoff in those moments is successful, there will be an enormous gap to take advantage of.
Lawrence, whose stock has taken a nosedive after being attacked to a seven-figure move to England last summer, is only starting because Connor Lade tore his ACL two weeks ago. The confidence that Lawrence had in storming forward has evaporated, and the fact that he’s now staying home more has revealed what that attacking play helped to obscure: Lawrence isn’t the sharpest left back in terms of positional sense, and his decision-making can be slow.
In the midfield, Felipe - one of MLS’s all-time heels, equally capable of a cheap shot or a dive - has been critical both as a ball-winner (his 2.6 successful tackles per game leads NYRB) as well as an important reference point in possession. He’s also chipped in four goals and three assists, meaning that United has to be very sharp against him running in from deep and/or waiting for a lay-off at the top of the box.
Normally, Felipe would be partnered by Dax McCarty, but NYRB’s captain is out with a tibia fracture (though a less severe one than Baah suffered). His place has gone to homegrown player Sean Davis, who has produced 2 goals and 2 assists in just 228 minutes since McCarty had to be subbed off in Chicago. In terms of replacing a perennial Best 11 contender, Davis has done quite well at replicating McCarty’s energy and role within the team. That said, he’s not the recovery machine McCarty is, and as the Red Bulls don’t play with a full-time anchor who stays home, this can lead to both he and Felipe being caught upfield at the same time. Acosta’s breakout speed and eye for the early killer ball could be a big problem for this pairing.
On the right wing, former Georgetown attacker Alex Muyl has managed to chase Lloyd Sam out the door (aided strongly by some salary cap issues, of course) and hold off the often ineffective Veron. It’s not because he’s the more skillful player, or more creative, or faster. Rather, it’s the simple fact that Muyl’s fitness allows him to implement the most critical function of an NYRB player: he presses, and presses, and presses some more. Don’t be surprised if the Red Bulls look to use Muyl’s running to a) force Taylor Kemp into plenty of long balls and b) keep him pinned back defensively through sheer work rate.
Mike Grella is having his second straight productive year on the left side, even if his goals and assists per 90 are down somewhat from last year’s 9G/7A showing. Grella’s ability on the dribble has earned him the nickname "Grelladinho," and it’s that close control and range of flicks that could present a problem for both Sean Franklin and Steve Birnbaum. Grella likes to attack the channel between the right back and nearest center back, and both Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan love to look for him as defenses start to collapse on the ball.
Speaking of Kljestan, any rational Best 11 at this point in the year would have to include him in the midfield. Despite being forgotten by Jurgen Klinsmann for no apparent reason, Kljestan is leading MLS in assists. While that number depends on his set piece delivery, Kljestan remains the perfect fit for the way the Red Bulls play. They don’t need a traditional playmaking genius in their #10 role. Rather, they need a combination of creativity, hard work, and physical gifts for their system to work. Kljestan frequently uses his size (he’s 6’1") to win battles with defensive midfielders more accustomed to trying to neutralize some of the smallest players on the field, and he’s far more busy on both sides of the ball to boot.
Up front, Wright-Phillips is a serious threat. BWP is safely on course to improve on last season’s 17 goals, and that’s even more impressive when you consider that he was scoreless after the first 7 games of the season. Since then, he’s scored 14 goals in 18 games, including 5 in New York’s last 4 outings. It’s not that he’s faster or stronger than the center backs trying to stop him; Wright-Phillips is simply gifted with spatial awareness, anticipation, and finishing abilities that go beyond nearly everyone else in MLS. Stopping him is more about preventing service than anything else, because if he gets chances he has a strong tendency to convert them.
With five days between games, NYRB isn’t going to have to rotate or make subs based on their CCL exertions. They will, however, have to find time for two new faces. Omer Damari has already seemed to impressed since arriving on loan from RB Leipzig. The Israeli international is more of a second forward than an out-and-out striker, but that gives Marsch some tactical flexibility. Aside from the obvious use of subbing him in for Wright-Phillips, he can play Damari in Kljestan’s spot, with Kljestan moving into a deeper role, or he can go to the 4222 (with Kljestan and, most likely, Grella playing as the two attacking midfielders).
Veron is also a near certainty to get in, but his role is less predictable. He has been used on both wings, but is clearly better as a striker. In the 4231, that job is taken by a better player, so if Wright-Phillips goes 90, Veron will only play up front if Marsch moves to the 4222 and opts not to use Damari for some reason. Most likely, he’ll come in for either Muyl or Grella due to lack of other options.
However, there is now real competition for time on the flanks, as new signing Daniel Royer is supposed to be eligible to play. Marsch won’t want to send a player who probably needs some fitness work in for major playing time, but the former Austrian international could still see 20 or so minutes on either wing. Another option could be homegrown midfielder Derrick Etienne, who appears to be pushing for a regular spot in the gameday 18 after spending most of his rookie year playing for NYRB II.