Tonight, D.C. United faces a Chicago Fire team that has, at long last, truly settled on a formation. Veljko Paunovic has always seemed like he’d prefer to play 4231, but spent much of the season rotating through most of the range of formations seen in the modern game. 433, 532, 352, 442, a diamond...they’ve all been used as Paunovic tinkers away at a team whose roster can only be helped so much by formation changes and new tactical approaches. The 4231 is in place, and it appears likely to stay heading into next year.
We saw this look from Chicago at RFK Stadium, though it was a particularly defensive version of what Paunovic sets out to do. Without a mid-week game forcing a central midfield rotation - actually, the Fire might have been better off rotating elsewhere given how tired they looked after Khaly Thiam’s red card - Paunovic will be able to field his first-choice lineup. Right now, that means the following:
In goal, Sean Johnson has seemed like the starter lately, but Matt Lampson has played 11 regular season matches and also got the call in what turned out to be Chicago’s most important game of the season (their Open Cup semifinal). Why is this relevant? Johnson made one of the blunders of the year last week against TFC, and any time a team has a battle for playing time in goal, the guy that makes a big mistake is in danger of being moved to the bench.
Paunovic has figured out his preferred back four. Johan Kappelhof, having spent most of the year at center back, has become the Fire’s first-choice right back. In the middle, Jonathan Campbell - the one undisputed starter for Chicago’s back line all season - is now partnered by Joao Meira, who has shuttled between center back and defensive midfield. Brandon Vincent fought through a mid-season challenge from Michael Harrington and is now the full-time starter on the left.
Of this group, it’s worth talking about Meira. The Portuguese veteran is not really mobile enough for the midfield, yet seems a) too ponderous and b) too easily overpowered to play center back. United should make every effort to make sure Patrick Mullins is up against Meira on a regular basis tonight, because Mullins has both mental and physical advantages that should be put to good use. Campbell will do his best to help out, but we should still expect Mullins to get more than enough chances to grab another goal or two tonight.
In the midfield, Matt Polster’s season has not gone that well. Paunovic does not seem to hold him in the same sort of esteem that most observers do, and as a result Polster has only started two-thirds of Chicago’s games. He’s been starting lately, though, and his cause was no doubt helped by Thiam’s meltdown at RFK. Polster is pretty good at picking out David Accam, and he now has a potential second option due to both potential starting forwards showing a knack for the occasional dangerous run in behind. United needs to defend from the front here and make sure Polster’s passes are mostly backward or sideways.
Razvan Cocis will take the other defensive midfield role, which is a more natural fit for the Romanian than the attacking midfield position he filled at RFK. Cocis does a lot of things well enough, and has a sense of when to drive his team on. However, he isn’t great in transition, and teams that move the ball quickly seem able to phase him out of games in offensive and defensive phases.
The front four will be very fluid, though we can count on Accam starting wide left from kickoff. That might not change during the course of the game, because Chicago will surely want to exploit a match-up between their best player and someone filling in for the injured Sean Franklin. We talked about this in our preview, so read more on that trouble spot there.
The other three roles are less easy to predict. Luis Solignac has spent more time as a forward of late than on the wing, but he could easily start the game on the right side. That would mean Michael de Leeuw - who has quietly put together 4 goals and 3 assists in 12 total appearances - would move up front, with either Arturo Alvarez or John Goossens starting in the middle.
We’ll almost certainly see that rotation at some point tonight, but the graphic probably has the most common arrangement of these players. Both Alvarez and Goossens have more success coming in from the wing, with Alvarez looking to create for others while Goossens tries to set up his own shot. Alvarez is the more dangerous player over the past month, so it’s more likely that Goossens is not in the game from the start. In either case, making it hard for them to get involved in the center of the field often means that both of these players drift towards anonymity. Alvarez, at least, has one trick in those circumstances to still watch out for, as he loves to use his left foot to play passes just behind the back four (either inswinging crosses from deep or by using the outside of his foot to bend the ball behind retreating defenders).
Up front, both Solignac and de Leeuw like to mix it up and be combative. Neither is a particularly intimidating physically, but they’re both very competitive players who will always work hard and make their presence known. de Leeuw is the better finisher, and has a better sense of where to be to get on the end of chances, but Solignac is faster and offers more from a hold-up perspective. There will be times in this 4231 where de Leeuw is more second forward than attacking midfielder.
Off the bench, the non-starter from Goossens and Alvarez is virtually assured of subbing in. Gigantic target man David Arshakyan is also being worked in as a sub, though who he’ll replace is a bit unclear. We could see Arshakyan replace Solignac or de Leeuw in a straightforward move, but if United is leading we may see something similar to last week’s move to a nebulous 352. Either way, he gives the Fire an aerial option that they otherwise don’t have, and could well function as a game-changer.
Other bench options include Thiam, whose energy in central midfield might be needed if the Fire sense that the game is not going their way. Michael Stephens is also a possibility in that regard, and he could also play further up if the Fire have the lead and are trying to slow the game down. If they want to add speed, they’ll turn to homegrown attacker Joey Calistri, who can play on the right or - if he has a strike partner - up top.