Any attempt to predict a lineup during the Open Cup’s earlier rounds is difficult, and D.C. United’s opponent New York City FC seems like a particularly tricky case. Domè Torrent has been known to chop and change on a regular basis even in the best of times, and NYCFC has never previously seemed to put the Open Cup high on its priority list, so pretty much anyone on the roster is a potential starter.
However, Torrent has done us a big favor: in a video for NYCFC’s team site, he said that he a) only has 15 field players available to dress in this game, b) plans to make “four or five” changes to the group that beat North Carolina FC last week, and c) specifically mentioned striker Heber, attacker Alexandru Mitrita, and winger Ismael Tajouri-Shradi as being three of those changes. So, thanks Domè! This genuinely made my life easier.
Let’s get into who the Pigeons are probably going to put on the field tonight:
Goalkeeper: Brad Stuver
Stuver’s had what looks like a career back-up’s trajectory so far in MLS. It’s his 6th season in the league, and he has just 5 starts. His profile as a player is pretty much what you’d expect: decent all-around, not necessarily going to produce the “big save,” etc. However, his career has seen him play for Gregg Berhalter’s Columbus and with NYCFC for a reason: he’s pretty good distributing the ball, and he’s comfortable under pressure with the ball at his feet.
Right back: Anton Tinnerholm
Tinnerholm remains one of the best right backs in MLS, but had to play center back last week due to a shortage of other options. He’ll be back where he belongs for this one, which isn’t ideal news for United. He’s good in possession and reliably makes the right choice. If there’s a weakness, it’s that he’s maybe only average in terms of speed and quickness.
Center back: Sebastian Ibeagha
Ibeagha brings some speed at the back for NYCFC, but he’s certainly not just a raw athlete. Like everyone else on their roster, he’s got a good first touch and is comfortable on the ball. Ibeagha maybe lacks the sort of passing range that opens a field up, but he can get out of the tight situations that inevitably come up with their style.
Center back: Alexander Ring
Ring is not a natural center back, but he has played there before (particularly when the Pigeons have started in a back three). Ring is an excellent defensive midfielder, and unsurprisingly plays center back like a defensive midfielder. That means he’s a better passer than most center backs, but he does also occasionally want to step to balls that he shouldn’t. United should try to tease that flaw out, and with Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta, they have players who are perfectly capable of doing so.
Left back: Juan Pablo Torres or Ben Sweat
Torres started at right back last week, but the U.S. under-20 seems likely to move over to the left for this one. Sweat has apparently returned from injury and will dress, so there’s a possibility that he gets the start instead. He’s been out for weeks rather than months, so his fitness is probably not too far off.
Right-center midfield: Keaton Parks
Parks became well-known due to his signing with Benfica and getting some scattered minutes, but he’s on loan with NYCFC now. Parks hasn’t really played much in MLS (55 minutes spread across 5 appearances), but he started against NCFC and scored twice, so he’s not just bench filler. Parks is an energetic two-way midfielder in this set-up, and at 6’3” he can be a bit of a physical mismatch.
Defensive midfield: Justin Haak
The 17-year-old Homegrown signing made his first pro start against North Carolina, and did a passable job. He’s very good with the ball, but plays small, and might be someone United can pressure into mistakes. For United, Haak’s inexperience needs to be something they punish.
Left-center midfield: Maxi Moralez or Daniel Bedoya
This is the potential fourth change that Torrent mentioned. Moralez played up front last week, but with the incoming changes up top, he could easily shift back into his preferred midfield role. He’s been a real problem for the Black-and-Red in the past, and without Junior Moreno available, Moralez figures to be arguably the key player for NYCFC.
However, if Torrent wants to give him the night off for whatever reason, he could go with Bedoya, a 25 year old that the Pigeons signed from the PDL’s Long Island Rough Riders in December of last year. He’s a tidy player on the ball (he only misplaced 3 passes in last week’s Open Cup match), but definitely lacks the ideas and urgency that Moralez brings to the table.
Right forward: Ismael Tajouri-Shradi
Tajouri-Shradi is an interesting player: Swiss-born to Libyan parents, he has an Austrian passport as well as a Libyan one, and represents Libya internationally. He has a green card, so NYCFC doesn’t have to worry about whether they can have him in the squad during cup play. Tajouri-Shradi played a bit of central midfield in Europe, but with NYCFC his job has been to be a goal-dangerous winger. He’ll largely stay wide in the build-up before looking to slash inside and become a second presence inside the box.
Center forward: Heber
City Football Group’s worldwide scouting network found Heber playing in Croatia, and he’s been a roaring success since arriving in late March. In 10 appearances (8 starts) in league play, the Brazilian already has 6 goals and 3 assists. He fits the way Torrent wants to play: he’s mobile and has freedom to drop into the midfield and combine, but he also has a good understanding with NYCFC’s wide players about peeling out wide and having them fill his spot. Heber makes for a very tricky forward to mark in a similar way that Rooney does for other team.
Left forward: Alexandru Mitrita
Mitrita is another CFG find, and yours truly was among the many skeptics after NYCFC shelled out a reported $8-9 million to bring him in from the Romanian league. While Mitrita is clearly a very skillful player, the returns so far have been mixed, and for a spell in April and May he was no longer a starter for the in-form Pigeons. If Torrent can help Mitrita make better choices and stop forcing things, he might be a really special player in MLS. As things are, Mitrita is almost certainly going to lead NYCFC in shot attempts tonight, because almost all of his choices are “I should shoot!” from just about anywhere.
United will want to make sure he’s taking shots under pressure and from distance rather than from his preferred spot, which is driving across the top of the box trying to set up his right foot.
They have 15 field players available, but their real shortages are in the back and in the midfield. On the attacking side, regulars like Valentin Castellanos and Jesus Medina should be available. Both will bring speed, though Castellanos is a bit more one-dimensional than Heber as a center forward. Medina has never quite looked comfortable in MLS, but he did just score last week, so his confidence might be on the up.
Normally there are a ton with Torrent, who has fielded a bunch of different formations and is definitely a tinkerer. However, with such limited numbers, the 433 appears to be a very safe bet for this one. Really, the question is more about a basic tactical choice: will he have his team sit deep and counter, or will they push high and try to play their normal style? The former approach worked very well at Audi Field back in April, but it also hinged on playing a 532. Torrent was very specific about saying that the extra center back was there to pick up the unpredictable runs into the box United is reliant on, and the tactics depended on stopping those chances before then springing forward at full speed.
In a 433, that’s harder to pull off, so Torrent’s hands may be tied.