In a league as evenly matched as Major League Soccer, every game played this late in the season has playoff implications. Few are bigger than tomorrow night's clash between New York City and DC United.
The Blue Pigeons are -- somehow! -- still alive in the hunt for a spot in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. It took a heart-stopping win in literally the last kick of the game against the Vancouver Whitecaps for that to happen. It did. David Villa scored in his second straight game, making it 17 goals for the season, and Frank Lampard added another for his second in three games.
Meanwhile, DC United are -- somehow! -- still just a single win away from locking down a spot in those same playoffs. But this DC United team isn't the same team that New York City faced a month-and-a-half ago. They're mired in a six-game winless streak, losing five of those six. Last Saturday, the Black & Red got hammered by the Impact du Montréal, 2-0. Didier Drogba scored twice, and the scoreline didn't reflect the abject nature of DC's capitulation.
This is the second meeting between DC and New York City. On August 13, the Blue Pigeons romped to a 3-1 victory against the Black & Red. David Villa, Thomas McNamara and Kwadwo Poku each scored one goal and assisted on another. That game was in the intimate confines of Yankee Stadium. New York City makes its first trip to the ramshackle environs of RFK Stadium for this encounter.
The injury report for this game is sparse. Midfielder Davy Arnaud will likely miss tomorrow night's game; he didn't play against Montréal after suffering concussion symptoms. Meanwhile, defender Andoni Iraola is out for New York City; he's still recovering from a gastrocnemius strain.
It's the disciplinary record that bears watching here, especially for New York City. R.J. Allen, Jason Hernandez, Andrew Jacobson, and Josh Saunders will all be suspended for their next game if they receive just a single yellow card. On top of that, if Kwadko Poku, David Villa, Shay Facey, and Andrea Pirlo get two yellow cards, they'll be suspended as well. This means that the Blues -- who lead the league in fouls -- will have to be on their best behavior tomorrow night.
DC United forward Conor Doyle and defender Steve Birnbaum are already both suspended for this as a result of yellow card accumulation.
This poses a tactical dilemma for head coach Jason Kreis. On the one hand, his team is as healthy as it's been all year. On the other hand, he's got players whom he cannot afford to lose to suspension as the team chases that elusive playoff spot. Whom will he feature? Who might not make the trip down to Washington? Let's explore some options.
The last three games, Kreis has employed some variation of a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3/4-5-1/4-4-1-1 in a bid to feature both his three designated players (DPs) and his mix of RSL veterans and young players. It's been successful. I don't see him going away from that.
This is where his DPs line up:
The question is where everyone else goes. I suspect that, against a reeling, psychologically fragile DC United, he can afford to feature some players who haven't gotten some minutes lately, but who have proved their ability to contribute meaningfully throughout the season. Here's whom I see him playing tomorrow night:
This lineup has the advantage of featuring most of the players who've deputized so well lately, whilst at the same time keeping key players alive for next Friday's massive, winner-takes-all match against Orlando City. The riskiest starter is going to be Josh Saunders. There's a high chance that we could lose him against Orlando on yellow card accumulation, but I just can't see how Kreis can start either Eirik Johansen or Ryan Meara in his stead in a match of this magnitude.
If -- and that's a huge if -- Saunders sits, I expect Johansen to start; he was highly dependable against the New York Cosmos in his only start, whilst Meara was very shaky against the Chicago Fire in his only start; he gave up a goal on an absolute howler.
I've got Diskerud taking Andrew Jacobson's place. I'm a huge critic of Diskerud, and I remain convinced -- as he's shown over the last few games -- that his best spot is as an attacking right midfielder/winger. But Diskerud also has incredible amounts of stamina, and he's actually a bit better tackler and defender than people give him credit for. His weakness as a defender is his inability to deny attackers space and break up plays before they develop. Luckily for him and New York City, DC United is about the last team who'll test Diskerud in that regard; they're not a particularly creative team, relying on a fairly straightforward counter-attacking style of play.
Tommy McNamara should slot into Diskerud's normal place in the lineup. He's reputedly been in Kreis' doghouse lately -- it's the only reason I and others can think of for why he hasn't played in nearly a month. It's time for him to leave it. He's way too good of a player for him to be permanently exiled, and whatever point Kreis was trying to drill home has been drilled. At this point, it's all hands on deck. McNamara provides creativity and scoring punch, both of which the Blues desperately need.
Finally, I've got Jefferson Mena taking Jason Hernandez's place, Chris Wingert taking his natural left-back spot, and Angelino shifting to right back. Hernandez and Facey have been a terrific centerback combo, but I'd rather risk Mena in there than losing Hernandez to a silly yellow card. Angelino's speed will be a badly-needed factor against DC United, but you need Wingert on the backline to manage the defense if Hernandez isn't going to be there. Hence, the switch.
On the Black & Red side, this is how I expect DC United to line up.
Remember that defender Steve Birnbaum won't be available for DC. I've got Kofi Opare replacing him in the lineup.
I think New York City matches up well against DC United. Will it be an easy game? By no means. There's no easy games this late in the season. But there's three points there for the taking. The Blue Pigeons are swelling with confidence. At this point, New York City has nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Win tomorrow night, and the onus is on Orlando to keep pace, and beat a scorchingly hot Montréal team.
Tomorrow night's game will be aired on UniMás and Univision Deportes at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT. We'll be live-tweeting, and we'll have, as always, a match-thread.