PREVIEW | D.C. United host rival New York Red Bulls as Atlantic Cup rivalry resumes

After a disappointing result over the weekend, D.C. United returns home for the first installment of this year’s Atlantic Cup against the New York Red Bulls. Wednesday’s match is part of a grueling stretch featuring three games in seven days as United attempt to keep pace in a thickening Eastern Conference playoff picture.

Here’s what you need to know before kickoff:

Opponent: New York Red Bulls

Record: 11 wins, 10 losses, 5 draws

Standings: Fifth place in the Eastern Conference

Last match: Draw, 1-1, vs. New England Revolution

Head coach: Chris Armas; first full season; overall record of 26 wins, 18 losses, 8 draws

Armas was named head coach of the Red Bulls on July 6, 2018, following three and a half seasons as an assistant for the club during which he focused on the attacking players. His prior coaching experience included stint as an assistant with the Chicago Fire, in 2008, and as the head coach of the women’s soccer team at his alma mater, Adelphi University, from 2011-14. Armas enjoyed a storied playing career in Major League Soccer as a standout for the Fire. He started 260 of his 264 career games and finished with 12 goals and 48 assists. He served as the Fire’s captain from 2003-07 and was named to the MLS All-Star team six times. Armas also made 66 appearances for the U.S. men’s national team and scored two goals.

Player to watch: Bradley Wright-Phillips, forward

When considering the 2019 season on its own, Wright-Phillips seems like a peculiar player to highlight. He has logged just 735 minutes due in large part to a groin injury that sidelined him for nine games, from late April through early June, and has managed only one goal since returning to the 18-man roster approximately six weeks ago. But Wright-Phillips has gnawed at United for years as an ever-present face in the Atlantic Cup rivalry. He’s scored 10 goals in his last 11 games against the Black-and-Red, including a hat trick last September. As recent editions of the rivalry go, Wright-Phillips is arguably the most noteworthy foil. And while Armas has utilized Wright-Phillips as a substitute in 10 consecutive games, it’s possible the 34-year-old returns to the starting lineup Wednesday night. Wright-Phillips played 61 minutes in his team’s last game after replacing the injured Brian White early in the first half, and Armas might be tempted to include his most proven scorer against a side Wright-Phillips has aggravated many times before.

“He’s really well-rounded,” coach Ben Olsen said this week. “His hold-up play is underestimated. He’s good in the air. Understands how to move in the box. He can score goals in so many different ways. And yeah, he’s been a thorn in our side. You’ve got to be around him, you have to do what you’ve got to do against all these great forwards: whether it’s limiting service, dealing with the press or making sure we have hands on him in the box at all times.”

Tactic to consider: Paul Arriola’s role in the final third

Olsen shifted Arriola to the No. 10 role during the team’s gritty win over the LA Galaxy at Audi Field earlier this month. The coach praised his tireless attacker for his work on both sides of the ball: first as someone willing to take defenders on and create chances offensively; then as a sparkplug at the top of United’s defensive formation where his energy never seems to wane. A week later, against the Vancouver Whitecaps, Arriola shifted back to the wing but logged his highest volume of touches (69) since April 28, when he managed 77 against Minnesota United. And as a team, United produced an expected goal (xG) total of 1.77 over the weekend despite failing to convert their chances. That was the team’s highest xG total since July 13 against the Revolution. It stands to reason that there’s a correlation between Arriola’s involvement the last two games — albeit from different positions — and an uptick in quality chances produced. Perhaps Olsen will continue utilizing Arriola as his primary playmaker down the stretch with attacking midfielder Lucho Acosta coming off the bench. A trio of Arriola, Wayne Rooney and Ola Kamara could be quite potent for United.

Lineup question: Will the Red Bulls utilize the same formation they played last week?

Armas unveiled a tactical tweak against the Revolution over the weekend that saw his team in a 4-3-1-2 alignment in possession. He pushed midfielder Daniel Royer up the field as a second attacker alongside White and, eventually, Wright-Phillips after White departed with an injury. In fact, Royer consistently served as the highest player up the pitch based on heatmap data compiled by WhoScored, and the result was a fluid, interchanging attack with plenty of numbers behind the ball to thwart New England’s counters. The Red Bulls produced 2.89 xG against the Revolution, which was their highest mark since they posted 4.22 xG against the San Jose Earthquakes on March 16. Given the volume of chances created against the Revolution — Armas’ side outshot New England by 22-6 despite an even split in possession — it stands to reason Royer may serve as an auxiliary forward once again, especially as a potential partner for the aging Wright-Phillips, who might not be 90 minutes fit coming off his injury. Eighteen of the team’s 22 shots were generated from open play in a reflection of their creative success against the Revolution.  

“They’re a good team,” Olsen said. “We know what they’re about. They haven’t changed too much in the way they’ve been successful over the last couple years. It’s a fast-paced game against them. There’s not a lot of room for error. They’re relentless in their pressure. They’re relentless with winning second balls. So you really — it becomes a game of focus and not giving them any moments where you relax, because they do a good job of pouncing on those moments.”

Stat to know: Ben Olsen has the most fouls suffered (86) and most fouls committed (57) in Atlantic Cup history

The renewal of an original MLS rivalry on Wednesday carries with it more than two decades of history: from the MetroStars and RFK Stadium, to the spitting of Red Bull and goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s visceral hallway eruption that prompted a franchise slogan. When it comes to institutional memory, the relationship between United and the Red Bulls has it all.

And the players are aware of what this game means for their supporters. Perhaps no one is more understanding of that than midfielder Felipe Martins, whom the Black-and-Red traded for earlier this month, and a player who spent part of his career with the Red Bulls.

“Here is special because the rivalry between D.C. and New York is very big,” Martins said recently. “And now that I’m a D.C. United player, everyone can be sure that the same type of player I was with the Red Bulls, that’s who I am and I’m going to still be because I don’t think it’s disrespectful. This is who I am and I’m going to protect my teammates, these colors and the club I play for.

“Of course I have a tremendous amount of respect for them because of all the years throughout my career, and you always have to be thankful for the opportunity you had, and I am truly thankful to the Red Bulls. But now I am on D.C. United, and we’ve got to be sure that they’re going to be ready for a fight. We’re going to be up for anything that they bring.”

At the tip of the iceberg is Olsen, a man who understands the origins and passions of this rivalry better than most having created many of the indelible highlights himself. He was a protagonist in some of the more iconic moments this series has to offer and now, as the coach of his former club, he can translate that intensity to his current team. Three points would feel a bit sweeter given the opponent Wednesday night.

“We don’t have many games left, so every one of them is going to be vital,” Olsen said. “And then you add that it’s New York and then Philly right after, it’s a big week. It’s a big week for us, it’s a big week for them. We’re looking forward to putting the best group we have (on the field).”