A double-game week normally poses a selection headache for a head coach: who needs rest? Do I rotate and risk stifling momentum?
In the case of Jesse Marsch, head coach of the New York Red Bulls, the matter of maintaining momentum is an important one. RBNY has the longest active unbeaten streak in the league right now, as it heads to Toyota Park, where it will face one of its longest active MLS winless streaks: the team has never won at the stadium the Fire has called home since 2006.
But Jesse also has to keep an eye on Sunday's match against D.C. United: the leading team in the Eastern Conference right now. And Marsch surely has an eye on the games ahead: RBNY will play six of its last nine games of the regular season in a 27-day stretch from September 11 to October 7. Six matches in less than four weeks is a pretty crowded schedule. Also, the Red Bulls need to get used to playing two games a week: this is one of three weeks in which RBNY will play Wednesday and the weekend between now and the end of the regular season.
With games in hand and an important home match ahead, one wouldn't fault Marsch for rotating fresh legs into the lineup for a road trip to play the team currently bottom of the MLS standings. But one also wouldn't fault him for reasoning that double-game weeks are the new normal, and the playoff calendar will likely be no less crowded, so if there are players who cannot handle the burden of shortened recovery time, now is the time to find out. The Red Bulls won't lose too much ground on their rivals for the Eastern Conference or the Supporters' Shield if they drop points this week.
Will Jesse stick with the lineup that has brought RBNY to the brink of joining the league's table-toppers, or take the opportunity to rest a few key players for a match the Red Bulls can afford to lose? Indications are Marsch will take the latter option.
Here is the RBNY lineup I'm expecting for Wednesday's game against the Fire.
Three significant changes from what we've become accustomed to since the team found its best form: no Kemar Lawrence, no Damien Perrinelle, and no Lloyd Sam.
That Lawrence and Perrinelle will be absent is no secret: Marsch said the Jamaican would be rested for this game, and the Frenchman is suspended.
Sam's absence is not really a prediction: there's no great evidence to suggest the stalwart right-winger will be missing from the starting lineup in Chicago. Jesse Marsch is a coach who generally likes to reward a winning team with continuity of selection. But he has said he's "looking at the possibility of a rotation." This game seems the least risky opportunity to do so: the first of RBNY's four games in hand against DC, so it's not a "must-win"; on the road at a venue where the Red Bulls often underperform or are outplayed, so expectations are diminished; not against DC, an opponent against whom Lloyd Sam often reserves his best work.
If there is a chance to see how ready one of the new wide-men (Gonzalo Veron and Shaun Wright-Phillips) is for a starting role, it is surely this game. And if you're choosing between Sam and Grella to make way for the new guy - choose Sam, because Grella is as hot as he is likely to ever be right now, and you tinker with that sort of form at your peril. There is benefit to finding out whether Veron or SWP can be as effective from the start, and there is benefit in keeping RBNY's DC-killer fresh. So as a hunch more than a prediction, I think Sam might be on the bench for this game.
Why Veron over SWP for the start? For no better reason than Marsch made comments recently that sounded a lot like he thinks the team's senior Wright-Phillips will be content with an off-the-bench role for the time being. And the club will understandably be interested in getting its recently acquired Designated Player to his best form as quickly as possible. His first start is an important hurdle for Veron to clear.
Regarding the other changes to the presumptive first-choice lineup, Anthony Wallace should keep his place since he was called on to deputize for an absent Lawrence against Toronto and responded with a solid performance and a goal. Wallace has done nothing to warrant being dropped in favor of Roy Miller. Marsch could conceivably choose to rest a slew of players for this game, but I'm guessing three key players is about his limit for tinkering (the last time Jesse rotated most of his starters out of the lineup was RBNY's first loss of the season - to New England in May). Miller is a seasoned pro, and I'm thinking he understands he's lost his place to a man being afforded the same courtesy he would expect: if you're playing well, you should keep your place.
At center back, Marsch has to choose between Karl Ouimette, Miller, and Ronald Zubar. The latter has struggled a long time with his fitness - but he seemed to get a lot of media attention this week, which suggests the team is quietly prepping us for his return. Zubar was supposed to be the leader of the back line this season, but his injury facilitated the emergence of Matt Miazga and Damien Perrinelle as arguably the most solid center back pairing this team has had since at least the Jamison Olave-Markus Holgersson CB partnership in 2013 (and for this observer, Miazga-Perrinelle is better).
It will be tough for Zubar to crack the starting lineup when Perrinelle is back from suspension, but if Miazga gets selected for the USA U-23's Olympic qualifying campaign in October, Marsch will need a replacement. Zubar needs to prove his fitness and recover his best form - and that process ought to sooner rather than later. Ouimette hasn't done a lot wrong when called upon, but he too has international call-ups hanging over him.
On the face of it, dropping Ouimette after a strong and blameless performance against Toronto FC seems like exactly the sort of thing Marsch wouldn't do: I've said Wallace will keep his place precisely because Marsch usually doesn't drop players who are doing their jobs well.
But Marsch has also said he doesn't want players thinking they'll lose their place in the team over injury. Zubar's injury problems are the only reason he hasn't featured more regularly, and one would guess Ouimette will have been told there is a principle of fairness in play that necessitates allowing the Frenchman a shot at recovering his place in the team. It will then be for Zubar to show he is ready for 90 minutes and maybe turn in the sort of performance that convinces Marsch to risk breaking the Miazga-Perrinelle partnership for the DC game. There are limitations to the "no place lost due to injury" philosophy, and the strength of that CB pairing is well beyond them. Zubar should, however, be afforded the chance to show he ready to step up the next time either Miazga or Perrinelle is absent - otherwise, he's just a very expensive fourth-choice center back.
As for the rest of the team, by the logic laid out above, it should be as we have come to expect in recent games. There isn't much point in integrating new faces (Zubar and Veron) into the starting lineup if they aren't substantially surrounded by the starting lineup. And I'm guessing Marsch still wants three points: subbing in a Designated Player and the man you believed was your best defender in pre-season is not mailing in the game.