The New York Red Bulls head into Portland hoping to buck a trend of which they are themselves a part: so far in Week 29 of the MLS regular season, every one of the top six teams in the Supporters' Shield race at the end of Week 28 has lost - including RBNY, who lost to New England Revolution in mid-week. This is in keeping with the nip-and-tuck nature of this year's competition for the regular season title.
So much so that a loss to Portland won't fatally damage the Red Bulls' Shield prospects at all - they will simply slip a little bit behind FC Dallas (similarly endowed with games in hand and a plump points-per-game average) and hope for better form in their forthcoming three-game home stand. Dropped points at Red Bull Arena will be a problem, particularly as the season is rapidly running out of matches in which to make up for lost ground.
Still, the three opponents heading to RBA shortly are a little more imposing than they looked a few weeks ago: Orlando and Columbus are currently on two-game winning streaks and Montreal is unbeaten in four outings. Points in hand are better than games in hand, so the Red Bulls will doubtless be hoping for at least a point from their excursion to Oregon.
Unfortunately, as rather brilliantly foretold by Lester Townsend's thought experiment on this site - read it; we'll wait for you here...
...RBNY is arriving in Portland absent some key players.
Not quite as many as Lester rather carelessly managed to lose, but Dax McCarty and Connor Lade (both suspended for yellow card accumulation) are significant absentees nonetheless.
RBNY allowed the MLS roster freeze to pass without adding to the squad, despite having one available roster spot and knowing the team was light on obvious back-up in certain areas - right back perhaps foremost among them. The team hopes Chris Duvall will be back for the playoffs, but there can be no certainty in the recovery time from serious injury. He'll be ready when he's ready. As such, the squad has one specialist, MLS-seasoned, right back: Lade, and he has been a player in search of a regular position for most of his career as a pro.
If Lade went down, long-term or temporarily, Marsch knew his options: rookie Shaun McLaws; one of the center backs - most likely Karl Ouimette, who has played full back relatively frequently in his career with Montreal and the Canada national team; one of the cohort of specialist left backs, of whom only Anthony Wallace is currently available (Roy Miller is injured; Kemar Lawrence will be starting on the left side of defense); or converting a winger, Sal Zizzo or Shaun Wright-Phillips being the foremost apparent options.
Clearly, since RBNY showed little sign of interest in a seasoned right-back replacement when Duvall went down, the team can be assumed to be comfortable with those options. Indeed, one assumes Marsch has been aware of who he might select to stand in for Lade ever since the player moved within touching distance of a suspension for yellow card accumulation. His comments on the subject would appear to confirm that hypothesis:
We'll have guys ready to go. I'm not concerned about that.
That counts for McCarty's absence from the lineup in Portland also, but let us first consider Lade's potential stand-in. Once it was clear the replacement for Duvall would need to be replaced in Portland, a consensus swiftly formed - at least on Twitter and, to a certain extent, in the OaM back room - that the man most likely to be tapped to start at this match is Sal Zizzo.
There is much to recommend that selection: Zizzo has been deployed as a stand-in full back ever since he lost his starting role on the wing to his own injury, the irrepressible form of Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam, and the acquisition of high-profile attacking wide-men, Gonzalo Veron and Shaun Wright-Phillips. He's also a former Portland player, so he's familiar with the conditions. Finally, he's an attack-minded player by nature, and Marsch has repeatedly said he likes his team to be aggressive both home and away.
But this column thinks Marsch will opt for Karl Ouimette to start. The young Canadian is almost always deployed as a center back by his coach, but he and Jesse go way back - to their days in Montreal. And Ouimette has been shadowing the first-choice defense all season. He knows the patterns and the inclinations of the unit better than Zizzo. The team will lose a little in the final third, but the loss to the defense inherent in playing Zizzo seems greater than the damage to the attacking options on the field implied by fielding Ouimette. The prediction is Marsch will start Ouimette at right back.
The other big selection question is how Marsch will handle the absence of McCarty. Dax is a huge loss to the team, since he is both captain and the fulcrum of the tactical plan - he is a key ball-winner and distributor, and his particular skill-set is arguably the hardest to duplicate from within the current squad.
The most obvious like-for-like replacement for McCarty is Sacha Kljestan who is traditionally also regarded as two-way midfielder - perhaps a little better offensively and less effective as a defender than his captain. There is a sizable contingent of RBNY fans hoping to see Marsch drop Kljestan back into Dax's role, thereby freeing up space up front for Gonzalo Veron to claim his first start of the season. The Argentine can fill any role in the Red Bulls' front four, though he could be considered most effective out wide, and has largely been used on the left in his limited minutes to date. This could be the game in which he gets his chance for an extended run.
Perhaps they are trying to tell us something.
But this column suspects Marsch is all-too mindful of the fact Kljestan appears to be reaching his best form yet in the advanced-destroyer role he fills in the standard tactic deployed this season. To take Kljestan out of the position he has been adapting to all season is almost to suggest he is the best possible option in that role. If, however, Marsch believes Kljestan to be the best option the Red Bulls have in his current position - and he certainly seems to - why would he weaken the attack in a key game by taking Sacha out of the front four? The team is already hobbled by the loss of Dax and Lade - why weaken the lineup in three positions when it is already sub-optimal in two?
So the prediction is Marsch will stick to his conviction that his favored front four is the best he has in terms of current form and understanding of each other and the overall team strategy. Kljestan will stay up top: his role is important to both attack and defense; to replace him with a less effective ball-winner weakens the overall tactical plan. Look for Sean Davis to pick up a start in place of McCarty.
The pressing and counter-pressing routines demanded by RalfBall require particular skill-sets in key positions - and Veron is no more an adequate replacement for Kljestan in the lineup than he would be for McCarty. He likely needs a pre-season under his belt to truly settle into his place in the starting eleven.
Marsch has individuals in his squad who can turn a match with their attacking flair and skill on the ball. But RalfBall is about the collective. This column predicts it will be those who best complement the nine starters (predicting Jesse will stick with the rest of what has become his usual lineup) keeping their places for this match that will step in for Lade and McCarty, not the players who might have claim to being the most talented or exciting of the available replacements.