D.C. United kicks off what we all hope will be a redemptive 2023 MLS campaign Saturday, and at this point, none of us knows anything about this team with any kind of confidence.

Lots of new players have come in, each one with the potential to hit or miss. We have some idea of the tactics Wayne Rooney wants his team to employ, but last season we only saw a partial implementation–a prototype cobbled together with whatever was on hand after the firing of Hernán Losada (plus a few summer signings that didn’t immediately work as well as anybody wanted).

I’ve seen predictions and prognostication this winter that Rooney will run out an Ajax-style 433, or a more vanilla 4231, or even the old bog-standard 442 like the good English lad he is. But until we get the first lineup of the year around 6:30 Saturday evening, we’re all just making it up.

Far be it from me to consider myself too good for such wild guessing. So here’s how I think the Black-and-Red will come out this weekend and the ideas they’ll probably be chasing all season, based mostly on anecdata and gut feel.

Like I said, we’re all just making this up at this point.

The Formation

Want a copout right off the jump? I think Rooney is going to show some flexibility in the formation this season.

It’ll be a four-back, barring a major surprise. In front of that… I am positive there will be six players arrayed in some fashion.

If last year was any indication, Rooney’s preference is to defend out of a 442 with several positionally versatile players in the midfield and attack. Honestly, if you just looked at the personnel, you’d be forgiven for thinking the shape will be a 433–that was my expectation last season, too, until I actually saw those two banks of four.

Since Rooney’s arrival, we’ve seen Chris Durkin–a lifelong defensive midfielder/center back–line up on the right side of midfield only to play stylistically as a #8. Martín Rodriguez (now confirmed as out for 2023 with a torn ACL) was on the opposite side, playing as a winger and sometimes-#10. All the while, both fullbacks bombed forward to bolster numbers in the attack.

At any given moment, what started as a 442 could look more like a 433 or 4231 or even, in the final third, my beloved 235, the alpha and omega of soccer formations.

(Did it leave the defense open on the counter? Boy, did it ever!)

READ MORE: Understanding Wayne Rooney’s D.C. United (Aug. 15, 2022)

I think we’ll see something similar this year. Besides the 442, Rooney has also run out a 4231 this preseason, but whether that’s an indication of things to come or a one-off due to limited availability, who can say?

Rooney really seems to want to prove to us all that formations and tactics are not the same thing, and whatever defensive shape he adopts, those positions won’t necessarily define the roles players take on the ball.

We shouldn’t be surprised to see Durkin or new DP central midfielder Mateusz Klich line up in a wide midfield spot only to pop up in the half-spaces to send in a final ball or put a shot on goal. Expect to see wingers trying to get on the end of back-post crosses.

Watch out for wide overloads featuring a fullback, a winger, and somebody you’d swear was a central midfielder working to spring one of them into space near the edge of the box. That setup to create crossing and cut-back opportunities might be the defining feature of Rooney’s attacking system. 

But who should we expect to be in those spots this year?

The Lineup

Because we didn’t get to see much of preseason this year–an annual complaint, to be sure–there are a lot of question marks, and they’re as much to do with where a player will line up rather than who will take the field. There are a few position battles we won’t have much insight into until Rooney drops his selection this weekend, and thanks to Rodriguez’ injury, one starting spot that’s just totally up in the air.

Very briefly, position-by-position:

  • Goalkeeper: Tyler Miller and Alex Bono have both had plenty of run in MLS and were both pushed to the bench at their former clubs. From everything I’ve seen and heard on both players, Miller should be the favorite, and nothing has publicly come out during preseason to change that expectation.
  • Center back: Steven Birnbaum is the captain, and Rooney pegged 16-year-old homegrown Matai Akinmboni as the team’s top performer of preseason. These are your starters in the back.
  • Fullback: Left back seems set with Iraqi-Swedish newcomer Mohaned Jeahze manning the left flank. The right side is more of an open question, with Andy Najar and newly acquired Ruan (pronounced hoo-ahn) vying for the spot. With Najar fitting into a few different spots and being made up of the world’s finest porcelain, my hunch is that the speedier Ruan gets the nod here, at least for now.
  • “Central” midfielder: Here’s where things start to get complicated. We’ve got four players–Klich, Durkin, Russell Canouse, and designated player Victor Palsson–competing for either two or three spots, depending on how Rooney decides to futz with positional expectations on the day. I personally rate Canouse over Palsson from what we saw last season, but I expect the two DPs to start along with Durkin, who was one of Rooney’s true favorites in 2022. Recall, of course, that Klich or Durkin is actually starting on the right side of the formation, not actually in the middle, even if that’s where they’ll both spend most of their time when United are on the ball.
  • Attackers: This will be a catch-all category for those who aren’t going to play as central-ish midfielders or as center forwards, and for this game, it’s our last designated player Taxi Fountas up high and homegrown highlight real Theodore Ku-DiPietro taking the injured Rodriguez’ spot on the left side of the formation. While Fountas’ starting gig should be safe, that other spot is an open question with young Jackson Hopkins, younger Kristian Fletcher, and old Pedro Santos all vying with Teddy KDP. Your guess is as good as mine, but Ku’s ability to suck in defenders and create space for himself and his teammates feels like something this team needs. Desperately.
  • Center forward: Christian Benteke, what’s up?

Chez Rooney

If you’re more of a visual person, here’s how I expect Los Capitalinos will play Toronto, three ways:

First, you’ve got a lovely 442 defensive block garnished with arrows…

(If you’d prefer a slightly spicier variation, Taxi can drop behind Benteke for a 4411/4231 look.)

… to kind of lead you into the middle dish, which is a snapshot of how the build up might look.

(Note the “central” midfielders actually coming central as the fullbacks overlap.)

Finally, we have the final third attacking shape, chef’s famous 235 with a sweeper-keeper.

(The original soccer formation. And still the best. In my heart.)

Bon appetit!

ByAdam Taylor

Scurrilous ex-podcaster writing about D.C. United, American soccer more broadly, and soccer culture in the DMV.

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