Photo: Paul Rudderow
What: Union vs Real Salt Lake
Where: PPL Park
When: Friday, August 24. 7:30pm EST
Watch: NBC Sports Network
This hasn’t been a good August for Philly or Real Salt Lake. The two teams have earned a combined one point between them, although the Union’s slump has been much more damaging than RSL’s.
In fact, the perennial contenders from Utah have suffered from an inability to coordinate their embarrassment of riches. In the past four matches, head coach Jason Kreis has shaken the dice and rolled out four different striker pairings. Only the Saborio-Paulo Jr. line produced a win, and it was over a decidedly unimpressive Tauro side in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Though the Union should expect to see those two up top tonight, Fabian Espindola has been a Philly killer in the past so he will certainly see time on the pitch. Behind their front two, RSL will line up in Kreis’ tried-and-true diamond midfield. Javy Morales and Kyle Beckerman form the north-south axis, while some combination of Ned Grabavoy, Luis Gil, Will Johnson and Jonny Steele will round things out.
Home or away, Salt Lake wants to build out of the back and move forward by pushing the ball from the outside backs up to Beckerman. From his distributor role, Beckerman finds wingers or backs who look for Morales in the final third. Like any system that has been in place a while, Kreis’ diamond has well-known flaws and advantages. But, like any group that has experience and leadership, the RSL midfield maximizes its advantages and hides its flaws well.
Danny Cruz put on a masterclass in midfield movement for the first twenty minutes of the Union-DC United match. Skipping inside, faking long and cutting short, hugging the touchline: Cruz tried it all. As Philly’s midfield lost its shape and pressure became less organized, Cruz was forced to pull back further and was less of an influence in the offensive half.
Along with Freddy Adu, Cruz has to get into high positions that draw Kyle Beckerman out of the middle of the park. Beckerman is a sure tackler, and he has Perry Kitchen’s blueprint to work from. More than anyone else in MLS, Kitchen tries to preempt Michael Farfan’s influence by hitting the Union playmaker hard and often. And who can argue with the strategy when MLS referees are wildly inconsistent about the nature of the “persistent infringement” yellow card requirement? Case in point: Michael Lahoud can foul most of the DC United squad without receiving a second caution.
Obligatory “Adu should…” section
Beckerman will be on Marfan watch and it’s likely Grabavoy will have a similar assignment on Freddy Adu. RSL’s compact defense means Adu should have space if he stays wide. That should not, however, be Adu’s signal to unleash a barrage of crosses into the Salt Lake box. Nat Borchers and Kwame Watson-Siriboe could take Jack McInerney to CostCo and use him as a stepladder to reach the giant packs of chips. Hopeful service into the land of giants is not the secret that will unlock the Union offense.
Instead, Adu can work on involving Gabriel Farfan in the offense and playing the ball into McInerney or Michael Farfan’s feet. RSL may be big and bad, but they will give away a foul in the final third. If Adu can combine well with his wide partner and play the cutting ball that forces the center backs to step up and make solo tackles on the quicker Union players, he will be doing what Hackworth has asked of him this week.
Organize the midfield
Philly wants to pressure the ball in the midfield. And they have done that well. But the secondary defense has been sorely lacking. The goal of midfield pressure is to force players to choose their second or third option, or punt the ball long. Too often, ball pressure has not closed the lane to the first passing option, and the opposing offense moves forward in a staccato, yet efficient, manner.
Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud are stuck in the classic athletic conundrum: They can cover acres of space. But they shouldn’t have to. They are smart enough to force a team into poor decisions, but once they start chasing they can’t seem to stop.
Chasing is a particularly dangerous choice against RSL. Beckerman has burned the Union from distance before, and leaving Morales with space in the center is like going down 0-2 against Roy Halladay.
The Adu-McInerney-Cruz line is likely to remain in effect. Improvement is needed in how the three work together and move off the ball. McInerney’s play often rises and falls with the involvement of Michael Farfan. His ability to work with Adu and Cruz in a constructive manner will be key to the Union’s offensive development.
Additionally, it’s time for Chandler Hoffman to get his chance. The team might be reticent to load Hoffman with minutes that could jeopardize his Generation Adidas status, but the ineffectiveness of the substitutes against DC United means The Hoff’s time is now.
He came out of college with a reputation as a finisher, and the Union are in dire need of just such a player.
The season hangs in the balance. The desire to push forward with abandon will be hard to resist. Real Salt Lake is too well-organized and much too dangerous on the counterattack if holes open in the Union defense.
So Philadelphia must come out and play mature, energetic soccer. They are a team built to be a mix of youthful energy and intelligent ball control. Though the two qualities have rarely been seen together thus far, the goals must remain the same.
- GK: MacMath
- DEF: Gaddis, Okugo, Valdes, Garfan
- MID: Carroll, Lahoud, Marfan
- FWD: Adu, McInerney, Cruz
- GK: Rimando
- DEF: Beltran, Watson-Siriboe, Borchers, Wingert
- MID: Beckerman, Grabavoy, Steele, Morales
- FWD: Saborio, Paulo Jr.
- OUT: FW Krystian Witkowski (concussion symptoms)
- DOUBTFUL: FW Jorge Perlaza (low back strain)
- QUESTIONABLE: DF Gabriel Farfan (L knee contusion); MF Michael Farfan (R foot contusion)
- OUT: GK Lalo Fernandez (R wrist fracture); DF Jamison Olave (L hamstring strain)
- DOUBTFUL: DF Chris Schuler (L foot bone bruise)
- Sheanon Williams (Geiger’d)
Suspended after next caution
- Gabriel Gomez
- Michael Farfan
- Fabian Espindola
- Jamison Olave
- Alvaro Saborio