Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz
What: Union vs DC United
When: 8pm EST
Where: PPL Park
Referee: Baldomero Toledo; SAR (bench): Greg Barkey; JAR (opposite): Corey Parker; 4th: Daniel Fitzgerald
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The Philadelphia Union will have few chances to play spoiler as the season winds down. Might as well start against a rival.
Aside from an early 0-0 draw against Vancouver, United’s only road points have come against the bottom three teams in the East. Their last road win came against Philly in June.
They have the second worst road goal differential in the conference. And when they come to PPL Park they will leave their best player behind; Dwayne De Rosario is out for the season with a sprained MCL.
The Union, however, will also be without their playmaker, with Michael Farfan serving a one game suspension for yellow card accumulation.
Lineup questions are merely the veneer that covers tactical issues these days. No matter who the Union put on the field tonight, the goal will be to play a confident, attacking game that builds from midfield control and ends in… what’s an f-word that happens near goal? Flubbing? Flailing? That’s right, finishing.
Conceding the middle and gaining… what?
As Eli has mentioned a number of times in his post-match analyses, teams have adjusted to the Union’s 4-3-3(ish) formation by dropping the defensive line. Without anybody stepping forward to fill the space between that new deeper line and the midfield, the opposition has found it extremely easy to move the ball out of the back through the middle. One wide midfielder comes slightly inside or a striker drops deep, then two central midfielders and the third man play triangles around Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud until an outlet springs open. Philadelphia can still put up a stout line once teams are in the final third, but a 4-3-3 offers a wealth of counterattacking options that disappear when the offense continually builds slowly from the backs.
In other words, the formation and tactics have been at different places in different weeks. High pressure defense requires numbers and organization. The Union need to know where they want to force teams to go with the ball. If Carroll is stepping to the man with the ball, where does he want the next pass to go? And does everyone else on the field understand where Carroll is pushing the ball carrier? That type of coordinated defense in the middle of the park is foundational if the team wants to provide Jack McInerney with the support everyone believes he needs.
It’s natural that a team struggling to score goals doesn’t want to mess around with the ball once they get it. It’s usually been a long time since the Union scored, so when the team gets possession everyone wants to make the pass that springs the big play.
Consequently, the temptation to forgo an off-the-ball run in favor of opening up for a pass becomes hard to resist. After all, if you want to change the game you need the ball, right?
Just like boxing is less about the punch that knocks an opponent out than the series of jabs and moves that set up the killer blow, opportunities in soccer are often borne from movement that opens up new space. Am I going to quote Taylor Twellman to help explain this? Oh, yes. I am.
Twellman is fond of noting how a check-back or deep run by a striker sets up the rest of the game by putting that type of run into a defender’s mind, which causes the defender to play a more cautious game. This is often true, but what is left unspoken is how that type of run points out weak points in a defense. Once a ball has been lofted over the top to a striker once or twice, that run may not be there the rest of the game for a front man. But it might be there for someone else.
Weak spots can be exploited by more than one player. If a long ball is on, a winger can make the run instead of the striker. Just because one member of a defense adjusts doesn’t mean they all will. Recognizing that there is a soft point is step one. Finding the back door to that point is the more important step, especially when your finishing record suggests you will need multiple chances to finish things off.
Containing the wings
DC United doesn’t have speed to burn up top, but they can bring it off the wings. If the Union can contain that speed, they can play with a high defensive line and compress the midfield areas where they have lost many battles in recent weeks.
The United center backs would prefer not to play the ball with their feet. Keeping a tight formation allows the Union to press the back line and get to Perry Kitchen in the midfield before he can spread the ball and start attacks. It also plays into Philly’s strengths, allowing the speed of Okugo and Valdes to cover any brilliant stuff over the top.
Of course, it’s all contingent on containing those wide players. Chris Pontius’ good form has revealed a player who can read a game as well as anyone in MLS. If he isn’t forced wide, Pontius will pick the right runs through midfield, and good luck stopping him once the ball is on his left foot near the box.
DC manager Ben Olsen has been using zippy winger Andy Najar as a right fullback, but only in home games. If Najar starts, it’s more likely to be in midfield than in back. This could push Pontius or standout rookie Nick DeLeon into a supporting striker role. Of the two, Pontius is more likely to move especially since DeLeon’s service has been remarkably consistent from the edge this season.
Moving Najar up leaves DC with some tough decisions. Dejan Jakovic was woeful as an outside back against the Union in August, but nobody else has stepped in to claim the spot since. Olsen could move Brandon McDonald wide or he could drop Robbie Russell or Ethan White into the open spot. No matter who is there, it’s a clear point of attack for the Union (aka, for Freddy Adu).
Corner kicks, now called foot-throw-ins
The short corners did not look good against Toronto, but the Union can’t abandon them. Simply put, the team just hasn’t been aggressive on offensive corners to warrant continued service into the box. Defenders struggle more with crosses that come from unique angles. Think Hoppenot’s cross for Williams’ goal against Toronto, think Hoffman’s goal, think Williams’ early back post ball to McInerney for the win over New England.
Some teams can beat you in the air even though you know what’s coming. We call these teams Houston.
Lacking that ability, the Union need to rely on trickery. Even a cross played from the corner of the eighteen can be tricky if it’s surprising and well-placed. So the short corners should continue, but they need more coordinated planning than Freddy Adu and one other player playing keep-away before putting a ball into the box from ten yards inside the flag.
Get crunchy early
Michael Farfan and Perry Kitchen get into it nearly every time these two teams play. With Farfan out, who will establish the Union’s toughness early? The Union don’t need to make a statement to DC, they need to make it to themselves. An early crunching tackle and 50/50 balls will become 51/49 balls very quickly. This match is on national TV at PPL Park. The fans will be ready to make noise.
If you can’t give ‘em goals, give ‘em guts.
And give it to them from the start.
- GK: MacMath
- DEF: Williams, Okugo, Valdes, Gaddis
- MID: Carroll, Adu, Garfan, Cruz
- FWD: McInerney, Hoffman
- GK: Bill Hamid
- DEF: Robbie Russell, Brandon McDonald, Dejan Jakovic, Chris Korb
- MID: Perry Kitchen, Branko Boskovic, Andy Najar, Nick DeLeon, Chris Pontius
- FWD: Maicon Santos
- OUT: FW Krystian Witkowski (concussion symptoms);
- QUESTIONABLE: DF Bakary Soumare (R knee inflammation);
- PROBABLE: MF Michael Farfan (L hamstring strain); MF Danny Cruz (L big toe sprain)
- OUT: MF Lance Rozeboom (L knee ACL tear); DF Daniel Woolard (concussion-like symptoms); MF Stephen King (inguinal hernia repair); FW Josh Wolff (lower back disc herniation); MF Dwayne De Rosario (L knee MCL sprain)
- PROBABLE: MF Marcelo Saragosa (L hamstring strain)
- Michael Farfan (yellow card accumulation)
Warnings (suspended next yellow card)
- Brian Carroll, Gabriel Gomez
- Dwayne De Rosario, Lionard Pajoy, Maicon Santos