Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz
Who: Philadelphia Union vs. New England Revolution
What: Union Home Opener
Where: PPL Park, Chester, Pa., USA
When: 4 pm, Saturday March 15
Watch: CSN, MLS Live
Referee: A replacement referee and several other people we’ve never heard of
Jack McInerney scored his fair share of game winning goals in 2013. But there was one team that knew what Jack Mac what all about before he burst onto the national stage last year: The New England Revolution.
The Revs are 0-3-2 in PPL Park. All three of those losses have come courtesy of a McInerney game-winner.
That’s the good news.
Here’s the bad news
Last time these two teams met, the Revolution dominated not only the game, but, specifically, the midfield. Truly, no game highlighted the different trajectories of these two Eastern Conference rivals more than this August matchup. New England dominated the midfield, with the starting five completing 37 more passes than their Union counterparts.
After that Aug. 25 win, the Revolution swung into the playoffs, losing only two games down the stretch. They then pushed eventual champions Sporting Kansas City in the playoffs, winning the first game at home 2-1 before losing 3-1 at Sporting Park.
The Union won only once in September and October combined.
But here’s the catch
As bad as the outcome of that late August game was, the Union themselves were not particularly bad. The midfield was uncreative, but before deflecting Juan Agudelo’s 58th minute shot into his own goal, Amobi Okugo had been everywhere, winning two tackles and intercepting three passes before the 80th minute. Jeff Parke didn’t misplace a pass all game. Brian Carroll was very active, particularly moving to his left to help with Kelyn Rowe after the midfielder’s early rocket gave the Revs a first half lead.
So what happened?
Philly thought they had taken the lead when Conor Casey knocked a loose ball past Matt Reis in the 55th minute. Referee Allen Chapman wrongly ruled that Reis had the ball, and two minutes later, the Union were pushing when a Sheanon Williams giveaway led to the break that resulted in a Revolution lead. Okugo lost his cool and fully earned a petulant red card in stoppage time that made him miss the next two games. The ominous clouds were forming over the latter stages of the season.
New season, new players, and another shot
Both teams enter the second match of the 2014 season wondering what went wrong a week ago. How did the Union let a sure three points slip away in Portland? How did New England let a goal slip in two minutes into the season?
Philly’s answer appears straightforward: A lack of concentration.
New England’s is less so.
With Matt Reis in goal and Jose Goncalves dominating the box, the 2013 Revolution defense was just good enough to barricade the gate and let the many offensive tools unlock opposition back lines. Last week, Goncalves looked like a middle schooler in a seventh period math class. He might have known there was a game going on around him, but he certainly wasn’t acting like it. ESPNBoston’s Brian O’Connell summed it up best, describing Will Bruin’s opening strike: “While the camera focused on Shuttleworth, the guilty party appeared to be Jose Goncalves, who not only failed to intercept the pass from Sarkodie, but also fell victim to ballwatching as Bruin plotted his shot.” Ladies and gentlemen, your 2013 MLS Defender of the Year wants a new contract, and he might just keep phoning it in until he gets one.
Adding injury to disinterest, Kevin Alston left the match early, leaving the Revolution back four even more depleted.
To put things in perspective, in the first half, Scott Caldwell — no Brian Carroll on a good day — put up the type of numbers a good defensive midfielder puts up in a full match. Five interceptions, five recoveries, two clearances, and three defensive half headers. All in 45 minutes. From a guy that averaged 1.4 interceptions a match last season. Yeah, he was busy.
So how will New England approach Philly?
There is an obvious answer and a counterintuitive answer.
The obvious: Jay Heaps can rein in Daigo Kobayashi and ask his new central midfielder to play a more recessed role, sitting next to Caldwell on defense. Heaps may opt for this formation because it offers distinct offensive and defensive advantages. In terms of shape, it provides the simplest way for the Revs to contain Vincent Nogueira. El Moteur struggled with his touch a bit early, but his movement, vision, and ability to find pockets in the Portland midfield was a sight to behold. Like everyone else in MLS, Heaps will have noticed too. And he will know that leaving Nogueira to Caldwell is a risky maneuver on the road.
The other option is to withdraw a midfielder and play a traditional 4-4-2 with Teal Bunbury and Jerry Bengston up top. The aim would be simple: Force Brian Carroll to start the Union offense. This is a tactic teams tried with varying success in 2013. Carroll doesn’t have nearly the passing range of Nogueira or Maurice Edu. The Revs could use two strikers to force Philly to play the ball wide to their less offensively inclined fullbacks while almost man-marking Edu and Nogueira. If implemented, this system puts the ball on Carroll’s feet and says, “Beat us if you can.”
Both options have their pros and cons, but Heaps may cede the midfield and opt for two up top. As much as he likes to pack the middle of the park, the Revolution coach has to realize that he’s going to have to play some long ball against this revamped Philly midfield. Especially after Oscar Boniek-Garcia picked New England apart from a central position last week.
Union midfield tactics
Against Portland, Vincent Nogueira pushed high to join Jack McInerney in pressuring the Timbers defense to force them to get rid of the ball. Defensively, the Union almost looked as though they were playing a 4-4-2, with Maidana tucking slightly inside to help when Nogueira went high.
Additionally, Edu dropped deeper to bracket Valeri and keep the Portland playmaker from getting involved. The plan worked brilliantly. Valeri couldn’t find space around Edu and Carroll in the middle. He moved wide — with Nagbe coming inside — in a vain attempt to find space. Still unable to find the ball, Valeri came back inside, and Portland essentially asked Nagbe to play creator. Valeri acted more like a De Rosario playmaker and stayed high up the pitch to get involved once Nagbe was able to create his own space on the dribble.
The same bracket technique seems unnecessary against New England unless Diego Fagundez decides to set up camp in the middle. Hackworth may just stick with what worked before, or he may switch to an inverted triangle, with Edu and Nogueira tracking midfield runners behind McInerney. This would give the New England defense more time on the ball but ensure that the only place they had to go with it is deep.
Key matchup on the wing
Cristian Maidana has a chance to be the best winger of Philly’s first decade as a club. That’s no exaggeration (though it may speak as much to the team’s lack of quality wingers as to Maidana’s own skills).
While Maidana’s technical ability was impressive in his Union debut, his defensive work also deserves commendation. Of his nine recoveries, Maidana made seven of them in his own half and five in his own defensive third.
This is important because at some point on Saturday, Saer Sene is going to be on the field. Sene has had injury issues throughout his MLS career, but when he is healthy, he can be a terror against a team that doesn’t have defensively responsible wingers on his side. Sene may not start, but when he comes on, he will likely be on Maidana’s side so he can cut in onto his left foot and punish the Union has he has done before (see July 29, 2012).
Maidana’s willingness to work back will help contain Sene, and it will also help contain Brian Carroll, whose desire to help wide opened space for Kelyn Rowe’s coming out party last August.
Prediction: Union 3-1 Revolution
If New England can’t overrun the Union in the midfield, this could be a big win for the home team. The Revolution defense is not great when healthy, and they will not be healthy on Saturday. Provided Philly can find a way to play with purpose against a team that could sit very deep early to protect against McInerney’s speed, a pair of first half goals is not out of the question. Last year, Philly could get complacent when given time to knock the ball around the back. Nogueira and Edu seem to have little interest in cleaning up the scraps from long balls, so they will check in and try to find holes behind the undisciplined New England skill players.
It might not be the prettiest game, as both teams will come out cautious after receiving different levels of sucker punch in Week One, but it should be a Union win.