D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union played just over a week ago, but I expect this Saturday's match to be very different. Why? Because both teams are pretty different. One has fired its coach. The other is returning Dwayne De Rosario from national team duty.
To prepare for the match, I exchanged three questions with Scott Kessler from the Brotherly Game.
B&RU: Obviously the firing of Peter Nowak has huge off-field implications, such as the Union probably not trading away their best players while getting very little in return anymore. But do you expect this move to have much impact on the field? Will we see any changes to the team's tactics or preferred lineups?
tBG: I think there are two answers to expectations about on the field impact (yes, Union fans, that was a joke about Nowak):
(1) Yes - John Hackworth is not Peter Nowak. He said so himself. If we are to take his word at face value, then we must assume that the Union will look different on the field in some way, be it formationally, tactically or player personnel wise. Philadelphia disparately needs a face life and has the opportunity to throw something new out on the field given their number of injuries and the suspension of starting striker Lionard Pajoy.
(2) No - Hackworth said two concerning things at Wednesday's press conference. The first was that he shares a similar playing style vision to that of Nowak. The second was that fans should not expect the team to look different over night simply because Nick Sakiewicz chose to change head coaches.
Either way, the Union are now without Nowak coaching them, leaving them with the possibility of either keeping the status quo or changing the momentum of the (regular season). I would like to see the Union try to pull off a more attacking lineup that includes Josue Martinez, but with Pajoy out and Chandler Hoffman (left heel contusion) questionable, I don't see Philadelphia starting the Costa Rican and newly acquired Jorge Perlaza at the same time.
Do you think the chippiness of last week's Open Cup game will carry over to Saturday? What differences do you think we'll see?
A few players will miss today's game: Pajoy (suspension) and Gabriel Farfan (back spasms). Additionally, Sheanon Williams (right big toe sprain) is listed as doubtful despite the team having him as a probable starter. Gabriel's twin brother Michael Farfan is questionable with a left foot contusion, leaving the Union with many questions in the back. Without Garfan (Gabriel's fan created nickname) in the back, Chris Albright out (right foot sprain) and Williams possibly not playing, it leaves Marfan (yes, it was easy for these nicknames to be made), the much maligned Porfirio Lopez, rookie Raymon Gaddis, Carlos Valdes and central midfielder Amobi Okugo as the options in the back. That alone is a scary thought with a new manager and a new striker. I don't think much will carry over from last week's USOC game other than that chippiness, which could end up hurting the Union given their lack of defensive depth at the moment.
Has Freddy Adu reached his ceiling at Best Attacking Player On A Bad MLS Team, or will he continue to grow and back into the USMNT picture?
I'd argue he's not the best attacking player on the Union. That moniker belongs to Michael Farfan, whose runs and crosses have gotten progressively better as the year has gone on. Adu still needs to be consistent and probably needs to move inside full time, unless he can rekindle the first half form he had against the New York Red Bulls prior to being sent off controversially. I try not to spend too much time questioning Adu's role and future on the team anymore, given the fact that he causes those same thoughts on every team he's every been a part of at this point in his life. In the end, if Adu is able to find any positive form consistently, he can grow back to being on the USMNT and making the Union a very competent offensive side.
Scott also asked us some questions about United. The following are my answers:
tBG: Last year it was a ridiculous run by Dwayne De Rosario that helped to make D.C. United a legitimate contender for a playoff spot. This season United appears to be much more balanced, more threatening and better overall despite DDR not having an MVP-type stats year. What has gone right for United in terms of player acquisitions and on-field tactics to enable the team to perform so well thus far?
B&RU: Last year, Ben Olsen took the existing roster, made a few tweaks, and went with it. United was lucky to be able to swindle De Rosario from the New York Red Bulls, but the team still didn't entirely fit together. This year is different because United went out and acquired players to fit specific roles. Nick DeLeon and Danny Cruz weren't just added for their attacking traits, but also for their work ethic on defense, because that's what this team needed on the wings. They wanted a few veteran defenders to complement the rest of the youthful defense, so they got Robbie Russell and Emiliano Dudar. They wanted a poacher, so they got Hamdi Salihi. They wanted a big forward who can hold up the ball and distribute, so they got Maicon Santos. Now there's competition for spots in the starting 11, and competition makes everyone better. Olsen now also has the option of mixing up his lineups depending on what tactics he wants to employ. If Olsen wants speed up top, he puts in Chris Pontius. If he thinks the team needs to place a high value on possession, its Santos. If he expects the opposing defense to leave some loose balls in the box, its Salihi. That's a significant change from last season when this team was absolutely carried by De Rosario.
Do Ben Olsen's post-USOC game comments about losing to the Union, who are sitting near the bottom of MLS's standings, fuel the fire of this growing rivalry at all? Do his comments mean that United will do everyone to prevent a loss, especially now that the Union blocked DC from possibly grabbing the USOC.
I don't think his comments necessarily added fuel to the rivalry, but the nature of the match sure did. Anytime you have a referee show double reds in overtime and have one goalkeeper run all the way into the opposing box to help separate players, you've got the makings of a rivalry. Watching from the press box, I wasn't the least bit surprised that the Open Cup match ended in chaos as both teams were guilty of some very physical fouls throughout the match, with some Union players getting away with far more than most referees would have allowed. Olsen's strong words after the game weren't meant to diminish Philadelphia's win in any way. He was sending a message to his players that we're not as good as we think we are, and we can't just show up and expect to win. There must have been a sense of overoptimism in the D.C. locker room leading up to last week's match, but I doubt that will happen again on Saturday night.
A few months ago we were discussing on Twitter how Zac MacMath was the third choice option for the USMNT's under-23 squad. Now it seems that, prior to his concussion problems, he's gained a lead on Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid to claim the role of America's best young goalkeeper. With Hamid starting once again for DCU, has he taken over as the best goal keeping prospect in the country?
Hmm, that's an interesting question. If we're talking about the best goalkeepers in MLS, I don't think either Hamid or MacMath cracks the top five just yet. But if you're asking who has the higher ceiling, or who I'd prefer to take for my team at this very moment, it's definitely Hamid. He's always been a good shot-stopper, and his physique is powerfully intimidating, but Hamid has also taken a big step forward this year in terms of decision-making. He competently controls his box, snagging crosses out of the air, and charging forward to cut out attacks when necessary. With that said though, I'm far from naming him The Next Tim Howard, as some have. His distribution could also use plenty of work.