Somehow, for the fourth time this season, D.C. United's next game is against a team they just played. This time, it's the Philadelphia Union, and at least for once we can simply blame the unpredictable nature of the US Open Cup for this unusual (for normal teams, anyway) doubleheader.
So more of the same, right? Surely eleven days is not enough time for the Union to have made any crazy changes. I don't even have to write this! I can just send you to my piece on our ill-fated Open Cup 4th round match.
Wrong. Since we last saw the Charlie-working Sons of Ben, they've made a major trade - shipping former #1 pick Danny Mwanga to the Portland Timbers for Colombian speedster Jorge Perlaza - and in even bigger news fired head coach/VP of soccer/superfluous job title holder Peter Nowak. Top assistant John Hackworth is now the boss, and while he has emphasized that he's his own man, he also appears to be leaning towards restoring his side's battered confidence more than installing any revolutionary tactical changes.
All that said, the Union's 2-1 overtime win at the Soccerplex cannot be completely discarded. Hackworth will surely have noted that Philly's grinding, foul-heavy approach slowed United's attack down. He likely also noticed that Philly looked more solid as a team by abandoning the constant position-swapping typically favored by Nowak and instead sticking with a rigid 4231. While the formation may change slightly, the idea that the young Union squad would do better in a more predictable set-up seems to be a lesson that should have been learned long ago.
It's a bit difficult to say what formation the Union will use, both due to the recent upheaval, the constant chopping and changing by Nowak, and injury issues. My guess is that the 4231 we saw in Boyds will reappear, but I have to emphasize that this is a guess:
Even if this is the formation, there are a lot of variables. Gabriel Farfan, who started at left back at the Soccerplex, is listed as out with back spasms (note: this is being written before the Friday evening injury report, so check back for an update before the game). Michael Farfan is questionable with a foot contusion, and Gabriel Gomez - coming off national team duty with Panama - is officially questionable but realistically doubtful due to a quadriceps injury that he gutted through for Los Canaleros.
Those are all important, because the Union lineup features plenty of versatile players. Right back could be filled by either Farfan brother, Raymon Gaddis, or Michael Lahoud. Left back could be Gaddis, Gabe Farfan, or Porfirio Lopez, who was signed to start in that position in the offseason but is essentially a forgotten man at PPL Park these days. It could be that Nowak just didn't like him, so don't count him out (particularly as having him at left back would free up Michael Farfan to play further upfield). The central midfield role alongside Brian Carroll could again be filled by Lahoud, but Philly would be far stronger with Gomez, who has been far and away their best player in 2012.
Another potential right back - really a potential all-star at the position - would be Sheanon Williams, but Nowak's moves forced him into being a brave but overly hectic center back. He is likely to miss out with a toe problem (currently doubtful on the injury report), so we'll probably see Amobi Okugo there as he was in the Open Cup. Okugo is physical and is an upgrade over Williams in terms of playing out of the back, but he's a natural defensive midfielder and can struggle with his positioning. Williams has that same problem, but his speed and agility cover it up; Okugo doesn't have those luxuries, so quick play near him could see him a couple steps behind players at crucial moments.
Further forward, the attacking midfield trio is honestly a stab in the dark. Michael Farfan, if fit and not needed in a defensive role, would probably play centrally, with Freddy Adu on the right and Josue Martinez on the left. If that isn't the case, we'll probably see German veteran Kai Herdling somewhere (Nowak used him in all three positions in this alignment). Keon Daniel could also end up on either wing - more likely on the left - if Hackworth favors a more defensive approach. Young Colombian playmaker Roger Torres is back after having knee surgery a couple of months ago and has gotten some minutes in friendlies during the international break, but Hackworth has indicated that he probably won't play against United.
Philly could also opt for a 433 - as they did in a 3-2 friendly loss to the Harrisburg City Islanders on Wednesday - but that game appeared to be more of an experiment than it was a dry run for the Black-and-Red. If they do play 433, look for Adu and Martinez as the right and left forwards respectively, a midfield of Lahoud, Carroll (playing as a bottom point), and Daniel, with "Marfan" at right back. They could also play a 4132, which would be similar but with Adu back in the midfield.
All this formation talk aside, the biggest change we're likely to see in the Union is the difference Perlaza will make up top. Lionard Pajoy, who cut a bit of a forlorn figure for the Union playing a lone striker's role at the Soccerplex (he's more comfortable drifting wide left, a la Fabian Espindola of Real Salt Lake), doesn't possess Perlaza's breakaway speed. As a result, the Union will likely be looking to play Perlaza through early, rather than playing to his feet and hoping he can hold the ball up as they did with Pajoy.
As such, United's back four is going to have to anticipate those through balls before they're struck. Starting Dejan Jakovic over Brandon McDonald - who frankly struggled all night against the Union in the Open Cup - might not be a bad idea either, as Jakovic is clearly faster than McDonald. Aerial prowess won't count for much against Philly, who have an attack full of smaller, shiftier players rather than big targets. Quickness and speed, however, will be good things to have out there.
For more on Perlaza, check out this rather intriguing piece using Opta statistics to break down how Mwanga and Perlaza differ.
The other challenge with defending the Union is that they like to isolate the fullbacks and force them to defend 1v1. Daniel Woolard actually did rather well against Adu - the best dribbler available for the Union - and has proven in 2012 that he is very difficult to get past on the dribble.
Robbie Russell, on the other hand, will face a different challenge if Martinez is on the left. Martinez doesn't go in for the stepovers and feints; instead, he prefers to simply turn isolation into a footrace down the flank. Martinez has a significant speed advantage over Russell, and Russell got caught several times stepping high too late in an attack. If Russell can step up early enough, he can contain Martinez nearer to the midfield and force him to play negatively. If, however, he misjudges things as he did in the Open Cup match, Martinez will be able to get in behind. I'm not saying it will happen, but don't be floored if Chris Korb gets the call instead as a result of this speed mismatch.
Going forward, United will get another crack at a Union defense full of players who are either inexperienced or not in their natural position. Why couldn't a good attacking team do more against what on paper is a back four begging to be scored upon? First of all, the entire Union midfield showed a lot of discipline in robbing the man on the ball of options, which in turn meant their makeshift defense was not tested.
Furthermore, the Union took note of a lenient referee and fouled any time they were even remotely in trouble defensively. (particularly Lahoud, who may have set a record for fouls committed without being booked). The referee for Saturday's game will be Ricardo Salazar, who no matter what you think of him will certainly be quicker to stamp out this tactic. United should again look to put Philly in positions where the choice is to foul or allow our move forward to continue. The cards will pile up quickly if the Union stick to what worked at the Soccerplex.
Of course, the best way to get at this back four is to simply play with more focus. United's overarching problem against the Union back on the 5th wasn't effort (which was actually pretty good), but instead an issue of misplaced passes and bad first touches throughout the attack. Overconfidence can do that to teams, but having lost that game and being promptly harangued by Ben Olsen, I doubt we'll see that happen again.
As much as the Union played rather well by their standards, they still required overtime to dispatch of a United team having one of their worst matches of the season (at least as bad as the 1-1 draw against the Montreal Impact). One reason the Union are in such upheaval is that they shed a lot of talent and didn't replace it; their place in the standings is not an accident.
United played down to Philly's level at the Soccerplex, and the best way to make up for that is to force them to play up to our level. Having Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Pontius will certainly make us a better team, but the whole group needs to be at their best. The Union simply cannot hit the heights that this United team is capable of hitting, and there are few things more upsetting than watching a quality team play down to a struggling opponent. A focused, detail-oriented United side should be able to get the better of a Philadelphia team that has too much youth and too much chaos surrounding their club.
UPDATE: MLS's injury report came out sometime very late last night, and unfortunately it means we'll probably see a stronger Union team than the mid-week report had allowed for.
Williams and both Farfan brothers have been upgraded to probable, and Gomez seems more like a 50/50 proposition to at least make the bench than he did before. I still expect a 4231 that would line up (right to left) MacMath; Gaddis, Williams, Valdes, G. Farfan; Carroll, Lahoud; Adu, M. Farfan, Martinez (or Daniel); Perlaza. There may be times where this looks like a 433 or a 4411 (especially if Adu and M. Farfan switch spots, or if Daniel is chosen over Martinez on the left).
Hackworth could also choose a 4132, which would feature the same back four, Carroll alone in a holding role, Lahoud on the right, Adu and "Marfan" in the other two spots - both can play on the left or as the central playmaker - and a front line of Perlaza and Herdling (a player who has experience in Germany as a forward, though Nowak never used him up there in any games that I've seen) or possibly even McInerney. The Union don't have a target forward available, so the possibility of an odd pairing like Perlaza and Martinez - two speedsters who tend to play in straight lines rather than being complimentary - also exists.