It's happening again, and this time worse than ever: D.C. United will have to face yet another opponent twice in an uncommonly short span. Just as we seemingly played Toronto FC and the Houston Dynamo twice in one weekend, we'll be seeing a lot of the Philadelphia Union in the coming days. Not only are they our US Open Cup 4th Round opponent tonight ($20 cash at the Maryland Soccerplex...brave the traffic, it's a great venue, and they serve good beer), but they're also our next league opponent on the 16th.
When you read about the Open Cup, you will invariably see someone say that "most teams don't care." Generally, the only teams unanimously seen as trying hard to win this tournament from the get-go are us, the Chicago Fire, and the Seattle Sounders. However, it's unfair to lump the Union in with the rest. In their two previous seasons, the Union were eliminated in the MLS qualifying round despite having fielded strong teams.
Last year - where United survived a penalty shootout against this same Philly team at the Soccerplex - Peter Nowak sent out a team that read like this:
(4132): Mondragon; Williams, Califf, Valdes, Harvey; Carroll; M. Farfan, Nakazawa, Daniel; Le Toux, Ruiz
That was essentially a full first-choice team; Kyle Nakazawa and Keon Daniel were the closest to being back-up players, and they were still in close battles for starting jobs at the time. It was actually United - giving starts to Brandon Barklage, Stephen King, and even Rodrigo Brasesco and Joseph Ngwenya - fielding the watered-down team. That was actually why the game was mostly encouraging: A reserve-heavy DC lineup dominated Philly on the night, only to get sucker-punched twice on set pieces.
The schedule is doing the surviving eight MLS clubs some favors in this round. However, Philly's track record indicates that Nowak would have chosen a strong team regardless of the fixture list. The Union did the same thing in the previous round, and brushed a typically stubborn Rochester Rhinos team aside 3-0. The Open Cup may be the easiest path into the CONCACAF Champions League, but tonight's game is hardly going to be an easy game against a team that supposedly doesn't care.
Nowak's formations tend to differ from game to game, and also change often within games as well. One mostly uniform feature of their teams of late has been a tendency to play narrow, whether it be in a 4132 or 433. I'll detail both, starting with the 4132:
|G. Farfan?||Valdes||Okugo?||M. Farfan?|
In goal, there has been plenty of turmoil for Philly. Presumptive starter Zac MacMath is apparently going to be evaluated for a concussion before the Union heads down 95; he's been out for a couple of games due to that injury, but if he passes the tests it seems safe to presume he'll be in goal. If not, third-stringer Chris Konopka will start since Chase Harrison (who was very briefly a United player) has a sprained ankle.
There are more issues in the back four. Starter Sheanon Williams is questionable due to a big toe sprain, and the Union are comically short-staffed in the back. Amobi Okugo is the most likely replacement despite being a specialist defensive midfielder. Rookie Greg Jordan - another defensive midfielder - would be the other option.
On the flanks, Nowak will choose two from the brothers Farfan and rookie Raymon Gaddis. Gaddis is questionable with an illness, but Nowak also really likes using Michael Farfan as a midfielder, so if Gaddis can gut it out, he may get a start. If the Farfan brothers are the fullbacks, Gabriel Farfan will be on the left with Michael on the right. If Gaddis is called on, there is a slight chance we could see him at left back and "Garfan" at right back, but more likely it'll be the other way around.
Despite the absence of key man and leading scorer Gabriel Gomez (Panamanian national team duty), things in the midfield became a bit more clear when Freddy Adu didn't opt to go through with LASIK surgery during the break in games. He had said himself that he was going to get it done, and there is a recovery period for sports, but it appears he's going to leave it for the offseason. That means we'll probably see him running the attack, though if Gaddis is in defense we'll probably see "Marfan" in that playmaker's spot and Adu playing one of the wings.
Adu has seen an uptick in form in recent weeks, including scoring twice against Rochester, and he will likely be very excited to come back home and play. Denying him the time and space to impact the game will be important, as will being physical without fouling. Adu can be very emotional and when he loses control, his ability to make good decisions with the ball disappears. If you see him trying to dribble past four people or shoot from 45 yards, United has probably taken him out of the game.
The wide players, narrow though they may be, are probably going to be Keon Daniel on the left and Michael Lahoud on the right. Both are hard-working players who have some skill but don't have consistency with the ball. Lahoud (another local, this time from Northern Virginia) in particular can run forever and has plenty of speed, so Daniel Woolard should expect a long night. Daniel, meanwhile, is a threat from set pieces if allowed to shoot. Both players can be contained by early pressure, as their first touch is usually what lets them down when they make mistakes.
Up front, newcomer Lionard Pajoy looked like a bust when playing a central role, but has been revitalized now that Nowak has given him license to roam. Pajoy is extremely left-sided, and will be as much of a concern for Chris Korb at right back as anyone else. Centrally, look for Danny Mwanga to continue as the target man. The youngster hasn't lived up to his potential, but his target play has helped Pajoy, and the Union attack has shown glimpses of improvement on a season in which they've only scored 8 MLS goals.
Now for the 433:
Here, we'd see Pajoy full-time on the left, and Adu playing from rather than on the left. I think in this formation, Nowak would prefer Michael Farfan in the midfield, so Gaddis would probably be at right back. If he's unfit, Lahoud has experience there as well. The Union tend to be a bit more direct playing their 433, with the idea being to supply Adu and Pajoy as quickly as possible. Sometimes "Marfan" jumps further forward in this set-up, giving it a temporary 4231 look.
With that out of the way, we can get to what's going on with Philly. They've been coming up with awful results, including being Toronto FC's first league win. However, their defense has not really been the problem (on a goals-per-game basis, the Union and United would be a virtual dead heat). Despite near-constant change, a goalkeeper injury crisis, the Danny Califf situation, and having only one defender with multiple years at his current position (Carlos Valdes), Nowak has gotten his team to buy in to a team-wide approach to defending. The Union work hard all over the field, and are ably shielded by Brian Carroll, playing the anchor role he has always been most comfortable in.
That said, they're still a pretty unfamiliar group, particularly if Williams is rested. United should particularly look to the wings. Not only would that help us play around the experienced Carroll and Valdes (who got my vote for 2011 Defender of the Year), but it would help us get at the Union's weakest links. They're going to make positional mistakes, so good movement (Hamdi Salihi's calling card) and quick combinations should provide chances. If Andy Najar and Nick DeLeon can isolate their man on the dribble, all the better.
Defensively, it will be important to halt Union moves forward early. There's plenty of technical ability throughout their front five, but they're a bit fragile transitioning into attack. Furthermore, if we see the 433, it will be important to force both Adu and Pajoy to stay wide; both are looking to move inside, and both would be on their weaker foot if kept wide. Pajoy will try to get to the endline in that case, so Korb will need to be quick on the turn while our center backs and Perry Kitchen will need to prepare for a cross.
Given our ability to collapse into a suffocating, narrow shape defensively, I like our chances of controlling this game. However, United will have to bring their best stuff in terms of effort, because if there's anything Nowak gets out of his teams, it's that commitment to battle for everything. While we have a fairly pronounced size advantage - Califf's departure will mean we have at least the three biggest starters if Benny plays the team we're expecting - the Union are a quick, dynamic team that can confuse opponents with a lot of position-swapping, and they also have good team speed.
As in any cup match, coming out of the early stages with a lead would be fantastic. United will be a bit short in terms of attackers available off the bench, and despite their win over Rochester it's safe to say the Union are not a particularly confident bunch. Taking charge tonight will likely bring up those issues, and teams that lack belief in themselves tend to fade out of games even when the work rate is there. Ultimately, it would be nice to see a more assertive United for this round of the cup seize the day and give the angry Philly fans more reasons to be upset with Nowak.