Freddy Adu will get all the headlines, but shutting down Michael Farfan is the more vital job for D.C. United on Sunday.
Let's cut right to the chase: This is one D.C. United has to have.
Thanks to some unconvincing performances in their last four games - somehow, that means since the beginning of July! - and the rest of the East getting to play constantly, the Black-and-Red are all the sudden in 5th place after spending much of the season closer to topping the table. Meanwhile, the Montreal Impact (largely due to having played four more times than United) are in 6th and only behind by 3. The Columbus Crew will be within 4 points if they win their game in hand on us, and they just unveiled a new signing they're comparing to Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
In other words, it's go time.
The Union are hardly the ideal team to be facing right now, either. This is the side that knocked us out of the US Open Cup by jamming up the midfield, fouling constantly, and eventually catching us napping on long through balls. They followed that up by going to a high-pressure 433 - the thing that we have struggled with for months now - and totally outplayed United at PPL Park. Sadly for the Union, no one wearing their ugly uniforms could finish, and Chris Pontius scored the game's only goal from a lovely free kick from Branko Boskovic.
Of course, one game doesn't define a team. The Union played that game with the vigor and positivity that came from the firing of Peter Nowak, who was very unpopular within the Union squad. The new coach vibe has stopped working, however, and the Union don't look much better these days than they did under Nowak. They've lost three of their last four, and have only 6 goals on the road in 2012.
So who are we going to face, the good Union or the bad Union?
The Union generally say they're playing 433, but in practice their road formation is more of a 4231. On offense it can be a bit confusing - the Union love to have players temporarily swap positions going forward - but on defense it will generally be quite rigid:
The most noteworthy question mark is Carlos Valdes, who was with Colombia for a mid-week international friendly. There has been no word of an injury, but he also sat out Philly's last match (a 3-1 home loss to the Chicago Fire). If Valdes can't play, look for Bakary Soumare to get the start instead.
The question at left back is less about Gabriel Farfan and more about the issue at defensive midfield alongside Brian Carroll. Hackworth hasn't settled on anyone at that position, and recently gave "Garfan" a run-out there with Ra Gaddis deputizing for him at left back.
Other candidates for that defensive midfield job include Michael Lahoud (the slight favorite) and Gabriel Gomez, who despite his resume with the Panamanian national team and his ability to help the offense out with goals hasn't ever really convinced Hackworth. My money's on Lahoud due to his non-stop running, but Gomez will probably come on as a sub if United gets a lead.
The wings are a revolving door for the Union and have been for a long time. Freddy Adu seems to generally start, but ends up on the bench just barely often enough that you can't be 100% sure he'll go from the opening whistle. He's also played some on the left, so there's that to consider as well. The very recently traded Danny Cruz could also line up there, but then so could Antoine Hoppenot - scorer of the goal that knocked us out of the Open Cup - Josue Martinez, or Keon Daniel.
Martinez could also show up on the left, where his direct running and finishing ability might give the Union something they lack right now. However, everyone I just mentioned as a candidate to play on the right could also pop up on the left, with Daniel perhaps the favorite out of that group.
So what are the differences? We know Cruz well, so I'll skip him. Martinez arrived from Costa Rican giants Saprissa as a forward and is still learning how to be a wide player. Hoppenot is very fast and comes up with big plays, but has pretty low soccer IQ and can be a big defensive liability. Daniel is the smartest and most skillful of the group, but is also the slowest and tends to drift inside often. With Adu also guilty of that, it can leave the Union too narrow going forward.
The key man for Philly, however, will be in between whoever emerges from the gang of potential wide players. Michael Farfan was a last-second addition to Ben Olsen's roster for the All Star Game, but it was high time someone recognized "Marfan." We're talking about one of the better 1v1 players in MLS, as well as a guy capable of scoring from long range and also a clever, skillful set-up man. He may not be David Ferreira, but shutting down Farfan would go a long way towards a win for United.
Perry Kitchen is usually strong against guys that try to isolate him 1v1, but United can't just leave it to one man. As with all 433/4231 teams, the wingers Olsen chooses must pinch inside to make sure the central midfield is 4v3 in our favor rather than 3v2 against. Kitchen may be able to shut down "Marfan" as a threat himself, but if no one's helping with slashing runs inside or tracking Lahoud/Gomez, it won't matter much. The model for how to make this work was April's 4-1 demolition of FC Dallas. If we fail at this, the game will go more like our recent, troubling losses to other 433/4231 sides.
Going forward, the Union are usually tight defensively. That said, Chicago really tore into them with counterattacks and early through balls (note: those require awareness from the passer and the guy making the run). The issue was that Valdes was out, depriving the Union of their defensive leader and leaving them with a young back four. Soumare was the veteran in that group, but is coming off of a knee injury and is also returning to MLS from Europe (meaning, he didn't really get a preseason before being tossed into the deep end).
The key to producing those types of chances will be to stretch the field out in all directions when we have the ball. Our wide players need to look for chances to get in behind for a long crossfield ball, and those two and our forwards need to be on the lookout for Emiliano Dudar's long passes. Philly can go to sleep when the ball is far from their goal - they're a young team, after all - and bypassing their clogged central midfield works better than trying to charge through it.
It will also be important for United to pull the trigger rather than waiting for perfect chances. Zac MacMath will one day be a strong GK, but he has looked shaky for a couple of months now. Whether it's getting caught halfway between charging out and staying home, or letting up goals caused by him being flatfooted, MacMath is not in form right now. Letting him go 90 minutes only having to make 2 or 3 saves would be a huge opportunity missed. The Black-and-Red need to make MacMath stand on his head or suffer the consequences.
Ultimately, this is a big game for both sides. United can't afford to slip up any more, or they'll be more fully in a race for merely the 5th playoff spot rather than breathing more comfortably higher up the table. Philly, meanwhile, have 13 games to make up a 13 point gap for that same 5th spot. This game, like all in-conference games for them, is a must win. Teams tend to either play their best with their backs against the wall, or fold under the pressure. United needs to jump on a Union team that isn't feeling confident of late and make that latter scenario come true.