MLS's unbalanced schedule, combined with some quirks within D.C. United's specific schedule (like a three-week span in which we played both the Houston Dynamo and Toronto FC twice), has given me a running joke for these scouting reports: "You again?!" more or less sums it up.
No team in the league has gotten that treatment more than tonight's opponent, the Philadelphia Union. United has already seen our geographically closest rival three times: A 2-1 overtime loss in the US Open Cup, a wholly undeserved 1-0 win at PPL Park, and Geigerfest 2012 (a.k.a. a disastrously officiated draw at RFK). They're back again for the final time this season, with United again on the road in the City of Brotherly Love...or near it, whatever.
The familiarity doesn't end with the volume of games. United traded Danny Cruz for Lionard Pajoy only a few weeks ago; Union coach John Hackworth served as Ben Olsen's assistant at the All Star Game; the Union have no fewer than five former United players (Cruz, Freddy Adu, Brian Carroll, Chris Albright, and Chase Harrison).
As is often the case in sports, familiarity breeds contempt. United's last outing against the Union was horribly officiated, but it was also played with a malicious spirit on both sides. The coaches may respect one another, and certainly Cruz was popular with his teammates while playing for United, but in most cases United players and Union players don't seem to get along. Teams that are outside the playoff picture often talk about being a spoiler; in the Union's case, it's probably not just a cliche.
Speaking of the Union's position in the standings, it isn't like they've given up despite sitting on just 27 points. Since United last had the dubious pleasure of
getting kicked by playing the Union, Philly has three ties and a narrow 2-1 loss at home to the Columbus Crew (thanks for letting up that 95th minute winner to Eddie Gaven, jerks). The Union are still technically alive in the playoff hunt thanks to having eight games left. In other words, much like the Revs gave us a real fight, the Union will be fighting to keep their season alive.
The Union are the least predictable team in terms of starting line-ups and formations, but their options have been narrowed thanks to the suspension of Michael Farfan. If Hackworth wants to use the 4231 he used at RFK, he'll have to choose an attacking midfielder from two players - Freddy Adu or Roger Torres - that he hasn't trusted in that role all season (in the case of Torres, he's barely been trusted beyond being a late-game sub). Given that and the fact that Hackworth is talking about providing more support for striker Jack McInerney, I'm expecting a change to a 433/4141 hybrid:
If this is the case, the only real question mark is whether Adu - who has been in and out of the line-up lately - starts wide on the left. Speedsters Antoine Hoppenot and Josue Martinez are both more conventional options in that spot, while Trinidadian midfielder Keon Daniel would provide a craftier (but positionally more conservative) option. Hoppenot has caused United some problems this season as a supersub simply by being fast and playing a very direct style.
The 4231 I mentioned before would have either Adu or Torres in the central attacking role underneath McInerney with Hoppenot, Martinez, and Daniel battling for the start at left midfield. Gabriel Gomez and Michael Lahoud would then have just one spot for the two of them, and Hackworth seems to prefer Lahoud.
There is also the possibility of a more conventional 442, which would most likely see Cruz and Adu slightly further back, Lahoud or Gomez alongside Carroll in central midfield, and Martinez starting with McInerney.
In any case, the Union will approach the game the same way in any formation. They like to attack at speed, moving the ball quickly and putting defenses under immediate pressure rather than waiting for more people to join the attack. Adu, if he plays wide, will look to cut in on the dribble pretty regularly. Sheanon Williams - one of the best right backs in MLS - will look to overlap constantly.
The frenetic approach Philly takes, combined with their respectable team speed and the pace of play Hackworth demands, means that United must snap into defensive positions immediately following turnovers. Games involving Philly tend to be rather choppy due to the amount of time both teams have to spend transitioning from offense to defense, and a big factor in beating them is being the team that's stronger in that department. If United loses the ball, no one can afford to take a second off.
Defensively, the Union present a bunch of different looks to deal with. Chris Korb is qualified to deal with Cruz's relentless attempts to battle his way down the wing; Korb may suffer from time to time with poor positioning, but Cruz doesn't outfox his opponents so much as outwork them, and Korb is nothing if not strong in terms of work ethic.
Williams and his overlapping runs are a different problem, because he's gotten quite good at picking his moments. Regardless of whether it's Chris Pontius or Nick DeLeon (or even Lewis Neal) at left midfield, the best way to deal with Williams is to force him into a more cautious mindset with strong overall play. If United is attacking reasonably well, Williams will get more conservative. Without his forward runs, the Union can lack width.
The loss of "Marfan" is hard to overstate. He's a unique player for Philly, because Hackworth is unwilling to use any central player who isn't 100% committed to defending. Like "Marfan," Adu and Torres have plenty of ideas and skill; the difference is that they don't defend.
Plus, Adu and Torres can often be predictable: Both players want to beat people on the dribble before they'll do much of anything else.The suspended Farfan offers more of a threat due to being a sharper passer with better vision, as well as offering more of a goal threat from long range. He's also flat-out hungrier than most players, which is an underrated asset in attacking players. In many ways, "Marfan" is the closest thing Philly has to Dwayne De Rosario, and like United they'll struggle to replace their game-breaking player.
Going forward, United will need to transition through the middle third of the field via the wings, particularly if Gomez plays. Philly has consistently been willing to foul United rather than allowing us to transition into the attack, and unfortunately this year we haven't had a referee willing to put a stop to that cynical tactic. Anyone at the US Open Cup game will recall the almost comical number of fouls Lahoud committed without getting booked.
United can't simply hope the ref - Baldomero "a ball off the back of the thigh is a handball" Toledo - is up to the task. This is MLS; you might as well stake your fate on a coin toss if that's your plan. Instead, United needs to find a way around the logjam that is the Union central midfield. United should use the middle in the attacking third, but passing around it while moving through the middle third would be a smart move.
Speaking of the Union's foul-happy approach, United will also need to make them pay on set pieces. Philly doesn't have a very big team, particularly once you get past Amobi Okugo. Carlos Valdes and Williams both have the athleticism to make up for any height discrepancies with leaping ability and strength, but after that the Union can be beaten in the air. Branko Boskovic served in some excellent balls against the Revs, but often United either had uncoordinated runs or lacked the hunger to get to the service first. Whatever the case, that can't happen again. We've already won a game at PPL Park on a set piece goal, and it could well be the biggest edge we have for tonight's game.
Ultimately, we know that any game against the Union will be a fight. Staying composed - particularly with the ticking time bomb that is Toledo's tendency to make big, game-changing decisions - will be crucial. Composure will also help quite a bit on the ball. The Union want to play a frenzied game, and United's overall soccer IQ is significantly higher. Forcing the Union to play a more thoughtful game would bring with it a reasonable expectation of success on both sides of the ball while also serving to frustrate a combustible Philadelphia squad.