Normally, an inconsistent team in MLS is generally the kind of side you want to pick on a little bit. After all, inconsistent teams shouldn't travel well given their lack of confidence and/or continuity, right? So, for example, when a team loses to a New York Red Bulls team that could only call on Thierry Henry for the last half-hour, or drops points at home to Toronto FC, you start thinking that this is the kind of team D.C. United needs to face right now at RFK. An erratic team whose returning star is in awful form, that's the ticket. Maybe it'd be nice if they also start a mistake-prone goalkeeper protected by a young, new-look back four.
All of those things apply to the Philadelphia Union. They failed to capitalize when facing NYRB without both Henry and Fabian Espindola - the 2-1 scoreline actually flattered the Union in the end - and they come into this game having needed a stoppage-time goal to tie TFC at PPL Park. Zac MacMath still doesn't seem to have the spatial awareness necessary to be a top goalkeeper, and the Union's back four features two new starters.
Further adding to what would look like a vulnerable Philly side is the tinkering of head coach John Hackworth, who never saw an effective line-up that he didn't want to change for inscrutable reasons. Granted, Hackworth has toned it down a bit since a disastrous player switch saw the Union go from 1-0 up and in control against Sporting Kansas City to overwhelmed 3-1 losers in the end. Nevertheless, a coach that prefers change for change's sake usually just makes things worse.
Sounds great, right? Except there's this one thing: The Union always play better against United than form, coaching, and personnel ever indicate. Last year, during a toxic season for the Union, Philly outplayed a superior United team twice in the league, while successfully employing a "kick everyone and counter with speed" approach in the US Open Cup. The season series ended 1-1-1, but the Union had a legitimate gripe about not winning all three. Who else remembers the "Oh wait, it's a goal?" strike by Chris Pontius last year?
There's also the fact that, between the players at least, this is the most bitter, angry rival. You and I may forever despise the Metrostars, and Union fans may set up 30 feet away at the Soccerplex without even a hint of trouble in the stands - save for one teenager both sets of fans ended up mocking - but on the field this is where things get ugly. Last year, United and the Union combined for 17 yellow cards and 5 red cards in three games.
The games usually reach a boiling point, too, given that 18 of those 22 cards happened in the second half or in overtime. We saw a borderline brawl in the Open Cup, and a shoving match or two in both league games. Oh, and let's not forget that it was against the Union that Dwayne De Rosario picked up his two-game suspension to start the season for headbutting Danny Cruz in the middle of, you guessed it, a shoving match after a foul by Brian Carroll.
In other words, this needs to be United's strongest outing of the season. I choose the word "strongest" because it applies in many ways: United needs to deliver a strong showing in the soccer department, of course. However, we also need to be mentally strong to rise above the Union's tendency to be the team that starts the scuffles, as well as physically strong to avoid getting pushed around by a team that relies on aggression and physicality to win loose balls.
Last year's Union side was a nightmare to talk about in these pieces because Hackworth was willing to employ any number of formations. As best I can recall, they played seven different formations, and usually had four or five to call on based on their games in the previous month. It was preposterous. This year, at least, the Union have mostly stuck with a 4132:
The midfield asymmetry is intentional, but will probably only be the case if Sebastian Le Toux finds himself starting. Philly's re-acquisition of Le Toux from NYRB was considered a surefire move, with the thought process apparently being that Le Toux plays well in PPL Park via magic, and his 2012 form under drunk uncle Backe would be cured. Instead, it appears that Le Toux's form is no better with the Union that it was with the energy drink shills.
Hackworth's 4132 designed in part to have Le Toux play high enough in the attack that it would be more of a 4132/433 hybrid, but a) they don't have the personnel to pull it off and b) Le Toux's poor play makes listing him as a starter here something of a toss-up.
Things are usually complicated with the Union, and this issue is no different. If Le Toux is benched, we'll see one of Keon Daniel or Michael Farfan out on the left. Daniel's status is down to whether the Union have decided Kleberson - who looked to be on a different level than his peers coming into the admittedly poor Union-TFC game - is ready to start. If so, the choice is still tricky for Hackworth: "Marfan" is in poor form right now, but Daniel is clearly much more comfortable playing centrally than on the wing. Nonetheless, look for Hackworth to push him wide if Kleberson is ready for a starting role. The best man for the job - Farfan's brother Gabe - will probably only be considered as a sub, because Hackworth.
United fans are familiar enough with Cruz to be unsurprised to hear that he ended up needing treatment twice against TFC, both times after hurling himself recklessly into Ashtone Morgan. Neither play was dirty, but both collisions were very hard. Cruz was otherwise ineffective, though, and he says he's really excited for this game. Him being fit enough might actually be good news for United, given how poor he was when he was here and faced his former club. If Hackworth decides to go in another direction, he could choose "Marfan," Daniel, or Michael Lahoud (the guy who kicked the most people in the aforementioned kicking-filled Open Cup game).
Defensively, the Union have two tendencies that United will have to be ready for. Most importantly, DC's center backs need to be sharp in pressuring Conor Casey when the big target man checks back for the ball. When the Union are able to play to his feet and get a return pass with intent, their possession game instantly improves. When he's pressured into a sloppy pass or the kind of pass one makes when your only goal is to avoid a turnover, though, Philly's attacks tend to become more choppy and harried. Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic need to make sure Casey has no time to bring other people into the attack, while Perry Kitchen needs to make it hard for the Union to find windows to pass to Casey.
The other Union attacking preference is a bit like a boxer who spends the whole fight looking for a knockout. Philly's midfield and defenders too often look to play early through balls - even as early as within their own half - looking to put Jack McInerney or Le Toux through on goal for a breakaway. Part of this is down to McInerney's stated preference of running the channels, and part of it is just impatience. The problem for Philly is that most teams have an easy time cutting this stuff out, because the gaps involved have to be enormous. When it works, though, it's just like getting hit by that desperate puncher's haymaker.
United had trouble with this approach last year, particularly in the Open Cup game. It wasn't from McInerney, who isn't exactly a speed demon, but from super-sub Antoine Hoppenot, who you can be sure we will see enter this game. The solutions are straightforward: Mentally transition to defending quickly after turnovers, stay organized in the midfield so the long through ball has no window to fit through, and track your runners in the back. The Union will keep going back to this well, so if United is shutting this option down we should see plenty of the ball.
The Union are also a good set piece team. Amobi Okugo and now Casey provide the best aerial threats, but where the Union really excel is in the mosh pit chaos that comes when the initial clearance isn't good. That's where guys like McInerney find loose balls to pounce on, and in his current form a look from a situation like that is usually a goal.
United also needs to be sharp against the long throw-ins of Sheanon Williams, which are the best in MLS (unless Darrius Barnes in New England ever regains a starting role). Winning the ball at the near post isn't enough; United needs to effectively challenge the second ball as well to make sure it's not pumped back in for a chaotic scramble.
Going forward, United should be able to create chances if the players Ben Olsen starts actually play somewhere within the vicinity of their normal standards. Williams grabs a lot of attention for his endless overlapping as a right back, but that swashbuckling instinct also serves to paper over his pretty average defending. If Chris Pontius, Kyle Porter, or whoever can force Williams to defend more than he attacks, we should be able to generate looks from our left side.
Down the right, things are even more promising. Jeff Parke has usually needed half a season or more to start looking comfortable with new defensive partners, and if anything he's been behind schedule since joining the Union. Given that Parke is not blessed with great speed and must rely on positional acumen and his organizational ability, this is a problem that teams can exploit (see: Robert Earnshaw's goal just last week). Next to Parke is Raymon Gaddis, who is positionally suspect and lacks the relentlessness of Williams to cover for it. Whether it's a midfielder attacking them, a forward peeling out wide, or strikers starting runs from that channel, I like United's chances of generating offense against the left half of the Union defense.
United should also be willing to try a few hopeful shots, crosses, or passes into space, because MacMath struggles with all of them. MacMath is arguably the worst starting keeper in MLS at this point, and his tendency to make poor decisions is compounded by a lack of positional awareness, some rather slippery hands, and the fact that he's not an absurdly gifted athlete like Nick Rimando (or, to use a similarly mistake-prone GK, Sean Johnson). United has victimized MacMath before, and we should hope to do so again. It's not like our offense has given us the luxury of only wanting to see beautiful goals, after all.
Overall, though, I think the biggest factor in this game will be psychological. Ryan Nelsen's TFC didn't have their best stuff in Philly last week, but managed to stay composed and focused on finding a way to get a point in spite of their struggles with the ball. The Union had Cruz crashing into people, Casey throwing elbows, McInerney running his mouth, and Williams getting feisty, but TFC took the high road for most of the game.
It was only during the last 20 minutes, when the Union needed a goal and upped the intensity, that TFC came undone mentally. Before you knew it, they picked up 4 yellow cards in short order, had Morgan sent off, had their captain Darren O'Dea flirt with getting a second yellow as well, and conceded in the 91st minute. When TFC stayed focused on their actual jobs, however, they frustrated the Union and positioned themselves to win. That needs to be what United does, just without the mental collapse.
That brings us back to being the strongest (not to be confused with Bolivian Apertura champions The Strongest) team on the field. The uglier this game gets in terms of soccer and in terms of flare-ups, the more we're playing into the Union's hands. The better the standard of play is, the more likely the talent-starved Union will struggle to keep up. This is a team United, on paper, has a significant advantage over. However, if our players were delivering on their (earned) reputations, we would not be on 4 points and on a three-game losing streak. This is the kind of game where players can prove that they deserve their reputation, and that's exactly what United needs to do.