D.C. United versus the Philadelphia Union at the Maryland Soccerplex in the US Open Cup...you know, like always. I can't be the only person who feels like this is an annual tradition for at least 10 years, despite the fact that the Union only joined MLS in 2010. In fact, Philly has only played one actual USOC match against United; the other one you might recall from 2011 was actually a Play-In Round game to get into the MLS Qualifying Round to get into the Third Round of the Open Cup (an era we're thankfully past, now that every US-based MLS side gets into an expanded tournament).
While that last fact is obscure, what is more well-known is how the games have gone: Chippy in tone, sloppy in play, and extremely tight in terms of the difference between the teams. In 2011 United advanced 4-2 on penalties after a 2-2 extra time draw, while last year's match was a 2-1 extra time win for the Union.
The games even played out in eerily similar fashion. In 2011, Josh Wolff scored in the 45th minute; in 2012, he scored a minute into first half stoppage time. Both goals came at the same end of the stadium from inside the six. In both games, Carlos Valdes was sent off having earlier received a yellow card. Both games had five yellow cards (and could have had three or four more). Brian Carroll - who has more career Open Cup goals than he does MLS goals, despite playing literally hundreds more league matches - scored in both games. On both occasions, United came in with the edge in form and expectations, but struggled with a disciplined, defensive Union side. Apart from the results, the only way to remember which game is which is to recall which one saw a second red card to a player (2012, to Brandon McDonald) and which saw that card given to a coach (2011, Peter Nowak).
Needless to say, some of these things are not going to happen. Valdes is on loan with Independiente Santa Fe, currently atop the Colombian league standings. Josh Wolff will be at the Soccerplex, but only as an assistant coach. Perhaps most importantly, DC will enter the game as anything but favorites due to this hell-season. Our offense is on pace to set a historic low, while the Union will likely call upon MLS leading scorer Jack McInerney and MLS's #1 source of assists (Sebastian Le Toux, who has just flown up that particular chart in the past few weeks). We are definitely not the team expected to win.
Some things change, but other things don't. The all-time series record 4W-2D-3L in favor of the Union, with both teams scoring 14 goals and picking up four red cards each. That's right: Eight total red cards in nine total games ("We've only played them nine times?!" - You, just now. And somehow, the answer is yes). That doesn't even count Dwayne De Rosario getting a red for headbutting Danny Cruz, either!
It gets even more odd once you throw in that Carroll seems only score goals on United and/or in Open Cup play (he scored Philly's stoppage time game-winner in the Third Round), while whoever our maligned striker is at the time tends to score on Philly: Lionard Pajoy has two in three appearances for us against the Union, while Danny Allsopp bagged a brace in the only game in the series decided by more than a one-goal margin.
Normally I try to underline the idea that history - good or bad - doesn't come out onto the field with teams. History isn't tangible for soccer teams, beyond the physical challenges players make on each other due to past antipathy. Given our poor play over the last few years, it helps to put that stuff out of one's mind. In this case, however, given the slew of bizarre things that have happened - really, Pajoy is a 0.66 goals-per-90 scorer against someone? - I can only assume that we will once again see a very close, difficult game with several goals that boils over at some point and goes to extra time at the very least. It's just what these teams do.
Another thing we can likely expect is a strong team. The Union have always fielded something close to their best team in the Open Cup; facing the Ocean City Nor'easters of the PDL in the previous round, the Union only started one guy that doesn't get much time (midfielder Leo Fernandes) and subbed in familiar faces like Cruz, Michael Farfan, and Antoine Hoppenot. When fans complain about MLS teams not taking the Cup seriously, they have no grounds to bring up Philadelphia.
So what can we expect for a starting eleven? Probably the same exact group we'd see if this were an MLS match:
The back four, along with goalkeeper Zac MacMath and Carroll, are set unless one of them injures themselves in the warm-up. A Union injury in any of these spots would be a huge problem for them, as they are paper thin after trading Bakary Soumare away. For example, It's entirely possible that Chris Albright - yes, he's still playing - could sub in at center back.
The question marks mostly come down to positional flexibility. Cruz has played the last couple of games on the left flank instead of his preferred right side. Michael Farfan can play any of the three midfield roles ahead of Carroll, while Keon Daniel could suit up in the middle or on the left. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Le Toux could drop back to either wing, which would mean a start for Conor Casey up top in place of whichever midfielder loses his role to Le Toux. And yes, Casey's style of play would just add to the tensions that will already be simmering on the field.
I mentioned before that the Union will come into the game as favorites, but it's not like they're in scintillating form. In fact, they've been kind of all over the place. Up until last weekend's 3-0 win over the Crew, they've been just barely scraping out results against bad teams. They only eked out a pair of 1-0 wins over the Chicago Fire before Soumare and Mike Magee arrived; they needed stoppage time goals to beat the semi-pros at Ocean City and to tie Toronto FC; and they also had to hold on to win 3-2 against us back in April.
On the other hand, MLS's upper class has been killing Philly. The Union's last two games against actual good teams are a 5-3 loss against the Montreal Impact and a 4-1 home beatdown suffered at the hands of the LA Galaxy.
What's the difference? The Impact and the Galaxy are terrific teams on the counterattack (the Impact in particular are a counterattacking team first and foremost), while the stragglers the Union are bagging all their points against all have either slow attacks that lack ideas (United, TFC) or teams that simply play too indirectly for their own good (Chicago). The formula is there: If you can run a good counter on Philly, they can't do much about it.
The main reasons are in the midfield and at the fullback positions. While Carroll is still a reasonable defensive midfielder, he has essentially plateaued for about five straight seasons. MLS has grown enough where a player like Carroll can't be left alone at the base of a midfield, because he's not in the elite class of guys that can be (e.g. Osvaldo Alonso or Kyle Beckerman). He needs some help, and he doesn't really get it from any grouping of Union midfielders that play ahead of him in this 4132.
It's not from lack of effort, either. Daniel is the only potential starter with a merely average work rate, and he's improved that this season as well. The issue is soccer IQ. For Cruz and Daniel, they simply lack the understanding of how to effectively position themselves to slow down attacks, while Farfan (and Cruz, for that matter) struggles with knowing when to contain and when to try to attack the ball. The result is a midfield that doesn't hunt for the ball in packs after a turnover, but instead looks like a disorganized rabble that ignored anything about positions on the white board before kickoff.
Meanwhile, the previously stout Philly back four lost their leader and best player in Valdes, and while replacing him with Parke arguably improved the organizational skills of the verbal boss of the group, it took away the Union's security blanket. Valdes was such a tremendous athlete that he could put out the fires that the young, raw Philadelphia defense created for themselves, and Parke just isn't that kind of player. Amobi Okugo is almost as athletic as Valdes, but doesn't have the smarts as of yet (he's still coming to grips with the fact that he is indeed a natural center back and was being incorrectly played at defensive midfield throughout his youth).
Like Carroll, the center back pairing suffers from just not being good enough to overcome the flaws of those around them. Sheanon Williams is a good right back, but is attack-minded to a fault and is still trying to figure out the nuances of when to go and when to stay (his journey to this role is even longer than Okugo's, since he was originally a forward with US youth teams). Raymon Gaddis is a bit like Chris Korb in Korb's rookie year: Serviceable, but still in need of a lot of polish. This is compounded because head coach John Hackworth wants his fullbacks to attack, so Gaddis gets caught out even more often than Williams.
So that's the good news. The Union have a clear weakness in defending the counter that has been demonstrated numerous times by teams that scored a lot of goals. It's not very often in MLS that a team has such a glaring flaw, and the Black-and-Red can take solace in having a clear path towards actual scoring chances for once.
The downside, of course, is that LA and Montreal have players that think light years faster than United's offense generally does, and are much more able to play one- and two-touch soccer while moving upfield. We have players capable of playing that way in theory and/or in the past, but in 2013 the razor-sharp counters just aren't there. Someone gums up the works by playing too slowly or looking the wrong way, or someone just lacks the skill to connect the passes at the speed they need to be connected or to the location they need to go.
In the attack, the Union pose some difficulties for United. It's not so much the midfield, which doesn't offer much. Cruz is all about speed and effort, Daniel is not as skillful as he believes he is, and Farfan has taken a big step back after looking (at times) like a potential attacking midfield star for Philly last season. The fullbacks don't offer much either beyond running fast and trying to cross; it's not like they have Andy Najar back there.
For Philly, it's all about that deadly front line. Whatever you might say about Hackworth - and I'm among the number of people who aren't impressed with his coaching - he knows how to get the best out of McInerney, and that makes up for a lot of flaws. Jack Mac isn't leading MLS in scoring by accident, nor is he scoring penalty kicks won by someone else (the Union have not won a PK all season, in fact).
McInerney is a classic goal poacher who loses his marker as much by just standing around longer than a normal striker as anything else. It happens time and again: Philly will attack, and at the beginning of the move McInerney is totally contained. The attack plays out, and eventually it takes long enough that the defender marking him drifts towards the ball or assumes he knows where McInerney is without looking. In that moment, McInerney is doing his work. He's drifting away from his man, or he's adding an angle to his run that wasn't there before, and suddenly he has three yards of space. Combine that sort of elusive play without the ball with the decisive, confident finishing he's shown in 2013, and you have the ingredients for a guy to sit atop the scoring charts.
It's even more difficult to contain McInerney with the assistance he gets from his veteran partners. Le Toux started the season off in poor form, but has really found his legs of late by looking at himself as the Union's true playmaker (despite still playing as a roving, busy forward who ends up running wide on a regular basis). There's nothing special about what Le Toux does: He loves to get his head up and play early passes and crosses in behind for McInerney, running the channels, to get after. Lately, it's just been down to the execution. Le Toux is feeling it right now, and if United gives him time to get his head up he will serve up the right ball at the right speed. No matter where he wanders, United has to keep him busy when he's on the ball. If Le Toux is busy just trying not to lose the ball, he won't be able to look up and spot a pass.
The other option is Casey, a classic back-to-goal target man in a lot of ways. One element he's developed as he gets older is to be more of a set-up man for others than he focuses on being a goalscorer himself. Casey's job is still to battle with defenders in the air and on the ground to hold play up, but he's less likely to get into the box now. Instead, he's usually looking to be the trailing runner after laying the ball off for an onrushing midfielder or outside back. If he turns to face goal, Casey is still more likely to be looking for a pass than he is to shoot (though we saw him do both at RFK in April, where he sent McInerney through for the opener and then scored from 19 yards to make it 2-0). Making sure those passes are not easy - thus making them more likely to slow the attack down - is key to taking Casey out of the equation.
On set pieces, Le Toux's delivery has gotten a lot better lately, so United will have to be sharp. It's not that the Union have a lot of big targets (especially if Casey starts on the bench); Okugo and Parke are alone in that category, and Parke doesn't have much of a scoring record over his career. Rather, it's having those two plus Williams - athletic, brave, and determined - and a fox-in-the-box like McInerney, who is an ace at finishing up scrambles inside the 18. The Union aren't like Houston or KC, looking to score off the first header. They're much more focused on flick-ons and creating chaos, because they know Jack Mac is their meal ticket, and he loves disorganized defenses that failed to pick up a loose ball.
That's the trick for United: Making sure there aren't loose balls. Ideally, we'll see a DC player win the first header outright and clear it well. However, United should be ready for flick-ons from both corners and the long throw-ins from Williams, and we need to make sure those clearances are good ones. Half-clearing the ball against the Union is just inviting someone to lob it back in, and those are chaotic situations for any defense. Much like the counterattacks that will work if we can just execute them correctly, this is something that's less about ability and more about just getting things right.