For the Philadelphia Union, 2014 was not supposed to go like this. Starting the season with a 1W-4D-5L record and struggling to score would have been disappointing for the roster Philly had available last year. This year's remodeled team was supposed to shoot for the top of the table, not the bottom.
That's not just talk, either. The Union spent two years working to clear some ill-advised signings from the Peter Nowak era off their books. That might seem like one year too many to change your roster over in MLS, but the contracts the Union gave out in their early days were disastrous. If the Union were a house, a remodeled kitchen and a new deck weren't going to cover for the fact that the frame was rotting away.
So Philly took a long view, patiently stockpiling allocation money and other assets. The fans were unhappy, but the Union's ceiling as a club was never going to be high until they fixed their issues behind the scenes. Everything was geared towards 2014 being the year the Union would no longer be hampered by their past.
The plan appeared to work during the offseason, as they brought in Vincent Nogueira - a consistent starter with Ligue 1 side Sochaux - and Maurice Edu to boost their central midfield. Cristian Maidana, with experience in the first divisions of Argentina, Russia, Mexico, and Chile, was brought in to be the creative spark. Late in the preseason, the Union sent a stack of allocation money to Chicago for Austin Berry to add some size to their defense.
Yet here we are in May, and almost nothing has panned out. Nogueira has been an excellent pick-up, but his natural instinct is to be a facilitator rather than the #10 role John Hackworth has him playing. Edu has been pretty good too, though there's a sense that he's still not playing his very best soccer. These slightly mixed outcomes, for Philly, are as good as it gets.
The list of moves that haven't panned out is longer. Berry has barely played, benched for a converted striker who is very much learning on the job. Maidana has been kept out of the starting lineup several times due to a lack of fitness, the cultural adjustment to living and playing in the US, and a less-than-zealous take on defending. Andrew Wenger, brought in because Hackworth would rather change his squad than his system, has delivered the sort of goal-scoring threat that makes MLS observers - myself included - wonder why the former defender is still used as a striker.
All of this has added up to a Union side on a pace to end up with just 27 points in 2014. No Union player has scored in 280 minutes (last week's goal in Seattle was a Brad Evans own goal). They aren't quite in the sort of dire straits United saw themselves in last year, but they are walking down the sort of path that leads a team into the bottom three in MLS. No wonder Hackworth is already talking about maintaining his self-belief in the face of mounting questions about his future with the club.
It's odd, though, because they don't match up well with any recent bad MLS team. Despite having four more losses than they do wins, the Union have a goal difference of -3. A quick look over their schedule points to why that is: Every single Philly game has been tight this year. Neither the Union nor their collective opponents have scored more than two goals in a given game. This isn't last year's United, but it's also not last year's defenseless Chivas, nor last year's baffled TFC.
I mentioned Hackworth's system earlier, and it's an odd one. The Union are one of many MLS teams that say they're in a 433 only to leave their center forward on an island while the outside forwards play what anywhere else in the world would be called right and left midfield. It's the execution that's odd. The Union most often set up in a 4231, but there's a real fluidity in that trio of attacking midfielders.
Hackworth has said more than once that formations aren't that important to him, and sure enough last week his team started in a sort of 4222/4231 hybrid, with Sebastian Le Toux starting as a forward but shuttling out to the left if the Sounders moved the ball down that side. After taking the lead, the Union moved more and more into a 4312 with Maidana playing in a more traditional playmaker's role rather than having to cut in from the wings. After halftime, they even played half an hour in the "Christmas tree" 4321, a formation rarely seen on these shores.
Normally I am quick to criticize Hackworth, who often seems to want to use high-end tactical ideas without being able to explain them to his team, which is largely comprised of players who aren't particularly savvy tactically to begin with. However, the narrow formations all worked in taking a bit of the wind out of Seattle's sails. The Sounders have been playing shootout soccer recently, but found themselves a bit puzzled by the Union at both ends. In particular, Seattle's defensive spacing didn't look right until after the halftime break, and that lack of assurance really gave the Union more of a chance to win that game than form would have indicated was possible.
Keep that tactical flexibility in mind here. I'm listing the Union in a 4231, but between their lack of rigid positions and the fact that they actually looked a bit better playing a diamond, there's every chance that we see more than one look Saturday:
There are plenty of question marks here, but the Union have a virtually clean injury report. The issue is that Philly is doing poorly, so like most bad teams players are getting rotated in and out. Throw in Hackworth's instincts to tinker, and you have a starting eleven in flux.
In the back, Aaron Wheeler will probably start, which is good for us and bad for the Union. I'm not saying Berry is a world-beater on the bench, and both have the lack of agility that we are built to prey on, but Wheeler's decision-making and inability to anticipate are crippling problems for a center back. Just this week, Hackworth said that there's not much more Berry can do but bide his time, a particularly bad thing to say publicly when Berry's competition for time is so obviously struggling. If Hackworth does change things up this week, he will do so having undermined Berry's confidence publicly just a few days ago.
Wheeler does have some good qualities. Unsurprisingly for a guy who used to be a battering ram sort of target forward, he relishes physical contact. He's also got decent straight-line speed, and when given very simple duties to man-mark a specific player he's capable of doing a good job.
Of course, such a role doesn't exist when facing a 442 like United's, so Wheeler will have to think and communicate, which is where things go wrong for him. The more United forces Wheeler into spots where he has to anticipate a movement rather than simply follow someone around, the more likely he'll be caught in the wrong spot.
The choice at left back might indicate just how desperate the Union are to get their attack going. Ray Gaddis is a conservative choice, which makes sense given that he's not really a left back at all (he only plays there due to the Union's preference to carry a ton of midfielders but few actual defenders). Gaddis will never attract a big move abroad or make an All Star team, but he will stay home and is athletic enough to be a capable 1v1 defender.
The other choice is Fabinho, who will be far more aggressive about getting forward. The Brazilian does have the ability to hit a pinpoint cross - he did so upon his arrival in MLS last year, but tailed off as the season wore on - but is a liability when it comes to actually defending. If he's in the game, United should look to exploit him regularly. I'd even go so far as to say we should pick on him to the level that Portland went at Christian in the first half last week (where the Timbers were basically a one-sided team). Fabinho can be beaten 1v1 and also struggles positionally, meaning that quick combinations will tend to leave him spinning in space rather than actually stopping someone.
Really, given the fact that Wheeler will pair with Gaddis or Fabinho, United can afford to be relatively one-sided. Sean Franklin's likely absence is not ideal, because this would be a game where his overlapping runs would cause disarray. Chris Korb needs to be more assertive than he was in Portland, where he understandably stayed home most of the time. Fabian Espindola and Eddie Johnson should both flare out to the right from time to time as well, because the left half of the Union defense already struggles with conventional looks. An extra runner or an unorthodox approach will more often than not cause problems.
The central midfield trio of Nogueira, Edu, and Brian Carroll will be out there no matter how Hackworth decides to line his team up. That means United's wide midfielders will have to tuck inside to help out on both sides of the ball. In fact, United will probably want to quickly get the ball out of the middle and to the wings in transition, because that neutralizes Edu's ability to destroy and cuts Carroll out of the game entirely. Going over the top could also be useful, as the Union aren't particularly good at seeing that kind of service before it's happened. It will take something more than an aimless long ball, but anything that allows United to bypass central midfield should cause issues for Philly.
On the wings, I'm guessing Sebastian Le Toux and Maidana will get another chance after doing alright against Seattle. However, Hackworth has used both of them as inverted wingers from time to time, and also has tinkered with the idea of playing Wenger on a flank so he can get Conor Casey on the field. Given the Union's struggles in front of goal, I'd start Casey and then figure out my wide men from there, but I'm not Hackworth.
United fans should know Le Toux by now. He's always busy, but sometimes his extra running is because he can't think fast enough to solve problems with his brain. He can cross if given time, and likes to do so after rounding his man. Maidana, meanwhile, lacks the speed to beat anyone and prefers to cut inside. His crosses are more likely to be clipped over the back four towards the back post, but really he wants to combine with people and play through balls.
Last week, the Union's 4312 let him play a central role that he may actually be more comfortable with. Don't be surprised if that's where we see him, particularly if the 4231 doesn't create much in the opening 20 minutes (Hackworth loves to move players around after 15-30 minutes no matter how good or bad the game is going, so look for that too).
Up top, Wenger will probably start but like I already said, I'm not sure that's good for Philly. Casey may lack his mobility, and certainly Wenger is getting himself into decent positions, but he is ice cold in front of goal right now. The Union are an odd mix of players, where Wenger tries to hold the ball up for runners that never arrive. It's really kind of unfair to their fanbase that they've endured Lionard Pajoy and now have to deal with a similar sort of player (though Wenger is less frustrating than Pajoy, because honestly isn't everyone?).
The Union's real struggles this year have been inside the 18 yard boxes at both ends of the field. Like United last year, they're actually competent playing in the middle third for the most part. In Seattle, they slowed MLS's most potent attack down while also causing issues with their movement and the fact that everyone in their midfield is a reliable passer. However, in the end they lost the game because of some straightforward errors in and around their own box.
For United, maintaining a pace that emphasizes playing in the boxes will be important. I'm not endorsing a wide-open, track meet sort of game, but the Black-and-Red can't let the game become a battle in central midfield. The Union will have more numbers and in Nogueira and Edu they have players who will thrive in that sort of match. Instead, Ben Olsen will need his team to make this game about wide play. We're not just talking a bombardment of crosses - though Philly does tend to ball-watch on crosses - but rather using the wings in possession and also creating from those areas of the field. Sometimes that means whipping in balls, but it can also mean dragging a central player out to the touchline before attacking the space he vacated.
I usually close with set pieces, and United must do much better this week in that department. Maidana's set piece service is usually pretty good, and the Union have plenty of size. USMNT fans know that Edu is a great target in the box, and both Wheeler and Okugo are decent second-tier options. It's also worth noting that Sheanon Williams has troubled United time and again with his long throw-ins; beating guys like Okugo to the near post for the flick-on is crucial.
At the other end of the field, Philly gave up a goal to Chad Marshall on a corner kick last week despite having the aforementioned trio of big men all within arm's reach of the ball. There seems to be a bit of a lack of organization in the box for the Union; guys get marked up and generally stay close to their man, but in my opinion they look very vulnerable to picks and more complicated runs. Zac MacMath has made a big step up this season, but he still lacks the sort of strength to burst through heavy traffic, which means United can serve the ball closer to him than other more powerful goalkeepers. A set piece goal to take the lead would likely be particularly demoralizing for the Union given their current lack of belief.
There is a lot to like about how United matches up with Philadelphia. Our emphasis on creating from wide spots and the unusual runs from Espindola are both great weapons to have against the Union. However, this game may hinge on the ability of one team to dictate to the other where on the field it's played. If the Union keep things narrow, they will likely control the match due to both the numbers and the quality they have in central midfield. If United can make sure the game is more spread out, however, a road win is entirely possible.