Despite signs of progress in terms of generating chances and maintaining possession, DC travels to Philly in dead last overall in MLS to face a Union side that will do everything it can to give their new fans something to cheer about. In their debut performance in Seattle, Philadelphia looked like they were lacking in every department (save aggression). Based on what we've seen so far, one would expect a positive result for United given the gentle upward slope in our play. It's a small sample, to be sure, but if we improved half as much this week at practice as we did in between the Kansas City debacle and the 2-0 loss to New England, we'll probably look pretty good.
However, Peter Nowak has had two weeks to get his players to think faster and function as more of a unit. They've also made an addition,as defender Cristian Arrieta was signed in time for today's game. He may or may not play in this particular game, but he's a definite upgrade over the departed David Myrie. This points to a Union club that is fully aware that they are a work in progress, and such a team will be desperate to improve their play by leaps and bounds after a frankly embarrassing showing in Seattle.
With that in mind, here's a primer on where the Union's weak spots are, and what problems DC could encounter.
Uncertainty hangs over Philadelphia's lineup and tactics: There's the kind of uncertainty we have, where there are a couple guys battling for Bryan Namoff's right back spot and a possible change at forward, and then there's the total confusion about what the Union will do for a lineup. Right back, one of the center back spots, defensive midfield, left midfield, and attacking midfield are all unsettled positions for Philly, as is their formation as a whole. The best way to take advantage of this is to not let the Union settle in and feel confidence in their new alignment. We don't necessarily have to score early, but we do need to generate chances. Rather than sitting back in an effort to keep the score at 0-0 and calm the crowd, we need to jump on what will probably be a jittery, nervous opponent. The best way to take a crowd out of a game is to exert control, and that's exactly what we need to do to start this game correctly.
Specific uncertainty: As I said, trying to pin down Philly's team for this game is next to impossible. Their starting right back for their first-ever game, David Myrie, was thoroughly abused by Steve Zakuani and then released only days later. Toni Stahl, a rookie defensive midfielder, was moved to center back only to be sent off before halftime. Their spots have to be filled, and the other options all come with some kind of caveat attached. Most figure that Shavar Thomas will replace Stahl in central defense. However, having seen Stahl look way behind in terms of speed of thought, I have to wonder how poorly Thomas did in preseason to still end up on the bench behind the young Finn.
Several previews have pointed to Michael Orozco, surprisingly deployed at defensive midfield in the opener, moving to right back. While I've never seen him play there, Orozco seems adaptable enough to play there and not be a disaster like Myrie was. However, there's also the possibility that former Puerto Rico Islander and USL MVP Cristian Arrieta, who was just signed this week, will step straight into the team at right back. Arrieta is a very good player and will definitely end up taking that starting spot down the road, but he's barely had time to practice with the team.
Further forward, the midfield is also something of a mess.It seems fair to expect that Orozco's defensive midfield spot will be filled by Stefani Miglioranzi, who should have started there in the first place against the Sounders. Roger Torres will continue at right midfield after drawing a lot of praise (I thought the praise was rather excessive, but in either case he's clearly a promising player at just 18 years old). Fred will return from suspension and play...somewhere. Most United fans know that Fred is too prone to turnovers to play centrally in MLS, yet he also never looked quite comfortable as a left midfielder.
The issue for Philly is that, in Seattle, both of those spots were filled by guys that did not fit them at all. While the Union's ultra-narrow 4312 didn't leave Andrew Jacobson in a true wide man's role, he was still nominally a left midfielder and had responsibilities in both directions on the wing. As anyone who saw him in DC would have told you, he's not really fast enough to do that job. If the Union can avoid being stretched in midfield, and get lots of quality runs forward from Jordan Harvey at left back, this strategy might work. Otherwise, Jacobson will prove to be a central-only sort of player. Meanwhile, the playmaker's role was taken up by rookie Danny Mwanga, who previously had always been an out-and-out striker. Unsurprisingly, Mwanga never came to grips with the positioning needed, and the game passed him by before he was subbed out as a result of the Stahl red card.
If you thought our attack was weak, take a look at theirs: Even if Philly sorts out their defense and midfield (a good start would be to use players in their natural positions, but what do I know?), they're still going to struggle to score goals and create chances. We all know that Fred is more likely to dribble into a crowd or misplace an easy pass than he is to pull a moment of magic out of his pocket. He's still a threat, to be sure, but he's more of a lone wolf than he is an orchestrator of a group.
Up front, the Union has two very hard-working forwards in Alejandro Moreno and Sebastien Le Toux. Our defenders will probably be unable to stroke the ball around so easily as they did against the low-pressure Revs, but that's a double-edged sword. What serious forward wants the first thing you say about him to be that he works hard? A high work rate is a commendable quality to have, but a striker needs to be a good finisher and make dangerous attacking runs first. There isn't much depth here, either. Mwanga has not played a second of professional soccer as a forward, and Jack McInerney is still only a promising 17 year old.
Philadelphia will want to turn this into a scrap rather than a soccer game: As I mentioned a few times in my season preview of the Union, Nowak has assembled an aggressive bunch of players. This was further proven by their thuggish performance in Seattle. Even their best spell of the game (the opening 10 minutes) was down to winning headers and tackling the Sounders in their own end rather than any coherent passing movements. The watchword for Philly is "fight," and United will do very well to not engage the Union in a battle of who can foul the hardest. Instead, what we need to do is turn our threatening set piece play from the preaseason and against the Revs (three of our four best scoring chances came on corners and a freekick) into goals. If Philly wants to foul us, we should make them pay on the scoreboard.
Don't underestimate the crowd: This one's fairly simple. Philly's fans have been waiting for this for years, and they'll have a Sounders-sized attendance (a number that will be inflated by the 1000+ United fans heading north). The atmosphere is going to be charged, even if the game itself looks likely to be a less-than-brilliant display. It will be vital for DC to keep calm and stay patient with the ball. We have the technical advantage, and we have fewer hotheads, so this should be a game we manage. However, we have a rather young team, and in Kansas City we ended up taking five yellow cards once things began to come apart. We need to do a better job of keeping our heads and playing smart, effective soccer.