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Behind Enemy Lines: D.C. United Vs. Philadelphia Union

Will Chris Pontius be able to handle Danny Califf and the rest of the physical Philadelphia defense?
Will Chris Pontius be able to handle Danny Califf and the rest of the physical Philadelphia defense?

In one of the most important matches of the season so far for D.C. United, the not so friendly neighbors from the north will descend on RFK Stadium Saturday night. The Philadelphia Union are currently in first place in the MLS Eastern Conference, but with a win, United would pull within five points of the Union with a game in hand. Not bad for such a young team.

To get us ready for the match, I exchanged three questions with Scott Kesler of the Brotherly Game.

B&RU: What is the latest on Carlos Ruiz? Will he be staying in MLS this whole season? Do you even want him to?

tBG: The current rumor is that Ruiz is in Mexico City today, training for an opportunity to join Veracruz. We first reported that last night. It really depends on what Ruiz decides to be during his time in Philadelphia. If he continues to be a selfish and insular, on top of his lack of worth ethic, then no he's not someone to be wanted as a Union player. Ruiz has five goals and that's good considering he's the second highest scorer on the team. The problem is that the attacking dynamic of the Union completely changes with Ruiz in the fold. Head coach Piotr Nowak almost forces tactical changes to accommodate the additions of Ruiz and Veljko Paunovic. There's no problem with Nowak changing his tactical and informational approaches because of new talent, but just like in 2010 he's using players in positions they're not acclimated to.

B&RU: The Union struggled to score many goals earlier in the year, but they seem to have solved that issue lately. How big an influence has Danny Mwanga had? Will he ever be a starter?

tBG: Mwanga has been a monster off of the bench this year, but he's too talented to stay there. Unfortunately Nowak is under the belief that because he is young and has a high work rate that playing him game in and game out will end up with the former first overall pick getting hurt. Last year Mwanga took a spill over an opposing goalkeeper and hurt his shoulder. It wasn't because of overuse or too much effort in game, it was a freak accident during a run of play. Mwanga still managed to start 14 of 24 games he played in last year. That means he played four fifths of Union games last year and played nearly 1500 minutes. This year he's played in 14 of the Union's 16 games, but has only played 791 minutes of a possible 1440 minutes in 2011. Nowak's concerns are unfounded at this point. Mwanga has had the same problems that any physical striker will have over the course of a season - hamstring and knee injuries. It's bound to happen no matter how little or how much Mwanga plays. This hands off approach to Mwanga will hurt the team in the long run. Keeping the leading scorer on the bench is one thing, but keeping the most dynamic, exciting and explosive player on the sidelines is a whole other one. The most telling stat for Mwanga is that he's tied for the team league in shots on goal, yet has 12 and 17 less shots than Ruiz and Sebastien Le Toux, respectively.

B&RU: Philadelphia has allowed only 14 goals this season – best in the East and second best in the league. Is that sustainable?

tBG: If the defense and Faryd Mondragon play like they did against FC Dallas and Chivas USA, then no. Thankfully that's not the case with this squad.   Carlos Valdes and Danny Califf have made their case for being the best center back tandem in MLS. Sheanon Williams has played so well in his first full season in MLS that people are starting to talk about him eventually getting called up to the USMNT. Jordan Harvey has had a solid season, despite Nowak subbing him out in the second half at almost every opporunity. Mondragon has helped the team by organizing the defense like no other goalkeeper would. His only weakness is that at 40-years of age he's not the most nimble player on the pitch or in the air. Don't doubt this team's defense. It's going to continue to hold firm over the course of the season... unless Nowak chooses to not bring in much needed defensive depth when the international transfer window opens on July 15 (or sooner).

tBG: Does the addition of Dwayne De Rosario provide enough offense to make up for the loss of Dax McCarty's control of the midfield?

B&RU: Yes I think so, but mostly because McCarty never really had that much control of the midfield here in D.C. anyway. The bigger concern is that DC United will be changing its formation from their comfortable bucket 4-4-2 to a diamond 4-4-2, thus utilizing De Rosario as the attacking link between the midfielders and forwards, but also putting more pressure on Clyde Simms in the CDM role. Simms is an entirely adequate MLS starter, but I worry that using him as the sole disrupter will cost us some possession percentage. If DeRo gets up to speed quickly though and develops some chemistry with Andy Najar and Chris Pontius on the wings, a slight dip in possession might not matter if our scoring average increases.

tBG: Charlie Davies has used his speed to make opportunities for himself, usually within the opposing box. The Union have done a pretty good job of neutralizing opposing speed in 2011. Will he be able to hold up under the pressure from the Union's two physical center backs, Carlos Valdes and Danny Califf?

B&RU: I dunno. Will your physical center backs be able to avoid giving Davies a gentle shove within the box? The Galaxy's physical center back Omar Gonzalez wasn't. Seriously though, Davies has been the best striker in the league this year at cleaning up mistakes made by opposing defenses, whether that's drawing a penalty on an attempted slide tackle in the box, or running hard after Chad Marshall falls down. He's not just in the right place at the right time. He knows where the right place will be and when the right time will be. The defenses that have done the best against Davies and Josh Wolff this year have been those that are the most organized (FC Dallas for example).

tBG: Bill Hamid has had an interesting 2011 in terms of his squad status on DCU. How has he played so far this year?

B&RU: Hamid is a good shot-stopper and an intimidating physical presence, but he's definitely made some mistakes, perhaps the biggest one coming last week against the Houston Dynamo when he took down Brian Ching as the veteran forward was heading out of bounds. Ben Olsen has given Hamid a long leash though, and I don't think his starting job will be in doubt anytime soon.

I'd give you the same answer though whether you asked about Hamid, Perry Kitchen, or Ethan White. United's defensive starters are very young (all three of these guys were born in the 1990s) with loads of potential, but they've made their mistakes. D.C. acquired Brandon McDonald this week to add a bit more leadership to the backline to help limit those mistakes, and he'll be starting right away.