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D.C. United Scouting Report: Philadelphia Union

The Philadelphia Union are overachieving in 2013, but like most rivalries in the soccer world, the standings don't matter much when they face D.C. United. A look into how Philly will play, and the challenge this fixture provides in terms of mentality.

Sheanon Williams is a right back, but is a huge factor in the Philadelphia Union attack.
Sheanon Williams is a right back, but is a huge factor in the Philadelphia Union attack.

To paraphrase one of my favorite bands, The Clash: I'm so bored with the Philadelphia Union.

It's not necessarily their style of play, which at least this year is less based on the principle of kicking the opponent until something good happens than it is about an idea I'd sum up as "let's just convert all of our scoring chances." It's the fact that this will be the tenth time in less than three years that I've scouted them. At this rate, I write about the Union enough that I should be a regular contributor over at The Brotherly Game.

For the second straight season, we'll be playing the Union three times in the regular season. 2013 is the third straight season in which we've played the Union in the US Open Cup. Sometimes, it feels like we don't even play other teams. A D.C. United match against the Union is becoming almost as common as a Barcelona-Real Madrid match in Spain (where they at least have to win their way to the late stages of the Copa Del Rey to really boost things to an absurd level).

Familiarity breeds contempt, and that old adage usually proves correct when these two teams face each other. As I noted the last time we saw Philly, these teams have shared eight red cards in just ten all-time games against one another (not counting Dwayne De Rosario's red for a headbutt on former United winger Danny Cruz in the preseason). The fans of both teams are actually pretty civil, but the players mix like oil and water.

The series is dead even historically, with four wins for United, four wins for Philly, and two ties, and the games have fallen neatly into two categories: Shootouts (the first four meetings saw the teams combine for an average of four goals per game) or tense, low-scoring battles (last year's four games were all decided by one goal or ended in ties). United-Union matches are often won by the team that creates fewer chances, and even when that isn't the case, several have been far closer than the overall play would have indicated. In other words, there's always some reason for these teams to be pissed off at each other.

Currently, the Union are a bit all over the map in terms of form. Since back-to-back 3-0 home wins over the Columbus Crew and New York Red Bulls back in mid-June, Philly is just 2W-3D-2L, hardly the kind of record you'd expect from a team just four points out of first in the East. Even in context, the quality of the results has been erratic. The Union are a team capable of going cross-country to win in Vancouver or get a 2-2 draw at Supporters Shield favorites Real Salt Lake, but they're also capable of picking up just five points in the four home games they've played in the seven-game spell we're looking at.

As inconsistent as the Union can be, they've made my job easier by being more predictable in terms of who plays. Where John Hackworth was more or less willing to start any of twenty players last year and cycled between four or five distinct formations, this year has been far more straightforward. 4132 has been the formation, and only a couple of positions are up for grabs rather than literally everyone that wasn't on the back four aside from Brian Carroll (as was the case in 2012). Here's how they should look today:


The main issue for the Union will be replacing Ray Gaddis at left back, as he's likely out after spraining his ankle in the Union's 2-1 loss to Chicago last weekend. Fabinho, a speedy Brazilian picked up from Australia's Sydney FC, has been regularly used off the bench at left midfield since arriving a few weeks ago, but is said to see himself as an attacking left back first and a midfielder second. If Hackworth is worried about his defensive balance here - given that right back Sheanon Williams is one of MLS's best attacking fullbacks - he could turn to rookie Don Anding, but what we're more likely to see is Fabinho start, with the Union just telling either him or Williams to curtail their natural instincts a bit for this one.

The other potential question mark is also pretty straightforward. Keon Daniel has largely been preferred centrally over Michael Farfan, who in 2013 has not just plateaued from 2012 but has actively stepped backward as a player. Last year, Farfan was a constant influence on most games and showed tremendous creativity; in 2013, he is often a non-factor content to pass the ball off to others. Daniel is nothing special, but he's got more of a passing range than the new, worse version of Farfan and is clearly better centrally than he was in his old role as a left midfielder. Supplemental draft pick Leo Fernandes is also an option, but he's far more likely to appear off the bench if the Union need to push for a goal.

First and foremost, United will need to be ready to battle. The Union didn't have a mid-week game to contend with, and obviously for los Capitalinos the Open Cup semifinal victory in Chicago was something we've been treating as our biggest game of the season for weeks. An emotional letdown is likely, and while that's where we're at, Philly's players were being ordered to stop being chippy with each other in training after reacting angrily to their very poor performance against the Fire at home last Saturday.

While we've been busy basking in the afterglow of winning a vital match, the Union have been stewing over a wasted chance to more or less kill off a potential rival for a playoff spot. A win for Philly would have seen them go up to second place in the East and, just as importantly, put them a full twelve points ahead of Chicago. Instead, they served up a dreadful performance and are now just six points clear of the Fire, who can still view themselves as a potential - if unlikely - playoff participant.

Unfortunately for United, Philadelphia is likely to be far closer to their best as a result of these circumstances. This won't be the tepid, reactive Union side that came to the Soccerplex and only played well for about one-fifth of the game. United will have to be prepared to fight, because this game has all the makings of a return to the normal look of a DC-Philly match (i.e. physical, chippy, mean-spirited, argumentative, and filled with cards). If we just allow the Union to take out their anger on us and push us around, we'll probably be second-best all over the field. On the other hand, if we simply try to top the Union for rage, we'll probably end up being the team that sees a red card. The Black-and-Red need to be like every action movie hero ever: Not looking for trouble, but prepared to stand up for ourselves if needed.

Going forward, Fabinho looks like a glaring weakness. He arrived from the A-League with a reputation for being defensively soft at that lower level, and Hackworth has (wisely) tried to use him as a speedy winger in MLS. He's a bit of an unknown on these shores as a fullback, but I'd rather attack him relentlessly and see if he's up for it rather than go after the Union's other defenders, who are proven to be respectable 1v1 and generally have good spacing.

United's recent offensive danger has come in part because of the quality of movement we've been showing with Luis Silva. Against Chicago the job was easier due to a lack of a true anchor midfielder, but the Union will have Carroll in that role. He's more defensive and physical than Patrice Bernier, who is more of a deep-lying playmaker for Montreal, which means he'll more often be already in a good defensive spot in transition.

With Silva potentially an absentee due to a potential concussion - he passed early tests, but caution is vital with head injuries - we need to see our new, fluid 4411 still used correctly with our without our new star attraction. Carroll is the same player he's been for years, while MLS has gotten smarter and faster. If we can keep playing quickly and maintain our unpredictable movement off the ball, attacking moves down the middle are on the table. If we're a bit slow with the ball, Carroll is going to be able to shield Philly's back four effectively throughout, forcing us into a more one-dimensional attack.

Defensively, United will need to be just as sharp as we were against the Impact and the Fire. Yet another of MLS's Golden Boot contenders will be lining up on the other side in the form of Jack McInerney, and his partner Conor Casey usually provides trouble for us as well. The challenge tonight is a lot different than what we've been successful against recently. While Montreal played with Marco Di Vaio alone up front as a false #9, and Chicago ran out two withdrawn forwards at the same time, the Union will ask both Jack Mac and Casey to play as out-and-out strikers.

Going back to last year, we've seen Dejan Jakovic have a lot of success when he's up against second forwards who prefer to drop into the hole and be important as creators. He always has the athletic advantage over such players, and his speed allows him to step into the midfield and then retreat in time to prevent teams from taking advantage of the gap that creates.

Against true strikers, though, Jakovic has been less than stellar. The issue has several components. First, out-and-out strikers in MLS tend to be able to match or surpass Jakovic in terms of either speed or strength, taking away the athletic advantage. Second, Jakovic still has that urge to step up and snuff attacks out early, but when strikers are trying to push up and get in behind, that urge becomes an all-or-nothing impulse. If the attack isn't dead right then and there, you have an attacker in a huge gap with Jakovic or Daniel Woolard needing to make up 10+ yards. Finally, Jakovic has been known to play well only to have one colossal error ruin everything, and when you have strikers playing high up the field and pressuring, those errors are more likely to be punished.

Against the Union, it's best to remember that they're going to be largely one-sided going forward. Sebastien Le Toux leads MLS in assists in part because he's found his groove on free kicks and corners (we'll get to set pieces later), but also in part because the Union are so heavily right-sided. He and Williams are where the service often comes from. A lot of that service will be through the air to Casey, who has always been adept at using his aerial ability both to go to goal and to set up other players.

Quite frankly, unless we play Conor Shanosky, we don't have anyone that can deal with Casey in the air, so the job becomes more about either preventing service or preventing Casey from doing what he wants with those headers. If our defenders can go up competitively with Casey, he won't have an easy time snapping his headers on goal, nor will he be able to cushion or flick headers on for McInerney, whose instincts as a poacher are why he's scored so many goals this year.

Speaking of McInerney, he's in a rut right now. Even excusing the games he missed while hanging out with the US Gold Cup squad, he's gone six straight matches without a goal (despite playing 82 or more minutes in every one of them). The main issue is a simple one: Jack Mac is complicating things right now, and trying to do more than a poacher normally does. McInerney will have to add more to his game to make it on the national team level - that's why Chris Wondolowski currently has a shot at future call-ups instead - but he seems to be struggling at figuring out how to have more of an impact on games with the ball at his feet without sacrificing what makes him dangerous in the first place.

If we see Jack Mac trying to help the midfield in possession regularly, it's probably a good sign. However, if he stays high up the field and focuses on things like exploiting gaps and encouraging through balls with his runs in behind, we have a far more difficult challenge on our hands. In that latter case, United's best bet is to do what we've done of late: Effectively pressure the ball in the middle third so that teams can't hit us for the early through balls that have often been fatal for United in 2013. It's much better for DCU to simply prevent this sort of service from happening rather than let our shaky ability to defend that kind of attack be on display.

Set pieces are a huge danger against Philly. Le Toux's service has been excellent for most of 2013, and the Union have both the targets - Casey, Williams, and Amobi Okugo in particular - and the gritty attitude necessary to make every foul within 45 yards of goal the sort of thing teams could regret. They're also the best team on long throw-ins in MLS thanks to the combination of Williams being able to fire balls in and the fact that Casey and Okugo are both fantastic at winning these throws and either flicking them on or glancing them at goal. Given that we already gave up a goal on precisely this sort of situation to the Union in 2013, there should be no excuse for Philly catching us off-guard with a long throw-in. Win the first ball, or at the very least make it so hard to flick on that the play dies there.

In many ways, this is the toughest game we've had in quite a while. It's not that the Union - easily the weakest team in MLS's top ten right now - are that great of an opponent. It's that they always play us tough, and they're in a  particularly bad mood right now. It's that United put so much emotion and energy into a road game on Wednesday while the Union were sleeping in their own beds. It's that this DC team has, multiple times in 2013, crashed back to earth following two-game spells of quality play.

From a mentality perspective, this is an enormous challenge for United. The good news is that our recent additions have greatly improved the overall mental outlook of their teammates, and even if Silva can't play we've seen that Conor Doyle and Jared Jeffrey add some elements in terms of movement and speed of play that we simply didn't have before, mentality aside. The bad news is that Philly has three games to scout the new-look United, and they're a much different team to defend than the Impact and the Fire (who, frankly, played to our strengths).

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