Previously in this space, any game between D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union usually meant I could zero in on one of two points: The frequency of red cards when these teams get together, or the strange decisions of Union coach John Hackworth. There was a point where this fixture saw an average of over one red card per game, and in Hackworth's case the list of bizarre positional experimentation and constant formation changing - usually while calling everything a 433 - required plenty of explanation.
Those days are gone. DC and Philly have played six straight games across all competitions without anyone being sent off (last red card: Sheanon Williams five minutes into stoppage time back on 8/19/2012), and Hackworth has been replaced by Jim Curtin, who longtime United fans might remember as CJ Brown's old first mate on the
SS Kick Every Good DCU Player To Death Chicago Fire.
Curtin has changed a few things at PPL Park, and while none of his moves have required much brilliance, they've all been necessary. The days of trying every non-center back on the roster as a center back are over. Curtin has installed United homegrown product Ethan White as a starter, and the surprising return of Carlos Valdes has seen Philly actually start two true center backs for the first time in ages. Starting center backs as your center backs may not sound like a notable step, but for the Union it has to count. This is the team that spent weeks using striker Andrew Wheeler there - and also considered current back-up striker Pedro Ribeiro for the same job - while having White and Austin Berry watching games from the stands.
Occam's Razor is a good starting point in MLS, which is complicated enough on its own. Curtin has shown faith in Cristian Maidana to play the central role he's best in rather than shifting him out to the left wing, which in turn has allowed him to play Vincent Nogueira (who was once linked with United) in his natural two-way role. For Hackworth, those moves were "too obvious," I guess.
That's not to say that Curtin is just doing the obvious things and nothing more. Andrew Wenger was drafted as a sort of enigma, having won both Defensive and Offensive player of the year awards during various NCAA seasons at Duke. Montreal used him as a central striker after drafting him, while Hackworth used him both centrally and on the wing depending on the team's needs more than anything else. Curtin has installed Wenger on the left wing full-time in the Union's more stable 4231, using him as a target winger. It's worked out very well now that it's clearly his position, rather than an ad hoc choice made due to an injury shortage.
The simple act of putting players in reasonable spots has been a big part of the Union's turnaround. Hackworth was fired with Philly sitting on a 3W-6D-7L record. Since then, they've gone 9W-6D-3L across all competitions (five Open Cup games plus thirteen MLS matches). It's not a perfectly indicative record - eleven of those games were at PPL Park, and two of those USOC wins required overtime - but it still underlines the fact that Philadelphia is a more formidable opponent than when we last met back on May 10th.
I mentioned that the Union are using a 4231 now, and that's more or less what Hackworth had them playing out of. The difference is that Curtin isn't tinkering with it in-game constantly, which makes it far easier to diagram for you here:
There are question marks in the Union lineup, but they're mostly due to injury. White left their 0-0 draw with the Houston Dynamo last week with what looked like a hamstring strain, and it seems more likely than not that he'll have to miss this one. If that's the case, Curtin has on more than one occasion used Maurice Edu at center back rather than Amobi Okugo, who the still-technically-interim boss prefers as a defensive midfielder. Most likely, we'll see Edu playing alongside Valdes and Okugo sitting underneath and slightly to the right of Nogueira. There is an outside chance that Curtin chooses Brian Carroll instead for his leadership qualities, but it would count as a surprise if he did so.
The other issue is in the nets, where the Union have stuck to their tradition of doing weird things that are hard to explain. Remember, it was only a few months ago that Philly outbid Vancouver to trade up and take United's #1 pick to draft Andre Blake despite already having a young starting GK in Zac MacMath. MacMath responded by playing better than ever before during the early part of the season, so naturally the Union went out and signed Rais Mbolhi, Algeria's #1 from this summer's World Cup.
It's a farcical situation, but the Union wouldn't be themselves without some sort of farce. In any case, I think we'll see Mbolhi, but MacMath has been given games since Mbolhi was declared fit enough to take over the job. A few weeks ago, Blake was even given a start at random. What we can be absolutely sure of is that someone will be standing in Philly's goal wearing a keeper's uniform, because it's required in the laws of the game.
Ahead of whoever that will be, there have been some tweaks to how Philly's defenders play. Williams used to attack from right back nearly constantly, but Curtin has instituted a more balanced look. Williams doesn't overlap as often nowadays, and Raymon Gaddis has picked up the slack by going forward more than he used to (and has improved his crossing enough so that this is no longer a funny sort of positive).
On the other hand, the return of Valdes hasn't quite worked as spectacularly as one might have expected. Valdes was a Best 11-quality defender before he left for two different loans (at the odd insistence of Colombia's head coach Jose Pekerman), but since his return he's looked a bit disconnected from his teammates. Most likely, this will be worked out with time and repetition, but for now United gets a sub-par version of Valdes likely partnering someone other than White.
That lack of familiarity is something the Black-and-Red need to exploit. It sounds counter-intuitive to attack a Colombia World Cup player and a guy who has played center back for the USMNT, but defending is about structure and being able to predict where one's teammates are, and it's hard to do that when the partnerships are new.
On the flanks, both Williams and Gaddis are tough to beat 1v1. However, both have issues with combination play (Williams due to his impulsiveness, Gaddis in terms of positional sense). United usually prefers to attack that way anyway, so it's a promising match-up of styles for Ben Olsen's group. In particular, give-and-go passing aimed at United's wide midfielders (or Fabian Espindola, given his propensity for drifting wide) should be effective.
In central midfield, United cannot have a repeat of last week's first half against Chicago. The Union's central midfield triangle is more skillful and more creative, especially in the two deeper spots. Nogueira sets Philly's rhythm, and as such the Frenchman can't be given time to dictate the tempo of the game. "Harass that guy" is a simple tactic on paper, but can be hard to execute. Don't be surprised if we see Davy Arnaud spending more time a few yards right of center, as Nogueira likes to play in that space.
Further forward, "Chaco" Maidana is by far the most creative player the Union have. His 9 assists on the year aren't near the top of the table, but like Espindola he's missed a chunk of the season. Maidana averages 0.52 assists per 90 minutes, which is the third-best average in MLS for people with over 10 appearances. A lot of that is from his set piece delivery, but he still creates plenty of chances from open play. United needs to make sure Maidana is suffocated, which like Nogueira will require focus and communication more than anything else. The Argentine isn't exactly MLS's most mobile attacker; if the middle is too hard to play through, he generally fades out of games.
On the other end of the mobility spectrum is Sebastien Le Toux, who is probably running somewhere right now for no good reason. Le Toux never stops, and that work rate is the key to his success. He doesn't necessarily carve out chances based on brilliance, but rather by trying and trying until his defender misses him. He's also looking pretty confident these days in front of goal, so United's left-sided players need to be especially sharp about tracking Le Toux. Steve Birnbaum is likely to have to slide out and help a few times, too.
It's also worth mentioning that the Union are among MLS's most effective counter-attacking teams, and a lot of that has to do with a team-wide focus on finding Le Toux in transition. When United has a turnover, there needs to be a real focus on forcing play out to the left or keeping it in the middle. If Philly plays the ball to the left flank, Wenger doesn't have Le Toux's speed and Gaddis still has a long way to go in terms of becoming an attacking threat from left back. We focus on being hard to play through vertically, but this is a situation where United can't let certain diagonal or horizontal balls through.
I mentioned Wenger's status as a target winger earlier, and it will largely come into play when the Union have the ball in their own defensive third or at midfield along the right side. Philly will look to switch the ball long and through the air for Wenger with the expectation that he can win the header over any right back.
Sean Franklin gives away some height and size to Wenger to be sure, but he's experienced enough to know that a defender doesn't have to win the header to win the battle. Franklin needs to be very good about denying Wenger the ability to control what he does with the header, and that means either a) putting in an effective challenge as the ball arrives every time or b) nudging Wenger while the ball is still on its way.
On the ground, Wenger is only really a threat when Conor Casey knocks the ball down for him or when Maidana plays him through. He's not going to generate much on his own, nor does he have the speed to be a real threat, so Franklin can afford to step high whenever it looks like the Union want to use Wenger in possession.
Casey, meanwhile, is the same guy he's always been. He and Bobby Boswell are going to crash into each other all game long. Casey is often underrated as a passer of the ball, though, and that's why his hold-up play is so effective. He's not mobile, and he isn't gifted with any particularly impressive vision or creativity, but he's also keenly aware of all that. Casey plays simply and connects his passes, and that reliability is a huge part of the Union's attack. Boswell needs to win his fair share of these individual battles, but more vital is who wins the second ball. United needs to make sure those loose balls aren't of much use to guys like Maidana, Le Toux, and Nogueira, and that will come down to alertness and quick thinking more than anything else.
On set pieces, I've already mentioned Maidana's ability. Now throw in targets like Casey, Edu, Wenger, Okugo, and Valdes, and it's clear that Philly isn't far from being among MLS's elite set piece teams. Oddly, though, they only have eight set piece goals on the year per WhoScored.com. That stat is, in my opinion, deceptive. This is a more dangerous team in these situations than that merely average total indicates.
They're also helped by Le Toux's knack for winning fouls, and former United winger Danny Cruz offers a similar quality off the bench (he almost always comes on for Wenger for the final 10-20 minutes). If anything, the main issue is going to be reducing the number of times Maidana gets to stand over a dead ball than anything else. Corners and free kicks need to be kept to a minimum, which means smart team defending and not going to ground unless it's absolutely necessary.
Going the other way, the Union can be a little disorganized. Individually, they shouldn't have any problem due to their overall team size, but as a unit they can be a little slow to react to situations. In goal, you have either Mbolhi (unfamiliar with his teammates) or MacMath (lacking the strength or aggressive personality to charge through traffic). In other words, United might be able to find a little joy on set pieces, particularly if we see a return to the rehearsed plays that seemed more common earlier in the year.
Mentally, this is a huge game for both teams. United could well enter this game with a chance to go six points clear of everyone in the East, which would make a #1 seed for the playoffs a near-certainty (especially given that our final three games are against the East's bottom trio). For the Union, meanwhile, every loss is one step closer to missing the playoffs. They're 2 points out right now, and TFC is only a point behind them with a game in hand to boot.
This is going to be a desperate Union side, and United needs to make sure the game is about the bad side of desperation - rushed passes, poor decisions, one-note attacks - than the good side. Being the better team in the early stages will be crucial, but United also needs to be patient and in control of the game's temperature. In their last nine games, the Union have either scored an equalizer or game-winner four times in the final twenty minutes, and most of that has to do with their ability to make things frantic. The more this game feels like a chess match, the more likely United is to come out on top.