The 2015 edition of the Philadelphia Union, at least up to today, are the worst team in Major League Soccer. We're talking about - by far - the worst defensive team in the league. As Matt Doyle pointed out earlier this week for MLSsoccer, their possession stats and their ability to connect passes is almost the worst as well (only San Jose, who somehow connected just 59% of their passes in a game of soccer featuring professionals, are worse right now). Their offense isn't inept, but they're so bad at everything else when it comes to soccer that it doesn't matter.
There's also the "optics," which is an unavoidable PR buzzword that I dread using. The Union goalkeeping situation is MLS's most popular joke right now. This is a team carrying four goalkeepers, a figure that doesn't count Zac MacMath (who can't be recalled from Colorado due to the regulations surrounding intra-league loans) or Trey Mitchell, the league pool GK that has a significant chance of sitting their bench for the second straight game.
The Union have also been bizarrely unlucky. CJ Sapong is suspended via the league's substance abuse policy, something that happens about once every three years in the whole league. Per head coach Jim Curtin, he lost goalkeepers John McCarthy and Andre Blake to injuries that happened within 45 seconds of one another. Last week, center back Richie Marquez was sent off for a challenge that most MLS referees would not have considered a red card offense. When it rains, it pours.
All of this lends itself to a lineup that is somewhat complicated to predict. There's a mix of factors here: Injuries and suspensions, as have been mentioned, but also a simple lack of people playing well. Curtin has no reason to settle on a team, because no one is doing the basic stuff you do to earn a starting job. One can't help but wonder how things would be going if the Union hadn't sent five respectable players - MacMath, Carlos Valdes, Austin Berry, Danny Cruz, and Leo Fernandes - away on loan.
On the other hand, the lack of in-form players - or even available players - does simplify things somewhat. The Union aren't in a position to radically change their formation unless they want to hand out an MLS debut to a rookie like Dzenan Catic while also dropping Cristian Maidana (who has been arguably the Union's most reliably effective player in 2015). Curtin more or less has to play some variation of a 451, and it seems to me that the 4231 that's in place now puts the best players on the field. "Best," in this case, should not be confused with "good."
Let's start with the goalkeeping situation, which has more twists and turns than a soap opera. Rais M'bolhi is still under contract, but is training separately from the team and has been told he'll never play for the Union again. Andre Blake is weeks away from a return after knee surgery. We already discussed how MacMath is away on loan (sitting the bench for Colorado, because of course the Union couldn't find him a better gig). McCarthy is apparently making progress from a concussion, and may be fit to play. Of course, the fact that he's got such a history with concussions that he wears a rugby helmet when he plays should indicate that "progress" is not necessarily a guarantee of anything.
Finally, there's Brian Sylvestre, who played last week in Vancouver. His initial short-term loan to Philly from the Carolina Railhawks of the NASL was set to expire earlier this week, but the teams reached a deal to extend the loan for eight weeks (basically long enough for Blake to recover and get fit). I assume Mitchell is still in town in case McCarthy doesn't pass the concussion protocols, but if he suits up it'll be on the bench. Honestly, I should have just put Sylvestre in the above image, but the question marks were a jab I could not resist making.
Ray Gaddis is at right back after Curtin recently, for somewhat arbitrary reasons, declared that he was the right back for the foreseeable future. Gaddis had been filling in at left back for about a season and a half due to Fabinho just not being very good, but Curtin has switched him into his more natural position for...fairness? It's hard to say, because the result is that Sheanon Williams - also a natural right back - is now fighting with Fabinho for time at left back. Curtin didn't alleviate the problem so much as shuffle the chairs around.
In any case, Gaddis is a lot like Chris Korb: He's fast, he's steady 1v1, but he's not that great with the ball. Switching flanks hasn't changed this problem whatsoever. Williams can sometimes hit a cross, but now that he's on the left that's less of a threat due to his being right-footed. Fabinho is a sieve when it comes to 1v1 defending, but he is Philly's best crosser from the run of play. My guess is that he won't see the field, because offense is not where the Union need to improve.
Center back is another problem area. Steven Vitoria was brought in on loan from Portuguese giants Benfica during the offseason, but he hasn't looked at all like a player capable of playing at a club of that stature. More to the point, though, he's also currently questionable with a groin strain. Marquez's red card means Curtin will more or less have to play Maurice Edu in central defense if Vitoria isn't fit this week (and he's been questionable for a while now, so this might be a situation where "questionable" means "out" in practical terms). Former United homegrown player Ethan White would not be certain of a starting job if everyone were healthy, but given the chaos around him he will walk into the starting eleven on Sunday.
In defensive midfield, Edu's likely absence will be felt. Brian Carroll has not looked like an MLS starter for about two full seasons, but Philly has no other available defensive midfielders. Michael Lahoud is about a month away from returning to the field to kick anyone who tries to play soccer, and Edu is the only other defensive midfielder on the roster. It might be putting too fine a point on things, but this is a great development for United.
In the #8 role, Vincent Nogueira has finally come off the injury report. In recent games the one-time United target was only able to play about half an hour at a time due to a lingering ankle issue. As he only played 28 minutes in Vancouver, I can't list him here with 100% certainty, but I do expect him to play from the start tomorrow. If he can't start, Homegrown midfielder Zach Pfeffer - who was on standby for US under-20 World Cup duty in case Gedion Zelalem's paperwork didn't clear in time - will step in. Both players like to connect passes and serve as a source of rhythm in possession for a team that desperately needs more of that., though Pfeffer may be better off in a more attacking role.
On the right wing, Cameroonian teenager Eric Ayuk Mbu has pushed Sebastian Le Toux to the bench. Well, "pushed" may oversell things, since Le Toux has been a non-factor all season, but Ayuk Mbu has still shown an ability to get himself into goalscoring positions. Though he's quite small, Ayuk Mbu is very athletic and uses his deceptive strength to push past people on the run. The left flank, meanwhile, will be manned by Andrew Wenger due to lack of other options. Like Le Toux, Wenger is very much in a slump. In fact, given the personnel available up front, it wouldn't be an earth-shattering surprise if Curtin opted for Fabinho as his left winger and opted for a cross-heavy attack. Wenger is clearly the better player, but he's not getting the job done right now.
In the middle, Chaco Maidana has done alright when one considers the nonsense he's surrounded by. He's still not a very effective player when the Union aren't on the attack, but he's the most dangerous creative threat for Philly by a wide margin right now. Of course, there's always the possibility that the Union will shift him to the left wing and play Nogueira as a #10, even though both players have shown time and again that they aren't effective in those roles. Forget it, Jake; it's the Union.
The situation up front is less a mess and more a simple lack of available options. Fernando Aristeguieta has been called into Venezuela's pre-Copa America camp, which means the Union's leading goalscorer won't be at PPL Park tomorrow. Sapong, as we discussed before, is suspended. That leaves Curtin with several flawed options. Conor Casey hasn't been trusted to play more than 29 minutes at all this year, and at this point in his career he really only has the legs to be a change-of-pace substitute. Le Toux is not a natural fit as a lone striker, and there's the aforementioned poor form to deal with as well. Antoine Hoppenot has been dealing with an injury, and no Union coach has ever trusted him as a starter.
Curtin could call Catic up from his loan with the Harrisburg City Islanders, but any minutes he gets tomorrow would be his first in MLS. Still, Catic has played professionally before, which is why he ended up at an NAIA college program. He could be something of a wild card here given the problems every other option comes with.
Off the bench, we're likely to see Le Toux play somewhere, while former United midfielder Fred - yes, he's still playing at 35 - may be available (though he was added to the injury report this week). If Pfeffer doesn't start, you can pretty much be sure he'll sub in as the game wears on. The lack of available players means there aren't too many other potential subs to watch out for. Catic may well be the third sub, assuming Curtin gambles on Casey being able to play 55-60 minutes.