Things have suddenly turned around for the Philadelphia Union, who despite missing several regulars have won two straight over teams supposedly in the Eastern Conference's elite. D.C. United had good reason to enter May thinking that their two games against the Union should result in six points, but Philly has sorted some things out both tactically and in terms of morale. In the space of less than two weeks, the league's punching bag has started to punch back.
Despite the Union's sudden burst of good form, it seems safe to expect some changes tomorrow night. Maurice Edu was suspended due to yellow card accumulation last week against the Red Bulls, so he will almost certainly return to the lineup. Conor Casey left last week's game with a quadriceps injury, so we won't get to find out whether United will be more prepared for his physicality after looking somehow surprised by it at PPL Park. Casey might have been moved to the bench anyway, though, as Fernando Aristeguieta has returned after not making Venezuela's Copa America team.
That points to the following starting lineup:
In goal, Brian Sylvestre should continue despite going back to the Carolina Railhawks on Wednesday to play in their US Open Cup loss. You didn't expect this piece to go without some sort of Union GK shenanigans, did you? In any case, there's no reason to expect him to be benched at this point, if only due to lack of any stronger options.
Ray Gaddis is still probably a week or two from returning from an ankle sprain suffered against United, so Sheanon Williams and Fabinho will play right and left back, respectively. This is a glaring weakness for the Union, but last time out United did precious little to make Philly pay. If anything, the Black-and-Red helped Fabinho gain a little confidence back. Making him defend will reveal everything he's bad at, while letting the Union have time on the front foot will let him line up crosses and stretch the field.
Edu's status has an impact at center back as well as defensive midfield. It appears that Ethan White has - for the time being - carved out a starting job at CB, while Vincent Nogueira's recent form has been as good as any Union player. That means Jim Curtin will have to choose between dropping Brian Carroll or Richie Marquez to bring Edu back into the team. Marquez has drawn praise after being recalled from a loan to the Harrisburg City Islanders, but a lot of that is colored by the low expectations involved. Carroll, meanwhile, has perhaps played above expectations but is still vulnerable due to a lack of mobility at defensive midfield. My guess is that Edu plays in the midfield, but it really could go either way.
Further forward, Sebastian Le Toux and Andrew Wenger have taken hold of their starting roles after briefly being benched for poor form. Neither is at their very best right now - Le Toux is still settling for crosses rather than mixing up his attacks, while Wenger isn't getting into scoring positions often enough - but they're engaged and making a difference. That's been enough of late to keep Cameroonian teenager Eric Ayuk Mbu on the bench. Cristian Maidana will remain as the team's #10, though to be fair the team's recent change to a defend-and-counter approach has dulled the Argentine's influence. United needs to make sure that continues, because Maidana is very dangerous when given time.
Up top, Aristeguieta's return means less physicality, but much more mobility. Casey is never a threat to get in behind, and doesn't put himself in as many truly dangerous positions as the Venezuelan does. Still, given United's puzzling trouble with Casey's attempt to shove everyone at all times, this may be a good thing. On the downside, it means that the Union are going to be more dangerous on the counter. As that has become their main avenue of attack recently, it's a threat United's defense has to account for.
Off the bench, Ayuk Mbu and CJ Sapong seem destined to appear. Ayuk Mbu is an athletic winger who has a knack for getting into good positions in the box, while Sapong - back after an MLS-mandated suspension due to a drunk driving offense - could end up on either flank as well as up front. Both will make the Union a faster team, though they arguably reduce the team's overall technical ability.
I'd also keep an eye on Zach Pfeffer, who has played both in central midfield and on the left wing. Pfeffer is probably best as an attacking midfielder, but isn't ready to push Maidana to the bench. Still, he's a big contrast to the Union's other attacking subs, as he lacks their speed but brings a craftier approach to the game. If the Union find themselves protecting a result late, they could also turn to Carroll (if he isn't starting) and drop into a very defensive 4141.