The current Philadelphia Union lineup has been a bit fluid lately, but that's because they've had the same number of games as D.C. United has had over the back half of June with just one extra day of rest thrown in. Unlike past iterations, however, Jim Curtin has settled on a formation and for the most part has picked a best eleven. The results haven't been great - if you throw in a friendly against their PDL affiliate Reading United, their recent result pattern is LWDLWD - but that's still an improvement from earlier this season.
Despite the congested schedule, that best eleven is likely the eleven we'll see tonight. The Union don't play at all this weekend, as someone in MLS noticed how many games they had played compared to those around them and figured it was time to let them have a rest. If only that herculean feat could be replicated for other teams in MLS! In any case, Philly is in some trouble due to being outside the playoff picture having played more games than all non-DCU teams in the East, so this game carries some significant weight. The Union need something to feel hopeful about, and in cup competition there are no standings to drag morale down.
Curtin will be fielding a 4231, and I suspect that means this starting team:
In goal - a situation that remains farcical, but not as pointedly as earlier this year - starter Brian Sylvestre is cup-tied because he's on loan from the Carolina Railhawks, who stipulated that he play for them in the Open Cup. The Railhawks lost to the Charlotte Independence in the third round with Sylvestre in goal, so he's ineligible tonight.
John McCarthy will probably start despite Andre Blake's return to fitness. At issue here is the fact that Blake hasn't played a game since undergoing knee surgery a few weeks ago, but then how can you get on the field if the prerequisite for playing games is playing games? Blake is the stronger keeper, but I think Curtin will go with McCarthy (who, it should be noted, saved three penalties to lead the Union past the Rochester Rhinos two weeks ago).
The Union back four has questions of its own, though centrally things are settled. It is somewhat odd to see the guy Philly thought they'd start in defensive midfield starting alongside a player they felt would spend the season on loan in the USL in those spots, but Maurice Edu and Richie Marquez have been better than Ethan White and Steven Vitoria (who was supposed to be a key acquisition in the offseason).
It's also odd to see Fabinho earning his minutes, but he has actually been delivering on the defensive end of late. Curtin has rotated Sheanon Williams in on both flanks, and could do so again tonight, but he's the third man in this group of fullbacks nowadays. If Williams is started - both Gaddis and Fabinho played 90 minutes on the weekend - I'd expect to see him on the left, with Fabinho coming in if the Union need an attacking spark.
Brian Carroll has fought his way back into the team after appearing to be an afterthought in April. This was in part a move borne of desperation, as injuries and poor form required Edu to move back to his current role. Carroll is still going to be lacking dynamism and is predictable in his passing, but he will at least occupy the space just in front of the center backs. Ahead of him, Vincent Nogueira is a quality linking midfielder; if United lets him connect a lot of passes, things might not go well. He needs to be pressured into passing to Carroll or playing long rather than helping the Union get into a rhythm.
The right winger's role is up for grabs to a certain extent. Eric Ayuk Mbu is the biggest goal threat, but the teenager's inexperience has been a factor regularly as well. Saturday, for example, he got himself sent off for a nonsensical two-footed tackle in a tie game that the Union had a man advantage in. Le Toux is probably not in the running after being listed as questionable for a while now with a sprained knee. If he can play at all, it'll be off the bench. Ayuk Mbu's competition is actually Andrew Wenger - who has been pushed to the bench for ineffective play - or Zach Pfeffer, who belongs elsewhere on the field.
Each player is very different. Ayuk Mbu is a goalscoring winger who uses his speed and low center of gravity to be a threat by running with the ball. Wenger is a target winger, providing Philadelphia with a long ball outlet that - due to being wide - will nearly always be able to out-muscle his marker. Pfeffer is a central player who ends up wide just so he can get games, and he'll look to come inside and help possession.
Pfeffer is most likely going to start on the left, but if he's used on the right or in the middle, things change. If Pfeffer plays in the middle, Cristian Maidana will be on the left flank. That's how it was said they would play against Montreal this weekend, only for "Chaco" to start the game in his normal central role. There's an element of flexibility here between those two. If Pfeffer is on the right, Maidana will be in the middle and Wenger will probably start on the left.
Up front, CJ Sapong has been in very good form since returning a league-mandated suspension relating to a DUI in May. Make that great form, actually: 5 goals and an assist in 7 appearances (only 4 of which are starts). Sapong is putting all the raw materials he has - strength, speed, and aerial ability among them - to work right now, and he's going to pose a very difficult challenge for United's center backs.
The Union are otherwise short of strikers, as offseason acquisition Fernando Aristeguieta hasn't made the bench in a few games since first being listed as questionable with a shin contusion. If he wasn't fit to play a few minutes against Montreal, he might not be in contention for this game either. If Sapong has to be subbed off, the options are Dzenan Catic - career MLS appearances: 0 - or Antoine Hoppenot, an erratic speed option if there ever was one.
Most likely, the subs will include Wenger on one flank or the other. After that it gets more complicated, but we could see ex United midfielder Fred. The veteran Brazilian has appeared in each of the last three games for Philadelphia, and in all likelihood he'll come on for someone in the central midfield triangle. Curtin also likes using fullbacks as wide midfielders if his side is winning, so we could see Williams come on (either pushing Fabinho up the left flank, or with Williams playing right midfield himself). If the Union are losing, however, look for their last throw of the dice to be Hoppenot.