Thanks to geography and MLS's desire to foster rivalries, D.C. United nearly always plays four games a year against the Philadelphia Union. This year, game four is coming earlier than normal: The two clubs are going to meet up once again at RFK Stadium tomorrow. That should make this attempt to guess their lineup a bit easier, right?
Well, yes and no. Yes, it will be pretty straightforward guessing the Union starters. No, it isn't because of the familiarity of the teams. The Union are short of depth in a lot of positions, and where they are deep there's a pretty obvious starter holding the job. To his credit, Jim Curtin has resisted the temptation of his predecessor John Hackworth's relentless formation tinkering. It makes my life easier, but it's also helping the Union. After starting the season with a 1W-3D-7L record, Philly is a more acceptable 5W-1D-4L (not to mention two straight Open Cup wins while down a man, grumble). That's a 1.60 points-per-game pace, which would put them in the thick of the Supporters Shield chase.
As such, it's safe to expect a firm challenge from the Union, who will play a 4231:
John McCarthy was the star of the show as Philly held off the New York Red Bulls in the Open Cup, but Brian Sylvestre has been the starter since he arrived. He's ineligible to play USOC games for the Union because he's already appeared for the Carolina Railhawks in the tournament. Reminder: Sylvestre is on loan with the Union, McCarthy started the year as the third stringer, Zac MacMath is on loan with Colorado - where he never plays - and Andre Blake departed to join Jamaica's Gold Cup team virtually the moment he was able to train after knee surgery. That's the Union GK situation without mentioning Rais M'bolhi.
Anyway, Sylvestre is a good shot-stopper and has good speed coming off his line. What he struggles with is his positioning and his decision-making. United will want to give him some complicated problems to untangle at speed, because a team that's struggling to score goals should gladly accept any handouts their opponent might toss their way.
Across the back, the Tuesday game probably won't matter in terms of selection. Rookie Raymond Lee is newly injured and will not play tomorrow, news that broke just a day after the Union had shipped Sheanon Williams to Houston for some trinkets. That means that even if Curtin wanted to rotate his fullbacks for fresher legs, he wouldn't have the option.
That means the suddenly capable Fabinho will start at left back, and Ray Gaddis will start on the right. Both players get forward regularly, but Fabinho is the only one who can really help the attack. Gaddis is mostly there to keep teams honest and be an outlet; Fabinho is actually trying to generate offense every time he comes forward. The Black-and-Red will need to account for both players, but Fabinho in particular needs to be prevented from crossing or from getting to the endline.
Central defense will probably feature ex-United man Ethan White starting alongside Maurice Edu. Richie Marquez had been keeping White on the bench - pushing Edu to right-center back - for a while, but he's officially questionable with an ankle issue. Considering Marquez didn't even make the bench Tuesday, I'd say that questionable is more like doubtful (at least to start the game). Steven Vitoria may be back in contention, but his horrific start to 2015 - after arriving to some fanfare thanks to his arriving on loan from Portuguese giants Benfica - means he probably only travels if Marquez is unfit for the trip down 95.
In the engine room, Brian Carroll has turned back the clock this season. The 34 year old had just 2 starts in the awful start to the season we discussed, but has started 10 straight games (you know, the 10 in which they're putting up a Shield contender's PPG). It's a good thing he's doing well, because Edu hasn't looked very strong in 2015 and there just isn't another player on the roster who can play defensive midfield very well. Still, at 34 mobility is an issue, and Carroll was never that mobile in the first place. United needs to make him chase a bit and see if they can't tempt him out of zone 14 with some combination play.
Alongside him is Vincent Nogueira, who does a tremendous amount of work linking the back four to the front four. The Frenchman is clever on the ball and has a good handle on when to increase the pace of the game. If United can make his day difficult, the Union attack will suddenly struggle to get the ball in particularly useful positions. The key with Nogueira is to deny him his first instinct, which is to either pass forward or carry the ball 5-10 yards upfield before connecting. If Nogueira has to go sideways more often than usual, DCU is doing something right.
The attacking trio in midfield is an extremely thin area for the Union, particularly on the wings. Andrew Wenger will miss this game with a concussion, leaving the Union with few options beyond Eric Ayuk Mbu down the right and Sebastien Le Toux in a less familiar role on the left. Curtin has other choices here, but none of them make a lot of sense. He could push Cristian Maidana out to the left and use Zach Pfeffer or Fred - lots of former United players and/or DMV locals on this Philly roster - centrally, but Maidana absolutely killed United in that USOC game a few weeks back. Pfeffer has also been deployed wide, but he is categorically not a wide player.
In any case, United needs to be far better about suffocating Maidana throughout the match than they have been in recent games against their most familiar foe. It always goes in phases with Maidana: First you harass him enough that he starts drifting out of the middle, and then you cope with him spending 10+ minutes almost as a winger. Recently Maidana has been drifting right of center rather than out to the left, which could be a problem given that United will probably feature their more attack-minded wide midfielder and their more attack-minded fullback on that side. Ben Olsen should seriously consider swapping Nick DeLeon with Chris Rolfe if Maidana tries to camp out for a while towards United's left.
The other threat out of the midfield is Ayuk Mbu, a goalscoring winger blessed with great speed. The teenager isn't much interested in getting wide and whipping in crosses; what he prefers to do is get into the box either on the dribble or by darting past either shoulder of the left back. United's inability to recognize that sort of intent on both flanks is the major reason they are out of the Open Cup, and it's not a mistake that can be repeated.
Up top, CJ Sapong has been in good form as a rangy target man. The Union know they can always look for Sapong in the air due to both his leaping ability and the large amount of ground he willingly covers. After struggling to get on the field and then dealing with a league-mandated suspension, Sapong has been very productive. In Philadelphia's last 9 games, he has 5 goals and 2 assists; overall, he has 6 and 3 in only 919 minutes played. That's a fantastic rate, and if United can't keep track of Sapong and neutralize him in the air he could well pad those totals.
Off the bench, the Union don't have much in the way of defensive choices. Pfeffer could replace Nogueira in the #8 role as well as the other possibilities we already covered, while Fred has seen his substitute appearances pick up recently as well. Curtin does have plenty of forwards to call upon tomorrow, though. Conor Casey played 120 minutes in the Cup after missing a few games due to a quad strain, while
Groundskeeper Willie Fernando Aristeguieta made his return from a longer injury issue in the same game. If Curtin turns to either one, we could see Sapong moving back into a wide midfield role.