In years past, any D.C. United game against the Philadelphia Union came with some guarantees. The game would be chippy and close regardless of how good the teams were doing, and the Union lineup would be in some sort of disarray. Be it crazy coaches, injuries, or simply a roster full of inadequate players failing to stake a real claim, Philly would be a bit tricky to predict.
This year, things have changed. The lineup still has some variability, but it's because people are fighting for spots rather than being rotated out for poor play. The Union were smart last season in sensing that 2015 was not going to work out; they gave valuable playing time to previously unheralded players like Richie Marquez while building the confidence of striker CJ Sapong.
Meanwhile, adding former United captain Earnie Stewart as the club's sporting director helped in terms of hunting down players that Philadelphia otherwise wouldn't have known to pursue. Dutch midfielder Roland Alberg is the main example, and it's hard to imagine the Union correctly evaluating young talent - both from the draft as well as the USL - before Stewart arrived.
All in all, the result is a solid team that will probably make the playoffs in an Eastern Conference full of flawed outfits. That might not sound like extremely high praise, but this is the Union we're talking about. It's the first time they haven't been some kind of train wreck for years, and when compared to United's erratic play this season, Philly will start tomorrow's game as the favorite.
Head coach Jim Curtin has pretty much exclusively played out of a 4231, and that won't change for tomorrow night's game:
In goal, Andre Blake is proving that Curtin's reticence to give him a start once he recovered from injury last year was a mistake. The Jamaican international has quickly established himself as one of MLS's better 'keepers. Blake might not win Goalkeeper of the Year this year (or next year, most likely), but it's easy to see that he's on course to get into that conversation with time. His physical range - both in making saves and in covering his box - is remarkable, and his coordination means he doesn't have the footwork problems a lot of younger goalkeepers suffer from. That said, his anticipation and decision-making are occasionally issues that leave him slightly out of position.
The Union badly wanted to sign their right back Keegan Rosenberry as a Homegrown player only to have MLS reject their claim (with rumors swirling that another MLS team raising a fuss over his eligibility being a factor). Philly showed their commitment to the Georgetown product by drafting him with the #3 pick this January, and it's become clear why they were so enthusiastic about him. Rosenberry has been at least as good as Jordan Morris (who will run away with Rookie of the Year because he's a goalscorer that gets USMNT caps).
Normally with a rookie right back, this is where I'd say something along the lines of "attack this inexperienced player, goals will follow." As Matt Doyle did well to point out, that's not the case here. Rosenberry is great 1v1, and in all honesty is the least vulnerable Union defender. Instead, United needs to make sure he's got a lot of defensive work to do so he can't join the attack so much. Rosenberry has been getting into good spots to cross fairly regularly, and unlike most MLS fullbacks he's also been able to create shooting opportunities for himself regularly.
Next to Rosenberry is the more hyped Georgetown product, rookie Joshua Yaro. Yaro was talked up as a potential #1 pick in the 2015 draft but opted to stay in school, and then was seen as the consensus #1 until the last couple of weeks before the 2016 draft. Yaro ended up going to the Union with the 2nd overall pick, and then ended up losing a preseason battle for starts with Ken Tribbett.
Wait, who? Tribbett went undrafted in 2014 and ended up signing with the Michigan Bucks of the PDL. He stepped up the ladder in 2015, playing for the Harrisburg City Islanders, and then won himself a spot on the Union roster in preseason after initially being acquired to play for the Bethlehem Steel, Philly's new USL affiliate. Tribbett also beat Brazilian defender Anderson Conceicao - who was supposed to be the Union's most important defensive acquisition in the winter - to be a starter, but an ankle sprain knocked him out for about a month.
Yaro, though, has held the starting job over the past couple of weeks despite Tribbett's return to fitness. It will be interesting to see if Curtin tries to bring the larger, more physical Tribbett back in to face Alvaro Saborio. Yaro and Marquez - the sure starter among Union center backs - give away some size against Sabo, and are more comfortable using their speed and mobility to defend on the ground than they are winning headers against a big target man.
On the left, Fabinho has been quietly playing very well for almost a full calendar year now. Oddly enough, his breakout game might have been the Union's Open Cup victory over United last year. The Brazilian has always been good going forward, but he's become more active and has finally added some decent defending to his game in recent months. Still, given how Patrick Nyarko has been owning his flank, I can't help but wonder if Curtin cycles in Raymon Gaddis - the Union's answer to Chris Korb, basically - to solidify that side. It's probably not going to happen, but it should at least be on Curtin's mind.
In central midfield, Vincent Nogueira missed a couple early games due to injury but has returned to take up his role as the glue of the Union midfield. Nogueira - once rumored to be a United target - is a gifted midfield metronome who rarely gives the ball away, and pressuring him effectively could serve as an important tactic for United tomorrow. Nogueira may not catch the eye, but he's the foundation on which Philly's attempts at possession rest.
His partner is something of a mystery. It's a classic choice of styles for Curtin. Brian Carroll, who was rumored to be on his way out of Philly last season only to return for a fourteenth pro season, is the more cerebral option. Carroll wins the ball mostly via interceptions and recoveries, using his positional sense rather than his physicality to get the job done. Warren Creavalle has also started six times this year, and he brings a more robust approach to the game. Creavalle will cover tons of ground while using his strength and some hard tackling to win the ball. In essence, if you could combine the two into one player, you'd have a perfect defensive midfielder.
On the right, Philly started the season calling on Ilsinho, a former Shakhtar Donestk starter who has a Europa League final on his resume. Ilsinho basically fell into the Union's lap during the preseason, but has since picked up an injury. Sebastien Le Toux - who has a good history of success against United - has resumed his role as the starter on the right flank. Le Toux will run himself into the ground every week, and his crossing has to be accounted for now that the Union have two good aerial options making near- and far-post runs.
About the man giving them that second option: It's Chris Pontius, who was United's longest-tenured player before leaving via offseason trade. Pontius is having the kind of season we all thought he was capable of if he could ever get clear of his hamstring problems. Right now, a big part of Pontius having 4 goals and being generally very good has been his ability to jump forward from the left wing to function as a forward partner with Sapong.
Between the wingers is Tranquillo Barnetta, acquired midseason last year. This year, Barnetta - whose international experience with Switzerland has mostly been about his work rate as a wide man - has taken charge of being the main creative force from the central role seen in the above graphic. Barnetta may not display the jaw-dropping skill or creativity of guys like Diego Valeri or Mauro Diaz (or, you know, Luciano Acosta), but he has a strong tendency to put the ball where it needs to be for his teammates. A lack of flair does not mean Barnetta is a mere worker bee.
Up top, Virginia native Sapong has really found himself as a player after missing some time early last year due to a DUI. Since returning from the league's mandatory substance abuse program, Sapong has been focused and productive. Over his last 34 appearances, Sapong has 14 goals and 5 assists, and that goalscoring rate has increased since the start of this season (where he has 5 goals in 10 games).
Sapong's mobility is a big part of his success. He has the strength and size to be a target man, but his engine means he can hold that role in some awkward positions for opposing defenses, and both Pontius and Le Toux know to make slashing runs into the traditional center forward spot when Sapong pulls out wide. On top of all that, he's very fast, and despite inviting physical play from opposing center backs he usually maintains his composure. The USMNT chatter that has come up around Sapong this season is no accident, and shutting him down will require the entire back four to deliver a good outing.
Off the bench, players like Ilsinho and Creavalle are certainly options to look for. Alberg could also enter, either as a defensive sub for Barnetta - Alberg would stay in that role, but be more conservative in his movements - or to freshen up central midfield for Nogueira. It's unclear whether Curtin will call on Leo Fernandes, Eric Ayuk, or Walter Restrepo as a winger off the bench, but at least one of them will be an option. However, if Philly is desperate for a goal, what we may see is Sapong move to the flank and Fabian Herbers - yet another first round draft pick from January's SuperDraft - step in as a forward. Herbers is as much a creator as a scorer, so look for him to post up and try to find runners coming from underneath.