It's strange how things work sometimes. "Struggling" D.C. United - never mind that their points per game over their last six outings, if maintained for the rest of the season, would see them comfortably qualify for the playoffs in the draw-happy East - is looking for some consistency against the"high-flying" (er, 2 points ahead of those strugglers from DC) Philadelphia Union. MLS is weird, man.
Anyway, enough grousing over perception. Let's talk about what United has to do to get a win tonight:
Set pieces and second chances
Dead balls have been a problem for the Union all season. They're not glaringly horrible at defending on free kicks, but they're also pretty clearly not good at it. Philly has a smaller team, lacking a physically dominant center back - Richie Marquez is listed at 6'2", but those 2" appear to be influenced by hairstyle - and they'll likely field smaller players as fullbacks and defensive midfielders. The Union rely on Chris Pontius as a marker at times, and CJ Sapong will try to win balls in space at the near post. Generally speaking, attackers aren't great in those situations.
Another problem the Union have is clearing the ball with composure. For whatever reason, they get a bit panicky and can be aimless in half-clearing the ball straight back to their opponent. For United, Plan A is always going to be getting Steve Birnbaum free and on the end of service. However, there's a strong Plan B here. If United can stay alert even after Philly gets the first touch, there may be some very good second chance opportunities.
Vincent Nogueira is the foundation of the Union's possession, and it's easy to figure out why. He has a reliable first touch, a good feel for setting the right tempo, and he has a knack for making himself available for his teammates. The little #5 always seems to have an extra couple of yards, and he puts that time and space to good use.
United needs to make sure Nogueira is constantly being harassed. If he gets rattled, Philadelphia's attempts to keep up a pace that they'd prefer will bog down. Furthermore, Nogueira gives away a lot physically, and if he gets caught in possession he can easily be muscled off the ball. Given his position as one of the Union's two holding midfielders, stripping him of the ball should mean facing no more than four or five players rather than an entire midfield and back four.
That's the ideal scenario, but even if United can't force him into dangerous turnovers there's a good reason to make sure he's under pressure whenever he's on the ball. Brian Carroll (or Warren Creavalle) as the #6 isn't going to take over Nogueira's role as the metronome, and Tranquillo Barnetta isn't really that kind of attacking midfielder either. If you take Nogueira out of the game, you severely damage the Union's ability to dictate the terms.
Stay alert for outside-in runs
Sapong is a very mobile forward, and at times he'll drift pretty far out of the center. This isn't like Fabian Espindola's improvised roving, though. There are two specific things the Union want from those situations: They want Sapong physically matching up against a fullback, and they want unexpected runs into the central channel from underneath. With their current personnel, those runs come from Pontius on the left and Sebastien Le Toux on the right.
Both players handle this responsibility a bit differently. Pontius is a bit more of a straight-line runner, and he often never quite lines his runs up to go between the center backs. Instead, he'll run at the right-center back (in United's case, that's Birnbaum) or through the gap between that player and the right back. Le Toux, meanwhile, will arc his runs inside, often drifting away from the back four for a few steps before curling back in.
The Union still prefer to attack with crosses from the right - both from Le Toux and Keegan Rosenberry - but these movements need to be accounted for. Sapong will be looking to pull United out of balance, and if they're not focused and fail to communicate about these runs from the wings, they're going to have a real problem.
Play up Saborio's physical advantages while hiding his disadvantages
United's fate this season seems to have been linked more towards the play of their leading striker than anything else. When Espindola or Alvaro Saborio have played well, United has won. When they haven't, things have gotten ugly. With Sabo scoring (and playing pretty damn well) last week and Luciano Acosta making it very difficult to drop him, it looks like United should be rolling with the Costa Rican veteran once again.
The good news here is that Saborio can bully Marquez and (especially) Joshua Yaro in physical battles. He's also got a huge edge in terms of experience, as Marquez has spent about half of his three years as a pro playing USL ball. Yaro, meanwhile, is only a couple of months into his pro career. Saborio should be able to put his strength and the guile picked up in years spent playing in CONCACAF to good use when posting up against these two.
So that's the good news. The bad news? Playing through balls for Sabo against the Union is pretty much off the table. Marquez and Yaro both have great speed, and they're also very quick to make their turns to track back. There's always a chance that they're slow to recognize the danger, but most likely the window for playing Saborio in behind will be very narrow all night long.
Instead, Saborio needs to make sure he's pulling a center back out of position. These last two segments are paired for a reason: United can give the Union a taste of their own medicine. If Saborio can pull Marquez or Yaro out of the middle, a quick layoff could find Patrick Nyarko, Lamar Neagle, or Lucho Acosta with a large gap to exploit. Marquez is the better player at this point, but he's also more prone to taking risks, and he also plays closer to Fabinho (the more vulnerable Philly fullback). If Sabo can lure him into that sort of gamble while getting the ball off his feet in time, the Black-and-Red should be able to create some big chances.