One can only hope that D.C. United’s trip up I-95 to play the Philadelphia Union tomorrow goes differently than the last two such trips. Both games ended 1-0 to the Union, and both times the goal came in second half stoppage time. Both goals were avoidable for United, who in each case had been outplayed but appeared to have done just enough to walk out of what is now called Talen Energy Stadium with a point.
The Union are a better team than they’ve ever been, which is to say they are a competent, stable team run with some semblance of a plan. Being a team that, while not exactly one that people will talk about for years to come, is free of clear flaws is good enough to look like the class of the Eastern Conference this year. Still, Philly has cooled off a bit, with a mediocre 2W-2D-3L in their last seven outings allowing NYCFC - a team with a negative goal difference - to jump ahead of them for the top spot in the East.
What happened? One issue was temporary: injuries to important players interfered with stability in defensive spots while robbing the Union of key attackers. Knocks have kept both Ken Tribbett and Josh Yaro out of games at center back, while defensive midfielder Warren Creavalle has dealt with an abdominal strain as well. Most importantly, CJ Sapong and Sebastien Le Toux have missed games recently due to an ankle sprain and concussion, respectively.
The other issue is the departure of midfielder Vincent Nogueira. The little Frenchman is not the kind of player that fills up the stat sheet or that catches the eye with obviously great plays on a regular basis. Instead, he was the glue in the Union midfield, linking their defense with their attack and setting the tempo. In that job, he was an elite player within MLS, and Philadelphia simply does not have a similar replacement.
The former problem has more or less corrected itself. Sapong was probably fit to start last week’s 1-0 loss in Houston, but was only used for 28 minutes (most likely to guarantee that he is fully fit for tomorrow night’s more important intra-conference game). Le Toux’s status is less certain, with a lack of clarity over whether he had passed all concussion protocols or not adding confusion mid-week. As of yesterday, his return was seen as "possible" by Jim Curtin, who is usually pretty straightforward with the press. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.
Nogueira’s departure is not so easily fixed. Creavalle has seen his playing time boosted, but he is a roving destroyer. There is a way to partner him with the less mobile Brian Carroll, but neither player can set the tempo in a way that allows the Union to change how a game is being played if they want to do so. The more attacking choice is to use Swiss DP Tranquillo Barnetta there, but that is only possible if Roland Alberg is available to play as an attacking midfielder. Last week, the Union tried Alberg up front in their 4231, and they were easily shut out by one of MLS’s worst teams.
Even with Sapong back, the Union take on the appearance of a team that can only play at one speed. Barnetta is a good #8, but he’s not a metronome. Alberg’s default setting is "Go!" Philly has become a more goal-dangerous team, but they’ve also become more vulnerable going the other way as well as less likely to protect a lead via possession. Without Nogueira, the Union are a lot less likely to hold a team to a shutout.
Despite all of these noteworthy comings and goings, Curtin has stuck with a 4231 all year long:
In goal, Andre Blake has mostly earned the lofty praise he’s gotten throughout the 2016 season. Jamaica’s #1 is blessed with sharp reflexes and the sort of mentality that leaves him thinking every shot is stoppable and that every cross can be claimed. Still - and this might be an unpopular view - I get the sense that there’s a bit of confirmation bias at play here. We remember Blake’s big saves at crucial moments, but we tend to ignore his mistakes on mundane plays. Last week in Houston, I was of the opinion that Blake had an outright poor game full of unpunished mistakes (coming off his line at the wrong time, or for crosses he never had a hope of claiming) that was capped off by being beaten on his side by Chaco Maidana’s stoppage time free kick. Other folks said he was almost as good as Bill Hamid. Soccer, as my freshman year JV coach often said, is a crazy game.
At right back, Keegan Rosenberry has earned his place in the Rookie of the Year discussion. He is already one of MLS’s best 1v1 defenders, and he doesn’t make the kind of mistakes in space or defending as part of a unit that rookies are expected to make. He’s also become more of a part of the Union attack, though he can’t be accurately described as a major overlapping threat just yet.
In central defense, Richie Marquez - scorer of the game’s only goal the last time these teams met - will be partnered by Tribbett. Curtin has no real choice, as Yaro was controversially sent off for two yellow cards last week (with the second card coming on a clear dive by Mauro Manotas). Tribbett was originally brought in by the Union organization to play for their USL affiliate, but impressed so much in preseason that he got an MLS deal. He is nowhere near as fast as Yaro, but he’s not slow and Marquez - an elite all-around athlete - is more than able to cover in that department. If the Union miss anything without Yaro, it’s the ability to build out of the back. The Georgetown product is comfortably the best passer among all of their defenders.
On the left, Fabinho has more or less solidly held onto the job ahead of Ray Gaddis. Interestingly enough, the Brazilian had largely been a liability during his time with the Union until last year’s Open Cup game between the clubs. That night, Fabinho grew in stature as the match wore on, and since then he has combined consistently dangerous attacking play with some respectable defensive work. Still, if there’s a spot in this Union defense to pick on, it is very much Fabinho, particularly now that the Union as a whole has become a more reckless team going forward.
Carroll will most likely carry on as the #6 role, though it’s conceivable that Curtin opts to roll the dice on playing without an anchor (a set-up that would see Creavalle partnering Barnetta). Carroll has struggled with mobile attacks for years now, but won himself a contract for this season based on his ability to anticipate attacks far enough ahead of time that his lack of quickness is not an issue. United needs to get Luciano Acosta around Carroll on both sides of the ball, as the Argentine’s quick feet and speed could be very handy in both directions.
Barnetta has not necessarily been a creative hub when used as an attacking midfielder, but the Union certainly are better off having him in a central role. With Alberg’s recent scoring outburst (5 goals in 275 minutes spread across 4 games), the Union have been able to cover for Nogueira’s return to France by using Barnetta as their #8. Barnetta will put in plenty of work while also providing some dangerous passes forward (particularly in transition).
With Le Toux an uncertainty, I’ve listed Ilsinho as the most likely right winger. The Brazilian signed as a free agent this offseason after going months without a club, but his previous work with Shakhar Donestk involved starting in a Europa League final. If there’s one thing you need to know about Ilsinho, it’s that he can straight up embarrass people on the dribble. Taylor Kemp will want to make sure he never gets frozen up by Ilsinho, because that’s where he tends to get past people. If Curtin, for some reason, wants to plug up the center of the field, he could use Barnetta wide right. However, as we’ve recently discussed, Barnetta is far more valuable in the middle, so that’s more of a theoretical than a realistic thing for United to prep for.
Alberg will play as the #10, but here it’s important to note the distinction between "attacking midfielder" and "playmaker." Alberg doesn’t create all that many chances (he’s 5th on the team in key passes per 90 minutes), so calling him a playmaker would be false. However, he’s tied with Sapong for second on the team with 5 goals on the year (a number that would put him ahead of any DCU player), and that’s despite only starting in half of his 14 appearances. Tracking his runs off the ball will be vital, though the new 4141 at least puts a player - virtually certain to be Marcelo Sarvas - in a good spot to do so. United needs to make sure this isn’t just Marcelo’s job, though, because Alberg can pop up from different spots.
Out on the left is Chris Pontius, a player all United fans know very well. Party Boy has 6 goals on the season, which appears to be a function of equal parts steady health and being in a formation that suits his skills (United’s 442 kept him too far from goal, and it’s no coincidence that his 12 goal season came while United spent a chunk of 2012 playing 4231). The Black-and-Red will need to prevent him from cutting inside and going to goal, but perhaps more important is tracking his runs in the box on set pieces. Pontius has scored a few headed goals this year, and the Union have been smart about finding him crashing the goal in such situations.
Up front, Sapong’s influence was clear when he subbed in against the Dynamo. The Union immediately looked more comfortable knowing that they could play in a variety of ways. Need to go long? Sapong can win that header. Playing in behind? Sapong’s speed makes him a real threat to get to the ball. Want to play to feet? Sapong’s underrated first touch and his physical strength mean he can hold the ball up while everyone else catches up to the play. If not for the withering heat in Houston, Philly might have been able to snatch a win after Sapong changed their whole approach. Sadly for them, the other ten players simply hit the wall in the 75th minute and could do nothing with their suddenly improved ideas.
Off the bench, the Union might be limited. Le Toux will get in if he is included in the squad, and most likely he’ll play on the right (Curtin is to Ilsinho as Ben Olsen is to Lucho Acosta). Leo Fernandes could be used anywhere in the line of three attacking midfielders, while Creavalle will probably get into the game too. If the Union are up, he’ll probably replace Alberg, allowing Barnetta to move up. If they’re behind, he’ll come in for Carroll. Winger Walter Restrepo is also an option, while rookie forward Fabian Herbers appears doubtful to play due to a hamstring strain.