Just under a month ago, D.C. United got crushed by the Philadelphia Union. The 3-0 scoreline that day doesn’t even begin to describe the gulf between the teams back on July 9th, as the Union took total control from the first minute and didn’t waver until the full time whistle. United has put forward a couple of truly bad performances, but at least in my opinion, this was rock bottom for 2016.
Since then, both teams have done a lot of similar things. Both teams are winless in three. Both teams got trounced in Canada thanks in part to an MLS superstar being unstoppable. Both teams made a series of moves to improve their attack, right down to trading for Eastern Conference strikers with connections to soccer inside the Beltway. And last weekend, both teams ended up with frustrating home results.
The difference is the context. The Union can afford a three-game stumble right now; United pretty badly needs to right the ship ASAP. Both teams have very good reasons to want to add to their attack for the coming months, but there’s a difference between "maybe we go from playoff team to cup contender" and "we need to start scoring goals right now, or we are not going to the playoffs."
Despite the recent struggles and the incoming/outgoing players, Philadelphia will likely start tonight’s game with either the exact same eleven as in their last meeting with United, or with one change from that group. New signing Alejandro Bedoya seems unlikely to play - he should be in early preseason fitness at best given the timing of the French offseason and the need to rest after the Gold Cup - while Charlie Davies has only been brought in to spell CJ Sapong rather than replace him. That leaves us with the following lineup:
In goal, Andre Blake has been having a potential Goalkeeper of the Year season. He was given a day off from training earlier this week due to a groin strain picked up with the MLS All-Stars, but is apparently going to be fit to play. That’s less than ideal for United, because Blake is the kind of goalkeeper who can turn what should be a loss into a draw single-handedly.
Keegan Rosenberry has been the Union’s first-choice right back all year, and like Blake is in the running for a league-wide award (in his case, Rookie of the Year). It’s not hard to see why: Rosenberry is already one of MLS’s best 1v1 defenders, his attacking contributions are solid (and improving), and he doesn’t make the kind of positional mistakes we see even in good rookie defenders. That’s not to say United should avoid attacking him, though, because Ilsinho can sometimes be a bit lacking in his desire to help the man behind him. Even if it’s just designed to draw someone out of the middle before attacking that space, United needs to establish a presence down both flanks rather than simply picking on one player.
Still, United was pretty effective trying to pick on one fullback (Hassoun Camara) last week, so don’t be surprised if there’s an emphasis on tilting play towards one side of the field. Against the Union, that means making Fabinho do a lot of defending. The Brazilian has shed the reputation of being a mess whenever he’s not jumping into the attack, but he’s still the most vulnerable defender in this group. Plus, if you pin him back, the Union attack loses some valuable width.
Down the middle, Philly is likely to go with Ken Tribbett along with Richie Marquez. However, with United adding some attacking speed and mobility since the last meeting, we could see Jim Curtin go with Joshua Yaro over Tribbett. Yaro is smaller, but much faster and brings some agility as well as more comfort on the ball. Tribbett, on the other hand, is better in the air and makes more consistent decisions. Curtin has mostly preferred Tribbett when both are healthy, but Yaro is still deployed from time to time when the Union are worried about speed and/or are looking to keep more possession.
Central midfield is a bit of an interesting situation for the Union right now. Bedoya was probably brought in to play a role in the middle rather than on the wing, but Philadelphia already has a DP in Tranquillo Barnetta eyeing one of those roles, and attacking midfielder Roland Alberg has 7 goals in just 830 minutes (having taken some time to push his way into the lineup initially). The Union are most likely going to drop Alberg - who isn’t much of a presence in defensive phases - and choose the increased solidity, possession, and soccer IQ that comes with Bedoya as their 8 and Barnetta as their 10.
However, that’s not a problem for this week. Instead, the choice could well be to drop Alberg, move Barnetta - assuming the Swiss midfielder is available, since he's questionable with an abdominal strain - further forward, and opt for a very defense-first pairing in Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle. The Union’s road record is no accident, and Philly announcers JP Dellacamera and Janusz Michallik discussed the possibility of going more conservative here to give themselves a better chance. I think they end up going with Alberg due to Marcelo Sarvas being suspended - tracking him and/or Barnetta running in late will be a tough assignment for Jared Jeffrey - but it’s not a clear-cut situation. Curtin could also opt to go very attack-minded, dropping Carroll and playing a roving ballhawk like Creavalle while Barnetta and Alberg both go forward. And to think, the Union will be adding Maurice Edu to this mix in the next month or so.
On the right wing, Philly traded Sebastien Le Toux to Colorado, so Ilsinho has decisively taken over that gig. United struggled with Ilsinho’s dribbling ability the last time these teams met, and that’s no surprise. Outside of Ignacio Piatti and Mauro Diaz, it’s hard to pick a player more able to beat his man 1v1 than the Brazilian veteran. United needs to think faster and time their attempts to step to Ilsinho more intelligently than last time out, where they let him take the pause that he favors before putting moves on. Ilsinho is the kind of player who wants to put you on the ground with a move rather than merely gain a yard, and United needs to make sure he’s instead stuck having to get the ball off his feet immediately due to unfavorable conditions.
Chris Pontius is Philly’s leading scorer, and we all know why. Fully healthy for the first time in years, Pontius is a matchup nightmare on the left side. He’s always been dangerous cutting inside to his right foot, and when he’s the back post runner on crosses from the right he almost always has an advantage in the air over opposing right backs. The Union have also been good at finding him on set pieces, and they also like to look his way when it’s time to convert a turnover into a full-blown counterattack.
Up front, United fans should be very worried about CJ Sapong, who completely defined the 3-0 Union win with his physicality and speed. Philadelphia clearly made sure he was up against Kofi Opare rather than Steve Birnbaum whenever possible in that game, and they’ll likely repeat that tactic (though they’ll most likely target Bobby Boswell this time around). While United clearly needs to improve their individual defending against Sapong - mostly, this is down to anticipating what’s coming faster - they’ll also need to be stronger in the midfield to prevent thoughtful distribution to Sapong. Philadelphia was able to pick their heads up and feed him on their terms last time; this time, United needs to make sure Sapong is mostly chasing down hopeful long balls that are not being sent forward with much of a plan.
Off the bench, the Union may well want to bring Davies in for his debut against one of his old clubs. That’s an interesting situation to watch, particularly if Alberg is held out of the starting lineup. If that scenario plays out, Alberg will likely only get into the game if Philly is trailing, which means only one of Davies or Fabian Herbers will get in. If Alberg does start and the Union have a result they’re satisfied with, they’ll pull him to bring in someone like Creavalle. We could also see Leo Fernandes in a variety of roles, though with Ilsinho having played the full 90 just once all season, I’d expect him to end up stepping in on the right flank. There’s a chance Curtin gets really creative and plays Davies up top while moving Sapong to the right as well, but that might be the kind of reshuffle that takes some work in training before it sees the light of day.