We’re not even in April yet, and already we have a D.C. United opponent that has me thinking “you again?” The Black-and-Red have already faced the Philadelphia Union twice in 2017, as the doop enthusiasts were one of the few MLS teams available to play in Florida during the preseason. Early in February, the sides drew 1-1 in the first meeting. A week before the season began, United raced out to a 3-0 lead before coughing up a bit of an odd goal, letting their guard down, and having to hang on for a 3-2 win.
That latter game saw the Union start with nine of the eleven starters we’re expecting to see tomorrow; the same can be said of United, who will have to replace Patrick Mullins (likely with Jose Ortiz, who scored in the 1-1 draw) and will likely maintain Ian Harkes as a starter instead of Jared Jeffrey, who scored in the 3-2 win.
The Union have at this point seen no need to make any major, or even mid-level, adjustments to what we saw that day, so this is a pretty straightforward selection for Jim Curtin:
In goal, Andre Blake remains among MLS’s upper tier of goalkeepers. That said, he hasn’t looked to be in his absolute best form yet this season. The Jamaica international had a couple “he could have done better” moments in the preseason, and that has carried into MLS play (including Orlando’s opener in the Union’s last match). Hopefully this isn’t the game he uses to get into a groove.
Keegan Rosenberry is among MLS’s best right backs. He’s a gifted 1v1 defender, he doesn’t lose his way positionally like younger defenders tend to do, and he contributes going forward. Still, Patrick Nyarko gave him fits in the preseason, both out wide and slashing into the channel between him and Oguchi Onyewu. United needs to make that a theme in this one, because Nyarko has probably been their liveliest attacking player.
Speaking of Gooch, Onyewu has probably done better than most people were expecting. His experience and physical strength have been assets, and his tendency to step up into play to win balls fits well with Richie Marquez, who is best at scrambling in behind to put out fires. However, the knocks on Onyewu - that he’s laterally slow and struggles if forced to turn - are still there. United will need to make sure they’re exposed if they’re going to end this three-game scoreless rut.
The Union appeared to have, at long last, replaced Fabinho as a starter by signing Giliano Wijnaldum, a former Netherlands under-20 national team player with nearly 70 appearances in the Dutch top flight to his name at just 24 years old. However, despite Fabinho looking like the same old Fabinho (i.e. ponderous defensively, but always willing to get forward), Wijnaldum isn’t even making the bench for Philly. As such, United needs to make sure to get Lloyd Sam involved far more often than he has been, because in the rare moments he’s been truly active in the attack he’s been dangerous.
Haris Medunjanin (that’s meh-DUNE-ya-ninn, FYI) is the Union’s big offseason signing. A current Bosnia & Herzegovina national team member, Medunjanin is both the Union’s tempo-setter and their deep-lying playmaker. His passing range and field vision will be the best of anyone on the field tomorrow night. However, he’s more or less immobile in both directions, and when he does opt to join in on defense, he tends to rely on his 6’2, 183 pound frame to barge people off the ball more than anything else. Which is another way of saying he fouls a lot.
Nevertheless, if United lets him be comfortable while on the ball, we’ll be talking about his ability to open up the field more than a couple of free kicks he gave away. If United can neutralize Medunjanin when the Union are in possession, they will rapidly run out of ideas and fluency. If he’s having a good game, though, it might be a long night.
His partner, Derrick Jones, certainly does his best to make up for that lack of mobility. Jones is a Union homegrown product, the first to come out of their actual academy, and despite being just 20 years old, he has left Curtin with no choice but to keep him in the starting eleven. Jones has shown a real talent for covering tons of ground and winning the ball back for the Union. It’s fairly silly that he’s not eligible for Rookie of the Year, because after a month of the season he should be in the conversation at the very least.
The right wing will very likely see Fabian Herbers start again, but I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop with Ilsinho. The Brazilian veteran - who torched United last year at Talen Energy Stadium in a Union win - was praised left and right by Philadelphia’s staff for losing weight and reporting to camp in great shape, but he picked up a hamstring problem that has forced Curtin to manage his minutes.
The challenge these two present is very different. Herbers looks to pass first, and loves to play quick combinations at speed. He’s also got good size, soft feet, and the size to cause trouble at the back post. Ilsinho, meanwhile, is a dribble-first winger who may have more moves than anyone in MLS (if not the speed to make them always pan out).
Alejandro Bedoya is the Union’s #10, but his role in Curtin’s 4231 is far different from Luciano Acosta’s job with United. Bedoya is a facilitator rather than a true playmaker; you can give him the ball in traffic and reliably expect it to be kept moving. That means a bit more safety in his passing choices than most attacking midfielders in MLS, and he’s also not a particularly special talent on the dribble. Bedoya is in this spot to help those around him be better rather than to be the star of the show, in other words.
United fans know all about Chris Pontius, who will play tomorrow despite a broken hand suffered against Orlando. So instead, what I’ll note is that the Union attack tends to mix in a heavy dose of deep crosses from the right flank aimed at exploiting the fact that Pontius has a great knack for beating his marker to headers in the box. Nick DeLeon isn’t going to win aerial battles directly with Party Boy, so his job is to prevent Pontius from having a clean run at the ball. Elsewhere, Steve Birnbaum will need to make sure he’s the guy Pontius is up against for as many of those headers as possible.
We’ve discussed Ilsinho’s good outing against United last year, and the other Philly player to have a standout performance against DCU in 2016 was CJ Sapong. The Manassas native has a tendency to do well against United, and he positively bullied the Black-and-Red in last year’s 3-0 Union win in Chester. He has also used a rib injury to offseason signing Jay Simpson to force himself back into the lineup, scoring twice that problem forced the Englishman off early against TFC.
Simpson is fit again, so I included him as a possibility in the lineup graphic, but realistically Sapong has been far better in his one and three-quarters games than Simpson was before that. Sapong’s physicality and willingness to be more mobile than most MLS target men opens up more for the Union than Simpson’s style of play. Curtin will in all likelihood use both players tomorrow, but Sapong’s history against United is something to worry about.
So if that sub is one of Curtin’s three, what are the others? Ilsinho replacing Herbers around the hour mark is a Union staple; expect that swap to be made if Ilsinho gets the nod, too. Curtin has a couple of intriguing options for his third sub. Fafa Picault adds raw speed down the wing and has appeared in each Philly game thus far. However, if Curtin is desperate for goals, he could pull Jones out, drop Bedoya in as the #8, and play goal-scoring attacking midfielder Roland Alberg underneath Sapong/Simpson.