Often, D.C. United finds themselves against a team that is in flux, or that is missing a key player, or that can throw a curve ball in terms of formation or tactics. That’s not the case with the Philadelphia Union, who are trying to do the same things in the same ways as ever. They don’t have a 100% certain starting eleven, but the question marks don’t really impact the final product too much. They are who they are.
There are a couple possible changes to the Union lineup coming, but Ben Olsen is not going to be surprised by what he sees when the Philadelphia team sheet is handed out. We know Jim Curtin will start with a 4231, we know who the key players will be, and we know that they’ll start by high-pressing, then back off. We know they’re big on entering the attacking third quickly, but that they have a tendency to end up needing to set up shop and break teams down with possession anyway.
We start, as always, in goal. Andre Blake has not quite been in GKotY form, but that’s not to say he’s been poor. He’s maybe not at the absolute peak of his powers right now, but he’s still completely capable of hauling the Union to a result on his own. United can’t afford to be casual when shooting, because if you give Blake even the slightest chance to make a save, he tends to make the save.
Keegan Rosenberry has bounced back from a miserable 2017 to reclaim the starting right back job. He’s not quite at his 2016 best, when he was both an attacking force and arguably the best one-on-one defender in the league, but he has been the Union’s most consistent defensive player in the first two months of the season.
That said, Yamil Asad feels like a good MLS Fantasy pick-up, because he’ll be able to attack the channel between Rosenberry and whoever ends up as the right-center back. Jack Elliott is the preferred starter, but missed last week’s 2-0 loss to FC Dallas due to injury. Elliott is “still a question mark” despite coming off the injury list. If he can’t go, 19 year old Mark McKenzie is the probable starter, but he came to the sideline in the second half of last week’s game indicating some trouble with a groin injury. If he’s also hurt, the Union will have to turn to Georgetown product Josh Yaro, whose career as a pro has not gone according to plan. Regardless, United should be looking to attack this area all game long.
Auston Trusty, another homegrown starter for Curtin’s team, is the anchor of the back four despite being just 19. Trusty is more comfortable stepping into the midfield and shutting things down early than he is defending on the turn, and in fact the Union looked extremely vulnerable last week whenever Dallas was able to play balls in behind. If Darren Mattocks is healthy, he may be a better fit for this game than Patrick Mullins.
On the left, longtime starter Fabinho has been injured, and no one has really stepped up to take the job from him. Matt Real, an 18-year-old homegrown signing, looked like he was in way over his head in his starts, and the job has since been handed off to Ray Gaddis (who remains Philly’s answer to Chris Korb). Gaddis isn’t really going to add much going forward, but he’s quick and has experience.
The midfield is far more set in stone. The Union have spent big to build around Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya, and it’s probably the best thing about their roster at the moment. In this pairing, Medunjanin is a deep-lying playmaker who doesn’t cover much ground, while Bedoya is the abrasive box-to-box player. United has often struggled to match these two on a lot of fronts, with Luciano Acosta showing a tendency to be very frustrated against them. If D.C. can make Medunjanin’s life difficult, the Union will have a hard time picking out their wingers in transition and will also struggle to get their possession game started.
Ahead of them, Czech playmaker Borek Dockal was supposed to be the second part of a one-two punch of attacking acquisitions this offseason, but it hasn’t panned out for him just yet. Dockal has struggled to find the game at times, with Curtin leaning more towards Philly’s other players needing more time to figure out how he sees the game rather than this simply being a bad signing. Time will tell, but for the time being, United needs to make sure they keep his name from coming up much.
On the left wing, David Accam was the first part of that aforementioned combination of big moves, coming over from Chicago in a massive draft-day trade. So far, though, Accam has not benefited from the change of scenery, and has looked a bit frustrated in recent weeks. It’s not that he isn’t getting chances at all, but rather that he can’t find the finishing touch at the moment. Accam looks like a guy who just needs one lucky bounce right now, so United needs to make sure he’s contained and stuck out on the touchline rather than slashing inside on the run.
On the other side, we may see a change as Fafa Picault has been largely quiet after coming back from a three-game suspension picked up in the preseason. Curtin has indicated that Brazilian veteran Ilsinho will play a bigger part this week than he has thus far, and it’s a move that makes some sense. United has struggled with Ilsinho’s dribbling ability and creativity in the past, and though he’s nowhere near as fast as Picault, he’s a more complicated player to shut down.
If players like Accam and Dockal have had a frustrating start to the season, just imagine how CJ Sapong feels. Per American Soccer Analysis, no one in MLS has a larger gap between their expected goals and their actual goals (and he’s out in front by a wide margin). According to ASA, Sapong should be close to the top of the scoring charts, but instead has just one goal on the season. Sapong has always been a streaky forward, and right now he appears to be on a run where nothing will go in.
Of course, if we want to talk about history, Sapong has always played his best soccer against United over the years. Steve Birnbaum has never seemed comfortable against the Virginia native, who mixes strength, aggression, leaping ability, and speed. It’s also not like Sapong is simply not involved; the Union have created plenty of chances involving him in the build-up or with him getting into good spots only to botch the shot itself. There is a strong whiff of “if he just gets one, watch out” to Sapong right now, and United needs to bring the kind of resilient defending we saw against Columbus if they’re going to prolong his run of bad form.
Off the bench, Picault can be counted on to come in around the hour mark, and Ilsinho probably only has an hour in his legs, so that’s a sub you can virtually guarantee. Cory Burke has also been a regular option off the bench, and can play either wide left in Accam’s spot or up front (with Sapong, who usually goes the full 90, shifting wide). Homegrown attacking midfielder Anthony Fontana might also get some time off the bench in Dockal’s stead, while Warren Creavalle would be more likely to come in if the Union are trying to plug up the midfield and defend a lead.