It’s rare to see a team run into the U.S. Open Cup’s international rule particularly hard, but that’s exactly what’s happening to the Philadelphia Union. D.C. United’s opponent in tonight’s fourth round match was already dealing with starters being out with injuries or for Gold Cup duty, but they’ll also have to leave four internationals off their roster to meet tournament rules (you’re only allowed to dress 5 internationals in Open Cup play).
We’re not talking about their supporting cast, either. Starting goalkeeper Andre Blake is with Jamaica. Mexican international Marco Fabian joined El Tri’s Gold Cup camp before he was fit, and aggravated an existing ankle injury. Fabian’s back-up Brenden Aaronson is away with the U.S. under-23s, as is starting center back Auston Trusty.
Let’s sort out who’s left for the Union:
Goalkeeper: Matt Freese or Carlos Coronel
It’s not clear who will start, but these two will be the goalkeepers in uniform. Neither is on Blake’s level, but they’ve both had moments this year. Philly would probably prefer not to carry Coronel if he’s the back-up, as he’s an international, but they don’t have any other options. Their goalkeepers with Bethlehem Steel are both academy players who would lose their NCAA eligibility by accepting a short-term deal to play tonight.
Right back: Ray Gaddis
Gaddis keeps surviving challenges for his spot within the team, and has been nearly ever-present this year. He’s not the best going forward, but he’s got good speed and knows that his job is to help create overloads rather than be the ball-winner on the flank. He’s unspectacular but solid.
Center back: Mark McKenzie or Aurelien Collin
Trusty’s absence means Jack Elliott will probably move over to left-center back, and Jim Curtin will have to choose between a very young option and a veteran. Collin has faded physically over the last couple of years, and no longer has the quickness to play as aggressively as he used to. McKenzie, on the other hand, is definitely not suffering from a lack of quickness. Rather, the issue that has seen Elliott push him out of the lineup is a tendency towards gaffes. If he’s in the lineup, United will probably see him receiving the ball in awkward spots as a trigger for their press.
Center back: Jack Elliott
Elliott, the rare recent late-round draft pick to actually pan out in MLS, has become the leader in the back for Philly. He’s 6’5” and keeps it simple. Elliott’s major strength may just be that he tends not do make mistakes. That said, he’s not the most agile player, and if I’m Luciano Acosta, I’m trying to get a chance to run at him.
Left back: Fabinho or Matt Real
Normal starter and serial diver Kai Wagner is healthy and available, but with the Union having two other domestic options at left back, this figures to be a spot where they bring in a second-choice player due to the international situation. Fabinho can be mistake-prone, but he did have a stellar game in the last Open Cup meeting between these teams. Real is an academy product with USYNT experience, but hasn’t really convinced at a level higher than the USL Championship. Both players have not played a second in MLS this year.
Right-center midfield: Alejandro Bedoya
We may not like him, but Bedoya has been consistently good for a couple of years now. He always seems to take up the right position, he’s hard to dispossess, and his choices with the ball are sound. Bedoya makes the group around him better, and he’s shown a knack for producing goals and assists when the Union really need one. If United is leading by a goal late, don’t be shocked to see him end up on the ball inside the box.
Defensive midfield: Haris Medunjanin
The Union needed some time to adjust to Medunjanin playing as the lone defensive midfielder in an otherwise aggressive set-up, but they seem to have figured it out. The former Bosnia & Herzegovina international is very slow, but Philly has started to find an understanding where his job is to occupy space rather than make tackles (that falls on the rest of the midfield).
United’s job is to make sure Medunjanin doesn’t have any time to distribute. Few can strike a ball over distance like he can, and with their attacking speed, that’s a big threat.
Left-center midfield: Anthony Fontana
Fontana has just 9 minutes played in MLS this year, and 107 total in his career. He’s probably starting tonight, though, because of the many midfield absences. He’s feisty and has decent technique, and the Union make sure their youngsters don’t end up having any fear when they play at the MLS level, so look for him to not shy away from anything tonight.
Attacking midfield: Jamiro Monteiro
The Dutch-born Cape Verde international’s signing took some time, but in games he’s appeared in, the Union are 8W-3D-2L. Obviously one player doesn’t usually completely turn a team around, and that’s not what happened here, but Monteiro has made the Union better in all phases. He’s a high-energy player who provides great runs off the ball, and he’s unusually fast for a central midfielder. If United can’t keep track of him, they’re going to be in for a tough night.
There’s a chance he and Fontana could switch spots in this starting lineup.
Forward: Sergio Santos
In the current first-choice forward pairing, Santos is the speed threat. In some ways it’s hard to define what he brings that Fafa Picault doesn’t, but it boils down to simply being more well-understood by the rest of the attack. The group looks better with him out there than without. Given his pace, United might be less comfortable dealing with him than target man Kacper Przybylko.
Forward: Kacper Przybylko
The German-born former Poland youth international, like Santos and Monteiro, took some time to break through as a starter. In fact, Przybylko was with the Union in 2018, but never played, whereas now he seems ensconced as a starter. At 6’4” and physical, you won’t have too much of a problem sorting out Przybylko’s game. He’s a classic target man who has enough speed to keep up with the rest of this high-speed attack.
No really, in a lot of ways the Union have recently been trying to just stay in games before bringing Ilsinho in for the last 30 minutes or so, and letting him go to work. He was spectacular in their last game, scoring twice and getting an assist as they came from 2-0 down against the Red Bulls to win 3-2, and he set up their winner against Montreal in the game before that. Ilsinho has 4 goals and 5 assists in 551 minutes this season, which is only slightly behind the all-time goals/assists per 90 pace Carlos Vela is setting with LAFC.
Ilsinho has also done some damage against United in the past (3 goals/1 assist in 8 appearances), so you have every right to be worried about him. Curtin could give him a start, but the Brazilian has never been fully fit in MLS, so expect the Union to stick with a successful formula instead.
Picault is another good option to add speed, and he’s been very good as a pressing forward in the Union’s scheme. After that, though, their bench is going to be filled out by Bethlehem call-ups.
Philly is a high-press team now, largely preferring this 442 diamond, but they haven’t forgotten how to play out of last year’s 4231. They also haven’t forgotten the different approach from last year, and they have shown an ability at times to shift into a slower tempo, with more of an emphasis on possession. It’s not their preferred approach now, but if they can’t force a transition game on United, they’ll probably shift gears and try to just ping the ball around for a while.