D.C. United faces a Philadelphia Union side that is, like United, a bit hard to figure out at this point. Like United, the Union started well, going 7W-3D-1L from mid-March to mid-May. However, they’ve also been similar since then, with a 4W-3D-4L record since. The trend has shown a sign of getting worse for Philly of late, whose last four road games have included two different 4-0 losses along with a 4-2 defeat at NYCFC.
We can be sure that United’s coaching staff watched those games repeatedly this week, but can they post a similar result? Here’s who they’re going to have to beat to do so:
Goalkeeper: Andre Blake
It’s been a stop-start season for Blake due to injury and call-ups for Jamaica, and that may be playing a factor in what has been a merely so-so season for him. The talent to take a game over is still there, though, so don’t be surprised if Blake produces some big saves.
Right back: Ray Gaddis
Gaddis, basically the Union’s Chris Korb, has kept his post despite several attempts to replace him over the years. He’s not an ideal fit for a diamond formation, as he tends to be more of a conservative fullback who doesn’t offer a ton when he goes forward, but he’s done the defensive side of the job pretty well this year.
Center back: Jack Elliott
Last year, Elliott couldn’t break in ahead of homegrown duo Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie, but with McKenzie struggling for form in the preseason, the Englishman has completely taken over the job. He’s played every minute this season.
At 6’4” and lacking in terms of lateral speed, Elliott wants to keep the game in front of him. Players like Luciano Acosta and Lucas Rodriguez will probably want to run at Elliott if they get the chance.
Center back: Auston Trusty
Trusty has missed just two starts, giving you an idea of the consistency Jim Curtin has had at the back. Of this pairing, he’s the more comfortable on the ball, and will more likely be the player looking to hit the pass into the midfield (particularly when teams take Haris Medunjanin off the table as an option). Just 20 years old, Trusty can occasionally be caught in less-than-ideal positions, though he has the quickness to recover when he does make mistakes.
Left back: Kai Wagner
To give you an idea how much of an impact the German has had this season, the only defender in MLS with more assists than Wagner this season is Leonardo Jara. On the other hand, similar to Jara, teams tend to go at him more often, forcing him to make significantly more tackles per 90 (2.9) than Gaddis (2.1). Like Elliott, he may be vulnerable on the dribble, but the flip side is finding a way to blunt what he can do going forward.
Right-center midfield: Alejandro Bedoya
Bedoya is going to be a major test for United, as they’ll be without Russell Canouse. Bedoya is the abrasive heart of the Union midfield, combining underrated technical ability and physical play with high usage numbers on both sides of the ball. If United can make it hard for Philly to get Bedoya regular touches, they can slow them down in possession. That’s easier said than done, and it makes likely starter Chris Durkin one to watch for the Black-and-Red.
Defensive midfield: Haris Medunjanin
If Bedoya is the heart, Medunjanin is the brain. The former Bosnia & Herzegovina international is third in all of MLS in passes attempted per 90 (74), and his set piece delivery is outstanding. Medunjanin sets the tempo for the Union, which is crucial given their narrow formation; if they get sloppy and turn the ball over, that’s the moment they’re at their most defensively vulnerable up the middle.
On the plus side, Medunjanin isn’t very mobile, and is not going to put in a bunch of tackles or be effective defending in transition. United will be able to find spaces to either side of him, and exploiting them is probably going to be critical.
Left-center midfield: Brenden Aaronson or Jamiro Monteiro
Monteiro is the major question mark heading into this one. The Dutch-born Cape Verde international has been a tremendous signing, but he is questionable with an ankle sprain. His status is totally up in the air: he might start, he might be a sub, or he might not even dress. Given the importance of the game, though, it seems safe to think he’ll make some kind of appearance if he’s at all able to play.
Aaronson (yet another homegrown player) has been getting the starts since Monteiro went down five games ago. He certainly doesn’t yet have Monteiro’s creativity in the attacking third, but he’s a tidy player who fits into the system comfortably.
Attacking midfield: Marco Fabián
The Union were looking to make a splash when they signed Fabián, and while the Mexican international hasn’t been bad, various injuries have restricted him to just 787 minutes on the season. In that time, he’s been a goal threat, scoring 4 goals, but he hasn’t been the creative threat that the Union may have been hoping for. It’s been a mixed bag.
Fabián will never be confused with being a particularly athletic player, but he’s smart, has plenty of high-level experience, and that goal threat thing is not something to just brush off because it hasn’t come with assists just yet.
Forward: Fafa Picault or Sergio Santos
Picault and Kacper Przybylko have been the starting forward pairing for six straight games, but the former is questionable with a hamstring strain. That would be a major loss for the Union, as Picault has been very effective leading their high press. His 3 goals/3 assists might not necessarily be impressive, but Curtin starts him whenever he can for a reason.
Santos is not as defensively adept, but the Brazilian has speed and a persistence about him that has resulted in 3 goals in just 558 minutes of playing time. Like Fabián, he hasn’t been the roaring success the Union expected when they signed him, but he’s not just roster-filler either.
Striker: Kacper Przybylko
The Union’s leading scorer, Przybylko is a classic target man. 6’4”, powerfully built, and physical, Przybylko didn’t break through as a starter until late April. Despite that late start to the season, he has 9 goals in 17 appearances. He provides the hold-up play you’d expect from a target forward, but he’s clearly also getting into good scoring positions on a regular basis.
Ilsinho is the impact substitute in MLS this year. He has 4 goals and 6 assists in just 694 minutes this season, which is an outrageous, nearly Carlos Vela-esque total on a per-90 basis. Whether Curtin plays Ilsinho out on the right touchline, as his no. 10, or to the right of the diamond, he has been dangerous basically every time he gets the ball in 2019. With the Union playing 4231 in June’s Open Cup meeting, D.C. managed to keep him rather contained, but in the past he’s had multiple highlight-reel strikes against United.
If Picault and Monteiro are both fit, players like Santos and Aaronson fit the bill here as well.
Philly has switched to a 4231 later in games on a regular basis this year, and they can play two different styles when they do. There’s the 2018 Union, with a heavy possession emphasis, and there’s the 2019 version that high-presses and forces transition soccer. If Santos and/or Picault comes in off the bench for a midfielder sometime after the 55th minute, this is the formation you should expect to see.