Match previews

Preview: Union vs. DC United

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union vs DC United
What: Regular season game
Where: PPL Park, Chester, Pa., USA
When: 4:00 pm, Saturday, May 10
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick
Referee: Geoff Gamble; Linesmen: Gregory Barkey, Brian Dunn; Fourth official: Robert Sibiga

This is what they call a winnable game.

After playing well enough to take a point off the league’s top team, the Philadelphia Union need to maintain that level of play against a DC United squad just three points ahead in the standings.

But this is not the DC United of 2013. This team is… well, mediocre.

Both teams revamped

Rebuilding comes in many forms. For Ben Olsen and DC United, a woeful offensive showing last year meant a new strike duo arrived in front to compliment a new center back pairing in front of Bill Hamid. The results have been mixed.

Eddie Johnson was supposed to be the cornerstone of the new DC United. So far he has been about as useful as an actual stone. Yes, Andrew Wenger has outscored the US National team striker in 2014.

But unlike the Union, DC has Fabian Espindola on hand to keep the fan base’s anxiety in check. Espindola has already tallied four times and looks every bit the sneaky poacher he was during his peak at Real Salt Lake, albeit without the same speed.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that Espindola has been the quicker player to adapt to Ben Olsen’s system. United continuously pressure the ball and try to pounce on mistakes. Last year, the pressure was often overzealous, leaving spaces behind that were filled by opposition strikers wondering when it all got so easy. Adding hardworking veterans Davy Arnaud and Chris Rolfe to the midfield has given more structure to the team’s defensive shape, while a balance between speed and size in the back has given Bill Hamid the occasional breather.

In short, DC United is an improving team, and their biggest offseason acquisition has yet to get out of first gear.

The confusing question

Since the Union joined MLS, it has been hard not to look at DC United as the closest thing to an “even rival.” Both teams have had similar levels of success in recent years, they appear to be in similar spending brackets, and both suffer the ignominy of having lockers that once held the quote-unquote scoring boots of Carlos Ruiz and Lionard Pajoy.

So the question naturally arises: Why has the DC season gone better than the Union’s thus far?

Obviously, there is no easy answer, and any good answer is going to involve a healthy amount of luck. But one can also point to a few shrewd moves that have United in the early mix for a playoff spot while Philadelphia struggles to find an identity.

The unfortunate answers

First, Ben Olsen put his defense in the hands of solid veterans. No more journeymen like Brandon McDonald patrolling the penalty box for United. Jeff Parke and Bobby Boswell are both slightly-above-average, positionally sound center backs who can command in the air and command with their voices. Their presence has allowed DC to play with defensive liabilities Sean Franklin and Cristian at outside back since Perry Kitchen worries less about abandoning the middle of the field to play janitor for his fullbacks.

Second, and perhaps most important, DC brought in players that could fill roles in the system the head coach wanted to play. This may be the most glaring difference between United and the Union right now. Both teams markedly improved their rosters in the offseason, but only DC United put together a squad that filled all the holes they had in 2013. Players like Jared Jeffrey and Luis Silva, so good with the ball yet so immobile without it, have been relegated to the bench in favor of Arnaud, Rolfe, and a resurgent Nick DeLeon. Rolfe, Arnaud, and Espindola are symbolic of the new DC United. They pressure all day but pay close attention to their defensive shape.

DC is far from a finished product. But you can watch them play now and figure out what they’re trying to do, what their goals are. And they’ve done it while Eddie Johnson does his best to make Jozy Altidore look on form.

Although United have started to hit their stride, it is hard to argue that their ceiling is higher than Philadelphia’s. The Union have more talent at fullback, much more talent in midfield, and just as much talent on the wings. Philly cannot match DC, however, at center back or striker.

This is very strange, because the Union started the season with a good, young striker and two talented, experienced center backs. Since the year began, they have turned areas of relative strength into areas of distinct weakness.

Going backward

On defense, the Union would have the worst defensive record in the Eastern Conference if Zac MacMath wasn’t operating with force fields on for every penalty kick he faces. For a team that brought back a goalie and three members of its back line, added an experienced starter, and plays with a very deep lying midfield sweeper, the inability to play consistent defense is disappointing, to say the least.

But then again, the Union haven’t been playing with a proven starter in Jeff Parke’s old spot. Instead, they have allowed Aaron Wheeler to take his knocks on the big stage. And game by game, he has done just that.

A neutral observer would be forced to marvel at how well Wheeler has handled himself with such little defensive experience. That same neutral observer, however, would have to shake his or her head and wonder why Wheeler is learning a new position under the bright lights.

To be clear, Wheeler has not been terrible. He just hasn’t. He has made his share of plays and his share of mistakes, though none of the latter have been, on their own, bad enough to declare him a failure. Instead, Wheeler simply makes the little errors you would expect of a newly minted central defender. He strays too far from the middle, he plays too slowly, and he gives too much space to attackers in the box. Again, these are not unique to Wheeler.

But the net effect has been to add a level of hesitancy to the way the rest of the back line plays the game. Amobi Okugo — if he must remain in back — should have license to step forward with the ball. Instead, defenses collapse on Okugo and force Wheeler to make the first pass out of the back.

Up front, the Union’s struggles are even more pronounced. No player has more than one goal from open play. The main striker’s only goal came from an assist of the year candidate. These are not good things to read.

Almost as important, though, is that the Union have not been able to create chances with speed or regularity. They have scored fewer than they should have, but they also have created too few chances for the amount of time they spend with the ball. Right now, the story is that Wenger has had trouble getting involved and needs time to adjust. The real trouble comes if the narrative changes to blame the system, because then the logic behind jettisoning McInerney goes up in smoke.

Prediction: Union 2-1 DC United

This detailed analysis of how DC improved and how the Union should be able to improve might lead the pessimist to believe the Union are underdogs this Saturday. As Vincent Nogueira might say (but probably doesn’t): Au contraire!

DC is not a fully formed team yet, and they have taken 10 of their 11 points at home this year. On the road, they have earned but one lonely point by pushing two goals past winless Chicago. If the Union cut out the silly defensive mistakes, they can nab a confidence-boosting three points at PPL Park on Saturday. DC has given up five goals in three road games, where their aggressive fullbacks leave them exposed.

A win, amazingly, puts the Union right back in the thick of the Eastern Conference. A loss, however, means the team’s 8 points will be four below that magical red line after 11 games. The fewest points the Union accumulated during any 11 game stretch last year was 12.

Preferred Union lineup

Preferred Union lineup

35 Comments

  1. -nickt.- says:

    say what you will about carlos ruiz, i’d take his 7 goals in 15 games for the union over what we have going now.

  2. thats an interesting lineup, has carroll ever played centerback?

  3. DarthLos117 says:

    Is that a joke?
    .
    It can be so sad around here sometimes.

  4. The Black Hand says:

    CB???

  5. Um, you mixed up Okugo and Carroll on the preferred lineup diagram, right??

    • Adam Cann says:

      Nope. Not saying it’ll work, but I’m saying it might not be worse.

      • DarthLos117 says:

        It is sacrificing 2-3 inches and what 25 pounds?
        .
        If ya want Okugo at DM so badly wouldnt a back line of Fabinho, Berry, Williams, Gaddis make more sense.
        .
        All this talk of developing chemistry at CB, do you view a Carroll Berry long term partnership?
        .
        Thats the tactical analysis Ive rarely seen for sure.

      • I think it would be worse this week. Nothing will get Eddie Johnson out of his funk faster than a pair of center backs he can run past at will.

      • Adam Cann says:

        See, it’s strange, but Okugo’s side has been where the running-past has been done this year, despite his speed.

        @Los – Yeah, it is giving up a bit of height and weight. But the Union have given up one goal on a cross and 4 goals on corners and indirect free kicks, when everyone gets to match up however they want. So I’m not sure the height/weight thing isn’t a good tradeoff. Put a stay-at-home player in back and get the possibility of an Okugo-Edu-Nogueira-Maidana midfield? All I’m saying is I like that deal.

        I’m saying I don’t see Okugo at CB long-term no matter who else is back there, so… sure. I see Carroll/Berry as a good option. And definitely a better option than taking Sheanon off the wing, despite his recent struggles.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Carroll is far too soft in challenging. He would get tooled on.

      • Carroll has been playing so deep more often than not this season anyway, I guess they might as well make it official

      • joe hamada says:

        Have we all forgotten about former DC united CB starter?? Ethan white people.(yes i know the bad DC, but still)
        ideal for me-
        .

        Seba – Wenger
        Nogi – Chaco(CAM) – Edu
        Okugo(CM)

        gaddis – White – Berry – Williams
        Zac
        .
        (Seba playing as a straight up striker)
        I had some troubles thinking of the order in which ot put the midfield, but i so much want Chaco as a CAM, he so much is the right player for that. mabye okugo on the right, and edu as a cm or cdm, then play nogi on the left?

      • Um, I certainly haven’t forgotten Ethan White. The problem is that his last performance with the Harrisburg City Islanders is very fresh in everyone’s memory (at least those paying attention to what’s happening in Harrisburg). He was not good and has been attributed responsibility for giving up at least two goals before getting ejected from the game on a straight red.
        .
        Hopefully Marquez develops into a longer term solution. Who knows? They also seem to be grooming Ribeiro for CB (don’t get me started).

      • ribiero is not being groomed for centerback

      • Ribiero at CB is becoming its own little political smear commercial. Say it enough times and people assume it must be true.

      • -nickt.- says:

        or play him enough at cb and it might as well be true

  6. Just win the damn game…

  7. OK, I think we’ve all officially lost our minds over this team. That’s completely understandable Adam. I’d prefer this…

    4-1-3-2

    Williams—Okugo—Berry—Gaddis

    —————-Edu————–

    —–Leo F——Nog—–Chaco—-

    ———-Wenger—-LeToux——-

    Nogueira can cover so much ground, he be great receiving the ball from Edu or the D, turning up, hitting Leo or Maidana with a pass, then getting forward to prepare for the ball again. We could play through the middle instead of aimlessly crossing the ball over and over again and I think this would give us the best chance to overrun their centerbacks. Might be a little offensive, but hell, at this point, I’d rather do down swinging 5-4 than lose 1-0. WE NEED GOALS.

    • james lockerbie says:

      I like your way of thinking the best defense is a good offense.


      Let’s go Rocky v Apollo 15 rounds of back n forth offensive punches see who comes out standing at the final whistle.

      • I’m with you James. I put this quote by THFC great Danny Blanchflower up once before because it sums up what I love about the sport and how it should be played:

        “The game is about glory. It’s about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.”

        Jose Mourinho I am not.

      • -nickt.- says:

        the union play offense less like rocky v appolo and more like homer vs drederick tatum

      • p. good with that one

      • lol. Well said!

  8. scottymac says:

    Seems more 1-1 draw. While you did analyse United’s performance, your analysis of the Union is filled with if’s and should’s. Wenger hasn’t been able to score as you noted (or anyone else), but moving Amobi up solves that and nets 2 goals? I admire your optimism and would also like to wager with you frequently for money and cars and such.

    The U average a goal at home. 4 in 4 matches. DCU averages 1 on the road, 3 in 3. It feels more like a 1-1’er. And I disagree with your assertion, Wheeler has been awful. Being ok for 85 minutes and switching off for 5 is why they are where they are, a bottom table side.To be fair, almost all of them save Nogs do this. DC is perhaps the only winnable game before the WC break, not sure they beat a hapless CHV side (and how funny this site calls Chivas out,there but for the grace of Garber go we) on the road.They certainly have to win because they will more than likely not win most of the others.

    • Adam Cann says:

      Your numbers are true, though I could switch them up and say Philly has given up .75 goals/game at home and DC has given up 1.67 on the road and argue that rounds out closer to my guess (and it is very much a guess).

      And we can agree to disagree on Wheeler. But if you’re right and they all have been OK for 85 and off for 5, that’s hardly an indictment of one guy.

      • scottymac says:

        You’re right about the other numbers.

        Here’s some more – Union average 1 goal per in all games, give up 1.3

        DCU 1.5 GF, 1.4 GA. Depending on how you want to view that, might line up as a 1-2 for DCU. I’d still hedge on a 1-1’er as the Union have only scored 2 in their last 20 matches.

      • Adam Cann says:

        Ha! Ok, but going more general isn’t really fair! If I say a guy is hitting .120 against lefties and you say, “Yeah, but he’s hitting .300 overall!”… well, we both sound crazy anyways.

        I’ve been pretty open that my guesses are tinged with more than a sprinkling of optimism. If I were an odds-maker, 1-1 or 0-0 would probably be the safest bet I’d offer.

        My scoreline is also contingent on Andrew Wenger making solid contact with at least one footswing-to-ball. I mean, it has to happen eventually.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Wenger has had a couple nice attempts, thwarted by very nice saves. He has looked as good as any Union striker, aside from Ruiz.

      • Southside Johnny says:

        The only striker that looks good is a goal scorer or, at times a good playmaker. Wenger looks like like a good soccer player, but not a good striker.

      • scottymac says:

        I think I’m just impressed with your dogged determined optimism when all evidence points to disappointment. I have the same issue with tequila, “This is the time it won’t let me down!”

  9. Great One says:

    why the hell did we draft Blake and not. CB again?

    • old soccer coach says:

      To put pressure on McMath and to improve the overall quality of the talent pool, and perhaps because a Generation Adidas player has not been vulnerable to the expansion draft in past versions of the expansion draft. Remember Orlando City and NYCFC are raiding rosters after the season.

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