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Go big or go home

(Photo: Nicolae Stoian)

It is ironic that the Union face a team from the Lone Star state in their first ever playoff match, because when the they take the field this Sunday at PPL Park, it is the Union that must come out as the gunslingers.

Having reached their target of a playoff appearance in their second year in existence, technically, the rest is gravy. So why not play it to win? And given MLS’ crude decision to dispense with the away goals rule that every other country on the planet favors, there is no reason not to throw numbers at the problem in the playoffs, seeking to score early and often in the home leg of their two game series with the Houston Dynamo.

In the Union’s favor

The Union have always matched up well with the Dynamo, never having lost in any of their four prior contests, and there is no reason why they should not take an advantage down south for the second leg. While Houston’s decision to move Geoff Cameron back to defense has aided their porous goals against record, it depletes their midfield of the only dangerous catalyst not named Brad Davis. Just as they did the last time the two sides met at PPL Park, the Union have every opportunity to boss the midfield, controlling territory and possession in the match.

And do not underestimate the crowd at PPL Park. Savoring the first, sweet taste of playoff soccer will turn the riverbanks of Chester into a powder keg and the Union must ride that momentum to a good start on Sunday. For all those reasons, when the Union march out of the tunnel to begin this franchise’s first playoff run, they should line up in a 4–1–3–2, committing five players to the task of scoring goals.

That is “goals” with an “S.” Plural.

The back six

Faryd Mondragon in goal. Sheanon Williams, Carlos Valdes, Danny Califf and Gabriel Farfan across the backline with Brian Carroll shielding them from a holding midfield role.

You know them, you love them, they’re not going anywhere.

These six are locks to retain their places because they are the backbone of the Union. But, it is important for their game and the overall play of the team that they come out aggressive, with Williams and Farfan attacking high up the pitch. Jan Gunnar Solli and Roy Miller pinned back the Union fullbacks with their aggressive attacking play in New York last Thursday, a trend which must be reversed against Houston. When the Union fullbacks are at their high-flying best, they push the entire formation forward and limit players like Brad Davis to smaller windows of space to collect the ball behind the Union midfield.

The midfield three

This is where the attack needs to build.

At this point of the season, there is no reason for the Union to be anything but what they are and that is a centralized, direct, Route 1 attacking team. Thus, wasting time and effort on meaningless width is unnecessary, especially with news that the Union’s only consistent aerial presence in attack, Veljko Paunovic, is unlikely to be fit for the first leg with Houston. The major issue facing the Union in terms of building a consistent attack and finishing their chances is simply getting enough numbers into the box. For this reason, they ought to deploy three direct, attacking players who both have the ability to serve the strikers and get forward themselves. The Union midfield should consist of Roger Torres, flanked by Michael Farfan and Justin Mapp.

Roger Torres deserves to be a starter for the Union. He has taken his chances well, when they have been offered, and is the type of creative midfielder who can sit behind the strikers and consistently create chances.

Unlike others who thrive in a late-game cameo, Torres has proven that he is better when participating from the opening whistle, allowing him the chance to build with the game. As we saw late in the Toronto and New York matches, Torres came off the bench with too much adrenaline and failed to control his energy and excitement and this kept him from helping the Union to find the final breakthrough. As a starter though, he is a much better gauge of the match and has had success controlling the play and is always eager to get himself on the ball.

Given Freddy Adu’s struggles to settle with the Union as a consistent attacking playmaker, he is not the right option to open the game and establish the tempo, though he could find space late in the match once the field is stretched.

The top two

Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga.

The two big men up top serve a duel purpose. First and foremost they are the primary goalscorers the Union need against a makeshift Houston backline. For weeks Le Toux has been doing all the hard work all by his lonesome, waiting for someone to exploit the space he is creating. Mwanga, like Torres and Marfan, has the ability to take people on with the ball at his feet, creating opportunities for himself and those running off of him. While we cannot be sure if he is back to 100% he has shown sparks over the past two weeks that he is returning to form. Given Paunovic’s injury and the lack of faith the Union consistently show in Jack McInerney, Mwanga should be handed the opportunity on Sunday.

Additionally, with a second striker to consider, Houston’s two most in-form players—Geoff Cameron at center back and Adam Moffat, Houston’s Scottish holding midfielder—will be far more wary of a Union attack that features more than only a Le Toux isolated against an entire backline. Keeping both of these players out of the attack further limits Houston’s chances going forward. Strikers Brian Ching and Carlo Costly are not the kind of players who create opportunities for themselves and limiting Cameron’s and Moffat’s influence on the attack allows Brian Carroll and the Union backline to turn their attentions almost entirely to Brad Davis, smothering his lines of service.

The best defense is a good offense

With the need to secure an advantage before they head off to Houston foremost in their minds, this should be the bulletin board quote of the week for the Union. While they have proven themselves a dangerous foe, Houston lacks the quality to reverse the flow of the game once their opponent has gained the ascendancy and the Union must come out of the gates at full throttle. While an early goal would obviously be the ideal beginning to what we all hope is a long playoff run, a complete, attacking 90 minute performance should be the major focus of every player.


  1. Lol Eli I think you’re confusing Jan Gunnar Solli with Erik Soler, unless there’s some sweet PSP nickname I’m missing out on…you called him Erik Gunnar Solli. I think you did it once before too…sorry to nitpick!

  2. I agree…we need to come out attacking and our focus should be on attack…I however disagree with a 4-1-3–2 formation..I’m in favor of a 4-1-4-1 formation with Marfan, Adu, Torres and Mapp in the middle of the park and Le Toux alone up top. Really don’t think Mwanga should start. I think this game will be won in the midfield. Union progress if they score 2 goals and prevent Houston from scoring at PPL.

    • What have you seen the past few games that makes you think we can do anything in the final third with a lone striker?

      • Le Toux is on fire!!! But my comment wasnt focusing on the lone striker but rather the fact that I believe the Union need to own and control the midfield and I think the four midfielders I would start could do that. I ultimately think the game will be won in the midfield. Also of note, if we start #10, who do we sub in late if we need offense? Mack hasnt impressed this year…Naka who? Any other viable subs? Big concern for the coaching staff will def be the bench…awfully shallow heading into playoffs.

      • I disagree with your premise but I understand it. Until you recommend starting Adu. That’s were you lost me. He has been a disappointment on soooo many levels. If he gets the start, I will once again be left wondering WTF is Nowak doing.

      • Le Toux has been on fire partly because he’s had Paunovic behind or next to him to help create more space. He’s not a lone striker, he works better when he has space to work in, and he’ll get that space with Mwanga next to him. If he plays alone up top HOU can afford to put 2 men on him knowing that no one else will occupy the empty space. Keep Mwanga up top & let Marfan or Torres run the middle of the field, and Seba can drop back as he does occasionally to help the offense, and it almost becomes a 4-1-3-1-1. A Mwanga-Le Toux-Marfan offensive triangle in the middle of the field could be very dangerous.

      • Again I don’t think Mwanga should start but if he does than I would suggest something like what your talking about. ie. Le Toux taking a Paunovic role while Mwanga takes a Le Toux role. I would also hope that Marfan stays on the wing while Torres takes the middle…but a huge concern I have with Torres alone in the middle of the park stems from the physical nature I expect from this game…Dynamo are a physical n strong team

  3. Also I disagree with Jack Mac being a disappointment and I want to know exactly why the Union staff seems to hate him.
    I just looked and he only has 200~ more minutes this year. Hardly enough time for a fair or solid look. I feel like fans/the coaches expect him to come in and dazzle when just like any other player, there needs to be continuity in lineup and formation for players to play their best.
    I just don’t get why players who routinely are invisible for games at a time – Ruiz, Mapp, Adu, Le Toux (admit it, earlier in the season he was) are showered with minutes and relative good will when Jack Mac has “disappointed” this year. I still maintain he has looked good enough at time to warrant longer looks than he is getting.

    • I think there’s a general consensus that Ruiz is a large part of the reason why Le Toux would go invisible for long stretches. He camped out in the middle of field, waited for the ball to come to him, and didn’t make any runs…he wasn’t called Fat Chooch for nothing. If he moved, he could’ve drawn defenders and allowed lanes to open up for Seba. Alas…

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