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Preview: Union at Rapids

UPDATE: Due to blizzard conditions in Colorado, the game, scheduled to kickoff at 6pm ET on Saturday, has been postponed. The new kickoff time is 3pm ET on Sunday (The Comcast Network, MLS Live. Tape delay on Univision Deportes at 7pm).

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Losing a match is hard enough. But losing a match when you outplayed your opponent for long stretches? Now we are in Andy Reid territory.

Saturday’s showdown in Colorado (6 p.m., TCN, Univision Deportes, MLS Live) finds two teams coming off preventable losses. Sebastien Le Toux spurned a glittering chance to give the Philadelphia Union a needed cushion, and Stew Ceus’s impression of me as a three-year-old when I thought the moon was a lot closer handed Dallas a tight victory. If these teams want to be in the playoff hunt, they need to find identities and locate finishers.

Previous matches

Colorado dominated the ball for long stretches against Dallas last weekend. Pablo Mastroeni returned from a long injury layoff to control the midfield and open space for Dillon Powers to explore his role linking defense to attack. The Rapids’ problems were in front of net, where Atiba Harris played like he was auditioning to be the Broncos’ placekicker and Deshorn Brown showed the hesitancy of a rookie in his first game.

With Danny Mwanga in the mix and a home crowd behind them, Colorado can be extremely dangerous against the Union if they emulate last week’s performance.

As the Union coaching staff will remind anybody with ears, Philly dominated Kansas City for 40 minutes before getting hit with a Men in Black memory flash and forgetting the press-as-a-team plan. Although they looked like an organized team for almost half a game, that doesn’t mask the fact that not one single player looked improved or more confident in their role compared to a year ago. If Hackworth’s best attribute is his ability to develop young talent, that certainly wasn’t on display last weekend. And while developing players is something that gives assistant coaches credibility, making the right adjustments between games is what distinguishes head coaches. Let’s see what Hack has to offer.

What’s on the line

The Rapids think they have their finisher in former Union draft pick/casualty of the Nowak regime Danny Mwanga. With Edson Buddle knacked, Mwanga adds a powerful body to a youthful but hard-working front line. If he can develop into the strong presence Philly expected him to become, the Rapids will be extremely strong down the center of the pitch.

The Union have striker issues of their own. John Hackworth fell asleep waited until the 70th minute to add Jack McInerney to the mix last Saturday. Jack Mac couldn’t turn the game around in 20 minutes and now Hack has to decide if the young striker made enough of an impression to earn back the starting role he apparently lost to Sebastien Le Toux in the offseason. Former Rapid Conor Casey is also champing at the bit to get significant minutes against his former club.

While it’s unlikely Hackworth will use all three from the start, the mercurial play of Keon Daniel against Kansas City means Michael Farfan may return to the center and open up a spot in the front three. Marfan found little time on the ball to run at defenders and struggled to be influential last week; giving him a clear role was supposed to be a priority last season. Anybody surprised that still hasn’t happened?

Danger zone: The late runner problem

Pablo Mastroeni is a sneaky dude. While Benny Feilhaber is too intent on getting the ball to figure out how to move off it, Mastroeni will ghost into a play late if left unmarked. So if Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud remain in the midfield, they cannot chase wide and leave holes through the center. If Colorado continues to play a 4-3-3 with Deshorn Brown or Danny Mwanga pressed high, the Union center backs will be pinned too deep to step up into the midfield space. Dealing with this issue before it becomes, well, an issue is key if Philly.

Danger zone: Around the horn

Philadelphia has never been able to possess the ball in the opponent’s third. Today’s worrying stat comes courtesy of Passes around the Opponent’s Box.

The Union attempted 69 passes in the final third compared to Kansas City’s 63. Yes!

The Union completed 42% of their passes in the final third compared to Kansas City’s 75%. Y… Wait, what?

Union CMs vs KC

These numbers suggest a team that is either pressing too hard or doesn’t understand how to space around the opponent’s box and move the ball around. This is a crucial skill for many reasons:

  1. Moving the defense around opens up lanes;
  2. Possession in the final third means any defensive mistakes can be more costly;
  3. The defense is working their butts off when you are that close to their goal;
  4. Your defense is resting, and your midfielders aren’t doing full-field sprints up and down the pitch.

Putting some long-term pressure on the Colorado defense will allow the Union to control the flow of the match. Will they do it?

Keep your eye on…  Dillon Powers and Hendry Thomas

With Mastroeni cruising in a deeper role, Powers and Thomas will both link to their own strikers and seek to separate the Union’s striker(s) from the midfield.

Thomas was excellent last season, and Jaime Castrillon’s injury is giving Powers a chance to shine. If they can establish themselves further up the field, it will create a big gap in the Union’s midfield. If, on the other hand, the Union can move the ball with speed and make Powers chase, they will draw Mastroeni out and find the path to goal a simpler road to travel.

Final thoughts

If the Union maintain the formation they debuted last weekend, the ability of the two Colorado midfielders to get wide and create could cause major issues. Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud did a good job of keeping Kansas City from going up the center of the pitch, but following the play to the wings also left the Union without any offensive push from the middle (see above graphic).

The Union and the Rapids both lived up to the hype last week: They showed flashes of high-energy, relentless soccer that can wear down a more talented opponent. They were also wasteful in front of net and lost concentration in the defensive end. John Hackworth said he watched last week’s game over and over. Tomorrow we find out what he learned.

Starting Lineups


  • GK: MacMath
  • DEF: Williams, Okugo, Parke, Gaddis
  • MID: Carroll, Marfan, Torres, Garfan
  • FWD: Casey, Le Toux


  • GK: Ceus
  • DEF: Wynn, Calderon, Mullan, Moor
  • MID: Mastroeni, Thomas, Powers
  • FWD: Cascio, Brown, Harris


  1. JediLos117 says:

    Im leaning towards a 4-4-2 against Colorado also.
    Williams, Okugo, Parke, Gaddis, Carroll, M. Farfan, Torres, G. Farfan, Le Toux, McInherney
    Williams, Okugo, Parke, Gaddis, Carroll, M. Farfan, Daniel, G. Farfan, Le Toux, Casey
    I think McInherney has the potential to have a break out game with Torres on the pitch moreso than Casey playing off Torres…visa versa with Daniel/Casey
    4-4-2 definitely against Colorado

  2. Great point about the Union’s inability in the final third. They can look like Barcelona in the middle of the third, but it falls apart as soon as they get within a sniff at goal. This is one area where having Seba back hurts. He can’t hold the ball up against pressure and his passing is terrible.

    • The Black Hand says:

      The lack of support from the central midfielders kills our pressure, in the final third. It seems like we have one chance to connect on a cross, before the defense clears to their mids. Imagine if we had a center mid, who had the slightest ability to put a shot on frame from distance.

    • Scottymac says:

      I guess if you mean the Barcelona School for the Untalented, then yeah, dead ringers.

  3. Scottymac says:

    What makes the author or commenters think Torres will start? More like a sub for Lahoud at the 75′ when we trail 2-1.

    If I had to put my Hacktician hat on and guess what the PPL Professor is thinking, I’d bet on an “attacking” 4-3-3:


    Garfan Okugo Parke Williams

    Lahoud Carroll Marfan

    LeToux Casey Daniel

    Subs Jack for Keon; Torres for Lahoud.

    At least Hacks realized the guy he traded for in Cruz has a touch best described as “concrete-esque” and will keep the track star picking splinters out of the bench.

    • Garfan has to be in there… so replace Daniel or Casey for Garfan

      • I think Hack saw enough of Gaddis chasing back after getting caught up field. Garfan will be LB until we transfer for one.

    • JediLos117 says:

      It’s not that I think Hack will start either of those lineups I listed.
      I wrote of the approach I would take against Colorado.
      Starting any of the 4=4=2 lineups listed could easily morph to a 4-2-3-1 should need arise.
      maybe a 4-2-3-1 like:
      Gaddis, Williams, Parke, G. Farfan, Carroll, Okugo, Le Toux, M. Farfan, Daniel, Casey.
      But in the end, Lahoud will prolly start.

      • Fair enough Jedi. I was focused on what Hack will do, not what I would.

        The real challenge is we have to come to grips with the fact our midfield is makeshift. We all can see the potential of Torres and want so bad for him to seize that CAM role. Marfan is most dangerous on the wing. Reality is Torres hasn’t grabbed the position so we slide players around out of natural position. We blasted Nowak for it, Hacks continuing the tradition. Then we end up shifting players and formations week to week without ever defining what the Union style of play is.

      • The Black Hand says:

        I don’t think that our midfield is makeshift. Hackworth just seems intent on starting midfield formations, that don’t get the most out of the players we have. Thus, constantly feeling the need to adjust, to make it “work”. We have seen, time and time again, that we are not threatening with two holding midfielders, yet we see them every match. The refusal to switch his mindset has been the biggest of Hackworth’s shortcomings, as manager.

      • JediLos117 says:

        Thats a valid assessment Scotty. The midfield remains a weakness. We got many central mids but no real left or right mids. As such, I cant really blame Hack for trying different things with what he has available…but I can blame him for not doing a better job in the offseason addressing that area in obvious need of improvement.
        Its imperative that we leave Colorado with at least one point. All of the sudden New England isnt an automatic 3 anymore.

  4. The Black Hand says:

    11 Things I took from this match:
    (1) A fully committed MacMath is muuuuuuch better than passive, on his heels, MacMath. After Zac punched that cross away, he elevated his game. The goal lacked effort, from Zac, but after that he upped his game and we need that.
    (2) Jeff Parke is the best CB that the Union have ever had. He is very good. Commanded the back line.
    (3) The Ray Gaddis experiment (at LB) has failed. I would swap he and Shaenon. Williams is more capable with his left side and Gaddis would be just as good as Shaenon at RB. Williams has not looked strong, so far.
    (4)Amobi should be our LONE CDM. He is too well rounded to be held on the back line. Parke is good enough and we have Soumare…I think.
    (5)Brian Carroll is soft in challenging and getting dragged way out of position,often. Way too important of a role for Carroll to be so unassertive.
    (6)Michael Farfan is not a 10. Not even close. If we could cross Farfan’s ball skills with Danny Cruz’ aggression and intensity, we would have a very good player. Get him on the wing STAT.
    (7)Keon Daniel is a terrible defender. He did not do enough on the offensive side of the ball, to offset that fact. Back to the bench for Keon. He is the master of blown opportunities of being in the starting XI. I liked him in the opener, but he was poor today. So poor that I would sit him down.
    (8)Hackworth hates Roger Torres. Our offensive contributions, out of our midfield, are non-existant. Yet, Hackworth appears to have no intention of giving Torres real minutes. It’s bad now. Giving Torres a look couldn’t possibly make it worse.
    (9)Jack Mac (finishing) and Hoppenot (composure) were refreshing to see. Hoppenot did a great job, being strong on the ball, and made some good decisions. McInerney’s finish was world class and the bow was fantastic.
    (10) We were very lucky to come out of CO with 3 points. I am very happy to see the club get the win. To go on the road, especially under these conditions, and get three points is something to be proud of. That said, we gave the Rapids far too many opportunities, on the ball, and I have the lack of fingernails to prove it.
    (11) Alejandro Moreno is an excellant Color Commentator. Not only is he NOT BOB RIGBY but he did a great job, saying the right things at the right time. He was smart and informative throughout the game. I will enjoy watching games with the volume on, from now on.

    BIG WIN!!! It wasn’t pretty but we got the points.

    • i’m not sure i’d give parke the nod over valdes in union history just yet but credit to him for playing both CB and LB today and largely pulling it off.

      • The Black Hand says:

        A two game sample size might not be enough, to make such a proclamation. Then again, maybe it is. Parke is very good…I’m sticking with my call. It wouldn’t be the first time I ate my words.

      • There is only one man who should carry the captain’s armband for the Union: Jeff Parke.

        Agree with everything else you said, Black Hand, especially re: Gaddis, Okugo, and Marfan. When will Torres finally get a shot?

      • parke looked excellent. no arguments there

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