Match previews

Preview: Union at New York Energy Drinks

Photo: Michael Long

What: Philadelphia Union at New York Red Bulls
Where: Red Bull Arena, somewhere in New York Jersey
When: 3:30 pm EST
TV: NBC Sports

Fast facts
  • New York has not scored after the first 30 minutes of a match this season.
  • Both teams have scored four goals in 2013.
  • Thierry Henry leads New York with 18 shots on goal; Michael Farfan leads Philadelphia with 7.
  • The Red Bulls scored 8 times in three games against Philadelphia last season; Kenny Cooper bagged 5 of those goals.
  • Lio Pajoy scored the only two goals for Philly against New York last year.

Some American sports fans don’t like ties. Ignoring the contrived and fluctuating rules that govern NFL and college football overtime (and that NFL games can end in ties), they demand that each contest simplify their lives by offering up a clear winner and loser.

Though it is still a young rivalry, New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union have catered to these fans.

In seven matches, the teams with the closest stadia in MLS have never left the field with a level scoreline. Until last season, however, the rivalry itself had been quite even. With the lifetime series at 2-2, New York tipped the scales in 2012 with three victories over the Union. In fact, the opponent that wrapped up 2012 for the Union summed up Philly’s season quite well: A come-from-behind win to put the U in their place followed by The Kenny Cooper Show midseason and a soul-destroying Philly face plant to round things out.

Things are different this time around. The Union are in the ascendancy, and the Red Bulls are in a scoring drought. Nothing should be taken for granted, of course, and there are some important matchups and key areas of the field that the Union need to control if they want to leave New Jersey with all three points.

Center of the pitch

Surviving without any midfield control is like trying to build a winning hockey team without strong goaltending. Opposing teams can knock you down a peg without doing anything special. In a soccer match, enough possession will usually get you chances, and enough chances will usually get you a goal.

New England’s attacking trio of Toja, Rowe and Nguyen were able to hold and move the ball in the midfield. Subtracting Rowe’s rough day at the office (Raymon Gaddis should get a bit more credit than he has), Toja and Nguyen were able to control two-thirds of the center of the pitch with ease. Towering performances from Okugo and Parke kept the Revolution from pushing much further, but asking that much of the back line is not the way to get through a MLS season. Just ask the worn down 2011 back four that crumbled under Houston’s playoff pressure.

The Union’s problem isn’t in basic shape. Given time to retreat, everyone knows their roles and understands duties. The issues appear to come in two forms: First, the team wants to put high-pressure on the ball carrier but fails to adjust the rest of its shape to limit outlets. Successful high-pressure defense requires multiple stages of adjustments.

Pressure on the ball must be complemented by support that forces the opposition to play into traps. If you want to see what this looks like, go back and watch the second half of the Kansas City match or all of the Colorado match. When Sheanon Williams and Raymon Gaddis are isolated and forced to play long over and over, you are seeing the fruits of successful pressure. The Union do not limit movement off the ball well, which means they don’t step into passing lanes and give the ball carrier second thoughts about playing the easy square or forward ball.

Second, the team has a tendency to put quick pressure on the ball while playing a more conservative style away from it. This is a sort of incomplete pressure that can be broken by a single, semi-intelligent run through the midfield.

McCarty vs Marfan

While they may not face off in front of each other, Dax McCarty and Michael Farfan are the sparkplugs for their respective offenses.

Juninho is expected to pull the strings for New York, but it is McCarty’s motor and involvement in the final third that provides the disrupting influence New York needs to get chances. He won’t get caught close to goal very often, but McCarty picks his spots well and his presence around the box should set off sirens in the Union defense.

Meanwhile, Michael Farfan has been drifting in and out of the game in 2013. He hasn’t driven at defenders with the heady aplomb of his confident rookie form, nor has he been willing to sneak inside and dictate a ground game, a la Future USA Superstar/possible secret Amazing Race contestant Freddy Adu. When the ball comes to him, Farfan remains a dangerously creative player, but the belief that he can take over a match seems gone.

That lack of confidence has trickled down to Sheanon Williams, who hasn’t marauded up the wing with the same gung ho mentality that pinned back opposing midfielders last season. If Michael Farfan seeks out spaces, reads the checking runs of Le Toux well, and dictates play in the early going, the Union will find the net quickly.

Espindola vs Sheanomenon

Fabian Espindola is questionable with a hamstring pull. If the former Salt Lake star, who so tortured the Union in the past, plays, he will likely be in a wider role than he played in Utah.

Espindola is quick, tricky, and strong, and reads the defensive line very well. His runs will be a real test for the Union’s back four, which has held a high and often squiggly offsides line early in the season. Sheanon Williams will face off with the Red Bulls winger, and, counterintuitively, he will be most successful if he is heavily involved in the offense.

In addition to his attacking prowess, Espindola is actually a fairly responsible defender. Pinning him deep and keeping him away from Okugo will take loads of pressure off the young Union center back, who may have to deal with an uber talented rabbit of a Frenchman bounding around in front of him.

Win the air

Finally, the Union have to continue their strong aerial play. Even without Kenny Cooper, the Red Bulls can send big bodies into the box. Heath Pearce, Jamison Olave, Markus Holgersson, and—if healthy—Tim Cahill can all provide quick reminders that the Union failed to add much height to their roster in the offseason.

Amobi Okugo has entered the 2013 season with a chip on his aerial shoulder, and Jeff Parke has been as advertised in terms of box ownership. Keeping the Red Bulls empty in the air is not a key to this game, but it would be really, really nice.

The real key is the above-mentioned defensive organization, which limits time spent on the ball in the final third and, thus, should result in fewer fouls that set up dangerous free kicks.



  • GK: Zac MacMath (18)
  • DEF: Sheanon Williams (25), Amobi Okugo (14), Jeff Parke (31), Raymon Gaddis (28)
  • MID: Captain Carroll (7), Michael Lahoud (13), Michael Farfan (21), Keon Daniel (26)
  • FWD: Sebastien Le Toux (11), Jack McInerney (9)

Red Bulls

  • GK: Luis Robles (31)
  • DEF: Kosuke Kimura (27), Jamison Olave (4), Markus Holgersson (5), Heath Pearce (3)
  • MID: Eric Alexander (12), Dax McCarty (11), Juninho (8), Fabian Espindola (9)
  • FWD: Tim Cahill (17), Thierry Henry (14)


  1. If Hack starts the lineup you propose, we’re dead. This team cannot score goals with both Carroll and Lahoud in the midfield. There’s no one to send an outlet pass. It’ll go back to Okugo, who will have no choice but to loft long balls, which will be rarely (if ever) successful.

    I would say that there is no way we can score a single goal with this lineup, but the Union’s newfound ability on corner kicks would still leave that route. But we’re unlikely to get a goal in open play with this lineup.

    • The Black Hand says:

      I’d love to see us come out jacked, like the start of the SKC game. If we could surprise them with a quick score, we may be able to hold with them. A point would be a great result from a tough road match.

    • I was just thinking of the overwhelming sense of “Meh.” looking at the lineup they proposed. But besides Torres I don’t know if they can start a better line up at this point. I think at this point and time this is as good as it gets.

  2. Not looking at this lineup (especially against the NY lineup) and reading the comments is enough to send a fan into depression. Our defense has been increasingly strong and confident, and I think most people like Jack and Letoux. That midfield is just so glaringly weak, it’s sad.
    You can almost picture exactly how this entire game will go before we even start. Lots of running from Jack and Letoux, chasing hopeful long balls over the top, good defensive wins, with some possible pressure from crosses on the wings…. And dreadful midfield movement, slow/non-existent passing connections from back to front, and lots of chasing the ball in midfield.
    Well, here’s to hoping our defense can hang tough and Jack or Letoux can find one of their grind out goals late in the game.
    Preferred lineup:
    Macmath, Williams, Okugo, Parke, Gaddis
    Marfan, Torres, Lahoud, Daniel
    Letoux, Macinerney

  3. I’m just going to watch the game and cross my fingers. Come on you Boys in Blue!

  4. JediLos117 says:

    Most logical lineup is listed by Adam.
    I expect Lahoud to be more offensive and play at left mid, not as a second dmid.
    This is a winnable game for us, 1-0

  5. The Black Hand says:


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