Match previews

Preview: Union at DC United

What: Philadelphia Union at DC United

When: 5pm EST

Where: RFK Stadium, Washington, DC


Referee: Hilario Grajeda

John Hackworth had just been named head coach of the Philadelphia Union. He really wanted to show the fans and the players that he was the right man for the job. And DC United came along… to hand Philly yet another loss.

Yes, 2012 was just another major battle in the best rivalry on the East Coast. While both DC and Philly love to beat New York, it’s more like beating England than a derby win. England has been mediocre for years, yet they keep thinking they are just hard done by freak incidents. You beat them and feel good, but the thrill is muted by the odd indifference of your opponents; New York hires expensive mercenaries to fight their battles.

DC-Philly is the derby. It’s bad blood because the cities are a short drive apart on I-95. It’s bloody because the teams are pulling from the same pool of talent: Fewer big names, more guys who are fighting for spots and know the rivalry is a big stage to show up on. Fewer empty seats, more… wait, no. It’s DC we are talking about. There will be plenty of empty seats.

And nothing amplifies a rivalry like need. The Union are winless in their last three, and have yet to look like a team that can compete for a playoff spot over the course of a full season. DC hasn’t notched a win since March 9, and if they don’t score on Philly, they will have gone a full calendar month without shaking the twine.

Though really, who could have predicted that the team that acquired Lionard Pajoy and Carlos Ruiz would struggle on offense? Sure, Ruiz can score, but he needs minutes and a specific structure around him to produce. Pajoy can get you points as well; at least that’s what noted soccer genius Peter Nowak tells me.

While it is easy to make fun of DC United for collecting former Union strikers and expecting big results, Philadelphia is, unfortunately, in the same boat. The return of Sebastien Le Toux has become awkward, with the good play of Jack McInerney and Conor Casey leaving the former Union talisman relegated to the midfield. While this problem should have been anticipated by the Union coaching staff, last week’s match made it clear that Le Toux has not been practicing as a midfielder. Or if he has, nobody told him.

More changes?

Should the Union retain the shape and personnel that saw them put eleven shots on target against Toronto? No. If anything, Toronto’s lineup should be the exact warning John Hackworth needs to heed ahead of this weekend’s match. Hogan Ephraim has been playing an advanced role for TFC, but against Philly he was put on the wing to provide extra offensive punch in a wide area. Ryan Nelsen cannot be happy with the results.

Luckily for Nelsen, Hackworth responded with two fairly stationary central midfielders and Danny Cruz (whose runs are as unpredictable as Nicolas Cage’s movie choices), all of whom failed to exploit the spaces left by Toronto’s disorganized midfield.

DC United will not be so forgiving. In Chris Pontius and Raphael, the kids from the Capitol have players who will thrive in a spacious defense. Perry Kitchen gives those players the cover they need to push forward, and if they find a rhythm, they become instantly dangerous. Though DC’s finishing has undone the good play of their wingers, don’t expect that trend to last forever. Remember: Dwayne “Fred Astaire” De Rosario played 45 against New York and will be a likely starter against Philadelphia. Even at half speed, the Canadian can shift the flow of a game by retaining possession and pulling Brian Carroll out of the middle.

Back to the Future

The success of the 2013 Philadelphia Union hinges on a few key variables. One, obviously, is the form of Jack McInerney. He has never played big minutes over the course of an entire season and he has been asked to do a lot thus far. But Jack has been one of the best strikers in MLS through the first few games, so no worries yet.

The second major point is tactical: The Union need production from their fullbacks. Sheanon Williams has been his usual solid self defensively but had little success joining the attack. The deep runs of 2011-12 have been replaced by early crosses, and the one-twos of the (dare I say it) Freddy Adu era have disappeared altogether.

Williams and Raymon Gaddis need to find connections with their corresponding outside midfielders. It is painfully clear that a lack of understanding among the wide players is preventing the Union from pinning teams into their own half with short passing and good movement. Hesitancy is the name of the game for the fullbacks, while unpredictability has dominated in the midfield. Is this a personnel issue? A tactical issue? A coaching issue? All three? It’s difficult to point the finger (though many, including myself, have pointed at Danny “SQUIRREL!” Cruz), unless it’s at the coaching staff which has seen the same pattern play out repeatedly without being able to address it.

A focus on DC

Given that the Union’s midfield is likely to operate with the same inefficiency of previous weeks, what can the strikers do to turn the tide in Philadelphia’s favor? Conor Casey can bang with the best of them, but it will be important for him and McInerney to get out of the middle from time to time. DC’s center backs can be dragged around with ease, because they tend to chase what they see. Isolating a center back in a wide area will open up the box for the Union’s late runners… if the Union can generate late runners.


These are winnable road points for the Union. They can take a cue from New York and look to grab the game early on. DC is desperate and will chase until they collapse, so possessing the ball and, thus, keeping United from building a rhythm, are key tactical components in the early stages of the match. In other words, the Union need to show up with a sense of purpose and understanding. Oddly enough, they have done that once this year: In Colorado. That snowy win was the only time the Union looked as though they were all on the same page. That the page was “Kick it, chase it, go-go-go” is not particularly encouraging, but the idea that the players can think as one is a positive sign to take out of an otherwise ugly affair.

Expected Lineups


  • GK: MacMath
  • DEF: Williams, Okugo, Parke, Gaddis
  • MID: Daniel, Carroll, Kleberson, Cruz
  • FWD: Mac n Cheese (McInerney & Casey)


  • GK: Bill Hamid
  • DEF: Daniel Woolard, Dejan Jankovic, Brandon McDonald, Chris Korb
  • MID: Raphael Agusto, Perry Kitchen, Marcos Sanchez, Chris Pontius
  • FWD: Carlos Ruiz, Dwayne De Rosario


  1. Do the ESPN2 games get streamed somewhere legit? I planned poorly, and will be on a plane Sunday evening. I’m hoping the plane has Wi-Fi.

  2. Adam, it is interesting to see how your analysis plays right into what I see as potentially happening this week. With the history of bad blood between two teams that need all of the points from this game, and your forecast of DC game planning a possession game, it seems like this could get ugly early as the Union tries to disabuse United of that idea. Hard fouls early, lots of cards and the teams finishing men down on both sides? Goals as an afterthought?

  3. frankswild says:

    If Cruz starts of Farfan I… I just don’t know

  4. Do you really think Cruz will start again?

    • The Black Hand says:


    • JediLos117 says:

      Absolutely…for all the bad that he displays he actually does have something that is valuable to our team.
      He is fast and has shown some value on the counter…our team is really slow and having a couple of mediocre (poor) player with speed (Gaddis and Cruz) is tactically significant.
      The problem with Cruz is that his speed may be his only upside…maybe also unselfish in front of goal…he does look for the pass (then skies it).
      I would prefer he doesnt start.

      • I also would prefer that Cruz doesn’t start. In a game like this where there will most likely be hard fouls and short tempers, I think Cruz could easily find himself in a position to get sent off. I would like to see Mike Farfan start in Cruz’s place on the right side of the midfield, with Carroll and Kleberson in the middle. On the left side I think Gabe Farfan is the best choice, since he will be able to provide cover when Gaddis gets involved in the attack, although Daniel is passable as long as he’s willing to push forward and stay wide.

        Williams and Gaddis can provide the speed we need on the wings, but we have to have wide midfielders who have the intelligence and ability to allow it to happen.

      • Adding more Farfans to a DC match doesn’t exactly decrease the risk of someone getting sent off.

      • JediLos117 says:

        +1 on your Carroll, Farfan, Kleberson, Farfan midfield…but not so sure it will happen.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Cruz will definitely be on the right, which will put Marfan (out of position) on the left. So, our flanks will be struggling. That leaves Ol’ #7 to do his thing, leaving Kleberson as our only player to work the ball forward centrally. I see another game plan of: disrupt play and try to catch a break. I hope the ref has a new whistle, because it will be a blowin’. 1-1

      • Maybe Cruz will inspire DeRo to head butt him again? That’s the only value I see in having him on the field.

      • The Black Hand says:

        I would like Cruz to get the start, in hopes of a concussion…yeah I said it.

  5. JediLos117 says:

    Winnable game indeed but IMO it is absolutely imperative that we do win. This is our first must win game of the season. The season is a marathon and in the early stages of the run we have to maintain a 4th to 7th place pace and 3 points ensures that.
    TFC showed less quality sides how to run with and steal points from us…I truly expect to see DC mirror TFC tactics from last week.
    I want to see multiple goals (specifically a #9 brace), Zac make the save and keep a clean sheet and intensity from the first whistle.
    I dont want to see Pajoy or lil fish score.
    Absolutely winnable.

  6. I think Cruz will get the start this week. The coaching staff seems to love his hustle, toughness, and willingness to do the “grunt” work in midfield. Since we are on the road and this should be a tough, physical game I don’t see why Hackworth and staff would bench Cruz now. I’m expecting to see Carroll, Garfan, Cruz and either Marfan or Daniel in the CAM role. Kleberson will come off the bench again depending on how the game goes.

    • frankswild says:

      I really hope he doesn’t start over Farfan. I don’t like the notion that what he does is grunt work. Grunt work implies not only working hard but also humbly doing your job correctly. I appreciate the hard work and the willingness to put his body on the line but that is only meaningful if he is doing things properly.

      • This is actually a rare case where I *want* to see Cruz. I think he can get behind DC’s backline like he did vs. Columbus. Plus, there’s always the chance de Rosario head-butts him and gets sent off again. 🙂

      • Cruz and Hoppenot are both players that can get under the skin of an opposing defense. given the history between the Union and United, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cruz start wide-right.

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