Match previews

Preview: Union vs Chivas USA

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Who: Philadelphia Union vs Chivas USA
What: MLS regular season
Where: PPL Park, Chester, PA, USA
When: FRIDAY, July 12, 7:30 pm
Watch: TCN, Direct Kick, MLS Live
Referee: Jorge Gonzalez; Linesmen: Brian Dunn, Matthew Nelson; Fourth official: Mark Kadlecik

First of all: Welcome back to Philly, Gabe! You and your flying chest kicks are always welcome here. Now on to the preview.

Over the last three matches, one 0f these teams has three points. The other has two. Both teams think they’ve earned more.

Philadelphia has become the answer to the trivia question, “What team gave up a goal in the 97th minute two games in a row?” Chivas, meanwhile, has broken out of a seven-game losing slump the only way they know how: By tying three straight games.

Chivas has only scored two goals in their last seven away matches after starting the season 1-1-0. Underperforming even by their own low expectations, the Goats have to be stunned that their 0.78 points per game is only third lowest in the league.

Chivas details

The situation in Chivas is bordering on absurdity. The team’s best player, Eric Avila, trialed with Chivas Guadalajara and could be on the move. Others may follow. If Avila leaves, it will leave Tristan Bowen as the only player on the roster with more than one goal to his name this season. Read that last sentence again. Remember: This is a professional sports team with two primary directives: Score goals and don’t get scored on. One player with more than a goal. Wow.

Since new head coach Guero Real took over, Chivas have gone 0-2-3. If this were any other team in the league, those results would be disappointing. For Chivas, they are signs of progress. Specifically, the progress has come in the form of coherent organization. The team’s early season success and subsequent collapse came as a direct result of their chaotic on-field play. Early on, it was hard for teams to handle. But a few hours in the video room quickly showed that this was a team that would overcommit to anything and couldn’t break down a set back four.

First Colorado, then Real Salt Lake showed that a patient approach wore out the Goats, who continued to attack and defend in a streetball fashion reminiscent of a poorly played video game.

Guero Real has inherited an assemblage of mediocre misfits. The biggest problem at Chivas is not the lack of talent, but the comedic mishandling of the roster. Players have not been brought in to fill specific roles. Instead, they arrive with some level of soccer talent and are tossed about the midfield and front line like interchangeable parts. Eventually, one stud emerges, and Chivas pretends to build around that playmaker before trading them away. (Hi, Nick LaBrocca!)

Real seems to have imposed some order on his side. There are signs that the players know where to be now, though they have yet to figure out how to squeeze creativity from this harshly imposed tactical discipline. Baby steps.

Union update

At least the Union can’t feel like they let one slip away in Houston.

As usual, Dom Kinnear had his Dynamo ready for a weary and predictable Union side. Giving up late goals in consecutive matches introduced a new hesitancy to Philly’s game, particularly when they sought to break out of the back. Though it looked like Houston’s dull finishing edge might gift the Union a point, a second half breakthrough left Philly to drag tired legs home after their first loss in over a month.

The good news is that the absences of Jack McInerney and Keon Daniel have opened spots for young talents like Leo Fernandes and Aaron Wheeler. The bad news is that neither player seems ready to assert themselves on a game from the start. A home match against Chivas seems like the perfect opportunity to put more youth on the field, and it’s likely that both players will see minutes against the west coast strugglers.

Elsewhere, the wings have gone quiet in recent weeks. Partly, this can be attributed to Conor Casey’s more mobile philosophy. In McInerney’s wake, the big man has taken to running more channels, and this seems to have made Danny Cruz pony’s one trick a bit redundant. The one area in which Chivas has drastically improved under their new manager is in the back, where a reliable foursome have given stability, if not top quality. At the very least, teams are having to work harder to break the Californians down.

Where to attack

Real has instituted an interesting midfield formation that relies on mobility and discipline more than a strong reading of the game. Without a Brian Carroll to patrol the open spaces in the middle, Chivas rotates athletic, more forward-thinking players into two deep-lying roles. Gabe Farfan, Carlos Alvarez, Marco Delgado and Edgar Meija have all stepped into the breach in the last three matches, providing a mixture of toughness, passing range, and tactical discipline. None of these players appear entirely comfortable in this double-pivot system, but they have been reliable and have developed a nascent understanding of breakouts, targeting Avila and the departed Laurent Courtois more often than not.

To attack this setup, the Union need to move with speed through the middle or play small ball on the wings. The Chivas defensive middies cannot rely on instinct, so forcing them to react is the best way through. If Philly can’t get traction up the center, overloading a wing will pull the defensively challenged wide midfielders deeper and force the central players to figure out a zone defense in support. These are the problems that can unravel a Chivas midfield still in its developmental phase tactically.

How to defend

This is tougher than it sounds because… how does Chivas want to attack? It’s not entirely clear. Returning to the streetball comparison, it often appears as though the strategy is to give the ball to Avila and see how he’s feeling. A dribbling mood? Then start making runs and hope he hits you. A passing mood? Get in close and play some short balls.

One defensive tactic that should be adopted regardless of Avila’s game day mindset is a high pressure system on the edges. The Chivas wide men are not untalented, and given time and space they will exploit a defense. Such is the nature of Chivas’ recent style that these players get limited chances in a match and rarely see more than one teammate in the box for a cross. Don’t let their weak stats turn into a faulty assessment that Jorge Villafana should get space. In the end, he is a player who will stand out when Chivas plays well.

Matchup: Union offense vs. Dan Kennedy

On a good day, Dan Kennedy can easily turn a loss into a draw. On a normal day, he will still make it very, very hard to break through. Good in the air and a strong shot stopper, the best way to beat Kennedy is to get into good spots and shoot. Chivas is not strong enough defensively to play a high pressure game, so moving the ball around the final third and picking spots is essential. Kennedy is harder than most to beat from distance, so settling for a long hopeful shot should be a last resort, not a first, second or third option.

Matchup: John Hackworth vs. substitutions

Whether necessitated by a thin roster or chosen through whimsy and personal preference, John Hackworth has a penchant for putting individual players over team shape when he makes changes. Even if the Union are playing well and holding a lead, Hackworth won’t hesitate to add a forward for a midfielder, shuffle players around, or generally muck things up in the name of getting the people he prefers onto the pitch.

This needs to stop.

No matter how many times the coaches say the Union are a young team, it won’t matter until they start walking the walk. Young players have less experience, and take a bit longer to adjust to tactical changes. Yes, down to a man, players will tell you that switching a formation around is no big deal, but they know it is. Part of the reason you express a lineup in terms of formation is that it tells you as a player where people will be around you. Soon, you fall into a rhythm and don’t have to think about where your outlet pass needs to go because you have a good idea where your winger is, and you can fall back on that option if nothing else is available. A formation change turns all that on its head.

Switching up the formation can be very beneficial if it puts people in spaces that needed filling. But with a lead, a rhythm, and a young, mercurial team, it can often be too much of a risk.

Prediction: Union 2-0 Chivas USA

It will take some huffing and some puffing, but the Union will find a way to blow Dan Kennedy’s house down. Though they once again are robbed of a full week of rest, the Union need to play high pressure defense early and keep the visitors from holding possession.

Chivas’ recent success comes down to a player buy-in that they will have more success as an organized unit. Blowing up that organization early can tear open the fragile progress Chivas has made under their new manager.


Two big strikers and two good crossers? No, it probably won’t happen. But it should.



  1. John Ling says:

    Looks like my daughter gets to be a ball kid for this game. My father will be taking her, since I’ll be going to my wife’s 25th HS reunion. Time to set the DVR to see if we can catch her on TV.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      Ouch! Tough choice, wife or daughter!

      • Dan Walsh says:

        Easy choice: Soccer or high school reunion!

      • John Ling says:

        My dad took her to the game. We had already booked hotel and all that for the reunion – my wife grew up out near Erie, PA. I DVR’ed the game.
        My daughter was behind the net where no goals were scored. MacMath’s net in the 2nd half. I could see her on a few of the highlights, but only knew it was her because I was told that’s where she was at.

  2. DoopItOut says:

    No offense, but every time we have gone up against a struggling team that we were supposed to easily take advantage of, we didn’t. Worst, we let them get away with points.

    I know we have an excellent track record against chivas, but…Well…we’ll see. …

    • If there was ever a team that could figure out how to drop points to a team like Chivas it would be the Union.

  3. Funny you should mention Gabe’s chest kicks. I am awaiting some Farfan on Farfan violence in the midfield. Who gets a card first?

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Gabe in the 22nd minute.

      Everyone, place your bets. Include the minute of the game. Whoever gets closest wins. Winner gets bragging rights and a guest column at PSP.

      • Nice. Gabe in the 38th. Bonus points if it is for a foul on Michael?

      • Andy Muenz says:

        Jorge Gonzalez is the referee and he hates the Union. That means that Michael gets a card in 21st minute (right in the middle of 4 Leaf Clover) when Gabe fouls Michael but Jorge blows the call.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        Sure! Bonus points for if it’s a foul on Mike.

    • Gabe in the 80th minute

      • Andy – Totally nailed on about Gonzalez, I can remember three Union sending offs right off the bat (Williams was two of them).

        Gonzalez is one of those referees who wants to show everyone how he’s in charge so much that it clouds his judgement. Similar to Joey Crawford in the NBA, Tim Higgins in CBB and Cowboy Joe West in MLB.

  4. Great One says:

    Can’t wait to see the Farfans going at each other all game. We can’t lose to Chivas? Right? Please?
    I like how Wheeler has looked, and he has definitely shown more than Fernandes. However I think Le Toux has fallen some on that right side, and especially in a game where we should be the better team by far, I think we need some more possession. And for all of Le Toux’s good points, possession is not one of them. I’d start with Le Toux up front, bring on wheeler for Casey or (more likely) Hoppenot on for the RM and swap him with Le Toux later on.
    Preferred lineup. 4-4-2
    Gaddis, Williams, Parke, Alves
    Marfan, Okugo, Torres, Cruz
    Le Toux, Casey
    Predicted lineup. 4-4-2
    Williams, Okugo, Parke, Gaddis
    Letoux, Carroll, Marfan, Cruz
    Wheeler, Casey
    Above all else, just make sure, no matter what idiotic lineup choices are made, we walk away with a win.

  5. Where’s Nikolov these days, and whatever happened to Don Anding?

  6. preferred lineup
    williams okugo parke alves
    letoux carrol marfan cruz
    casey wheeler

    predicted lineup
    Williams okugo parke gaddis
    letoux Fernandez hoppenot
    casey wheeler

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