Match previews

Preview: Union vs Houston Dynamo

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union vs Houston Dynamo
What: MLS Regular Season
Where: PPL Park, Chester, PA, USA
When: Saturday, September 14, 7:30pm EST
Watch: CSN, Direct Kick, MLS Live (Free Stream of the Week)
Referee: Mark Geiger; Linesmen: Eric Proctor, Scott Kachmarik; Fourth official: Mark Kadlecik
PSP quick reference

People are prone to engage in downward comparisons. If you think you aren’t good at something, you might look around for someone who is even worse and compare yourself to them. During their current four game winless streak, the Houston Dynamo have scored only two goals. So naturally they came looking for the Philadelphia Union.

John Hackworth has a knack for making the mundane sound profound, and his post-game responses usually fall somewhere between, That was good enough but we can be better and We have to be better. Ever since Jack McInerney put away the cape, the Union have toed the line between barely-good-enough and not-good-enough. And after every game, John Hackworth either says, That was good enough but we should be better and We have to be better.

With seven weeks left in the season, it is fair to say the Union have not gotten better. As Denny Green would say, “They are who we thought they were.”

But there is a bright side. It turns out the Eastern Conference is exactly what we thought it was too: A crap shoot. Fourth through seventh place are separated by a total of three points, and any dip in form by Montreal, New York, or Kansas City could, almost absurdly, put their playoff hopes in jeopardy. So if you hate the cliche, “Must-win game,” I’m sorry. That’s what Saturday’s match-up is for both teams. In fact, that’s what the last three home games are for the Union. Must-win against Houston, must-win against Toronto, and must-win against Sporting Kansas City.

Creativity, absence be thy name

If I told you I had a central midfielder that completes 87% of his passes on the road? Would you be interested?

It is hard to argue against Keon Daniel’s recent play when you look at the stats. 41 of 47 passing against San Jose with 3 key passes and a successful cross. Five tackles and six recoveries. Only dispossessed seven times.

Daniel and Carroll successful passes vs SJ

Daniel and Carroll successful passes vs SJ

But only 14 of those 41 completed passes went to offensive players. This fact is not damning in itself; it is the pairing with Brian Carroll that makes these unadventurous numbers an issue. Daniel and Carroll played zero balls into the box against San Jose. Wait, against ten-man San Jose who lost a central midfielder to a red card.

Furthermore, the two men in the middle completed a combined nine passes in the final third, only four of which went forward.

It is simplistic to heap blame for these worrying statistics on Daniel and Carroll alone. Philadelphia’s entire offense was discombobulated and has been for some time. The total absence of any passes on the left side of the pitch speaks to Sebastien Le Toux’s wanderlust and Fabinho’s strong preference for the early cross over the penetrating run. Danny Cruz completed a single pass in a position deeper than ten yards from the half line. Jack McInerney continued to ball watch instead of move. Everyone was impatient, anxious, and forcing play.

Daniel and Carroll successful passes vs MTL

Daniel and Carroll successful passes vs MTL

All that said, this display was no off-night for Daniel and Carroll. Au contraire, it is the norm. A passing chart from the last home game against Montreal shows a duo content to play a simple game and distribute to the wings before the team enters the final third.

Adjusting to adjustments

Once again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this type of soccer. It is the context in which it is being played that creates the issues the Union are struggling to overcome. Think back to those early games when McInerney was on fire, or even towards the middle of the season when Le Toux emerged as a legitimate winger on the right. The Union style, though never pretty, was exemplified by a team that could get in behind defenses, cause havoc, and crash the box. It is safe to say that Danny Cruz earned his starting spot by slipping behind the opposition with regularity, and Hackworth — like many others — believed his winger was a final touch away from becoming a consistent offensive threat.

These offensive issues are indicative of a larger point: The Union have not made adjustments as teams have adjusted to them. The high defensive lines and slow paced games that turned on a single moment of brilliance have given way to counterattacks looking to catch Philadelphia’s disorganized midfield pushed too far up.

Dynamo duds

The Houston Dynamo seem to be dealing with a similar issue. Dom Kinnear might be the best personnel manager is MLS, and his ability to rotate players in and out of the lineup as they hit a good vein of form has elevated many a mediocre Houston side to MLS Cup challenger. Calen Carr and Adam Moffat on a MLS final team, you say? Color me incredulous.

In early July, the Dynamo appeared poised for another stunning late season surge. They took points off every team close to them in the standings, beating Philly, Columbus and New England and drawing with Chicago. The past four games have been a dismal return to Earth: Montreal and New York beat their chests and scored a combined nine goals on a suddenly hapless Dynamo back line.

NY goals and assists vs HOU

NY goals and assists vs HOU

Everything came to a head last week when three of New York’s four goals were scored from midfield, something guaranteed to drive Kinnear crazy. Even more worrying, New York was able to penetrate the Houston box with ease. Three of the Red Bulls goals were shots from inside the eighteen, and three goals were assisted by passes through the middle. Those final passes are not supposed to happen against the Dynamo. Kinnear’s diamond system is built to force the opposition to the wings, where their crosses must elude the sizable Bobby Boswell and Walter Creavalle.

Kinnear magic?

How will the Dynamo respond to last week’s drubbing? It’s unclear. With six goals apiece, Will Bruin and Giles Barnes have proved capable but unreliable up top. Calen Carr and Omar Cummings saw reserve team action last weekend and got on the scoreboard, but neither seems ready to start.

With his striking choices limited, Kinnear may opt for a more conservative approach in Philadelphia and hope to punish the Union on the counterattack and on set pieces. A five man midfield is not Houston’s bread and butter, but it is not out of the question. Kinnear showed something of a hybrid 4-5-1/4-2-4 against New York, so he may be more inclined to play it safe after seeing the disastrous results of that attacking-minded experiment.

Changes in store?

On Wednesday, John Hackworth suggested he was open to making changes to his preferred lineup. Amobi Okugo’s return would allow Sheanon Williams to return to the right and Ray Gaddis to push left, moving Fabinho up to the midfield. Sebastien Le Toux could shift back to the right where he has been much more effective and disciplined all season. These changes leave Danny Cruz on the bench, which gives Hackworth the opportunity to bring Cruz in as an energy sub a la Antoine Hoppenot. Cruz, along with Sheanon Williams, is one caution away from a suspension.

The other possible change, hinted at above, is removing Keon Daniel from the center of the park. In a match that all but requires a three point outcome, the Union should be aggressive offensively. This has not been Daniel’s strong suit during his run in the center. Michael Farfan and Kleberson are the obvious replacements, though neither has impressed this season. Still, both have the ability and the desire to spread the field and play in behind, and both will push the strikers further up the pitch as they occupy more forward positions.

An more unlikely move would be the insertion of Aaron Wheeler into the first eleven. Wheeler has been a revelation this season and his skill set perfectly fits the team the Union have become. If Hackworth is content to let his team pump crosses into the box, he needs to get American Andy Carroll in there to finish them. Conor Casey has run himself into the ground the past few weeks. Giving the veteran a rest for the first 45 minutes would be a creative move with minimal downside.

Prediction: Union 3-1 Houston

I know it has been said every week since mid-July, but it’s still true: Jack McInerney just needs one to go in to get back on track. And if he does, it opens up the Union’s options offensively. Inserting Farfan or Kleberson into the midfield should finally provide the service through the middle to match McInerney’s movement. Here’s to hoping.




  1. That starting 11 is glorious.
    But lets be honest there is 0% chance of us seeing that.

  2. Sexy line up.

  3. Reading your analysis of both teams sounds like this game is just begging to be won by the team that makes the right adjustments in the midfield and controls it. Unfortunately this does not bode well for us, as we have consistently made the wrong adjustments there all season.
    I really like the lineup proposed here, it would make some changes to inject energy, and totally change the normal mindset of the midfield. At the very least it cant be worse than what we’ve seen recently.
    I think Hack said there are 5 spots up for grabs right now. basically everyone not the backline/Carroll. Bsed on past choices and substitutions/comments made recently I have a horrible feeling about Hackworths lineup Saturday.
    Projected Lineup: (not preferred!)
    Williams, Okugo, Parke, Gaddis
    Marfan, Carroll, Daniel, Fernandes
    Le Toux, Casey

    • Southside Johnny says:

      “Horrible feeling” ? This is a nightmare.

      • Hack has been down on Jack now in his interviews for several weeks and has subbed him sooner and sooner. He loves Le Toux and Casey and has stuck by Keon no matter what. Also, he has never rated Kleberson. When we had all those guys missing he went to Fernandes several times. Tell me you can’t see this happening?

      • Jack is out of here as soon as his contract is expired if not sooner.

  4. Adam, I would pay double the ticket price to see your lineup! Although I’m not yet convinced about Wheeler, I see your point about resting Casey for a half. I just wouldn’t do it when moving around the other spots at the same time. If you put Casey in up top, it suddenly becomes seemingly more Hack-able to actually do it. Kleberson and Fabinho could really combine nicely in that lineup.

  5. I can’t imagine Reckless Danny’s place in the starting XI is up for grabs. Hack’s number one crush.

  6. John Hackworth’s idea of a shake-up is changing the pre-game drills!!!!! We’re talking about the most banal coach in MLS! The only reason he gave that BS about roster shake-up is because he knew Okugo was coming back and the roster has to change from last week, don’t fall for it fellow fans, we’ve all been paying attention too long! I’d like to propose another idea, I will donate $100 to the Union Youth Organization if Kleberson gets a start and either Daniel or Cruz sit. If we get enough fans to do this (since we’re small market) I can guarantee we’ll see lineup changes! Who’s with me?

  7. Bright side: no Boniek and no Moffatt. On the other side, why do we get the Geiger show?

  8. Ugh! We got Geigered…

  9. Phi played poorly for sure, but man was Geiger a cuntfuckle.

  10. Actually, MLS lists the match referee as Mark Kadlecik.

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