Match previews

Preview: Union at DC United

Photo: Michael Long

Who: Philadelphia Union at DC United
What: MLS Regular Season
Where: RFK Stadium
When: Saturday, October 12 at 7:00 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live
Referee: Edvin Jurisevic; Linesmen: CJ Morgante, Matthew Kreitzer; Fourth official: Robert Sibiga

Last September, DC United came into PPL Park in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. A win, coupled with a few good breaks, would vault them over Houston and Columbus and into playoff position. The Philadelphia Union were riding a seven-game winless streak, but fans provided their ever-present vocals in the hopes that the magnitude of the rivalry would inspire their team. It was not to be.

Lionard Pajoy (of course) tallied the only goal of the match, and DC slipped into the playoffs, kicking mud on the Union in the process.

Now the Blue and Gold travel south to see if they can grind out the same kind of late season points their rivals earned last year. They will face a team with nothing to lose; United is coming off a confounding loss in which they seemingly outplayed Chicago in every way but lost by three (three!). The Union will need to score early or risk finding themselves in the same situation they did last week: In need of a Hail Mary as the clock expires.

So the big questions on the table:

  1. How can the Union replicate the positives of last weekend’s win while minimizing the negatives?
  2. Do the Union treat this game like a typical away match, or come out like a home team?
  3. Is Kleberson deserving of a starting nod (and, if so, where)?
  4. Finally, who the heck is going to play defense?
The positives: Farfan finds his footing

Michael Farfan made the midfield useful. And as all Union observers will readily admit, ‘useful’ is a gigantic step forward. The differences in style between Farfan and Keon Daniel, who occupied the same spot during the Union’s five-match winless run prior to the Kansas City victory, are minor but still notable.

Against Toronto, Farfan filled two crucial roles that the Union were sorely missing. On the ball, his passing was more exploratory and creative. While the young midfielder struggled to assert himself on the road at KC, a weaker Toronto midfield helped Farfan get more involved. His passing chart shows a desire to switch play and get one of the Union’s most offensively talented players — Sheanon Williams — involved early and often.

Additionally, Farfan’s off-the-ball movement was much improved over previous appearances. One of the biggest struggles for the Union has been offering an outlet for the wingers. Philly’s central midfield often plays so deep that outlet balls to the wings leave the wide players stranded and forced to go backwards or take defenders on.

Farfan v TOR (L) & Daniel v SJ (R)

Farfan v TOR (L) & Daniel v SJ (R)

Comparing Farfan’s performance against Toronto to one of Daniel’s best showings in the middle of the pitch gives a fairly clear picture of what the former brings to the table. Heat maps show that Farfan not only occupies a more forward role, which forces the opposing midfield to sit deeper, but he leans to the right, offering an outlet for Sheanon Williams and Danny Cruz. In fact, Cruz sent more passes to Farfan last Saturday (7) than he sent to Keon Daniel in the San Jose and Houston matches combined (6).

Using their playmaker in a slightly askew role suits the Union’s offense.

Both Fabinho and Danny Cruz are fairly predictable players. Under pressure, Fabinho will put his head down and try to work into a position to send in a cross. In the same situation, Cruz will run at defenders and attempt to draw a foul. Cruz prefers to draw his defender in so he can beat him for speed. This is made much easier if a central midfielder comes over to play the ball behind the defense. Cruz is a speedy dribbler in the open field, but the MLS chalkboards have him at one successful dribble (or take-on) in his last eight. In other words, playing him in behind is probably the best way to get him where he wants to go.

Farfan’s work offering an outlet to Cruz inadvertently highlights the other new twist he has brought to the Union offense: The desire to play balls in behind. You may argue about how effective Farfan is as a playmaker, but you can’t argue with the fact that the Union had no way to get the ball in behind a defense during their run of one goal in five games.

Farfan v TOR (L) & Daniel v SJ (R)

Farfan v TOR (L) & Daniel v SJ (R)

Now examine Farfan’s passing chart from the Toronto match compared to Daniel’s against San Jose. Keon was a standout performer against San Jose, getting on the ball often and in fairly dangerous positions. But he preferred to spread the ball wide, almost square, never finding the angles that would disrupt a defense.

Not only did Farfan look behind the defense more often against Toronto, he did it from a variety of dangerous spots near the opponent’s final third. While passing accuracy remains one of the most important statistics for a midfield player, signalling your intent to get behind a defense must factor into the equation. Even if it means a few stray balls tumble over the touchline, it forces the defense back and creates space in the middle.

Against Toronto, the Union finally pressed a defense back, though they rarely were able to exploit the leftover space in the midfield. Hey, even a small step forward is a positive at this point.

The positives: MacMagic

Confident. Strong. In control. What else can you say? Right now, Zac MacMath is a goalie worthy of a playoff appearance.

Home tactics?

John Hackworth could revert to a 4-2-3-1 at DC United. It’s a safe traveling formation that allows the Union to address the threats of De Rosario (if he hadn’t been called up by Canada) and Luis Silva, who both like to drop into midfield to create. However, such a conservative formation — and make no mistake, either combination of Brian Carroll and Lahoud/Daniel in a double-pivot will produce a conservative team going forward — hands the initiative to DC United. Philly will be on the back foot from the opening whistle and will rely on DC to make mistakes as much as they will rely on their own talent to produce results.

So the question is: Can the Union settle for one point on the road? Not if they want to control their own destiny. Right now, any dropped points will invite Chicago to dance with the Union’s playoff date. The Fire finish against struggling Dallas, ever-struggling Toronto, and a possibly unmotivated/superstar-resting New York. The Union need to go for a win against DC.

So expect a 4-4-2 diamond with Michael Farfan doing his best to pull the strings once again. It won’t be so easy against Perry Kitchen, but the DC defensive middie is, like Farfan, one yellow card away from a suspension, and he and Farfan have clashed in the past. Marfan should be up for this one.

That about answers question No. 3

So if you’ve been following, you should already know the answer to this one: Should Kleberson start?


Does a basketball team start their scrawny three-point specialist just because he hit a big three on a set play late in the previous game?

The only way Kleberson will start is if John Hackworth panics and moves Michael Farfan to right back to cover for the absent Sheanon Williams. Is this a possibility? Oh, you bet. But it really shouldn’t happen.

The Union are a thin team, and this dilemma (or one like it) was bound to come up at some point in the season. It’s Kassel or Lahoud in the back. Anything less would be uncivilized.

The DC side

At this point, you know all the names in black and red. Silva will support either Lewis Neale or Conor Doyle. Chris Pontius should be involved, and Jared Jeffrey will be relied upon to pull the strings from the middle (which he did wonderfully last week). Perry Kitchen will be the handyman cleaning up all the messes in front of a back line that makes the cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia look competent.

The United back four against Chicago was James Riley, Daniel Woolard, Perry Kitchen, and Sainey Nyassi. I know it sounds like I just pulled four random names off the United roster web page, but no. That’s an actual back line in a professional soccer match. For actual points. In front of actual, money-paying people.

With John Thorrington out for the rest of the season, it’s unclear how Ben Olsen can keep Perry Kitchen out of the midfield. DC’s injury situation doesn’t offer a clear picture of who will be available in the back. Ethan White should be in the middle next to Woolard, and Riley will continue on the outside. But Sainey Nyassi is a fullback like the Philly Daily News is a good place to get your soccer fix. It’s more likely that Olsen will turn to Impact reject Dennis Iapichino, meaning the Union can expect a particularly disjointed back four that should leave spaces both between and behind defenders.

Prediction: Union 2-1 United

Come on, Jack! How many times can I predict you’ll get one before it comes true. If this keeps up, I’ll start to think I’m the problem.




  1. Hmmmm. I’m seeing Sebastien at right back on Saturday. But I’m off my meds.

    • Me too, actually. And I can’t even blame the meds.

      • While it’s not my first choice – or second, for that matter – I don’t think it’s the worst option. Le Toux has the work rate and stamina to run the sideline like Williams does, and his crosses have been good most of the year (though lacking a bit lately). Of their midfielders, he’s certainly not the worst defender, either.
        That said, I would actually be surprised if he ends up as the RB choice.

      • Letoux seems like the best of a bunch of bad ideas.

      • I’m not so sure. My first choice would be Lahoud, given he has experience there. But assuming he’s still hurt, that’s not a real option. My second choice would be Farfan – I think he has more strengths to offer in that position than Le Toux.
        Le Toux is probably third on my list, maybe 4th depending on Anding.

      • At the moment Lahoud is a black hole. He has been injured, he isn’t in game shape and he is a red card waiting to happen.
        I would take Letoux over him easy.

      • *shrug* Different opinions are what make this fun.
        Throw away Lahoud and I’d still take Farfan in that spot over Le Toux.
        Tomorrow is my 25th year high school reunion. Guess I’ll be frantically checking my phone, first for the lineup and then for updates through the game…

  2. I expect Philly to put DC to the sword and break the record for most goals scored in an MLS game

  3. We’ve got to capitalize on DC’s inevitable mistakes and play gritty, tough defense to get this win.
    Unfortunately, Farfan is our toughest, grittiest option at RB for this game. He played fairly well there in a couple of starts in his first year. I’d be fine with Daniel at CM for this game if he plays some defense. Put Le Toux on the right to shield Farfan a bit, moving Cruz to the left.
    JackMac – Casey
    Cruz – Daniel – Carroll – Le Toux
    Gaddis – Parke – Okugo – Marfan

  4. I’m just curious… I haven’t heard any mention of Albright. Have we written him off as a viable option? Is he injured? Is he now just used for PR purposes? Is there any possibility for this back four?

  5. Judging by our recent history I am predicting a 1-0 score. I am just not predicting a winner.

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