Match previews

Preview: Union vs Real Salt Lake

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Real Salt Lake
What: Regular season game
Where: PPL Park, Chester, PA USA
When: 4 pm, Saturday, April 12
Watch: 6abc, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Referee: Allen Kelly. Linesmen: Adam Wienckowski, Brian Dunn. Fourth official: Silviu Petrescu.

Another Saturday, another pair of points thrown away late. In 2013, the much maligned Union defense held onto all but 7 points when the team had the lead at halftime (one loss and two ties). This year the team has gone into the break with the lead three times and come out with a win only once, leaving four points in the wind.

It won’t be particularly easy to make those points up over the next week. With three games in eight days, the Union are already in danger of losing the momentum from a successful off-season. Following this weekend’s match-up with Real Salt Lake, the Philly travels to New York midweek before returning to PPL Park for a showdown with the maddeningly consistent Houston Dynamo.

Intrigue in the middle

Real Salt Lake promises to be an interesting tactical battle for John Hackworth and company. There are no tricks or gimmicks in the RSL approach: The plan is simply to put the best players in their most effective positions and let them succeed. Thus, Kyle Beckerman, ball hawk extraordinaire, and Javier Morales sit at the bottom and top of a diamond midfield respectively. The underrated Ned Grabavoy has flourished in a somewhat wide midfielder role specifically because he compliments the big guns down the center, while Luis Gil seems alternatingly like a world-beater or a lost puppy depending on how much defensive work he is asked to do.

Morales vs TOR

Morales vs TOR

The most intriguing part of this game will be down the pipe. Even with the fresh, new faces in midfield, Philly defaulted to a more defensive set against Chicago, with Brian Carroll playing increasingly deep behind Mo Edu. The result was something like a prevent defense in football. The thinking behind a prevent defense is that giving up space minimizes the possibility of a big play. The catch, of course, is that big plays are hard and unlikely. So focusing on them is a bit like building an asteroid-proof house with no locks on the doors; your priorities are off.

If BC is once again sucked into a deeper role, Real Salt Lake will exploit the holes in the Union midfield. The RSL diamond runs on overload: Beckerman puts the ball out to Gil or Grabavoy as the outside back overlaps. If nobody follows the outside back, RSL now has two men in space and can create time and holes as Javier Morales moves out of the center to find pockets of space. And Morales has become very, very good at finding pockets of space.

Morales mo’ problems

As Matt Doyle outlines here, Morales prefers to drift left. But the emergence of Gil and Grabavoy has given the playmaker smart runners around him that read his play and move, and so far this season he has been equally adept at slipping out to the left or right.

Morales vs KC (L) and vs TOR (R)

Morales vs KC (L) and vs TOR (R)

All of this is to say that backing off in midfield creates a waterfall effect that plays into the visitors’ hands. Morales’ skill at playing balls through makes the midfield back off to cover lanes, backing off allows the RSL outside backs to step up, and boom – control of the pitch. This is exactly what happened when Salt Lake demolished Toronto earlier this year.

Stealing from the champs

Sporting Kansas City — ye olde hated rival — employed a proactive approach against Salt Lake last week and dominated the match, putting 8 shots on goal. The 2014 Union have the personnel to employ a similar system, but it means some tough decisions for the man in the big chair.

Sporting Kansas City features two athletic, aggressive fullbacks in Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic. Few would put Ray Gaddis among MLS’ elite, but in terms of aggressiveness and athleticism, few can rival the West Virginia product. By keeping their fullbacks extremely high, Sporting KC closed the space that RSL normally uses to build attacks. Those overloads that open up when the RSL backs join the attack weren’t there, and Grabavoy and Gil were too narrow to take advantage of the space Sinovic and Myers left behind. Remember: Kyle Beckerman is a good passer, but he’d rather cycle possession than dink cutesy balls in behind.

Sporting KC pushed their fullbacks high to close the spaces RSL likes to own.

Sporting KC pushed their fullbacks high to close the spaces RSL likes to own.

Without those mismatches in wide areas, Morales struggles to get involved in the areas directly in front of the back line that force defenders to step up and open space behind. He comes deeper and becomes less threatening (though, come on, he’s always a threat).

Drop Carroll to press Beckerman

The other change that should be made is one that has been much discussed this season and last. The coverage that Brian Carroll gives the Union is less important against a team that will build slowly. Instead of playing with a center fielder, the Union should switch their midfield triangle and add Leo Fernandes as a central player next to Vincent Nogueira. This puts pressure on Beckerman and forces RSL to play quickly, a tactic that benefits Maurice Edu, who can range all over the pitch closing down gaps.

Additionally, playing with two forward midfielders better links the front line to the midfield. Minimizing the space between the Union’s forward players and midfield is essential to keep Salt Lake from controlling the game. It also allows Nogueira and his partner to play simpler balls into the wide areas behind the RSL defense.

Cancel the crosses

Those wide gaps must, must be exploited. Whether it is Sebastien Le Toux, a healthy Danny Cruz, Cristian Maidana, or a wild card, the Union need to be able to play quick balls into wide areas and follow the play. But whoa there, Fabinho! Just because RSL’s soft spot is in wide areas does not mean crosses are the color of the season. The boys from Utah have been surprisingly weak defending corner kicks, but stout as ever against crosses. KC connected on zero of their 17 crosses from wide areas (though, as mentioned above, they did get on the end of two corners).

Patience in the final third is the name of the game against RSL. Against a team with many positionally sound defenders, patience is often the only way through. Borchers and Shuler can wear a team down with their discipline, so it takes good movement and ideas to break them down. This has, of course, been the Union’s achilles heel, well, pretty much since they entered MLS. They will have to put together a few good, controlled possessions in the RSL end if they want to assure victory.

Prediction: Union 0-0 RSL

None of this is to say the Union can’t score on a counterattack. Instead, it is meant to emphasize that, if they rely on the counter against Real Salt Lake, they will also be subjected to long periods of visitor possession and may lapse into a prevent defense. And that is not the right policy for a team that allowed 57% of their goals against in the final 30 minutes in 2013 and has already allowed half their goals in the final ten minutes this year.

A goalless tie is less than ideal, but for the Union it is better than any other kind of tie at this point. The defense needs to show they can keep a clean sheet against a quality opponent, and the offense minus its best weapon (yes, that’s Jack McInerney) has to start all over in terms of gaining an understanding and high level of play.

Union vs RSL

Union vs RSL


  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    I’m done with ties. Get 3 points this weekend. Get this wobbly train back on track.
    As always though… excellent preview.

  2. Putting Williams on the left is crazy. Take the best RB in the league and… give him a brand new position?! Leave Ray over there. He has experience on that side and does a creditable job. Plus if Berry comes back we don’t need to screw with anything else in the back.

    • I’m not advocating the Williams switch, just offering a plausible alternative. I’m with you – Sheanon is as good as it gets in MLS. But the difference between RightRay and LeftRay has been a big, big difference. Will it be as big as the difference between RightSheanon and LeftSheanon? That’s an important thing to figure out. Because right now there are no really good answers at LB.

      • One thing about having Gaddis on the left is that it gives Maidana more space to work with in the left midfield. Fabinho would cramp his space on the sideline. That’s why Maidana and Le Toux would switch sides for most of the game–Maidana likes to be wide, and he couldn’t do that with Fabinho on the left. Le Toux would rather be inside anyway, so he and Fabinho were a good fit on the left (as long as someone was there to cover defensively).

      • The Black Hand says:

        I’m a proponent for the Williams/Gaddis shift, but you have just raised a very good point. Maidan a has been getting choked out by Fabinho’s pressing upfield. Ray would give more space for Chaco and we could really use him being involved more.

  3. The only thing that keeps Carroll off the field apparently is the flu. I’m still not sure why Edu was brought in if Hack is going to keep putting Carroll out there.

    • Exactly, I made that comment watching a game at a bar and someone said, “We didn’t pay all that money for a DM”. SMH…

  4. “There are no tricks or gimmicks in the RSL approach: The plan is simply to put the best players in their most effective positions and let them succeed. ”

    Yeah, we don’t do that here.

    • But when you base your strategy around “versatile” players they don’t actually have a best position.

      • I’ll disagree with that to a degree. Sheanon Williams is versatile, but he’s strongest at RB. Most good players can appear versatile because they’ll still be better than the rest no matter where you put them. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t be much, much better if you put them where they are most comfortable. Just look at Mascherano at Barca. Great Dmid, still good at CB, but not a world-beater.

        But your point is taken – there has to be a balance between getting guys in their most comfortable positions and getting the best XI on the pitch. That’s why roster management is so key – Those two motivations should result in the same lineup if you’ve built your roster really well.

  5. Too bad we don’t have players versatile enough to actually play soccer! Wheeler isn’t playing defense because he’s a good striker and we have a great striker and want Wheeler on the field at all costs. Nope, Wheeler’s playing defense bc the FO sucks and can’t seem to draft or trade for a CB that’s any good.

    I cannot believe that Ribiero, arguably the most exciting midfielder in preseason, is playing CB at HCI. Huh?!? Okugo version 2, I guess. Because that’s worked out so well and Okugo’s been capped by Klinnsman. Oh, wait…

    Leo seems pretty good. But do we really think that Hackworth has found a diamond in the rough? I highly doubt it. Like JackMac last year, no one is paying attention to Leo so he’s scored a couple goals. It’ll dry up from here on out, I bet.

    A real FO and coach would have gotten us a starting CB, a starting LB, a starting CAM, and starting forward in the last offseason. Instead, we got a goalie (we already had one), two DM’s (we already had one), and Maidana who looks as slow as molasses out there.

    I predict that our record over the next 3 games will be 0-2-1, and the only team we’ll tie will be NY. I’ll be there for both home games though!


    • we’re doomed

    • Don’t forget, the sky is falling too!

      • And there’s radon in the ground, and arsenic in the water. The planet is being bombarded with solar rays and big fast food chains try to make cheesesteaks. I’m done!

      • The Black Hand says:

        Don’t forget the poisonous GMO’s that we are eating daily!

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Were you to have read the HCI website more carefully, you would have noticed that HCI had multiple casualties in their defense, and perhaps concluded that Ribiero was an emergency replacement. Like you, I noticed he did well in the pre-draft tournament as a central midfielder. Even more interesting was the preseason game when he played striker and he, Fred and Leo combined to score the tying goal. I would guess he’s at HCI for a while to gain the experience of a higher level of play than the NCAA. The NCAA no longer seems to produce central channel creators who start immediately in MLS; defenders, yes; flankers, yes; keepers, yes. But central creators, no longer, if ever. The league is getting better.

    • Yikes. With the sky falling and GMOs in our Union Dogs, can the U just forfeit tomorrow?

      I’ll spot you LB, but do think they made moves to address CB. They acquired Berry, a young CB who is definitely starter quality. They also picked up a young CB to add depth (White), and drafted a few depth options hoping one would pan out (Marquez).

      I don’t think it’s a reach to think Nogueira can be a CAM in MLS either. The technical ability, work rate, and strength on the ball are there. And forward just didn’t seem like an issue in the offseason given Jack and Conor Casey’s performance last year, along with LeToux as a 3rd option. Given the 4-3-3 formation with one striker, I don’t think anyone saw that position as a weak link a few months ago. I know that has since changed given Jack’s slow start and subsequent trade of course.

  6. Our backline is the only aspect of our squad that shouldn’t be in question. LeftRay/Berry/Okugo/Williams should be our A1 backline and I don’t know why anyone is even considering anything else.

    As for the other 6 dudes, who the hell knows. I think Le Toux’s time in the XI is over. Besides that thought I don’t really know what else to suggest. BC this, BC that, there’s really no point in arguing. Hack is going to start BC as long as he has a pulse. That is a fact.

    Edu looked sloppy in Chicago so I’m hoping a game back at PPL will calm him down. This is also the game where Nog. needs to find his offensive feet. He has a few games under his belt, it’s time for him to perform. Above all else, we need selfish play in the final third. Love the combination play but like Hack has been saying, the boys need to start getting greedy. Hopefully Wenger will start that trend…even though Casey is going to be in the XI.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Wheeler made one disastrous mistake; he knew he had to do something but guessed wrongly, as Gaddis did last season when shoved, giving the RSL stoppage time tying PK. If Edu goes to Brazil, Wheeler and Berry in the central backfield would allow Okugo to move into Edu’s spot in the midfield, leaving Nogueira further forward as he is now.

      • Wheeler was making many, many mistakes. The only reason he was on the field was due to referee leniency.

      • “If Edu goes to Brazil” — isn’t that a moot point, since MLS is going on hiatus for the World Cup?

  7. I feel much better about this game after finding out Rimando and Plata are both going to miss it through injury. There are a bunch of other RSL guys that aren’t 100% that might miss out as well. It might seem unsportsmanlike to be happy that the opposition will be missing key guys but I’ll take what I can get

  8. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Adam says the key to the game is to pressure Beckerman. Refer to the latest USA-Mexico game, the tale of two halves. In the first half, Mexico played one striker, the center backs controlled, Beckerman cleaned up messes and started the attack, and Bradley ran wild. In the second half, Mexico played two strikers, the US center backs did not control, Beckerman had to scurry to help against pressure, and Bradley was ordinary. So, against RSL, pressure Beckerman. Who plays out wide left if Fernandes is the second forward vertex of the high pressure-oriented midfield triangle?

    • That’s a great point I didn’t even cover. I had a running theme of “be proactive and pressure.” I should have taken that to its logical conclusion of: Consider a two-striker set to pull Beckerman around. That’s another interesting way to achieve the same goal of disrupting the RSL system. Thanks for pointing that out.

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