Match previews

Preview: Union vs. New England Revolution

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Who: Philadelphia Union vs New England Revolution
What: Regular season game
Where: PPL Park, Chester, Pa., USA
When: 7:00 pm, Saturday, May 17
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick
Referee: Ted Unkel; Linesman: Corey Parker, Craig Lowry; Fourth Official: Hilario Grajeda

The Union are set to face a very different New England team than the one they beat in March.

A rough start to the year saw the Union hand the Revolution their second loss in as many games on March 15th. Since then, Jay Heaps’ side has done a magnificent job of turning their season around and will be looking to extend their three-game winning streak in Chester this Saturday.

Contents under pressure

One of the biggest takeaways from Wednesday night’s win over Sporting Kansas City was how legitimately well-coached the Union looked. For the first time in a while, the Union seemed really well-prepared. A pragmatic game plan against the current MLS title holders netted them three points, the first time since mid-March they’ve come away with a win. They even did it without the services of Maurice Edu, who is currently at the US national team’s pre-World Cup camp.

Up until this game, the story all season for the Union had been how out of sync they look. All year, we’ve seen mistakes that seem to reek of everyone being on a different page. This week started out with rumors of Hackworth being fired, and it’s easy to see why. We’ve seen sloppy positioning errors on the backline, inconsistent build-up through the midfield, and forward play that’s lacking at best. The game against SKC was a completely different narrative than the one we’re used to. They didn’t play spectacular soccer. They didn’t have to be overly flashy. They defended well against one of the most dangerous attacking units in the league, picked their spots, and counterattacked.

Going further, they cut out a lot of the low points we’re used to seeing. How many times have we seen the team deflate after a goal or have a poor last 10 minutes or so of either half? Neither happened against Sporting. Quite the opposite, in fact: they responded ideally to Dom Dwyer’s goal by netting one of their own. After each goal, you could see the whole team rally around John Hackworth on the sideline. No matter what you think about the Union’s head coach, this game came down to the skillful execution of a solid game plan.

Bottled lightning

The issue for Hackworth and Co. now is how well he can reproduce this result at home.

The win against Kansas City was on the road against an adept offense. No offense to the coach, but just about anyone who comes into Livestrong Park is going to be looking to defend and counterattack. Will we see a similar playing style at home? It isn’t too difficult to imagine. New England are coming off of a 5-0 rout in Seattle; they’re no slouches going forward either. It may come down to how willing the Union are to come out looking like an away side in their own building.

If Hackworth decides to play more open and attacking, will he be able to solve New England like he did Kansas City? The Union have struggled creating chances this year when trying to play a more aggressive style of soccer, and much of their woes so far this season have come from pulling themselves out of shape in the attack. Factor in the fact that New England are a top tier counterattacking force in their own right, and full-on aggression becomes less appealing.

Building steam

New England started out the season with back to back losses against Eastern Conference competition. A less than ideal start for the Revs, to be sure. Since then, however, they have improved every week, culminating in last Saturday’s 5-0 romp that left top of the table Seattle thoroughly shamed. They’ve gone through a number of experimental lineup changes, almost rebuilding the lineup back to front on more than one occasion. Some of these changes have been out of necessity, arising from injuries to Jose Gonçalves or Kelyn Rowe, for example. (Goncalves could play this weekend, however.) Some have been tactical. Teal Bunbury has been pretty much all over the field, recently settling on splitting time between the right flank and striker.

More than anything, this shows a team with depth. They can adapt well and have shown themselves capable of containing even the most explosive offenses. They’re currently sitting on a five-game unbeaten streak and a three-game win streak, having recently toppled Kansas City, Toronto, and Seattle.

The onus will be on the players to stay disciplined formation-wise against a team that can so quickly turn the tide of a game. Pay special attention to how Heaps adjusts his team at halftime and how Hackworth responds. Even with the best laid game plan, hours of examining film, and a full week of preparation, the Revolution have shown they’re a team that can force you to find another gear to shift into if you want to beat them, and Hackworth and Co. are working with a two-day layoff between games. It would be a tough task for any team.

Diffusing the counterattack

A major concern for the Union is going to be how they handle the Revolution counterattack. Simply put, this seems like an unfavorable matchup for Philly. The Union are a team that likes to probe in the center of the field to look for space out wide. They play a 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1) with fullbacks that push high up the field; it’s essentially the most open, unguarded space on either corner you can possibly give an opposing team. The Revolution love to absorb attacks and then quickly get the ball to the feet of Bunbury, Diego Fagundez, or Lee Nguyen. If New England can force you into a three-on-three situation in your own end, they’re already most of the way to scoring.

If the Union want to contain a counterattack like this, they need to stop pushing their wingbacks so high up the field. Whoever starts at the left and right back spots — a real question with Fabinho’s one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation — will need to be okay with being relegated to the outlet man in the offense. New England is too good at exploiting holes for them to be pushed as high up the field as the Union might like.

The next important area is hold-up play. Without as much going on up the wings, the Union need more success moving the ball through the middle, and for that they need a solid performance out of Andrew Wenger. If Wenger is able to roam up top, get to space on the wings to supplement the absence of the wingbacks, and be a nuisance to New England’s backline, then he can keep them honest. He has to be involved in the offense outside of the final pass. Wenger should be popping up in different areas to force A.J. Soares, Darrius Barnes, and even Andy Dorman to be constantly looking over their shoulders to keep track of him. Pulling them out of position or sucking them over to one side is what creates space for players like Vincent Nogueira or Cristian Maidana.

The other, less exciting way to undo the Revolution counterattack would be to shore up the middle. While the possibility is remote given Fabinho’s suspension, the Union could conceivably start both Amobi Okugo and Brian Carroll in the midfield, effectively inverting their midfield triangle with two defensive midfielders, though this assumes Carroll will be game fit by Saturday. With Okugo the more adept attacker of the two, Carroll could slide into the backline when the wingbacks push up, providing cover and allowing Williams or Berry to slide over into the unoccupied fullback position while on the attack.

The Union coaching staff have their work cut out for them to bring down an in-form New England.

Prediction: Union 1 – 1 Revolution

The Union are riding high on their victory from Wednesday night, and they will likely show on the field. A team that can avoid forcing the offense like they usually do and look instead to exploit the mistakes of their opponents, could be very successful. Expect a more defensive game from both sides. New England will probably score at least one through their deadly counterattack.

If Brian Carroll is healthy, expect him to start. If not, look for similar backline as Wednesday night, with Okugo working his magic in the midfield. Pay special attention to how well Wenger lines up against this center back pairing, and how both coaches adjust during halftime.


  1. I don’t know about anyone else but I would much rather see Zach Pfeffer on the roster than Corbin Bone. Union holding on to a precious 1 goal lead and he comes in and immediately jeopardizes everything. What is his story and what exactly does he bring to the Union?

    • He flopped in Chicago and it’s pretty clear to see why. 2 bad fouls in 20 seconds, I’d prefer to never see him in a union jersey again. He should’ve been sent to USL Pro.

      • Pat Glavin says:

        Might be difficult for him to get playing time there, to be honest. He’d have to displace Yann Ekra or Cristhian Hernandez.

  2. I want to see Okugo at D-Mid, like most people, but will he be able to do it again on two days’ rest? He had to cover much more ground in KC than he has in a long time; will he recover in time? Of course, if Carroll’s not fit to to Saturday, there might not be much choice — who is the sixth-string D-mid, anyway? Is Greg Jordan still around?

    • hobosocks says:

      I believe Jordan is in the NASL now. Its pretty crazy that the one position we have the most covered in d-mid (Carroll, Edu, Lahoud, Okugo) is now the one we’re struggling with.

      That said, Noguiera could definitely play there if needed. You could play someone else on the right. Le Toux or one of the younger guys. Probably bad for offense, but still possible.

  3. LeToux has played fullback before. It is not ideal, but if he can play on the wing, that would let us keep the Williams/Berry combo in the middle, with Gaddis shutting down his side. That also let’s Amobi play his natural spot.
    Due to suspensions, injuries, and WC duty, this is the PERFECT time to get the young guys into the gameday 18. They may not start, but let’s get Pfeffer, Hernadez, McLaughlin, et al., on the bench, and possibly on the field. This is the time to find the depth, since we’re being forced to find it.
    There is an opportunity here. Let’s see if it is seized.

    • The roster on the Union website is showing McLaughlin and Hernandez both as ‘Inactive’. Marquez and Ribeiro, on the other hand, are ‘Active’. Hmm.

      • Pat Glavin says:

        Which is weird, since Marquez has started for Harrisburg since the season opened. He just played on Wednesday in their USOC game.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        Both have played well in Harrisburg, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re both in the 18 for the Union.

    • John Ling says:

      Agreed – Pfeffer is, in my opinion, a better bench option than Bone going forward. I would prefer to release Bone, frankly. But if not, he should never see the game day 18 again.

  4. “and if we win today that is CALLED two in a row.”
    Lou Brown, Major League

  5. That score is a wish. Think we will loose 3-0

    • The Black Hand says:

      If we put Okugo back at CB and role with Carroll, a 1-1 draw is optimistic. We have seen this XI and it has sucked…to put it mildly. A move like that is completely worthy of boos raining down from the “arena”.
      If Hackworth reverts back to the ‘bullshit’ that he fed us last year, he needs to get the axe and he can take the snake (Sak) with him.

  6. River Schuylkill says:

    “No matter what you think about the Union’s head coach, this game came down to the skillful execution of a solid game plan.”

    Agreed. But then again, it took until the 12th game of the season for anyone to actually be able to say this. Defend-and-counter should be the tactical approach going forward, passing-and-possessing has not yielded results.

    Just win, baby

  7. Union Fans says:

    Screw Hack, Fire Sak! Not another $$ from me as long as Sak remains in control.

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