Match previews

Preview: Union vs Vancouver Whitecaps

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
What: Regular season game
Where: PPL PArk, Chester, Pa., USA
When: 7 pm, Saturday, June 7
Watch: TCN, MLS Direct Kick, MLS Live
Whistle: Jose Carlos Rivero; Linesmen: Jeff Muschik, Danny Thornberry; Fourth Official: Mark Kadlecik

After waltzing through a team that plays soccer exactly the way an exciting team doesn’t, the Philadelphia Union must batten down the hatches for a Vancouver Whitecaps side that has scored fewer than two goals just once in their past six games.

Mired in mediocrity since arriving in MLS, the Caps brought in a new coach, stopped hedging their bets on the youth system, and are reaping the benefits of a group of players that excel in a wide open, fast-paced offensive system.

Since their last loss on April 12, the Whitecaps have collected more points than everyone in MLS beyond conference leaders New England and Seattle. They are the only team without a loss over that span, and they are doing it with a squad that is only dipping a toe into their collective pool of talent.

In their 4-3 victory over Portland, Pedro Morales was the only player in front of the back four older than 24. Erik Hurtado, the fifth pick in the 2013 SuperDraft, fought off former No. 2 overall pick Darren Mattocks and former No. 1 overall pick Omar Salgado to earn the start up top. Vancouver is stacked — just stacked — with young attackers.

But youth is a blessing and a curse. While Vancouver has rocketed up the standings, they remain far from a finished product. Along with 14 goals scored, the Caps have given up 11. They have been largely unable to adjust their freestyle attack to road matches, where they had scored only four goals all season before nailing four (including two penalties) onto Portland’s sorry defense.

In short, this is the perfect test for a Union defense boosted by an organized shutout over Chivas. The Caps will attack with speed and with numbers, and Philadelphia will need to double down on the structural lessons learned from a beat down loss and a pick-me-up win out west.

The light goes on for Gershon Koffie after the first half (top) vs Columbus.

The light goes on for Gershon Koffie after the first half (top) vs Columbus.

What has clicked for the Caps?

Everything. Especially over the past three matches. After losing to Colorado and LA in early April, Vancouver earned a pair of 2-2 ties and outscored a sputtering San Jose offense 3-2. Up to that point in the season, the Caps had accumulated no more than 12 key passes in a single match. In the last three, they have tallied 17, 18, and 15.

A closer examination points to the improved play of Gershon Koffie in midfield as the catalyst for the Canadian squad’s current surge. Koffie has been playing with more positional discipline, and he has found a rhythm with partner Matias Laba. The prodigiously skilled Koffie has a tendency to freelance, forcing passes into tight areas and chasing counterattacks deep rather than finding a good position around the box. Lately, that trend has reversed. In his past two games, Koffie is completing 91% of his passes, well above his season average of 82.4%.

The light seemed to have come on during a 1-0 win over Columbus on May 10. In the first half, Koffie was chasing the ball and vacating the middle of the park. In the latter 45, he remained central, filling gaps behind the attackers and playing two key passes.

Koffie’s good form has a lot to do with his best midfield partner, the previously mentioned Laba. Though smaller than Koffie, Laba does the dirty work in the midfield, putting in tackles and covering when his energetic partner gallops too far upfield. Laba and Koffie have developed the type of midfield chemistry Union fans hope to see between Vincent Nogueira and Maurice Edu (… and Amobi Okugo). They find each other quickly to get out of trouble and look to start attacks at pace. Their strong play is the backbone for Vancouver’s creative front four.

Further up the field

Predicting who will make up the Vancouver front four is nothing more than a guessing game. In the past three games, Salgado, Russell Teibert, Sebastien Fernandez, Kekuta Manneh, Pedro Morales, Erik Hurtado, Nicolas Mezquida, and Darren Mattocks have all taken turns starting. All have contributed, and Carl Robinson has the luxury of mixing and matching to disquiet his opponent.

Hurtado’s strong shift against Portland probably earned him another run out against the Union, and Morales is a likely candidate to sit behind him. But any combination of names could easily find its way onto the lineup card.

Attack the backs

The seasoned, wily set of starters along the Whitecaps back line has seen its fair share of trouble in the early third of the season. The strategy is sound, but a lack of coordination with the midfield has spelled doom on many occasions. Starting right back Steven Beitashour will be on international duty with Iran, with all-around mediocre Englishman Nigel Reo-Coker stepping into the void.

Vancouver’s backs tend to challenge wingers out wide, and but without the luxury of a Brian Carroll or Mo Edu to paper over the flaws in their aggressive stance. The Caps have given up six goals off crosses this season, meaning somewhere in Philadelphia Fabinho is sharpening his crossing boots.

Move it or lose it

Against such an aggressive side, Philadelphia must move the ball with speed and purpose. The Caps don’t recover into a defensive shape that quickly, so the Union will have opportunities to counterattack. Danny Cruz and/or Sebastien Le Toux can be vital weapons if they can be found quickly off turnovers.

One big question that could define this game for the Union is the play of Maurice Edu. He was a dud against Los Angeles but a stud against Chivas. While he hasn’t shown the ability to outlet into a counterattack that would make him a truly dynamic MLS midfielder, Edu can shut down the center of the park with his closing speed and positioning. Along with Okugo and Williams in the back, the powerful center midfielder needs to lead by example on Saturday.

Tinker with a two-goal striker?

Conor Casey opened his 2014 account with penalty and a glorious diving header. Was it enough to keep him as point man this weekend? Absolutely.

Vancouver is weak against the cross, the Union simply love to cross the ball, and anything close to an in-form striker should be treated like a first date that’s going better than expected: Just try not to screw it up, because it’s really easy to screw it up.

Prediction: Union 1-2 Whitecaps

A 2-1 scoreline won’t necessarily reflect poorly on the Union. This is a game that could go either way, and Philadelphia just needs to show they can compete against the high octane teams of MLS. If this season is going to turn into anything more than Fred’s Farewell Tour, a slow rebuilding of confidence needs to begin with an energetic burly and error-free defense of PPL Park.

19 Comments

  1. I wish I rooted for Vancouver. Young team on the rise. I wish I rooted for New England. Young team on the rise. Alas, I root for the team that seems, ‘to smile back at death’ rather than go young and be on the rise. At least our #1 draft pick is seeing a lot of time. Oh wait……

    • I agree completely. With the right coach (and talent evaluators) in place, I would be happy watching a squad of skilled young Union players take their lumps this summer in an effort to build for the future.

      Unfortunately, I think a change in leadership will be needed for that to happen.

  2. I can’t believe only 1 comment so far. No one doubts the article and a possible loss. We’re a down and out fan base. I hope the WC is great and the team wins some US open games during the break.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Our lack of words are simply reflecting our clubs efforts. It gets tough flogging the dead tactical horse. Hackworth is going to do what he does. We are going to sacrifice points. I will be there…drunk!
      .
      The weather is supposed to be fantastic, so we have that.

    • i haven’t said anything because i am really nervous about this game. i looked at the standings just now and it is well within the realm of possibility that we can make the playoffs. i want us to win this game and have a successful season but that is only possible if the approach the team takes really changes

  3. Also in my dream world this is john Hackworth’s last game as Union manager! See everyone at the game!!!

  4. Omar Salgado was one of the forwards that absolutely abused Ethan White in his one and only game for Harrisburg (the one where he got the red card). Salgado really looked good. It would be funny if Hackworth picked this game to give White his first Union start and Salgado started too. “White vs Salgado II: this time it’s personal”?

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