Match previews

Preview: Union vs New York Red Bulls

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. New York Red Bulls
What: Regular season game
Where: PPL Park, Chester, Pa., USA
When: 7 pm, Wednesday, July 16
Watch: ESPN2
Whistle: Baldomero Toledo; Linesmen: Corey Parker, Matthew Kreitzer; Fourth Official: Mark Kadlecik

Look carefully at this New York Red Bulls team, Philadelphia Union fans. They are a lot more similar to your own team than you may think.

Aside from being a bunch of jerks that play for New York New Jersey in front of nobody.

Before last weekend’s round of matches, Philadelphia was a mere two points behind New York. This despite the Red Bulls running with a combination of Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, and current MLS leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips up top while the Union pushed forward with… Andrew Wenger. And eventually Conor Casey.

After Thierry Henry took five fingers (and three assists. And a goal) to the face of the Columbus Crew while the Union wilted in the dying moments against Colorado, the two rivals are separated by four points in the standings.

Home on the cringe

We do not have to look far to find those four points. If you were a betting man, you would be smart to put your money on the opposition scoring in the final ten minutes of a game at PPL Park. It has happened in half the Union’s home games this season. Marco Di Vaio ties the match in the 80th for Montreal. Kyle Beckerman puts RSL ahead in the 85th (Mo Edu would save the team’s bacon by tying it up in the 90th), Pedro Morales pulls a point from the jaws of defeat with an 81st minute penalty for Vancouver, and on Saturday Deshorn Brown took the touch of his life to spin free of Sheanon Williams and put a point in his pocket.

And remember: Those are just the four matches when the Union lost it late. Dare we mention the goalless tie against Houston that featured not a single home shot on goal? Or the 1-0 loss to DC United when the Union went down a goal in the 6th minute then failed to muster a shot on target until the 64th?

There is no hiding from the ugly truth: Philadelphia have been both a bad and an unlucky team at home this season. Bad in that they have given up the most home goals in the Eastern Conference (Portland and Chivas have given up more in the west). Unlucky in that while the Union have scored 13 and given up 15 at home, Houston has scored 13, given up 14 and earned six more points at home compared to Philly. It’s all about when you give them up (Houston has been wiped out twice at home, the Union only once).

More credence to the bad argument, however, comes from a look at the top half of the east, where tomorrow’s opponent is the only team above the playoff line to have given up more than 9 goals at home.

The posse ain’t coming

The finger can be quite reasonably pointed in many a direction when a team has one win from eight home games. And it often points at the Union’s bench.

In eight home games the Union have used all but one available substitution. They have used a sub to shore up the defense twice: Lahoud at halftime against Vancouver and Brian Carroll late against Colorado. The rest of the substitutions were either strikers or attack-minded midfielders (think Danny Cruz).

From all of those offensive substitutions, the Union have garnered 3 goals. One was a Sebastien Le Toux penalty kick. Two were from open play: Le Toux against Vancouver and Andrew Wenger against Colorado.

Aside from those two very important goals, Union substitute have put a grand total of one shot on frame at home. In 410 minutes, Union offensive subs have scored two goals from three shots on goal.

Now, those numbers are certainly selling players short. Sometimes a substitution can shake up the formation or just inject some energy into a lagging side. But the plain truth is that the Union have a big fat zero goal differential at home if you start counting from the moment the first sub comes on. Maybe that number is acceptable overall, but these are offensive substitutions in home games.

These are the dropped points that separate an 8th place team from a 4th place team in the congested, seedy world that is the 2014 Eastern Conference.

But back to the game…

The Red Bulls are a perfect case study of that terrible — and terribly interesting — thing that is the eastern half of MLS. As good as Chivas has been recently (and they have been just good enough to make Cubo Torres’ goals count), they still sit in 7th place in the west. That is notable since they have the same number of points as New York.

When the Red Bulls are winning, they are doing three things: 1) Flying up the wings, 2) Protecting the center backs, and 3) Finding Thierry Henry early. If any one of these three elements are missing, New York is in trouble.

Lloyd Sam crossing vs Columbus

Lloyd Sam crossing vs Columbus

Different wings for different things

Strong wing play is important for most MLS teams, since modern fullbacks that can play at a consistently high level have yet to infiltrate the league. While European teams are tucking their wingers inside, MLS squads are still looking to players like Lloyd Sam (or is that Stewart Downing in disguise?) to race down the touchline and lob in a cross. Sam does this often, and sometimes to devastating effect. Against Columbus last weekend, Sam put in a six-star performance, failing to connect on any of his half dozen crosses.

But before you scoff and call him the Fabinho of the north, note that all six of Sam’s crosses came from below the top of the eighteen yard box. Unlike the Union’s resident crossmonster, Sam penetrated deep into the Columbus half before launching balls into the box. Sam has connected on approximately 28% of his crosses this season. That is a number much closer to Cristian Maidana’s 27% than Fabinho’s 16% (though that low number has not deterred the Union’s left back, as he has put in 55 crosses in 14 starts, while Red Bulls fullbacks Roy Miller, Kosuke Kimura, and Richard Eckersley have contributed 60 in 20 combined starts).

While Sam marauds up the right, New York has deployed a combination of Jonny Steele (recently released), Eric Alexander, and Bobby Convey on the left. The left midfielder’s role on the Red Bulls is much, much different from Sam’s role on the right. Since New York’s star man, Henry, likes to drift left to pick up the ball, the left midfielder is tasked with moving, creating space, and generally doing anything necessary to get Henry the room he needs to operate. Then get open and expect the impossible. Even at his age, Thierry Henry delivers it on a regular basis.

Thierry Henry vs Columbus

Thierry Henry vs Columbus

But while analysts may gush over the amount of raw talent Sam, Convey, and Alexander bring to the pitch, they share a common fault: consistency.

You may remember Lloyd Sam from the “Holy crap, he already has 6 assists!?” days of mid-April. Guess how many he has now. Eric Alexander had two assists through the first two months of the season. He has two goals and a helper in the last three matches.

There is no doubt these players are talented, but they have not risen to the level of similar secondary players on legitimate, year-in-year-out playoff contenders like Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy, or even Sporting Kansas City. However, if they force the Union to play nine men behind the ball early, it could be a long night for the home squad.

Defending the defenders

Tim Cahill. Goalscorer. Creative midfielder. Dominant aerial force. Holding midfielder?

Cahill sits deep against The Crew

Cahill sits deep against The Crew

It sounds a bit crazy, but that is essentially where Cahill played against Columbus. The Australian would slip in behind Thierry Henry to provide another option on the left, meaning New York was essentially flooding the left side of the pitch. Cahill and Henry are such strong passers that instead of being limiting, this approach sucked in the Columbus midfield and handed acres of space to Lloyd Sam and Chris Duvall.

Cahill’s deeper-lying role allowed him to harangue Federico Higuain so the playmaker could not dictate play in front of a deep New York back line. It is notable that once New York went ahead, they brought on Dax McCarty to stay more central in case Columbus was able to build consistent pressure. Thanks to Thierry Henry’s outlet passing, however, the Crew were too busy scrambling back on defense to create much going forward.

If the Red Bulls persist with a midfield sans the recovering Dax McCarty, the Union know exactly what to do on offense. In fact, they have been doing it the past few games. Push the play with speed so Cristian Maidana is receiving the ball near the final third before the defense can get set. The Red Bulls back line featured inexperienced rookies on the left side of defense against Columbus. The Union will try to post Conor Casey on Matt Miazga, who had a very bad half followed by a very good half on Saturday. New York will try to keep Miazga free so he can keep his eyes on Sebastien Le Toux’s vertical attacks. Any time the Union get Le Toux, Danny Cruz, Fabinho, or Ray Gaddis running at the the Red Bulls back line with speed, things are going well. The strength of this back four is that they don’t look like they’re soft until you poke them. The Union need to poke early and often.

Haranguing Henry

Amobi Okugo is going to be suspended on Wednesday because he did something very dumb. Not that he was necessarily wrong to be upset. But wearing the captain’s armband necessarily means thinking long and hard on the fine line between standing up for your team and giving in to your emotions. Unfortunately, Okugo earned himself some thinking time on Wednesday.

This means some combination of Maurice Edu, Brian Carroll, and Vincent Nogueira will be in midfield, and regardless of who plays they will have their eyes on Thierry Henry most of the match. The argument for Edu and Carroll is the simplest one to make. Ethan White equipped himself well on Saturday against Colorado and Edu can body up with Henry while Carroll sits in the middle. This allows the Union to continue their deep defense and probably pushes Henry further from goal than he would like to be. However, Brian Carroll has not shown that he can hit the breakout pass this campaign. Will his presence mean the Union transition game is playing with the emergency brake on?

Nogueira recoveries (yellow) and defensive contributions vs KC

Nogueira recoveries (yellow) and defensive contributions vs KC

The ideal scenario for Union fans is the return of Vincent Nogueira, the team’s best player this season. MLSSoccer’s Matt Doyle even suggested Nogueira could play in a Pirlo role for the Union, protecting the back line simply by remaining in the space in front of it for most of the match. As appealing as this sounds, it also seems like an odd role for number five.

If there has been any weakness to Nogueira’s game this season, it has been his defensive discipline. He loves the high press game, and he preferred to slip off to the wings in front of Edu and Carroll early in the season when he had cover.

Even in his most restrained showing, the Union’s big win over Sporting Kansas City, Nogueira went on walkabouts, preferring to take his defense to Sporting rather than waiting for them to come to him in the middle. Okugo played one of his best matches of the season in a holding role behind Nogueira partly because the Frenchman did such a stellar job of providing his midfield partner with a quick transition outlet.

Can Nogueira replicate this performance next to Mo Edu? Certainly. The question is whether he should go 60 or come on as a substitute to help ease him back from the type of injury that can dog a player for a full season. As much as Union fans want to see their star man back on the pitch, it may be more prudent to go with Carroll at the outset and bring Nogueira in for the last 30-35 minutes of the match.

Prediction: Union 2-1

New York is coming off a big win, but they were powered by an aging superstar who will be on short rest. Sure, you may say, the Union are coming off a hard-fought tie in which they were led by an aging goalscorer who will also be on short rest. Yeah… good point. But I’m still optimistic. Philly outplayed Vancouver for the second forty-five and they can look at the tape from last weekend and see exactly where Cristian Maidana needs to be to exploit New York’s wing-and-a-prayer back line. Again: The Red Bulls are nothing if not inconsistent.

Preferred Lineup



  1. Hope you’re right about that prediction. This team needs a win at home.

  2. Great analysis – particularly this line about NY:
    “The strength of this back four is that they don’t look like they’re soft until you poke them. The Union need to poke early and often.”
    If Nogueira can go 90, then would you want to see Fabinho sit, Williams out left and Edu drop to CB?

    • Actually then you would want to switch Williams and Gaddis to their regular positions before all these problems.

      • John Ling says:

        Gaddis’s regular position is on the right. He just played on the left because Williams was entrenched on the right. In my opinion, Gaddis has played well enough on the right that you leave him there and let him continue to flourish. Slide Williams left.

  3. Murphthesurf says:

    Antonio Conte just became available…

    • Wow. Wow. Could you imagine, him ‘assaulting players with his words’. I’m reading Pirlo’s biography And it is really good especially the part about Conte. He is as authoritarian as it comes.

      • Can you imagine being the poor guy that has to explain the salary cap, MLS Superdraft, and the allocation process to him?

      • no you can’t do that. that either. you can do that only if… no there are no Pirlo’s.

  4. BlahBlahBlah says:

    “Aside from being a bunch of jerks that play in front of nobody.”

    I’d be careful throwing stones in that increasingly empty glass house.

  5. “Optimistic” when it’s short rest, Okugo sits, Casey can’t last, Noguiera is questionable, Lahoud sits, Carroll & Fabinho start & Berry hasn’t played in weeks? That may be an understatement!

  6. My kids happen to be at Union camp this week. Normally they take the kids on a tour of PPL on Wednesday, but they moved it to Tuesday this week, because, well… you know. The kids got a chance to watch the end of practice (my daughter insists Le Toux waved to her), then Brian Carroll and Christhian Hernandez hung with the kids for a while and played soccer with them. So, first, kudos to both players. I’m sure they’re tired after having been through practice. But both kids report the guys were active and engaging. My daughter got an assist – and high five – from Hernandez.
    Second: Hernandez is practicing with the team, and not HCI? Hmmm….
    Third: Dear Brian Carroll, If you’re reading this my son is the kid you injured by accidentally stepping on his foot with your cleats. He’s fine – a small blood blister on the tip of his toe (of all places) and no other damage. But if you wanna arrange to upgrade us to a suite for tomorrow’s game to make up for it, I won’t complain. Signed, Danny’s Dad.
    Seriously, great job by the Union with the kids. And especially to Brian and Christhian for taking the time to play around on the field with them when I’m sure there’s other things to do to prep for tomorrow’s game. Well played, gents. Well played.

    • Yeah – my son has done this camp the past two summers as well. One year, he had Porfirio Lopez play with him, so I wondered if it was a form of punishment for the players! Last year it was McInerney. Another great aspect of how accessible the players are in MLS.

    • Adam Cann says:

      This is awesome! Huge kudos to BC and Hernandez.

    • That’s nice but if BC reads these comments, he has more than thick skin – or maybe he meant to step on him!

  7. Great One says:

    Excellent analysis. Obviously Henry and Cahill are who worries me. They always year us up, especially Henry. I’m worried Carroll is just a step too slow at this point and his inclusion would be a mistake. We don’t need a clogging influence, we need a breakout passer and a physical fast influence.
    Also, pretty sure that Casey and Cruz may need the day off. Casey was noticeably dead Saturday and Cruz is a pinball

  8. Andrew Bissonette says:

    That’s really cute that you Union fans and writers think that you’re crap defense is going to hold NY’s red hot offense to only one goal. I think you’ll be lucky not to give up 3 or more.

  9. I know we have know one else to implement right now but Edu and Carroll paired up as our dmids scares me a bit. ….

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