Match previews

Preview: Union at Houston Dynamo

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union at Houston Dynamo
What: Regular season game
Where: BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston, TX
When: 9 pm, Friday, Aug. 15
Watch: NBCSN, NBC Sports Live Extra
Whistle: Baldomero Toledo; Linesmen: Frank Anderson, Kermit Quisenberry; Fourth Official: Ted Unkel

Ninth place team? Psh. Walkover. Only five points out of the playoffs? Watch out!

The Eastern Conference is a crazy place this season, as Philadelphia Union can readily attest. An emotional win followed by a Friday night matchup in a difficult place to play means Philly needs to be mentally ready for a motivated and rebuilt Dynamo side.

And the Houston team that shows up Friday will be quite different from the one that played out a dour draw at PPL Park in April.

This Houston team features DaMarcus Beasley at left back and Luis Garrido in midfield. And, finally, it features an effective partner for Will Bruin up top.

Who is Houston right now: Unknown

Well, mostly unknown. Two big transfer window signings –Damarcus Beasley and Luis Garrido — are acclimating to Dom Kinnear’s system. If that happens quickly, the Dynamo could make a run in the convoluted East. After all, Houston plays nothing but Eastern Conference opponents from here on out.

The fresh faces looked like quick learners against Seattle last weekend. Though Houston lost 2-0, they were never overwhelmed by the Sounders’ offensive juggernaut. Garrido’s influence on the game was massive. Protecting the back four, he accumulated 9 tackles and 3 interceptions. Meanwhile, Beasley was influential going forward, offering the constant threat of a counterattack.

How do they want to play: I think you know

Dom Kinnear isn’t going to start buttering his bread on the bottom just because his team is outside of the playoff picture. After experimenting with Oscar Boniek Garcia in a central role, he has restored the Honduran to the wing. Along with Davis, Boniek Garcia can collect the ball in deeper positions than most wingers and either create or cross. And, as usual, the Dynamo are dangerous in the air, collecting 10 of their 21 non-penalty goals from crosses, corners, and indirect free kicks.

In the past, Ricardo Clark has been a thorn in the Union’s side with intelligent late runs to meet aerial balls. Freed up from defensive duties by Garrido’s arrival, expect Clark to once again appear late on the scene.

Defensively, Houston will protect the box with aplomb. In Kofi Sarkodie and Beasley, they can pressure crossers enough to prevent perfect service, and Jermaine Taylor, AJ Cochran and David Horst do the rest.

How should the Union defend: Just like they have been

With one minor adjustment. Philly has been content to sit deep and counter under Jim Curtin, and the only real issues have come when teams try to overload one side and get behind the defense.

Houston will overload, but with a different goal in mind. The aim is to draw pressure off Davis and Boniek Garcia so they can sit in deeper positions and serve balls or find runners. So the danger area is, in effect, further from the 18-yard box than it normally would be. The space where a defender would normally say, “Ah, perfect. that winger is further out than he wants to be” is exactly where Davis and Boniek Garcia want to be.

In the back, Valdes and whoever partners him will need to track the mobile Giles Barnes without getting too far from the center of the pitch. Barnes’ is an effective partner for Will Bruin because he pulls defenders out of the box, and Bruin can be a dominant ball winner in 1v1 situations.

An additional defensive question is more personnel-centered. The Union are not likely to rotate out Williams or Gaddis in the back, simply because there is nobody except Fabinho ready to step in. Wingers, however, could be a different story. Sebastien Le Toux, coming off injury and extended playing time, could certainly get a break. And with younger players like current USL PRO Player of the Week Pedro Ribeiro and Zach Pfeffer flitting around the fringes of the first team, a new face could certainly feature. Defensive communication between any new players and the established backs will be crucial against a Houston side that largely creates from wide areas.

How should the Union attack: With speed, and on the ground

Last time these teams played, Philly famously went a full ninety at home without once threatening the Houston goal. If they play from wide areas at BBVA Compass Stadium, the same outcome would hardly be surprising.

However, Houston has allowed an alarming 12 goals off crosses, corners, and indirect free kicks this season. The Union, not being an especially large team, should not see this as an opportunity. Of Philly’s regulars, Amobi Okugo is the only player who seems to be able to meet corner kicks with any consistency, and then he consistently heads the ball in a randomly chosen direction.

Instead, the Union should take a cue from Andrew Wenger and attack Houston with speed on the counter. This has become modus operandi under Jim Curtin, but it should be emphasized on Friday. If Beasley and Sarkodie are caught up, Philly can give Houston fits if they drive at the defense with speed. An early card on a central defender is a game changer against a team that relies heavliy on physicality.

Who to watch: Beasley and Garrido. And Clark.

Beasley is that rarity in MLS: A fullback that can bring the ball out of the back then play and pass like a midfielder. He offers that extra dimension that Ray Gaddis lacked late in the Open Cup semifinal against Dallas, an ability to take people on toward goal, rather than just toward the endline.

Garrido will be tasked with tracking whoever sits atop the Union midfield triangle. Against Seattle, he was very good at closing space and preventing the quick, sharp buildups that Seattle have used to dominate this season. The Union won’t attack that way. Instead, Garrido will have to keep an eye on the creative member of the midfield and prevent him from creating opportunities with longer passes and throughballs.

And, finally, Ricardo Clark. Look, he’s going to charge into the box late. Someone keep an eye on him. I’ll do it. Anyone. Please.

Possible lineup. On short rest, it's hard to guess.

Possible lineup. On short rest, it’s hard to guess.

Big moments, big areas: Free kicks, creative midfield, up top, in goal

Set pieces will be huge in this match. Houston scores a ton and gives up a ton. If the Union rest Le Toux, they will be without their primary free kick taker, though Maidana could get his first start off injury and take over.

If Nogueira plays, he should probably drop into a holding role. If Maidana isn’t good to go, will the Union look to younger players or Fred? Either way, that player will have the difficult problem of escaping from Garrido.

Conor Casey can’t start again, right? Where does this guy get the energy? If Casey rests, who will bang with the big bodies of Houston? Will Curtin consider Aaron Wheeler, or does Brian Brown have a lock on the backup slot? The key will be picking the guy who can hold the ball up and play the ball in behind Sarkodie and Beasley.

Mbohli watch 2014: Will the Union’s new signing be in Houston? I have no idea. Let’s assume no. The Union made such a big deal about signing the guy, you would think they might send up a few hype balloons when he’s ready to play.


  1. If we rest LeToux, I wouldn’t be surprised if Fabinho starts as the LM and Cruz plays RM. Fabinho could (in theory) offer some defensive support on that wing. Plus he has been in the 18 recently but yet to play.

  2. during his conference call curtin said that they are flying in ribiero and he also implied that he might start. i am excited and happy about that

  3. I would really rather see White pair with Valdes again and push Edu into the midfield with Okugo. If the choice is between White and Carroll, I will take White hands down. And if it’s between White and Lahoud, I’ll still take White.

    • Amen. I was a little surprised by this lineup suggestion. White or Lahoud should start ahead of Carroll. There are plenty of options now (oddly enough) at the CD/CDM spots that we can label Carroll as “Break Glass in case of Emergency.”

      • Absolutely, this is the type of team that runs around and through Carroll, plus he offers zero help in pushing forward or counters.

  4. Have to agree with Scottso.

    Last year, the defensive line was a strength. This was due, in part, to the stability of the line. If you keep swapping Edu in and out, and White in and out, it will be that much harder for the line to coalesce, and it will continue being a problem.

  5. The Black Hand says:

    I would go Lahoud for Carroll. He’s just as good defensively, but has more pace and composure. He, much more than Carroll, will allow Okugo to press.
    I think Edu/Valdes should be our CB pairing. They could be quite a formidable pairing, with time to get to know each other’s playing stye.

    • Especially for this game, I agree with Edu/Valdes. We can go 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield and Okugo as CDM to track Clark.

      • The Black Hand says:

        I like your thinking. Okugo can handle the DM. We could work a diamond mid, with Wenger/Brown up top.

      • Not a bad idea at all, but there’s almost zero chance this happens. Curtin has shown no interest is going away from either the 4-2-3-1 or counter attacking. Agree though that Okugo would thrive.

    • To be clear, scheduling is the main reason I think Carroll will start. Lahoud is coming off a week of travel and 120 minutes. Houston can be dangerous at home, but their central midfield plays deeper and won’t directly attack through the middle as much as the next few teams the Union plays (maybe San Jose aside).

      And though the Union get a long break after this game, the USOC final means they are going to be busy in early September, and face much better competition than Houston. And those are the games you’d prefer to have your best XI healthy. I’m talking Toronto twice (Wed-Sat), NY, Seattle (USOC), Houston at home.

      Home points are so important in a tight race, so that’s the Houston matchup the Union simply cannot lose or tie. So I think you take your chances with Carroll and save your legs for that September stretch run.

  6. Why choose to leave out Noguiera? JC should find a way to play our best in our XI. And we can’t afford to let BC stall possessions. Ask Okugo to be CDM. Cruz comes on for Wenger, too.

  7. Really BC should not see the field for the rest of the year unless it’s to see out a game AND there are injuries. He is 5th on the depth chart at his position. I like the guy, but he doesn’t need to play. He won’t be involved in our future either.
    Taking everything into account for this game (3 games in 8 days, Casey almost dead tired, Le Toux injury, Maidana injury, Valdes fitness, M’Bohli’s existence) for this game I would stay with the preferred 4-2-3-1, especially on the road.
    Williams, White, Valdes, Gaddis
    Edu, Okugo
    Nogeuira, Maidana, Cruz
    Brown, Ribeiro orWenger even could slide in for Wheeler, but I tihnk a big body will be essential for this game. Also I know Nogeuira isn’t a winger, but he’s as much a winger as he is a CAM, plus he ends up out there anyway.

  8. Toledo. Bummer. This is a huge game- a chance to bury Houston and stabilize the Unions position.

    • It’s time to give Ribeiro a shot. Never going to know if he’s got the stones unless you throw him out there. C’mon Curtin, tonight’s the night.

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