Match previews / Union

Preview: Union at DC United

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Who: Philadelphia Union at DC United
What: Regular season game
Where: RFK Stadium
When: 3 pm, Saturday, Sept. 27
Watch:  NBCSN, NBC Sports Live Extra
Whistle: Silviu Petrescu; Linesmen: Claudiu Badea,Adam Wienckowski; Fourth official: Marcos Deoliveira

Don’t look now, but the 2014 MLS season just rounded the back turn, and teams in the middle of the Eastern Conference need to sprint to the finish.

Philadelphia Union need to outrun one of Columbus, New York, or New England. And they have to stay a step ahead of Toronto.

The stretch run began last weekend against Houston, and though the Union outplayed their opponents, failing to secure three points at home means the team’s final two road games must be mistake-free.

Is DC a complete team?

Philly’s travels begin at RFK Stadium this weekend. DC United have allowed the fewest goals at home in MLS, but the Union are no slouch on the road. Twenty goals away from home puts Philly behind only Sporting Kansas City in terms of road goals in the Eastern Conference. In short, the Union need to rediscover their scoring form in a hurry if they want to turn a mid-season surge into a playoff appearance.

United have a single win in their past five games — a 2-0 thrashing of the Red Bulls — but they have endured a brutal schedule to stay in a strong position to go from worst to first in a single season. CONCACAF Champions League play has forced DC to play every four days in September, and head coach Ben Olsen went so far as to start teenager Michael Seaton up top against Chicago last week to give the regulars time off.

The back line, by contrast, has seen almost zero turnover this month. Sean Franklin, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, and Taylor Kemp are firmly entrenched in front of Bill Hamid. And while they have been a good unit, the gap in their armor is easy to spot.

Many of Chicago's key passes and assists vs DC end up near the right channel.

Many of Chicago’s key passes and assists vs DC end up near the right channel.

Look for the soft spot

Los Angeles, Vancouver, New York, and Chicago: The last four teams DC United have played have all severely outshot them. And most chances are coming through the gap between Boswell and Kemp on the left. Kemp, a former first rounder and a player with huge potential, is the soft spot in the defense. His natural preference to get up the pitch is often at odds with Boswell’s desire to have help on his flank. When the two are not on the same page, scorelines like the 4-1 loss to LA and the 3-3 draw against Chicago happen.

But even against a Vancouver team that apparently ceased shooting drills midseason and now just heaves the ball into the sky whenever they approach the final third, DC looked extremely vulnerable in the channel between Boswell and Kemp. Luckily for the Union, the profligacy of Darren Mattocks is not a vice from which Conor Casey has suffered this season. By combining with Sebastien Le Toux and Sheanon Williams, Philadelphia can push on DC’s defensive pressure point.

Were you to watch only highlights of United’s recent matches, you would see teams continually create chances through that left-center channel and wonder: Why doesn’t this team give up more goals?

Hamid is the real deal.

Hamid is the real deal. Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz.

Two answers

Bill Hamid and Perry Kitchen.

The former has finally given Nick Rimando a challenger for best pure shot stopper in MLS, putting on a series of spectacular performances that may have separated him from the rest of the talented, young American goalies for good. The latter is building on last year’s breakout season to show that with any sort of real talent around him, there are few players in the league better at shielding a back line.

Pay close attention to Hamid on Saturday, if only to get a glimpse into what drove Philly to spend big on the goalkeeper position this summer. The DC backstop comes equipped with the loud, confrontational leadership that Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz was clearly seeking when he ignored the team’s dearth of strikers to chase Rais Mbolhi.

But while Hamid shows up often in highlights, Kitchen rarely makes an appearance. The defensive midfielder is one of the most positionally brilliant players in MLS, able to push opposing offenses out of danger zones by anticipating play and forcing it wide. It is the sort of dominance that shows up nowhere in the post-game stats but will keep Kitchen in the first eleven in DC — and on the US National team’s radar — for the next decade.

The Union were very left-sided against Houston.

The Union were very left-sided against Houston.

How to attack DC

An interesting wrinkle in DC’s setup is that Kitchen steps higher offensively, allowing Davy Arnaud to drop deep and spend more time on the ball. It makes for a more complicated system, but it has paid off, with an attack that moves quickly and fluidly behind two mobile strikers.

However, by dropping Arnaud deep, DC becomes vulnerable off of midfield turnovers since they are not in their preferred defensive shape. The question for Jim Curtin becomes: Do you try to press high as you did against Houston? Or return to a deep-sitting shape that earned so many points in the summer?

The answer is not simple. First you have to ask how comfortable you feel leaving space in front of the back four when Luis Silva and Fabian Espindola are so good at dropping in and playing off each other? Then you have to ask how you transition into the offense out of a high press.

At this point, the Union have to be able to trust their central defenders against any striker combination. Either Maurice Edu or Amobi Okugo can protect the back line, but when they step up to press, they leave behind one of the most athletic back fours (whether Edu or Ethan White are partnering Valdes) in MLS. Leaving space in the middle is not ideal, but when it happens, the Union are better equipped than most to deal with it.

To press high or sit

The most worrying question is how you transition out of that high press defense. A major advantage of the deep shape is that it sucked teams in, leaving acres of space for counterattacks. A higher press means the opposition commits fewer players forward, effectively making it more difficult to run a transition offense. This is why you see Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea get so compact once their initial press is broken.

Against Houston, the Union’s offense looked much different than it did in the heady days of summer. Cristian Maidana was pulling out to the left instead of the right, leaving the other wing to Sheanon Williams when Le Toux tucked inside. With Andrew Wenger looking to exploit the same space, Philly’s offense lacked balance, though the elite service Maidana put in to Casey papered over this issue.

Predicted lineup (assuming Ethan White is injured)

Predicted lineup (assuming Ethan White is injured)

Should the Union choose to press DC, they will have to adopt a more structured breakout from defense. Will Maidana look for space on the left? If so, what happens to Wenger? And who fills space on the right?

This is a particularly important issue given DC’s defensive flaw outlined above. Attacking up the right channel is extremely important for Philadelphia; they need to target Kemp from minute one.

Prediction: United 2-2 Union

DC United is very good at home. And they will score. Whether it’s Eddie Johnson against Philly’s iffy set piece defense or Fabian Espindola sniping, DC United will tally somehow. But they have holes, and Philadelphia can take control of the match if they return to the discipline they clung to so vociferously when Jim Curtin took over.

Ultimately, there is no denying that this game means more to Philly than it does to DC. But these teams never produce a limp contest. And Silviu Petrescu rarely fails to let chippiness reign. It should be a good game. And Philadelphia’s season may depend on a positive outcome.


  1. One thing I’ve really liked about the Curtin Era is the mental discipline of the players — they’re not getting involved in mass confrontations, ‘throwing handbags’, grandstanding, and the kind of nonsense that has often been a part of Union-DC games (remember The Geiger Show game?). Keeping their heads when Kitchen starts throwing elbows, Espindola starts diving and EJ starts kicking people is going to be the key.

    • The guy who gets way too worked up is Casey. I love the guy — he’s the epitome of “Philly tough” — but when refs call a loose game, and he gets shoved around, he gets really hostile and sometimes loses his edge.

  2. James Lockerbie says:

    I have noticed that too, with the exception of Cruz. He trips himself and then talks way too much “stuff” at the ref. He plays physically and then drops to the ground at a drop of hat as soon as he feels the opposition on him.

    The Refs are onto this and he needs to stop! If your going to push your weight around, you have to be prepared to receive some coming back your way. I am pretty disappointed because he was staying on his feet and making some pretty good decisions and then the old Cruz came back

  3. JC has a high soccer IQ. I predict we see the same lineup unless White cannot start. From here on in. Change the names and Adam’s preview describes Seattle. I now believe JC decided that what beat TFC, SJ, eyc. would not win the day against the top echelon. So it’s high pressure, shot matching, Edu pushing, Noguiera defending, less counter attacking style. * buckles belts & restraints* “Enjoy the ride while it lasts!”

    • Well, currently the switch is not winning the day against said upper echelon teams though. I guess we will see.

      • Not saying he’s right, but that he has a plan. The Dynamo are not that caliber opponent. 2 points might have been missed. I said the TFC matches were the high watermark, but now I think I understand why JC is sacrificing Okugo. That’s much different from endorsing it.

  4. I’m assuming Edu returns to CB with Ethan White not being fully fit. If so, it’s probably our best lineup even though it’s not Mo’s preferred spot on the pitch. I think this game will be an epic clash ending with spent bodies strewn all over the field. Go Union!

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