Match previews

Preview: Union vs FC Dallas

Who: Philadelphia Union vs FC Dallas
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: 7 pm, Friday, March 20
Watch: UniMas
Whistle: Jose Carlos Rivero; Linesmen: Peter Manikowski, Eric Weisbrod; Fourth Official: Robert Sibiga

Two games. Two points. Philadelphia Union know they should have more, but poor play at home and poor refereeing on the road have combined to leave the Union in need of a signature performance against Dallas on Friday.

And that will be no easy task.

Dallas lineup vs Kansas City last week

Dallas lineup vs Kansas City last week

Under Oscar Pareja, FC Dallas has been put together in such a way that the talent alone can sustain them, but confidence can make them world-beaters. Start from the back and you find players that Pareja has either rescued or refocused. Chris Seitz looked a lost puppy in Philadelphia, but now he is charging out of his goal with a decisiveness that nearly knocked Dom Dwyer unconscious last week. Matt Hedges appeared to be on the George John/AJ Soares/Jeff Parke path as a standard bearer of slightly-above-average defending, but now he looks an aggressive leader with a national team future. In midfield, Victor Ulloa’s breathtaking ascent from homegrown signing to midfield general has been both fascinating and fearsome.

Pareja’s decision to pair Ulloa with the defensively generous but offensively gifted Michel has allowed both players to maximize their strengths, resulting in a midfield that looks much more flawed on paper than it has in games. If that isn’t a surefire sign of good coaching, what is? But Pareja’s influence can be seen most clearly in how his team can play multiple styles of soccer while remaining both dangerous and secure in the back.

Castillo take-ons vs Kansas City.

Castillo take-ons vs Kansas City

Fabulous Fabian

As Union fans watched Andrew Wenger emerge as a dangerman on the wing, Dallas supporters were one step ahead: They gleefully cheered as Fabian Castillo developed an off-the-ball game that put him in enough space to become a consistent and glorious offensive force off the edge. Of course, any member of the Philadelphia back line that played in the US Open Cup semifinal last season needs no reminder of Castillo’s talent. The Colombian torched Philly’s defense so many times that his eventual goal was a mere formality.

For a team that seems so in sync, it is odd to realize that Dallas is actually a team in search of an identity. And the identity question comes down to a question of who to build around: Poacher extraordinaire Blas Perez or creator supreme Mauro Diaz?

The case for Diaz

If you got Oscar Pareja alone and off the record, there is a good chance he would say Mauro Diaz is the present and future crown jewel of FC Dallas soccer. Like Javy Morales and Diego Valeri before him, Diaz’s skillset seems perfectly suited to the MLS he has stepped into. Morales benefitted from teams being unable to cope with RSL’s narrow formation before the dual-pivot in midfield became popular (and he has adjusted remarkably well since).

Valeri — and, to be fair, Federico Higuain — have brought an element of mobility that allows them to sneak into holes as holding midfielders vacate the center to help defensively deficient wingers. Diaz is in that mould, but he has the potential to take the position even further. Whether he can is dependent on Pareja convincing Blas Perez to be a true target striker.

And this is where it gets interesting: Diaz has the passing range to be a deeper distributor, dropping into a three man midfield that sprays balls out to Castillo and Tesho Akindele. However, Pareja looks at Zach Loyd and Matt Hedges in back, at Michel, Ulloa and Diaz in midfield, and at a combination of size and skill up top, and he wonders why he would play a style that gives the other team so much of the ball? He looks Los Angeles and sees a team that counters with speed and width, but that is completely comfortable slowing things down and emptying the opposition’s motors.

The case for Perez

That is what Pareja dreams of. But, importantly, he is not a purist. When Diaz went down in 2014, a team built around the midfield morphed into a team built around aerial dominance and a strong front line. Perez dropped deeper to create a bulge in the defensive shape so Castillo could get a running start and burst through high lines. It worked because Perez and Akindele are both excellent with their back to goal. And because Castillo learned how to move off the ball so he could receive it at full speed rather than trying to beat a defender before ramping up the RPMs.

This team built around Perez as a distributor went on a ten-game unbeaten streak starting in mid-June last season. As Diaz worked his way back from injury, he found himself a peripheral figure and struggled to join in the fun.

With Diaz in good health, Dallas has looked both scary and lacking in purpose. The starting eleven are good enough to keep up with most teams even on an off-day, but the confidence that characterized their dominant performances in 2014 has yet to shine through. Against Kansas City, it took a very, very, very offside Perez goal (and a fine Seitz penalty save on Dwyer) to earn a win. And even with the win, Dallas got very little from Diaz, who was increasingly an onlooker as Pareja shifted to a direct style of play through Perez in the second half.

Additionally, while Ulloa pocketed Benny Feilhaber for most of the contest, the playmaker used his one opening to set up Roger Espinoza for KC’s goal. And for the Union, that Espinoza goal may provide the key to breaking down a very good Dallas side.

That second runner – Union going forward

Make no mistake: Victor Ulloa did a great job keeping Feilhaber away from the ball. But Roger Espinoza was another story. Michel’s defensive shortcomings opened acres of space and Espinoza used this freedom to stick as many passes as he could into the space at the top of the Dallas box. He also took it upon himself to slash through the middle without the ball, creating confusion without the ball and havoc (and a goal) with it.

The Union can take advantage of Dallas by exploiting the same flaws Espinoza found. The midfielder who finds himself free of Ulloa needs to be a driving force that propels the offense forward. This may be Zach Pfeffer or Vincent Nogueira (or even Maurice Edu), but it will be someone. And the opportunity to cut through the Dallas midfield must be taken if Philly wants to control the match.

Why not the wings?
Le Toux (9) and Wenger (11) final third passes, shots, and take-ons vs RSL.

Le Toux (9) and Wenger (11) final third passes, shots, and take-ons vs RSL

Jim Curtin will have some interesting decisions to make on the… wait, no he won’t.

At this point, it does not seem unfair to say that Sebastien Le Toux and Andrew Wenger are gonna do what they gonna do. If it works, it’ll be scary for Dallas. If it doesn’t, they’ll be baggage.

Wenger and Le Toux attack vertically, and they do it at pace. This makes them a danger any time they get isolated, but it also makes the Union wingers strangely ineffective in build-up play. Against Real Salt Lake, Cristian Maidana basically played as a winger in attack, letting Le Toux drift into the middle, or wherever else he chose to go. Was this the plan or simply a case of the Argentinian adjusting to what Le Toux was going to do no matter what? It is impossible to say.

Le Toux and Wenger from the 38th to the 55th minute vs RSL.

Le Toux and Wenger from the 38th to the 55th minute vs RSL

Something that is not impossible to say is that Le Toux and Wenger were AWOL for most of the match against RSL. Wenger had one nice low shot on goal and a fine setup that Le Toux skied — both before the 10th minute. Aside from that, the wingers combined to go 2 for 5 passing with one shot (blocked) between them. Also relevant: 0/2 in take-ons in the final third. That’s it. Seriously.

And when the Union most needed to retain possession — from when they went ahead in the 38th minute until Jameson Olave tied the match in the 55th minute — Le Toux and (especially) Wenger might as well have been watching the match next to you.

Perhaps more disturbingly, though, this offensive frustration translated into spotty defense. Over and over, RSL was able to draw fullbacks high and dink balls into the corner, drawing Ethan White and Steven Vitoria out of the middle. It is more ambiguous as to whether this was Philly’s plan or just how the match developed, but the adjustments did not come. When Le Toux did come back, he could be found in a central area, filling the space between Maurice Edu and the…

Pause. Let’s talk about Ethan White for a moment.
White - all passes vs RSL

White – all passes vs RSL

MLSsoccer’s Matt Doyle posted this Union passing chart after the match and asked, “What am I looking at?” And that is an exceedingly fair question.

White seemed off-kilter almost from the opening whistle. When Sheanon Williams stepped high in the second minute, White didn’t follow, meaning Demar Phillips could sprint down the wing to Kyle Beckerman’s high lob without any fear of falling foul of the offsides line. Phillips’ eventual cross only avoided becoming a goal because Ray Gaddis admirably blocked off Sebastian Jaime.

All defensive actions - Vitoria (23), Edu (8) and White (15).

All defensive actions – Vitoria (23), Edu (8) and White (15)

Offensively, White also remained deep. I have no explanation. Steven Vitoria went 16/26 passing. White went – and this is over the course of an entire soccer match – 5/6.

White’s positioning meant that Mo Edu had to drop deeper and deeper throughout the match. If you look at a chart of second half defensive contributions that includes Edu, White and Vitoria, it quickly becomes apparent that Edu is covering the space next to Vitoria. White is either playing sweeper or… actually, I really don’t know.

Back to Le Toux…

He started dropping into that central space in front of White in the first half, which left a full wing for Olmes Garcia and Phillips. Beckerman and Morales quickly noticed, and that right side became the focal point of their long passes.

Interestingly, the only winger who has really given Dallas trouble this year is former Union man Shea Salinas. The San Jose wide man completed 3 of 4 take-ons against Dallas. If Wenger and Le Toux can emulate his production the Union could press at a weak point in the Dallas defense.

Maidana... as an attacking CM?

Maidana… as an attacking CM?

New look?

As they seek to build on last week’s three-goal effort, the Union will be coping with the loss of the player who was the primary driver of those tallies. Though Fernando Aristeguieta put the first two notches in his MLS belt, it was Cristian Maidana who was running the show.

To be clear, the first and third Union goals were fluky and weird, but they came from Maidana figuring out where to be and when to be there. And the second goal came from excellent pressure.

With the Argentinian playmaker injured, Curtin can call on Zach Pfeffer or revert to the 4-4-2 he deployed against Colorado. The first half debacle that almost made the Rapids look like something better than eleven kittens chasing a laser pointer is probably too fresh for another 4-4-2 experiment. And besides, Curtin has pumped up Pfeffer’s tires so often this season that he needs to put his money where his mouth is.

Aristeguieta - all passes vs RSL.

Aristeguieta: all passes vs RSL

Pfeffer brings a more direct style of play than Maidana, and he will likely take up more central positions than the man he will replace. If Pfeffer plays to his strengths, the real question will be how the rest of the Union side adjusts to him. The two biggest potential problems/beneficiaries will be Nogueira and Aristeguieta. Maidana and Nogueira gravitate to the touchlines, and last week that opened plenty of space in the middle for Aristeguieta. The striker did not hesitate to get involved, but he hardly lit the world on fire as a distributor. Pfeffer is much more likely to sit in the hole where Aristeguieta saw the most action last week. This means the Venezuelan must play further up the pitch as an option near the top of the box.

Expected lineup

Expected lineup

This change in positioning offers an opportunity for Aristeguieta to combine with Wenger and Le Toux, who could benefit from having a player in front of them to run off of.

Prediction: Union 1-2 Dallas

Dallas has looked strong but incomplete early. Philadelphia has looked full of untapped potential. This could translate into a match where both teams feel each other out and make a few cringe-worthy mistakes. Whoever capitalizes on those errors will come out on top.


  1. Does either team benefit from – or get especially hindered by – the potential sloppy weather?

    • I don’t think anything without fins will benefit from tomorrow’s weather.

    • pragmatist says:

      Generally, the sloppier the conditions, the more even the teams are. Crappy weather can be a great leveler.
      At a certain point, it becomes a crapshoot. Which goalie will haves frozen, wet ball slip through their gloves first.

  2. “The first half debacle that almost made the Rapids look like something better than eleven kittens chasing a laser pointer is probably too fresh for another 4-4-2 experiment.”

    That may stand up to be the line of the year so far!!! Well done sir!

  3. Dude, awesome work on these previews, in my view this has become required reading for serious Union fans. Now, my only nitpick is that you keep putting in Carroll in the 18 ahead of Richie Marquez – Why do you think that he will be getting the nod? Hasn’t happened yet..

  4. MikeRSoccer says:

    Personally, I’d like to see the Union reorganize the defense like Liverpool did in December. Move to a 3 man back line with wingbacks. The key to their success was brining in a stout defender who could confidently move the ball and build attacks from the back. (Sound like Edu to anyone?) Vitoria and White can remain lumbering oafs, but there will be less consequences. It will also free up Gaddis and Williams to cover the flanks more effectively. See, e.g., gaping holes along corners against RSL. Gaddis and Williams will also be able to get forward more, which will relieve pressure on Wenger and Le Toux, who have been completely marginalized so far. Finally, whether Chaco or Pfeffer is at CAM, they will have less defensive duties and their sole focus can be feeding balls to Nando.

    • You just won the internet for the day, well said

    • I love me some 3-5-2 but Williams is not a wingback and neither is Gaddis.

    • As a not-at-all obsessive Liverpool fan, I’ve given this way too much thought. Generally: Given the success Liverpool have had with it, why haven’t more struggling teams experimented with a similar system? I think @Osager is on the right track, but I also think there’s a lot more to it.

      1) For Liverpool, the wingbacks are most of the width. The system is most effective with two playmakers in the central areas (Coutinho and Lallana recently), which means the wingbacks have to be above-average offensively since they’ll be the guys iso’ing fullbacks and creating havoc from the wings. e.g., Manquillo/Johnson have been less effective in those wide roles compared to converted attackers like Markovic/Ibe. Sheanon&Ray are both good fullbacks, but you wouldn’t bet on them to beat a defender all that often. So this could limit the Liverpool system for the Union.

      2) My biggest issue for the Union is the defenders. Liverpool have been most effective (by far) with Sakho&Can outside of Skrtel. Both players are excellent distributors (Sakho probably the most underrated CB in terms of distribution in the EPL: You add Lovren or Toure to the back line and you lose a lot in the buildup. So what happens when you ask Ethan White and Vitoria to start those attacks? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I want to. Now, give me Edu and Okugo on either side of Vitoria and maybe my opinion changes.

      3) You can make the case that an Edu/Nogueira midfield maps reasonably well onto the Lucas/Henderson midfield that has been the most stable for Liverpool. However, a big part of Liverpool’s success has come from Henderson’s willingness to get into/near the box. He did it a lot with Lucas, and was initially more hesitant with Allen, though that’s gotten better with time. Nogueira just… doesn’t do that. It doesn’t seem like something he’s interested in doing either. Maybe that would change with the formation change, which is why it’s my point #3.

      4) I don’t know how Wenger or Le Toux fits into the Liverpool system at all. Both CAMs for Liverpool are excellent on the half-turn and in tight spaces. W&LT, on the other hand, reallyreallyreally need space to run at people in order to be effective.

      So those are my points. Or at least the 4 most important points. To conclude, I’ve actually been wondering if Southampton doesn’t offer a better blueprint for success for a team like the Union. Two holding midfield players – one destroyer and one who is just spectacular in distribution – behind one big ol’ finisher and a system that can accommodate both players who like to drop off and run at people (e.g., Elia/Mane) or those who like to get wide and create (Tadic/Duricic).

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