Match previews

Preview: Union vs NYC

Who: Philadelphia Union vs New York City FC
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: Saturday, April 11 at 4 pm
Watch: 6abc, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Jair Marrufo; Linesmen: Jeff Muschik, Danny Thornberry; Fourth Official: Alex Chilowicz

Struggling for identity. Only one goalscorer. An American international midfielder who has been less influential than anticipated.

Until the goalie situation comes up, this could be the Union or New York City FC.

Expansion teams are going to experience growing pains, and NYC has had more than a few. First there was the Frank Lampard kerfuffle. For a week, every commentator with a voice indignantly declared themselves amazed that the club’s owners would send a talented player to help a more valuable investment try to earn a lucrative prize. Astounding, I tell you! It’s like they care about money or something!

More recently, head coach Jason Kreis has been thin-lipped as his team plays a very un-Kreis-like disorganized 4-4-2. An opening day tie with Orlando City and a loss to KC have sandwiched a bright win over New England and a razor-thin escape against a Colorado side that needs to kiss a princess before this goalscoring curse kills them.

There is plenty to say about New York City, but the Union have taken all the headlines in the run up to this match, so they get first billing here.

John McCarthy making one of six saves to earn a clean sheet against the Harrisburg City Islanders.

John McCarthy making one of six saves to earn a clean sheet against the Harrisburg City Islanders. Photo: Glenn Riegel, courtesy of Reading United

The… McCarthy era?

What a curious 15 months or so it has been for Philadelphia Union goalkeeping. Drafting a goalie No. 1 overall, then adding a World Cup veteran midseason, left Philly overflowing with talent between the pipes. But it won’t be Zac MacMath, Rais Mbolhi or Andre Blake asked to backstop the Union in a crucial game this weekend. It will be the talented but comparatively unknown John McCarthy.

McCarthy’s strong preseason should give Jim Curtin plenty of confidence, and the Union head coach indicated that if the local lad performs he will keep getting the call. The calculus for McCarthy is simple: 1) Own the box, 2) Get the defense organized on set pieces, and 3) Bring some energy to a team in desperate need of a boost.

Lineup adjustments

In front of the new goalie, Philly should be able to call on Sheanon Williams and move Ray Gaddis to the left. Though Gaddis is a better one-on-one defender, Williams is likely still the better positional player, and that positioning will be key if the Union are going to deal with the constant threat of David Villa in the left channel.

Williams and Maurice Edu give Philly a foundation to bring the ball out of defense on the ground, something that has been a struggle so far in 2015. Furthermore, Vincent Nogueira and Williams have consistently connected well and offered a route out of the back when the counterattack has faltered. (Curtin said on Wednesday of Nogueira, “I think he’ll be available in some way this weekend.”) The Frenchman’s possible return likely means more pressure on Michael Lahoud to protect the back line, but that should be a small price to pay in exchange for some crossfield balls that bring the wings into play (please, Vincent?).

The final Union lineup question is out wide, where Jim Curtin will have to decide between retaining the impressive Eric Ayuk or reinstalling Sebastien Le Toux now that Zach Pfeffer is available in the middle. Confirmation that Cristian Maidana is still at least a week away coupled with Fred’s continuing suspension means Pfeffer is the only attacking midfielder available. As strong as Le Toux’s defensive work was last weekend, Pfeffer offers a link between defense and attack that was sorely missing and goes a long way toward correcting Philly’s passing issues.

And the truth is, Sebastien Le Toux needs to find his form on the wing. His direct play up the line is almost always a central feature of a competent Union attack, and against a team with overlapping fullbacks he should find the freedom he needs to be a constant nuisance.

Pfeffer, meanwhile, offers the perfect skillset to take advantage of NYC’s most glaring weakness up the middle.

NYC gets caught upfield and bypassed with a single pass vs NE.

NYC gets caught upfield and bypassed with a single pass vs NE.

NYC: Problems up the gut

One day, New York City will be a defensively organized team under Jason Kreis. But not yet.

For the past two weeks, NYC has looked amateurish defending the counterattack, with only Colorado’s historically bad finishing and Kansas City’s own growing pains to save them.

The clear problem is in the center of midfield, where both Mix Diskerud and Andrew Jacobson are all-action players who aggressively close down the ball and leave enormous spaces behind them. There were hints of this issue as far back as Week Two, where New England was able to spring counterattacks from a single pass out of the back because so many NYC players collapsed toward the ball. However, the trouble was exacerbated by the absence of David Villa and Diskerud’s desire to push forward to help fill the Spaniard’s shoes.

Poor defensive spacing allows Colorado to push the ball behind the midfield and easily create confusion in the back.

Poor defensive spacing allows Colorado to push the ball behind the midfield and easily create confusion in the back.

And this is not simply a transition issue. Against Colorado, the NYC midfield left gigantic gaps in front of the defense, allowing the Rapids’ strikers to check into space, turn, and run at the defense without so much as a hint of pressure.

From the second photo on the left, you can see how every single NYC player is now facing the ball, and any Rapids player that has a Eureka! moment and takes off on a run will be instantly alone. Luckily for NYC, this was Colorado and good ideas are few and far between these days in Rapidsland.

As noted above, these spacing issues have usually been most troubling in the middle, where neither Diskerud or Jacobson are prepared to play a Kyle Beckerman role (nor is Diskerud a particularly good fit for a Javy Morales-type game). If Kreis sticks with this midfield pairing, he will eventually get through to Jacobson. But even with an extra week to prep, it is hard to imagine that Jacobson and Diskerud will stay disciplined once the game inevitably opens up.

Zach Pfeffer should be able to run at the NYC back line if he can simply keep his head up and wait for the midfield to collapse on the ball, as they did too often against KC.

NYC's midfielders tend to follow the ball, not the runners. Feilhaber easily sneaks behind them here, as Pfeffer should do on Saturday.

NYC’s midfielders tend to follow the ball, not the runners. Feilhaber easily sneaks behind them here, as Pfeffer should do on Saturday.

Sorting out the wide areas

But the central midfielders cannot take all of the blame. NYC’s fullbacks and wide men are most dangerous when interacting through overlapping runs, however they have yet to sort out defensive responsibilities.

Thus, when a fullback has not made an attacking run, the wide midfielder will still tend to track his man all the way back, creating strange overloaded back line scenarios where both a midfielder and a fullback are marking the same player. Whether stemming from central midfield or the wide areas, the outcome is the same: A hugely open midfield waiting to be run through. And Philadelphia has a few players capable of taking advantage when confident.

The Villa factor

There is a pretty important caveat here. With David Villa in the lineup against New England, NYC was able to be a bit more disciplined in midfield. Villa has done what virtually all great strikers do when they arrive in MLS: He has begun playing further from goal.

NYC's wings and fullbacks are still sorting out defensive roles.

NYC’s wings and fullbacks are still sorting out defensive roles.

Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane are great examples of players who quickly understood that they were so much better on the ball than those around them that coming deep to pick it up would create more offense than it killed. Villa has picked the same hole as Henry, just between the right center back and the right fullback, as a base of operations. From there he can pick out overlaps, play give-and-goes with a central midfielder, or dink a short cross into the box for runners crashing far post and at the penalty spot.

David Villa passing in the 1st half (L) and 2nd half (R) vs NE.

David Villa passing in the 1st half (L) and 2nd half (R) vs NE.

In the opening day draw with Orlando, Villa was often a peripheral player. The adjustment to drift wide against New England made him difficult to track defensively but easy to find offensively. It may be the defining positional change of NYC’s season (until Diskerud and Jacobson switch to a diamond 4-4-2, of course).

To close Villa down, the opposition has to either pull a defender out of the back line or ask a defensive midfielder to scurry out of the middle of the park. Both options leave spaces that are not conducive to an organized defense, and Villa eventually took advantage against New England with a simple 1-2 at the edge of the box leading to an easy goal.

Diskerud and Jacobson completed passes vs Col

Diskerud and Jacobson completed passes vs Col

Making the most of Mix

Villa’s presence takes the offensive burden off of Diskerud, and he, in turn, leaves fewer holes for Jacobson to cover. This trickles down across the team, with the positional discipline that characterized Kreis’ years at RSL much more apparent in NYC’s early matches than in the past two.

A huge key to this weekend’s match will be whether NYC can regain some semblance of defensive shape with Villa back in the lineup and, if not, how well the Union’s struggling counterattack can exploit the expansion side’s glaring problem area.

For New York, a healthy Villa is clearly a huge boost. But tapping into Diskerud’s potential as a creator is almost equally important. Diskerud is an extremely active player, and he can both spread the field and follow plays as a late runner because of his stamina and ability to see plays developing ahead of other players. However, he has not clicked with the rest of NYC’s weapons this season. Against Colorado, in a game where the defensive pressure was hardly world class, Diskerud and Jacobson were never involved in the final third. Instead, they both played simple passes to wide players or to Villa and let Ned Grabavoy and Sebastian Velazquez shuttle forward to join the offense.

Different player, different system?

A hallmark of the Kreis offense in Salt Lake City was the presence of Morales and Beckerman at the top of the opposition box, moving the ball efficiently and quickly and making it almost easy to find a pathway through the scrambling defense. Diskerud offers a different sort of attacking game, and so far Kreis has yet to figure out how to maximize it.

Over time, expect to see Villa’s strike partner act as more of a full-fledged hold up player, allowing Diskerud to bounce balls off of him and penetrate a defense at speed before finding cutters in behind. This kind of “drive-the-lane” offense was not something Morales or Beckerman could pull off over the course of ninety minutes, but Diskerud has the motor and the skills to torment a defense with more direct running.

NYC's deep defensive line

NYC’s deep defensive line

A deep back line

The final thing to watch from NYC is the depth of their back four. Thus far, blame has been placed on the midfield for the team’s spacing issues, but it is certainly true that the defensive line has been deeper than it has to be the past few weeks. With no true defensive midfielder, this means NYC has trouble figuring out defensive assignments when strikers drop off, and it forces the entire side to track back much further than necessary.

Philadelphia has a wonderfully intelligent mover in Fernando Aristeguieta who should be able to find acres of grass on Sunday. The real question is how the Union wingers handle such a deep defense. Le Toux loves to run behind a back line, but he will likely have more success checking back and trying to play off of Pfeffer and Aristeguieta before running through. NYC can be pulled out of shape easily, but it will take more than simple direct running.

Andrew Wenger will once again have a chance to shine as NYC’s rotating right back should have difficulty covering the Union winger. Look for Wenger to pull wide or slip into that same hole that David Villa will be occupying on the other side if he is feeling confident.

Predicted lineup

Predicted lineup

Prediction: NYC 2-2 Union

David Villa takes a ton of shots. He takes them from anywhere, and he takes them unusually quickly. John McCarthy will need to be on his toes every time the ball is at Villa’s feet to avoid being caught off guard.

On the other end, the Union are perfectly capable of breaking down this NYC defense. If Vincent Nogueira turns in a performance at even 80 percent of his best, he will be able to pass through NYC with ease. Nogueira has been nowhere near 80 percent of his best this season, and if he struggles to find the ball Philly will again be forced to go route one.

NYC can score because their skill players are just that good. The Union can score because they have an in-form striker against a system that has yet to truly set in. It should be an open but ugly match, and the Union should have every chance to redeem themselves after the KC collapse.


  1. My only change to the starting 11 would be to start ayuk over wenger. Ayuk has a higher work rate right now and could set up wenger against tired FB

  2. Boy if there is ever an important game in the history of this franchise…..
    The curse of the european star playing in MLS, I am so much better than these guys: I need to defend, build play and pass to myself. Gol.
    3 points is the only possible solution.

  3. Pfeffer has a beast of a game. Defense comes up big. McCarthy stands on his head. 2-0 Union. Yes, I’m a sucker.

  4. Lucky Striker says:

    Not sure Nog is ready (health) to start. Bucket 4-4-2 and a big Union win in the cards.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      I share the skeptical worry; Curtin’s tone of voice when he voiced the words Adam Cann quotes made me think there was little likelihood of more than coming off the bench in the final 15 minutes.
      Someone, perhaps Adam, commented devastatingly about Wenger’s second half disappearance pattern. Sub him at 60, put Le Toux on the left and Ayuk on the right, especially if Carroll is on the pitch to help mentor his defending.
      Should there be a lead late, sub Casey for Pfeffer, switch Aristegueta to Pfeffer’s spot, and then you have two excellent defensive headers on the pitch for restarts, especially on corners.

      • i like the idea of casey as a defensive sub. i remember more than one game last year where he had some crucial defensive headers late in games

  5. I think the best lineup would be the 4-4-2 we had last game, just minus MBolhi, Carroll and Fabinho and plus MCarthy, Williams and Nogs(if they’re healthy).
    I think once everyone’s healthy, the best lineup to fit our players is a 4-4-2 diamond, with Edu at CB, Nogs at CDM and Maidana at CAM.
    We’ll see what Curtin comes up with

    • Tend to agree though LaHoud at CDM. Noguiera in free role. Maidana CAM with Letoux The Striker and Sapong alternating up top and Wenger or Ayuk on the wing- hopefully Wenger playing better as Ayuk is not a short term fix for the longer term problem of faulty wing play.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Your ID of Aristegueita echoes a Clive Cussler Issac Bell series book title!

      • First ever Clive Cussler reference on this site, at least that I can recall. I now feel freed to start tossing them out left and right in my columns.

      • Your not going to be able to do that in 4-4-2……..Lahoud, Madaina, and Nogs all can’t be in the middle in a 4-4-2……….even in a diamond…….they’re roles will be all slightly different. Again, Jim looks most comfortable in a 4-4-2( hate it!), with two CDMs in the middle……..but your not going to get one of those guys on the pitch in this formation….

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Please keep in mind that the 4-4-2 empty bucket so-called worked well in significant measure because Vermes plays a high pressure 4-3-3 no matter what. He makes himself vulnerable to counterattack unabashedly.
      Jason Kreis as described above, whether intentionally or not, has been playing a deep back four with the acres of open green in front of them, not behind them. Different tactical problem altogether. We have to check back to the ball in front of the back line to draw them out in order to have a chance of penetrating and getting behind. Pfeffer could in fact have some very good opportunities. So could Wenger as Adam says if he lies deep and waits for Aristegueita to control and lay off.

  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Sounds to me as though Jason Kreisler might want to trade for Brian Carroll, were Carroll willing to go. He wouldn’t have Beckerman’s offensive capacity, but positional discipline and on field mentoring are strengths.

  7. Scottymac says:

    0-3 NYC

    If our minor league keeper
    If our newly reconfigured back four
    If Pfeffer can do anything
    If Nogs is healthy and suddenly offensive
    If LeToux pretends to be someone else

    Our plan requires everything to go right. Theirs- David Villa against John McCarthy. Ugh.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Our plan has required everything to go right all year so far and NOTHING HAS. I’m gonna take the odds and say we get the breaks and play well enough to win. 2-1 at best. Shit, we have to win one before May 1 right… right?

  8. sob Chris says:

    Didn’t Curtain just emphasize how Ethan White is one of his favorite players on the squad? I would expect him to return to the back line, with Edu and Lahoud at the base of midfield and Nogueira starting the match on the bench.

  9. If Nogueira can’t start — and it sounds like he might not be up to it — what’s our lineup then???

    I would go with a 4-4-2 again, Nando and Le Toux up top, Pfeffer at CAM, Ayuk and Wenger on the wings, and Lahoud as sole CDM. Alternatively you do the 4-5-1 as Adam has suggested, except with Carroll in Nogueira’s spot. It’s hard for me to endorse playing Carroll and Lahoud together, except that last week they both did a really fine job and played well together, so maybe we could roll it out one more time. (I take our back 5 as a given.)

  10. pressure Diskerud only, because Jacobsen does not have the ability to create. If Jacobsen is the main guy, The union can win. Villa will drop deep again get frustrated, and the threat is gone. also Ayuk would be perfect for the last half hour of the game to snatch a goal as a sub. Wenger is playing with no confidence and Letoux must play between the midfield and the defensive lines.

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