Match previews

Preview: Union vs DC United

Photo: Daniel Studio

Who: Philadelphia Union vs DC United
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: Sunday, May 17 at 7 pm
Watch: Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes, Fox Sports Go, SiriusXM FC
Whistle: Alan Kelly; Linesmen: George Gansner, Danny Thornberry; Fourth Official: Marcos De Oliveira

DC United are unbeaten in eight games. They play an ugly brand of soccer that prioritizes defense and winning over style. They don’t have stars; instead, head coach Ben Olsen reinforces a spine of veterans with young players who attack fast and track runners with aplomb.

Sounds a lot like a team Jim Curtin would want, doesn’t it?

It is undeniable that DC has done a much better job building a sustainable roster than Philly. However, it is the consistency with which the team executes Olsen’s system that truly sets the Eastern Conference leaders apart from the stuttering Union.

DC's back four becomes compact to protect the top of the box.

DC’s back four becomes compact to protect the top of the box.

A DC-tough system

United has allowed a league-low eight goals in 2015, and only New York Red Bulls have scored more than one goal in a match against them (though NYRB has done it twice). The most notable trait of the DC defense is its compactness, with Bobby Boswell and Kofi Opare holding a line near the top of the box and pulling their outside backs in tight to prevent throughballs. Although United leaves space on the wings, teams have failed to fully exploit the wide areas because the DC wide players are incredibly consistent at tracking runners.

Nick DeLeon tracks his runner all the way into the box.

Nick DeLeon tracks his runner all the way into the box.

Nick DeLeon and Michael Farfan are mediocre on-the-ball defenders, but against Orlando City on Wednesday, they always hustled back to cover the flank when the back four tightened into a box-defending unit. As long as the wide men can apply light pressure, DC is difficult to penetrate because Boswell and Opare are dominant in the air and their limited agility is papered over by the proximity of their fullbacks.

Union defensive system

This strategy of collapsing toward the box contrasts Philly’s own defensive system, which tends to become stretched as the fullbacks get close to wide players and leave gaps that the center backs have struggled to cover.

Compared to Vancouver, however, DC is unlikely to test the Union defense with direct running. Chris Pontius is the team’s best one-on-one winger, but he may remain at striker if Fabian Espindola fails to recover from a quadricep injury in time for Sunday’s match. Instead of relying on speedy attacks, United tends to grind the opposition down and turn defense into offense late in matches. In five of their six wins, the Black and Red have been tied or trailed at halftime, suggesting they are capable of making the right adjustments to overcome stagnant first halves.

Orlando first half shots after Larin's goal.

Orlando first half shots after Larin’s goal.

Wednesday’s match against Orlando City fits that narrative perfectly, and it also serves as a wonderful (and woefully depressing) point of comparison between the division leaders and the Union. DC went down early off a glorious snapshot from Cyle Larin that zipped past the indomitable Bill Hamid. In similar situations against Columbus and Vancouver, Philadelphia fell apart like the bottom third of a poorly made burrito.

DC changed nothing. Despite Larin’s goal through traffic, the defense continued to collapse on the center and give Orlando more space out wide. OCSC only attempted three shots over the remaining 34 minutes of the first half, none from anywhere close to the box. In fact, Orlando generated zero offense around the box for the rest of the half, with any completed passes going wide or otherwise going astray. Even as DC struggled to threaten their opponents, the strength of their defensive structure never wavered. And in the second half, the team’s offensive engine joined the fray and the United transition game slowly turned the tide against Orlando’s spacious system.

Orlando passing vs DC United. Notice all that space at the top of the box.

Orlando passing vs DC United. Notice all that space at the top of the box.

That engine has a name

Five DC United players are averaging at least one key pass per game. In contrast, Philadelphia Union have only two players averaging over one per match, with Sebastien Le Toux’s 1.5 driven by set pieces.

Although DC spreads responsibility throughout the offense, there is a clear central figure: Chris Rolfe. The veteran has been involved in six of DC’s 13 goals this season. Additionally, he has been integral to many of the breakouts that lead to corners and set pieces, from which DC have scored five times in 2015 (more on that later).

After going ahead vs Columbus, DC continued to pour on pressure.

After going ahead vs Columbus, DC continued to pour on pressure.

Rolfe has always been a talented dribbler, but this season he has gained more freedom to stay high through Perry Kitchen’s development into a top tier defensive midfielder. It is probably not a coincidence that the four teams separating themselves atop the Eastern Conference feature four of the best defensive midfielders in MLS right now (Scott Caldwell really is playing that well this year).

Kitchen and Dax McCarty in particular have allowed their midfield partners additional freedom by reading the game so well in the attacking half that the opposition has difficulty getting out even when they force a turnover. With Kitchen lurking, Rolfe is able to drift and find pockets of space behind the opposing midfield without leaving his team disadvantaged defensively. The result is goals like DC’s second against Orlando and first against Columbus, where Rolfe can explode out of midfield and run at central defenders, to whom he will rarely lose a one-on-one battle.

Aside from Kitchen’s development, the other key component to Rolfe’s (and DC’s) success has been a band of veteran strikers who have made careers by mastering the dark art of creating their own space by toeing the offside line. Jairro Arrieta leads the league in offsides calls in only 503 minutes of play, and Fabian Espindola is just doing what he has always done: Rolling off the shoulder of the last defender on breakouts to make that final pass an easy one.

Importantly, DC has recruited strikers who love contact. And note that these guys do not simply draw contact: They look for it. Which is to say it does not take much to make a pair of strong and powerful attackers hit the deck when they are in the final third. And let’s just leave it at that.

This “ability” to draw fouls is an oft-overlooked but extremely important part of DC United’s strategy. They have scored off two corners, two direct free kicks, and one indirect free kick this season (and have collected two additional goals from crosses). Without a star goalscorer, United wins by doing the dirty, little things better than their opponent. They cause massive confusion on offensive set pieces, yet they are organized (thanks to Bill Hamid) in their own box. They understand how and when to draw fouls, and they are loathe to give away the ball in the final third unless there are enough players in the box to warrant a cross. This team is playing smart, confident soccer; everyone is on the same page.

Hamid at the helm

As much credit as Bill Hamid gets for his spectacular saves, his real contribution can be seen in DC’s defensive responsibility. The organization of the back line, compressing near the box and expanding quickly to release the fullbacks for overlapping runs, owes a lot to Hamid and Bobby Boswell’s leadership.

Additionally, United’s midfielders would likely tell you they track runners so well because nobody wants to be in Hamid’s spotlight after a defensive breakdown in midfield leads to a goal. Hamid is assertive, and as he comes closer and closer to fulfilling his vast potential, he now has the record to back up his noise.

UnionDC2Conclusion: Union 0-1 DC United

There are so many ways to compare these two clubs and come to the sad conclusion that one is doing it right and one is not. Spending decisions: DC has acquired proven, MLS-veteran strikers and paired them with in-house wingers to create a low-cost, high-return offense.

DC drafted and developed a talented defensive midfielder, waiting out the inconsistent years and focusing on the bright spots. Philly drafted a talented defensive midfielder then brought in an endless parade of veterans to play in front of him as they sought shortcuts to success.

DC patiently developed a goalie, recognizing that spending big on the position in MLS is laughably absurd given salary restrictions and a deep pool of talent. Philly jettisoned a young goalie in favor of an expensive one, and spent two high draft picks on the position in less than five years.

DC has recognized that fullback is one of the shallowest positions in MLS and has actively sought veterans and youth to challenge for the roles. Taylor Kemp and Chris Korb are no All-Stars, but they have notably improved over recent months. Can anybody say the same about the Union’s left back situation?

DC has done an outstanding job mining MLS for capable contributors. Bobby Boswell, Sean Franklin, Luis Silva, Chris Rolfe, Jairo Arrieta, and Davy Arnaud have all come from other teams with little fanfare and locked down regular minutes. Philadelphia brought back Sebastien Le Toux and added Conor Casey, while acquiring Andrew Wenger, Michael Lahoud, Ethan White, and CJ Sapong in trades that, with the exception of Sapong, sent more established players the other way.

And the standings reflect all of the above decision-making.

Yet, as always, the game is decided on the field. DC struggled to break down a defensively frail Orlando City side that was without the protection of Amobi Okugo. And Philadelphia showed promise for the first half hour of a tough road match in Vancouver. So… I’m saying there’s a chance.

But to take it, the Union will have to beat a tough, well-organized club at their own game.

Injuries (as of May 15, 2015)

Philadelphia Union
OUT: GK Andre Blake (right medial meniscus tear, out 4-6 weeks); M Michael Lahoud (hip flexor injury 5/2, out 4-6 weeks)
QUESTIONABLE: F Antoine Hoppenot (left hamstring strain, DNP 5/9); M Eric Bird (hernia repair recovery); GK John McCarthy (concussion symptoms, DNP 5/9); D Steven Vitoria (right groin injury, DNP 5/9, did not train 5/13)

DC United
OUT: F Eddie Johnson (heart condition); M Collin Martin (bilateral inguinal nerve release surgery 4/9, out 4-6 weeks)
QUESTIONABLE: F Fabian Espindola (right quad, DNP 5/9); D Steve Birnbaum (sprained left ankle 3/28, out 4-6 weeks); M Markus Halsti (right knee injury)


  1. its so goddamn depressing. dc was able to build an effective cheap roster just by doing simple straightforward things that pretty much any team can do. for some reason we are unwilling to do that

  2. DC is going to bitch slap us. They came out in 2nd half against Orlando and put them to the blade.

  3. alicat215 says:

    another priceless look from Nogs in that picture…………….I think he’s saying: “what ever man…..”

    • Or “totally not the right run right now … again. Can I get someone other than Wenger on this wing please?”

  4. alicat215 says:

    translation: the DC back four do exactly what a back 4 is suppose to do…..4 guys collapse within the 18 box. The Union stay spread….exactly what a back four are NOT suppose to do.

  5. I’m reminded of a quote from infamous boxer Bruce (Mouse) Strauss: “I knew I had enough in the tank to go three rounds. I always tested their chin, but if I couldn’t knock ’em out, I’d look for a soft spot in the canvas, wait for a big punch and close my eyes.”

  6. pragmatist says:

    Our team is best summed up by the fact that our projected backup keeper is named “Goalie.”

  7. What Sakiewicz doesn’t get is that HE is the major factor standing in the way of the sport growing and representing in one of the top markets in the country. Sakiewicz and Sugarman make a pathetic 1,2 punch as owners and CEO of the Union.
    They need to sell this franchise to a competent and financially smart and competitive ownership!


  8. Great One says:

    How pathetic is that picture with our lineup and subs?
    I don’t care Jim, play everyone young. Maclaughlin, Catic, Lee, everyone.

    • catic is on loan to carolina for the next eight weeks as payment for letting us use sylvestre for the same amount of time

      • Great One says:

        So it doesn’t cost us money

      • pragmatist says:

        That’s pretty much a win/win (something good happened! WOW!)

        We get a capable keeper for 2 months, and Catic will get some quality minutes. Hopefully it works out better than pretty much anything with the big club has this year.

  9. Speaking of loans, Leo Fernandes has been starting regularly for the Cosmos on the left side. Coincidentally, we find ourselves shorthanded on offense. Solution?
    #LeoComeHome #Please #Really

  10. J in Section 125 says:

    Remember to bring the bag to cover your head. Hopefully gets the announcers talking to show the national TV audience see how frustrated we are with ownership.

    • another shutout at home is predicted. that is intolerable.
      if (ha!) things keep going down this path, i’m bagging it.
      doing something way more enjoyable than attending/watching this match on tv so do me proud, people.

  11. Phil in Wilmington says:

    Nothing will change with this club until they play at least one home game to an EMPTY stadium. until then, ownership will ignore.

    Real Philly fans will boycott home games for the rest of the season. You want to support the team? cheer them on the road, cheer team from the parking lot but done’t set foot inside (or pay for parking). Hell, send em candy grams. As long as they FO keeps seeing income they’ll stick to their “plan.”

    Sons of Ben, you want to impress an average fan of the game like me? stop making movies about yourself and start moving and shaking this club where it belongs.

    Until then you’re all simply kidding yourselves.

  12. tick.tock.tick.tock.

  13. 2 wins. 18 games.

  14. ScottyMac says:

    “Nick, can you comment on the mildly worded #WeDeserveBetter campaign?

    Sure, some of our fans have special dietary needs, gluten free, vegan, etc. and, well, guilty as charged, we haven’t delivered. We’re excited to announce a new gluten free offering with Bimbo and our Musselman’s organic applesauce will be a treat. Peter, we love these supporters and we are delivering platinum, from a menu perspective.

    It’s not about the on field performance?

    Nope, they support the players. Totally about our menu choices. Now, let’s go get an applesauce.”

  15. Steve H. says:

    There is a book called, “Who Moved My Cheese.”
    I think that everyone in the Union Front Office should read it. Since we know they read this board, hey, whoever is reading… make it happen!

  16. 700 Chopper says:

    Hola bitches we won

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