Match previews

Preview: Union vs New York City FC

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union vs New York City FC
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: Saturday, June 6 at 7 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Whistle: Drew Fischer; Linesmen: Phil Briere, Adam Wienckowski; Fourth Official: Silviu Petrescu

Welcome to the day that seemed like it might never come: The 2015 Philadelphia Union are above the red line! Let us ignore for a moment that three of the four teams below the Union have higher points per game averages and simply bask in the half-truths the table is currently telling us.

Three wins in four matches — all against quality teams in the East — has created what was once an almost inconceivable scenario in which Philly could be in third place by the end of the day Saturday. If the Union win, the Red Bulls lose, and Toronto and Columbus do anything other than win, Jim Curtin will have guided his team from the doldrums to the top three in under a month.

After Wednesday’s win, Sheanon Williams said MLS is a league of runs, and it certainly must seem that way to members of a team that has done nothing but free fall or rocket upward in 2015.

The Union should continue the positive momentum Saturday when they welcome New York City FC to PPL Park.

NYC defensive blocks vs Houston

NYC defensive blocks vs Houston

Questions in the back… but not for Philly!

At this point, Jason Kreis’ expansion side are openly treading water until the cavalry arrives. Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo will be massive upgrades over the current crop of midfielders when they arrive in July, even if the dimensions of Yankee Stadium seem like a terrible fit for players who manipulate space so well.

Until the big money boys arrive, however, NYC will continue to roll out teams in which, hilariously, almost every player is slightly out of position. A leaky defense has forced Kreis to run experiments next to the already-poor sealant that is Jason Hernandez. Chris Wingert took a run at center back, Kwame Watson-Siriboe proved that his mediocrity knows no bounds, and last weekend Shay Facey stepped into the breach against Houston.

Facey vs Houston

Facey vs Houston

Facey and Hernandez had a unique take on central defense, playing almost man-to-man defense against Giles Barnes and Will Bruin to avoid the pesky task of communication. Facey, in particular, brought a fullback’s mentality to his role, staying tight to Barnes even when it meant dropping deeper than his line. As a result, gaps opened at the top of the box that Hernandez was forced to charge down.

Even though Facey showed an odd interpretation of his defensive responsibilities, a notable competence on the ball may convince the NYC head coach to leave the back four unchanged. Chris Wingert certainly looks more comfortable back on the edge, and Jeb Brovsky is going to play like Jordan Harvey after two beers no matter where you put him.

Bad Mix in midfield

The bigger questions for NYC are in midfield. Is Andrew Jacobson a shield for the back line? No. Is Mix Diskerud, when he isn’t away with the US on international duty like he is for this game, just wandering around the field like a squirrel that forgot where he hid his nuts? Yes. Do Sebastian Velazquez and Khiry Shelton look like they have no idea what to do when their team loses the ball? Almost always. Should any team in MLS be relying on Mehdi Ballouchy for almost one-third of their offensive production? Is a more appropriate question: Should any MLS team need Mehdi Ballouchy for anything? No.

Injuries to Ned Grabavoy and Javier Calle mean Kwadwo Poku is the only true midfielder Kreis trusts enough to give regular minutes. Thomas McNamara has potential but has yet to earn the chance to make a regular impact.

The addition of Poku to the midfield gave Philly huge problems last time these teams met. Carrying the ball from deep positions, Poku forced the Union defense to collapse centrally which freed up space for the more static members (read: everyone else) of the NYC offense. A player that wants to bring the ball through midfield would offer a unique challenge for Philly’s newly organized defenses. The Crew’s Tony Tchani has the ability, but he was rested on Wednesday. The other midfields Philly has faced during their strong run have relied heavily on players that pass between the lines well. NYRB’s Dax McCarty and DC’s Davy Arnaud are both conservative but creative passers, using their own movement and speed of thought to open lanes through which a defensive shape can be bypassed by simple passing. Columbus usually attempts to reach a similar ends by a different means, spreading the field until long passes into the feet of Higuain are easy to see and deliver.

Villa plays on the left, so all the NYC offense must come down the left.

Villa plays on the left, so all the NYC offense must come down the left.

Villa or nada

There is no such nuance to NYC’s current approach. If the expansion side cannot find David Villa in the left channel, they cannot generate offense. The equation is that simple. It does not help that the team must adopt an entirely different tactical approach whenever they leave Yankee Stadium. A narrow field means even a disorganized midfield can only be pulled so far apart. On a pitch that approaches some semblance of regulation size, teams have more angles of attack and, thus far, have used them effectively against NYC.

The reliance on Villa has been a gift and a curse. A gift because Villa really is talented enough to create chances while double- and triple-teamed. A curse because NYC tends to stand around to watch whenever the Spanish superstar has the ball. Ned Grabavoy is the exception that proves the rule: With the midfield shuttler sidelined, Villa has taken even more shots than usual since he has nobody running off him in dangerous areas.

The numbers from Villa border on the absurd. He has taken more shots from outside of the box than either Patrick Mullins or Adam Nemec have taken in total. This despite the fact that not one of the 20 shots from distance Villa has attempted have gone in (only Fernando Aristeguieta has taken at least 20 shots for the Union in total). Essentially, NYC has a playmaking striker with no options settling for curlers from deep. That strategy will drop you to the bottom of the table almost every time.

Nemec pretending to play soccer vs Houston.

Nemec pretending to play soccer vs Houston.

Nemec vs Wenger: Who will score first?

Outside of Villa, NYC continues to have very little production up top. Adam Nemec still falls backwards into a starting role because New York City needs a big body as an outlet when they cannot work the ball through midfield. Nemec has taken all of 11 shots in seven appearances, with only eight of those shots coming inside the penalty area. In nine appearances (four as subs, contrasting Nemec’s seven starts), Patrick Mullins, has taken 13 shots in the box.

One conclusion to draw from NYC’s slow start and Jason Kreis’ inability to right the ship is that the head coach is playing a long game. The Eastern Conference is weak and is likely to remain wide open over the next few seasons as DC, New England, New York and Columbus remain talent-laden but flawed teams. That means NYC is competing with Toronto to buy a way into the playoffs where a few top quality players can produce enough moments of magic to slip by the sides that cannot put together consistently strong performances back to back. Thus, Kreis may be using these first few months of the season to figure out the best way to use his depth once he has a ridiculously decorated midfield at his disposal. With a creative striker in front of a goalscoring midfielder, and the best free kick taker in support, Kreis simply needs to find out who he can rely on to read-n-react to the superstars. This is a role where Ned Grabavoy will shine, and likely the one that Adam Nemec is being groomed to fill. Goliath that he is, Nemec should be able to close his eyes and jump to start racking up the goals from Pirlo’s set pieces.

Wenger vs NYC in Philly on April 11.

Wenger vs NYC in Philly on April 11.

Union counter fits NYC match well

The way Philly has set up in recent weeks should scare NYC considerably. As the Union’s defensive tactics have evolved, new layers have been added that have produced turnovers in the opponent’s half. All of the interceptions and tackles in Columbus territory were not purely Crew mistakes. The Union were doing an admirable job of trapping in wide areas without stretching the defensive shape.

Union defense vs Columbus

Union defense vs Columbus

Peter Pappas mentioned on Wednesday’s broadcast that Philly would try and win the ball back within five seconds of losing it in Columbus territory, then they would retreat. The Union did exactly as Pappas said, but they managed to compress the field as they pressed. This changed everything (compared to the last time these teams met) because it meant that the Crew could not bypass the first line of pressure then take a breath and look around. Importantly, Sheanon Williams and Fabinho were able to follow the wing players high up the pitch without leaving enormous gaps behind because Mo Edu and Richie Marquez moved the offsides line forward. And the few times that Columbus did have time to play the ball into the corner for a chase, Marquez and Edu flashed the speed to contain and prevent a hopeful pass from turning into a dangerous opportunity.

Return of the wings?

Sebastien Le Toux’s willingness to stay disciplined defensively has provided a foundation for him to reintegrate into the offense. Now Le Toux is helping create turnovers then running as part of the counterattack rather than waiting near the back line for some miraculous outlet.

Andrew Wenger had his best half of the season in the opening forty-five minutes against Columbus. But it was as much a half in which he successfully avoided the regular pitfalls than one in which he excelled. In the latter forty-five, Wenger topped his first half performance and finally added the type of confident running that makes him capable of being more than a replacement-level player. The end product still eluded him, but the consistency with which he found the ball made him a reliable threat for the first time in 2015.

After harping on the Union’s wing play all season, there is not much more to say here except: Keep it up on Saturday.

UnionCLBPrediction: Union 2-1 NYC

As Hudson River Blue notes, NYC is good at retaining possession, but they turn into a team of Nemecs when it’s time to turn that possession into good chances. Averaging 2.3 shots on goal per game on the road, Kreis’ men are inflating key pass numbers through Villa’s shots from low percentage zones. It should be completely unacceptable that Ballouchy and Diskerud have combined for only one more key pass than Cristian Maidana when New York City sees so much more of the ball than its opponents. The simple truth is that while Toronto has managed to hang tough in the East by letting its stars dictate the game, Jason Kreis is not going to back off and let Villa and Diskerud do what they want and hope it works out.

NYC is good enough to compete, but not until they buy in to what Kreis is selling.

Philly should win this game, and they should score at least two goals. CJ Sapong may start ahead of Fernando Aristeguieta as the latter recovers from an ankle contusion suffered Wednesday. On current form, they should also pitch an easy shutout, but I’ll predict David Villa stays off the board when he retires and not before.

After this match, the Union play Montreal and a host of very strong sides until hitting a mercurial Orlando City side in early August. Three points at home against New York City was a must in April because the season already looked to be slipping away. Now three points is a must because the Union need to solidify their place in the East before the dog days hit. As good as Jim Curtin’s men have been recently, they remain a remarkably thin squad. Leaving the injury-prone Nogueira or the peaking Maidana out of the side could instantly turn a confident team into a collection of question marks. As the summer games pile up, the stars will have to sit. But Saturday night, Philly must use whoever is available to make sure they embark for LA on a high note.

29 Comments

  1. DarthLos117 says:

    Wenger scores.

  2. Summer in the MLS is when teams figure it out. Spring streaks don’t last forever, now is the time to shine and find your stride. For the Union, the roster is finally starting to look its best in terms of health and fitness. That could and should mean very positive things in the coming weeks. That being said…everything can fall apart in the final games. I ran into Jeff Parke in a bicycle shop a couple years back after they dropped the ball and missed the playoffs. If I’m not mistaken, the table wasn’t settled until the last East Conf. matched was played. I don’t know who was angrier and more disappointed between the two of us. Redemption always comes.
    .
    It’s been a good run. Keep the stride alive, fellas. We all want it.

  3. Having seen NYFC play a few times, It is hard to. . conceive that the Union will lose this one. If LeToux stays disciplined, he should score against an abysmal left fullback. NYFC midfield is very weak and can be pressured off the ball, a tactic that the Union is trying to employ. I expect 2-0 for the Union. By the way, Pirlo is the worst thing that could happen to NYFC. The MLS plays fast and hard. Pirlo is slow, soft and plays no defense. kick him in the ass a few times and he will disappear. He used to be good, but he is awful right now. When was the last time he scored from run of play?

    • Adam Cann says:

      When was the last time he needed to?

      Also, you’d better kick him in the ass more than 35-40 yards from goal.

      • He is playing for Juve , a good team in a weak league. Easy to hide his deficiencies. Really sad to see Adam become sentimental, which cast some doubt on his ability to impartially analize games and players .I realize no one here remembers Riquelme of Argentina against Brazil. He was a Pirlo type player past his prime. They played against Brazil, They kicked his ass, He never played for Argentina again.look it up. Besides, Pirlo has not gotten 35 to 40 yards away from the goal in years. Lets get real about the Union . lets get real about over the hill soccer players coming to the USA to steal our money. Adam , remember the NASL, remeber the Cosmos. I worked out with those guys. Dont get soft. We dont need Lampard or Girard.We need hard headed analysis in real time.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Ummmm…

      • Sure, Pirlo is not really very good anymore. He just happens to be in the engine room for a team playing in the Champions League Finals on saturday with a shot at The Treble. I guess if Barca wins going away you will say, ‘See told you.’
        .
        Pirlo is a gifted player still and I don’t miss Juventus games. And I don’t pretend he is the AC Milan version of himself either. But come on, you are selling a bill of goods like the guy sucks and that makes your argument a bit non-authentic.
        .
        Beyond that, I agree with you about these old heads coming to MLS. They are getting paid huge sums and deflecting important opportunities from younger players.
        .
        I like the younger pedigree coming over for sure. That is the sign of a league growing. But the 34-36 year old set making $6million. Nah.

      • alicat215 says:

        +1!

    • Andrea Pirlo will never be the worst thing to happen to anybody, foorball related. NYCFU just made took a giant step. Mix, Lampard and ANDREA PIRLO…just think about that for a sec…and they’re fronted by David Villa…

    • Lazlo Hollyfeld says:

      Technicality and speed of thought will always be treasured in soccer, and Pirlo has both attributes. And MLS isn’t THAT fast.

      • You have been sold some hype. Dont believe the bullshit. Just watch him play , and it will become clear. watch the percentage of lateral and back passes versus the percentage of penetrating passes that are effective and you will be amazed at Pirlos decline.

      • Dr. Union says:

        I would disagree whether slow or not he can still pick the perfect pass at any time in a game. Come on you can’t tell me Maidana is any quicker on the ball then Pirlo is and as far as defense goes have you watched him play while he is not as good as his prime he clearly controls the middle of the park that is why teams sit a player on him just so he doesn’t get the ball and make plays. While I am not a fan of all the older players coming here Pirlo is one legend I’d like to see play and he can add to many teams in MLS. I mean I would’ve taken him on the Union any day even if for a year or two he clearly can teach a lot to some of these players.

      • alicat215 says:

        Madaina can be Pirlo’s boot cleaner….please.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      I agree that Pirlo would have more trouble than some think. I mean, I think Pirlo would do fine on the whole, and it will help that NYC plays on a smaller field. But the athleticism of MLS will make it tougher for him. Italian soccer functions on a quick cycle of receive pass, release pass, do it quickly, do it repeatedly. MLS players too often don’t do that. So many of Pirlo’s strengths will probably get lost in MLS, while his weaknesses get amplified.

      • The Black Hand says:

        True, but the quality joining will allow for quicker ball movement. Pirlo is going to bust seams, on the regular. He could end up leading the MLS in assists. The GOOD ones adjust…he’s a GREAT one. It will be more physical than he will like, but the guy is water. He will take a little time to adjust…and people will call him “washed up”, but he will adjust…and slay. Damn you, NYCFU!!!

  4. OneManWolfpack says:

    That preview made laugh. Well done. I expect, dare I say, ANOTHER Union win

  5. pragmatist says:

    My inner Philadelphia sports fan is worried about a letdown game. I hope they have turned the corner, but beating the big boys, then losing to the minnowest of the minnows would be a big step backwards.
    With that negativity out of the way…
    I think this team has learned to play within themselves. There are no panic moves, and a lot of composure. We should realistically expect a draw, at worst. But I’m sure Columbus thought the same thing yesterday before kick-off..

  6. Perfect lineup, Adam.
    .
    If Gaddis is fit, I would consider resting Sheanon (who, by the way, has been very good of late…so good that I might not rush my boy Ray back to RB). I would rest Sheanon, on Sat, and then go right back to Mr. Williams. I don’t want to see Sheanon burn out.
    .
    While I’m eating Crow; Brian Carroll has been very, very good. Still some sloppy turnovers but, overall, he has played a big part in our turnaround of play. Nice work, #7!!

    • Dr. Union says:

      Biggest thing Carroll did last week that was very impressive for him was all his one touch passing to get the ball out of his feet. While some resulted in turnovers much rather seem him one touch a pass to Nogs and Chaco then have to dribble around or look for a pass.

      • The Black Hand says:

        I have been quite impressed with Carroll’s play, of late. He is keeping it simple…and DAMN is it ever effective. Good on him!!
        .
        His turnovers came more from the blind boot, up the pitch, but they aren’t happening all that frequently.
        .
        I’m putting the mayo on my ‘word-sandwich’, as we speak.

  7. Hey lets not not forget that the Union can grab some points quickly against mediocre opposition. This division is really weak, And this inscrutable coach might actually get this team to the level of mediocrity. Which would put them in the playoffs , probably. I think that would be great and that would be the essence of the open endedness of this league. Who knows what will happen in the next matchup ? How weird is this team and this league?

  8. Do we really think BC — who’s been terrific of late — can play 90 minutes for the 3rd time in 8 days?? What happens if (when?) he gets tired? The one to replace him is Edu, and that means subbing in White, which screws up the defensive chemistry mid-match. I wonder if it might make more sense to start Edu at CDM for this match with Vitoria or White at CB. I don’t want this as an ongoing lineup change, but for a match like this it would make sense.

    • In his midweek press conference Coach said something like “now is not the time for squad rotation.” NYCFC is weak. I think we’re going to see the exact same starting XI and subs will come in based on fatigue rather than tactics. Coach is probably counting on that approach being just enough to win. He may be right but I think it won’t be pretty to watch.

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