Match previews

Preview: Union at DC United

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union at DC United
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: RFK Stadium
When: Sunday, July 26 at 5 pm
Watch: ESPN2, ESPN3
Whistle: Drew Fischer; Linesmen: Sean Hurd, Brian Dunn; Fourth Official: Jose Carlos Rivero

DC United have the most points in the Eastern Conference, but the secret to their success is still hard to pin down.

Davy Arnaud and Perry Kitchen in the middle with a mix-n-match set of wingers and strikers does not seem like a lineup that would keep an opposing coach awake at night. But with the best goalie in the league and three starting-level center backs available, DC’s defense has covered up for the stuttering offense. And even with Bill Hamid injured, Ben Olsen’s team has sat deep but protected the box with success.

Birnbaum on the outside

However, injuries to Chris Korb and Sean Franklin have disrupted DC’s back four, meaning Philadelphia Union may see Steve Birnbaum at right back with either Markus Halsti or Kofi Opare in the center of defense. Birnbaum is above average on the ball for a central defender, but he has not shown the speed or on-the-go passing of a fullback at the MLS level. Additionally, moving Birnbaum out of the middle upsets the strengthening partnership between Birnbaum and Bobby Boswell.

Birnbaum’s appeal on the outside comes mainly from his ability to make the first pass out of defense. DC selected the Cal defender second overall in the SuperDraft because he was more MLS-ready than his teammate and backline partner Christian Dean. “MLS-ready” means one thing: Speed. Not physical speed, but speed of play. Dean’s physical tools were, and remain, better than Birnbaum’s, but the latter moves the ball quicker and works a press better.

Birnbaum can be beat for pace by Sebastien Le Toux or Eric Ayuk, but he is unlikely to be caught out of position.

Marking Maidana

Regardless of who plays in back for DC, the key to dominating the visitors will be tracking Cristian Maidana. Marky Delgado’s wonderful opener for Toronto last week overshadowed the work he put in to freeze out the Union’s playmaker. Importantly, Delgado was willing to abandon the center of the pitch to follow Maidana into a channel. This meant Bruno Cheyrou sat off more than normal, giving Nogueira and Carroll space to operate, but cutting off CJ Sapong’s passing lanes. The Union were unable to turn that time in midfield into accurate balls over the top, suggesting DC would do well to adopt a similar strategy on Sunday.

Maidana key passes and shots in loss at DC on May 30.

Maidana key passes and shots in loss at DC on May 30.

Last time these teams met in the regular season, Maidana was in full flight. Five key passes (one off a corner) and a shot on goal highlight the space the Argentinian found in the right channel between Birnbaum and Taylor Kemp. With Davy Arnaud shading to the left to cut off service to Fernando Aristeguieta, Maidana found success working with Le Toux to pin Kemp deep.

When Perry Kitchen pulled over to help on Maidana, Philly should have had space in the center for Vincent Nogueira. But this was not the case, and figuring out why Nogueira could not find time on the ball to spread the field — particularly after DC tied the match — is key to unlocking the DC defense.

Nogueira is at his best when Philly moves the ball out of defense with enough speed to catch a defense before it sets up. As the Red Bulls found out on Tuesday, pressing Nogueira in the open field can create a waterfall effect of bad positioning. The Frenchman is so good at avoiding tackles that going after him without proper support in place leaves the kind of holes that turn innocent transitions into dangerous breakouts. The Union have had difficulty executing speedy transitions when teams force play through the fullbacks instead of Maurice Edu.

In May, DC used goalshy Conor Doyle to pester Philly's central defenders, limiting their ability to get the ball to Nogueira quickly.

In May, DC used goal-shy Conor Doyle to pester Marquez (16) and Edu (8), limiting their ability to get the ball to Nogueira quickly.

A new option up top

DC used Conor Doyle’s one redeeming attribute — stamina — to effectively slow down the Philly counterattack in May. But with a new attacking option in town, Ben Olsen will need to figure out how to upgrade his offense without disrupting the team defense that has lifted a team without superstars to the top of the standings.

Saborio’s exit from Real Salt Lake may have been acrimonious, but DC has been a good next step in veteran careers since Ben Olsen took over. Davy Arnaud, Bobby Boswell, Chris Rolfe, and Fabian Espindola all arrived at the club at a crossroads, and they could have comfortably settled into their established ways without integrating into the team’s system.

To a man, however, the club’s vets have bought in and been reborn in modified roles. Rolfe has adopted a more direct style as he has been asked to carry an increased scoring burden in the absence of a true front-end striker. Espindola has similarly adapted by becoming less direct in response to Jairo Arrieta’s inability to link play effectively.

Saborio will be asked to take up the role left unfilled since Eddie Johnson’s career ended. He will stick on a center back, creating a physical battle and opening a hole in front of the defense. The Costa Rican’s strike rate has consistently hovered around a goal per two starts, and much of that success comes from getting in positions to take lots of shots. Until this season, Saborio reliably took an average of about three shots per game. This year, he has 30 shots in 14 appearances (13 starts), which is far below his 2.6 shots/appearance career numbers.

The goal for DC is clear: Use Saborio as a focal point for an offense that has yet to congeal into anything consistent. Going back to a May 13 victory over Orlando, DC has only scored multiple goals in a match when they have gone behind in the first 15 minutes. With Saborio in the mix, DC will look to move Espindola around the front line, looking for spots where the fullback commits too high but the central defender is pinned to the middle. Discipline in the back will be a necessity for Philly, particularly with Ethan White likely to remain alongside Mo Edu. White has struggled to figure out how to handle the space to his outside, with strikers able to drag him deep or high so the midfield can drop balls behind the Union defense with ease.

In the second half against DC on May 30, Nogueira rarely played long and did not spend enough time on the ball.

In the second half against DC on May 30, Nogueira rarely played long and did not spend enough time on the ball.

Union road defense

How White handles Saborio — or Arrieta if the new signing is not ready to start — could dictate how this match develops. DC’s wing players are very skilled in isolation, and putting balls into corners is a great way to create those one-on-one moments that bring out the best in Nick DeLeon, Chris Pontius, and Miguel Aguilar.

After beating the Union on a late penalty in May, DC has notched comeback wins over Chicago and New England but has not scored more than one goal in any other match. Notably, however, the red and black have not played at RFK Stadium since late June, and they return to face a defense that is giving up nearly 2.5 goals per game on the road.

Additionally, the Union will almost certainly use a very similar lineup to the one that went 120 minutes against Red Bulls midweek. Injuries to Andrew Wenger and Richie Marquez are highlighting what was already a notable lack of depth for the Union, and it is hard to see Jim Curtin turning to Steven Vitoria or anyone other than Eric Ayuk after the former was left out against New York and the latter scored.

Two lineup issues

Curtin, then, has two major lineup questions: First, when will the starters get rest? Much like last season, Philly is a very competitive team with its first eleven (and at this point that includes Ayuk over Wenger to everyone but the Union coaching staff) on the pitch. But any injuries in midfield or in back create a lot of alarming issues: Ethan White’s individual errors have kept him from challenging for a starting role in back, while Michael Lahoud’s injury means that resting Nogueira or Carroll means playing Zach Pfeffer out of position. Furthermore, the offense has disappeared if either Nogueira or Maidana plays in anything below top gear, and trading Sheanon Williams has left the team with no cover at fullback on either side.

Likely lineup on Sunday

Likely lineup on Sunday

Second, CJ Sapong’s success up top has left Aristeguieta with no clear route back into the first eleven. Will Curtin play with two strikers and push Maidana to a wider role? Will Sapong move outside to make room for the Venezuelan poacher?

Prediction: DC 1-1 Union

Another deep run in the US Open Cup is a great thing, but it further exposes the perverse juggling act that has characterized Philly’s roster management since the club’s 2011 playoff run. The bench midweek was Aristeguieta, Zach Pfeffer, an expensive fourth-choice center back, and the Harrisburg offense. Michael Lahoud is on the road to recovery, but Jim Curtin has been down this road before: A talented starting lineup can be undone by the brutal MLS season, and midweek games only exacerbate the problem.

The Union can win on Sunday with the same lineup that played Tuesday; that lineup — with a healthy Marquez preferred to White — can compete with anybody in the east. But how long will it hold up?


  1. Can anybody tell me how ESPN3 works? Do you just go there and watch, or is there some sort of login credentials needed?

    • Login typically through your cable or internet provider. I know that ESPN3 works in my house without a login because I have FIOS. Check their site to see if your provider is there.

      • John Ling says:

        Thanks. I also have FIOS, but I was thinking of accessing from the Linc parking lot Sunday afternoon, rather than from home. I’ll poke around on ESPN3’s and/or FIOS’s sites this evening to see what I can figure out, I guess.

  2. I agree with the 1-1 prediction, and I would be fine with a point on the road to a pretty good DC team.
    Curtin needs to somehow work in Vitoria over the next few games to see what he can do. White makes too many mental mistakes to be a consistent starter and Vitoria makes too much money to sit on the bench without having some opportunity to show his ability.

  3. Lets just tell the team the game is a US Open Cup game and put 10 men out there from the start… We know the result we’ll get. For the life of me I have no idea which team will show up? The never say die, we’ll beat you with what ever it takes to do so… or will the team without a clue how to finish and a defense that has more holes in it than swiss cheese?!?! Oh yeah, do we need to put our Mayfair boy in goal also?!? Lately he appears to be the pulse of NEVER say die… Go Johnny Go!!! AGAIN, EXCELLENT GAME!!! YEEHA!!! GO UNION!!! BEAT DC!!!

  4. I am reserving judgment on the overall outcome of the Sheanon Williams trade until we see what comes of that allocation money, but I am frustrated and unhappy about our total lack of fullback depth. I mean, if Ray or Fabi gets injured in this game, what in the hell is Curtin gonna do? Put Fred at fullback?? Go three in the back?? This is the first season ever that the Union had defensive depth, and now it’s gone again. I hope there’s another fullback coming ASAP.

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