Match previews

Preview: Union vs New England Revolution

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union vs New England Revolution
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: Saturday, August 29 at 7 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick
Whistle: Chris Penso; Linesmen: George Gansner, Phil Briere; Fourth Official: Alex Chilowicz

Looking at New England Revolution’s roster, there is a strong urge to label them the Arsenal of MLS. Technical playmakers buzzing around the midfield, talented but inconsistent strikers, a stout but mistake-prone defense.

Resist that urge.

Jay Heaps’ side attempts the odd trick of turning every attack into a counterattack. If the numbers are right, they attack quickly and directly. If the numbers are not right… they attack quickly and directly. But this is not “direct” in the classic “longball” sense. This is direct through short, quick passing and fearless dribbling. Whether it is the speed and power of Teal Bunbury or the quick feet of Diego Fagundez, New England will find a way to put talented offensive players on the pitch and put those players in the final third.

In the team’s 2-0 win over Houston the last time the Revolution played way back on Aug. 15, Fagundez was allowed to run at Kofi Sarkodie all evening, with predictable results. Meanwhile, Kelyn Rowe started on the right but began drifting inside in the second half once it became clear that Houston was more vulnerable on the left.

Lee Nguyen stayed in the middle, dancing into channels. And he was a force that only Tyler Deric’s reflexes could stop.

New England needs this

Saturday’s game is big for the Revs. They are in hot pursuit of a playoff berth and have been atrocious on the road in 2015. The only two teams New England has beaten on the road this season? Colorado and, you guessed it (probably because you were there), Philadelphia Union.

There is an absurd 26-goal gap between New England’s home and road goal differentials. From plus-12 at Gillette Stadium, the Revs drop to minus-14 on the road. If New England wants to solidify a playoff berth, they need points on the road against the teams like the Union at the bottom of the East.

Rowe was pinned to the right in the first half, but he drifted inside in the first 15 minutes of the second half and found space to run at the defense and fire off the crossbar from distance.

Rowe was pinned to the right in the first half, but he drifted inside in the first 15 minutes of the second half and found space to run at the defense and fire off the crossbar from distance.

Jay Heaps could approach this match in two ways. First, he could stick with a 4-1-4-1. Or, he could continue to re-introduce Jermaine Jones and switch to a hybrid 4-2-3-1 with Jones galloping between the lines.
Rowe was pinned to the right in the first half, but he drifted inside in the first 15 minutes of the second half and found space to run at the defense and fire off the crossbar from distance.

How to offer offensive freedom

The 4-1-4-1 that New England used in the second half against Houston was extremely interesting. Daigo Kobayashi entered for Jermaine Jones and took up a slightly more advanced role ahead of Scott Caldwell. This meant the Revolution had something of a diamond midfield in front of Caldwell, with the fullbacks pushing extremely high and the central defenders stepping forward with the ball to form almost a three-man backline.

Houston had dominated possession in the first half, but New England compressed the field so tight in the second half that the Dynamo’s narrow shape was suffocated into submission. Particularly after Jose Goncalves put the Revs ahead, the entire team was impressively organized and continued to play a high back line that created turnovers in midfield and allowed Caldwell to track Giles Barnes.

Key for New England’s success is the ability to create space between the opposition midfield and defense. Fagundez, Rowe, and Nguyen can all turn and run at a back line, but the Revs have had trouble finding the space for their playmakers this season. Charlie Davies is a dangerous poacher, but he runs hot and cold as a member of the buildup.

Davies (L) plays a more traditional striker role while Agudelo (R) drops deeper to facilitate the buildup. Against Houston, the Revs had more success with Agudelo freeing up Nguyen as a runner.

Davies (L) plays a more traditional striker role while Agudelo (R) drops deeper to facilitate the buildup. Against Houston, the Revs had more success with Agudelo freeing up Nguyen as a runner.

Sometimes Davies looks like Bradley Wright-Phillips, dropping into spaces and distributing. But when the Revs are struggling, they begin settling for wide play and ride the impressive crossing ability of Chris Tierney to an offense that retains its speed of play but bypasses the most dangerous players. Davies can finish a cross as well as anybody in MLS, but that is not how the Revs should be attacking when things are going well.

Midfield personnel and organization

Jim Curtin could not have asked for a more confusing opponent than the Revolution in the week he has to decide whether to re-introduce Vincent Nogueira to the starting lineup. On the one hand, Curtin has the impressive LaCarroll Curtain shutout run that has wiped out the Orlando, Chicago, and Montreal offenses. Playing with two defensive midfielders seems advisable when New England’s goal is to isolate and attack fullbacks – particularly aggressive fullbacks.

However, the Montreal match showed how limiting the deep-lying double pivot can be to an offense. If Philadelphia concedes possession to New England as easily as they did to the Impact, they will be punished. Montreal was missing their playmaker and bedding in a new striker. The Revs biggest issue is figuring out which combination of attacking talent to fill in around the revived Nguyen.

Toronto catches the left side of the Revs defense in aggression mode, and easily breaks the back line.

Toronto catches the left side of the Revs defense in aggression mode, and easily breaks the back line.

Revs defense: Pros and cons

Well, perhaps that is not entirely true. The Revs biggest issue is figuring out how to secure a win on the road when they score. There may be no central defensive pairing in MLS that has a larger gap between their potential form and current form than the Farrell-Goncalves duo. And this is not to say that New England’s center backs have been bad; they have not. It is simply to say they could be the best in the league if Farrell can consistently get his positioning right and Goncalves drags himself a bit further from the Aurelian Collin endpoint of the aggression continuum.

The Revs like to get the ball out of the back and tighten their formation as quickly as possible. Farrell and Goncalves often drift a bit wider than a typical central defender, in part because New England’s scheme requires that space on the wings get squeezed out to limit counterattacks. Also, when you have a pair of freak athletes in back, it becomes a lot easier to let them take up what would normally be risky defensive positions.

As New England took control of the match (mins 20-45), the central defenders pushed very high up the pitch, distributing from close to the half line with Caldwell dropping between them.

As New England took control of the match (mins 20-45), the central defenders pushed very high up the pitch, distributing from close to the half line with Caldwell dropping between them.

Winning the transition battle

The focal point of the pitch for both teams, then, will be those wide areas where Cristian Maidana likes to collect the ball to attack defenses. Goncalves and Farrell will not be afraid to follow Chaco out wide, secure in the knowledge that they have somebody who can challenge CJ Sapong’s speed and strength in the center.

To get more specific, the weak point of the Revs back line is the space Chris Tierney leaves when he gets forward to cross. New England has relied heavily on this dimension of their offense, and at times it has hurt them defensively. Jeremy Hall is likely to start at right back because he is a bit more of a stay-at-home defender than London Woodberry (though the latter’s emergence from nowhere to become a viable option in back has been impressive).

If Jim Curtin starts Vincent Nogueira, the end goal will be to spring Maidana and Le Toux up the right side. In Nogueira and Barnetta, Curtin will finally have a pair of midfielders who can hold onto the ball or pick out a cross-field pass. Barnetta has yet to do either consistently in a Union jersey, but his track record suggests he will continue to improve as he finds match fitness and learns how to deal with the relentless physical nature of MLS.

A final interesting aspect to watch in this match will be how the Union use their fullbacks. Curtin talked in his press conference about how he’s happy with a minimal contribution at the offensive end provided his defense remains stout. This could lead to a match that is bogged down in the middle of the pitch. New England’s numerical advantage will help them keep possession and press the Union, but Philly’s conservative defense can prevent the Revs from creating space between the lines to bring Nguyen to the fore.

Union NEPrediction: Union 3-3 Revolution

New England is going to go for it. They are well rested, almost healthy, and can insert or start Jermaine Jones depending on how Heaps wants to attack Philly. They also have (if not more than definitely a larger variety of) offensive talent that can trouble the Union if the home side elects to move away from the security of two defensive midfielders.

For the Union, losing this match will see the sun all but set on their playoff hopes. Even a draw seems like less than Philly needs at home this late in the season. That backdrop makes Curtin’s lineup choice in central midfield such an interesting one. The Union defense has been shambolic all year, but has looked tight (against admittedly weak competition) with extra midfield protection. The offense, which has run hot and cold all season, has been dangerous but fleeting with Lahoud and Carroll together, suggesting that Vincent Nogueira’s return could not come soon enough.

What will Curtin do? Making the right choice could set Philly up for an exciting late season playoff chase. Making the wrong one will mean entering September 2015 with March 2016 already on the mind.

11 Comments

  1. Sorry, but… is starting Nogueira even a decision??? He’s only the best player on the team. I cannot imagine why you would have him on the bench for this match. If, as you say, it would be dangerous for the fullbacks to get into the attack, then just tell Fabinho to stay the f%#@ home for this one match. The better question is whether to sit Carroll (very strong season, advanced in age & might be exhausted) or Lahoud (young & not exhausted, has had less opportunity to gel with Nogueira this season).

  2. I think Nogueira has to start over Lahoud. Curtin strongly alluded to this in his press conference. ML will be able to come in for BC as a sub, if needed, but Nogueira will play.
    This will essentially set up a 4-1-4-1, which is fine. Play to our strengths.

  3. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Maybe you risk covering your center backs with only on defensive central midfielder if Edu starts and you have an Edu-like athletic specimen (think Claude Makalele) to play the DCM. Neither condition is fulfilled for Saturday.
    .
    I completely agree that Nogueira has to play, the issue is match fitness for 90, which I doubt. If he starts, he, Maidana and Barnetta are the three mids ahead of Carroll and Lahoud behind Sapong, with Le Toux and Ayuk as the fitness subs from halftime onward.

    • You can sub him off around the typical 65′ mark if he’s not fit. But you have to get him out there to start. Bring in Ayuk when he comes out and get those young legs running at the tired defense.
      But in a game like this against a good team, you need the best on the field from the jump.

    • In my POV…We have X amount of minutes before Cup final. We need Noguiera, Maidana, Barnetta playing as many of them as possible.

    • OSC did you put Makelele and Edu in the same sentence?
      .
      Well on further thought I guess you saved it…’athletic like specimen’. Ok Ok. I will acquiesce.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      Can’t sit LeToux on Sat with the scoring run he’s been on. I think that Nogueira will start and be paired with Carroll in the holding roles.

    • If Nogueira isn’t healthy enough to go 90, we run a fairly serious strategic problem in that 2 of our 3 subs are already spoken for with him and barnetta. That leaves us with very little flexibility in the event of any cards or injuries. I would start nog if he can go 90, otherwise I’d see what the lacaroll curtain could do and pray for a couple counterattack goals.
      Worst case scenario you bring him in to try and pick up points late.

    • Edu isn’t playing he’s hurt

  4. A very, very tangential question. And one I think I’ve asked before, but I can’t recall what was said. So…
    .
    What’s the stadium club like post game? Are there food options available? Do the players still mingle after they’ve had their food? If so, how long would a pair of introverts need to hang around before getting a chance to spend some time with a player?

    • I dont know what the food service schedule is post-match, or even if they serve at all.
      Generally a player or two will show up 30-40 minutes afterward. LeToux is a regular and always ok for photo-ops and a chat

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