Match previews

Preview: Union vs Houston Dynamo

Photo: Daniel Studio

Who: Philadelphia Union vs Houston Dynamo
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: Sunday, September 20 at 7 pm
Watch: Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes, Fox Sports Go, Fox Soccer 2Go
Whistle: Juan Guzman; Linesmen: Craig Lowry, Anthony Vasoli; Fourth Official: Mark Kadlecik

Philadelphia Union and Houston Dynamo only match up once this season, but it is a crucial showdown for two teams that are clinging to slim playoff hopes as the stretch run begins.

Dynamo news

Houston was unbeaten in eight straight at home before Real Salt Lake took advantage of some lax defending (and brilliant goalkeeping from Nick Rimando) to take a sloppy three points from BBVA Compass Stadium. Now the Dynamo are tied with RSL at 35 points, six behind Portland for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Houston beat Vancouver, but the Whitecaps had shots from great locations throughout the first half.

Houston beat Vancouver, but the Whitecaps had shots from great locations throughout the first half.

The Dynamo have all the trappings of a competitive side, but they have rarely been able to put their best eleven on the field this season. Erick “Cubo” Torres has struggled mightily to find his role on the pitch since joining the squad, and the former MVP candidate was subbed off at halftime against RSL after much anonymous wandering about. Torres may have a groin injury that will keep him out of Sunday’s matchup with the Union, though head coach Owen Coyle may opt for a single-striker formation anyway given his team’s issues in midfield (more on that later).

Houston is also short in the back. The team’s best defender, Raul Rodriguez, will serve a one game suspension for yellow card accumulation and miss Sunday’s game. Damarcus Beasley is still listed as out with an ankle injury, though there’s an outside chance he could play. Sheanon Williams is likely to go at right back with Kofi Sarkodie sidelined. Williams has been a fixture in the lineup since joining the Dynamo, but his positioning was an issue against RSL (though, to be fair, the entire back line looked less than confident).

In midfield, Luis Garrido picked up an injury on international duty for Honduras and is likely to be replaced by either Alex (if he’s healthy) or Nathan Sturgis. Neither player offers the same safety blanket for the back four that Garrido so ably provides, and this is surely an area Jim Curtin and company will look to target with Tranquillo Barnetta and/or Chaco Maidana moving between the lines.

The final issue for Houston is fatigue. Giles Barnes has looked sluggish after a searing start to the season, and his ability to be effective as a midfielder remains questionable. Oscar Boniek Garcia has also lost the sharp edge that makes him a dangerous complement to Brad Davis, though the Honduran is more than capable of becoming a key pass machine when he’s in the mood.

Overall, Houston looks like a typical MLS team in 2015: Offensively capable, but inconsistent. And oh-so-suspect defensively.

Union news

Jim Curtin will be able to select Chaco Maidana and, possibly, Maurice Edu on Sunday. Maidana’s suspension is over and Edu has been practicing at full speed, though his groin remains less than one hundred percent.

Should Edu start in back if he’s ready to go? Yes. Just… yes. Look around the league. Look at what the best teams have that the rest do not: Confident leaders in central defense. Is it a coincidence that Matt Miazga’s emergence has coincided with New York’s improved consistency (Wednesday night’s awful showing excluded)? Or that Vancouver seems to have turned a corner after adding the imperious Kendall Waston to the back? Or that Seattle and Columbus both went looking for big, physical leaders to solidify their squads for a postseason run?

Houston defense gets too narrow too quickly, allowing space on the flanks that Maidana should exploit.

Houston defense gets too narrow too quickly, allowing space on the flanks that Maidana should exploit.

MLS is a league that values the counterattack, and teams that have continued success are either stratospherically better at offense than the rest of the league (2014 Seattle) or are able to commit players forward without turning the defense into a sieve (LA Galaxy seemingly forever). Mo Edu is a very good player, and he is most valuable to the Union in back. That is where he should play if Philly is honestly trying to build a sustainable winner while Edu is around.

Maidana, on the other hand, is more difficult to place on the pitch. Fourteen assists from a central role is undeniably impressive, but constraining the team to a counterattacking style has been a somewhat unwelcome byproduct. The Union have not been defensively organized enough to deal with the spaces left in midfield when Maidana sneaks wide and stays there. Opposing teams push fullbacks forward, seduce the Union fullbacks to step up, and attack the spaces they leave.

Thus, the biggest question facing Jim Curtin before Sunday’s game is how to integrate Maidana and Barnetta going forward.

Curtin was noncommittal about the team’s structure on Wednesday, saying, “Tranquillo’s had some good games in the center, was dangerous, and we’d like to get it to that point where there’s natural interchange during the game between the two of them, but that takes time, they’re getting more and more comfortable with each other. They both have different skill sets, bring different things to the team and are both very good players, so I’m happy to add Chaco back into the mix.”

Translated, that means the Union would really love to have Maidana’s creativity on the field, but they also value the defensive work Barnetta puts in, and, boy, would it be great if they could have their cake and eat it too.

And they can, but the solution is less about Barnetta and Maidana and more about the players behind them. To explain, Maidana on the wing is a defensive liability. Philly plays with aggressive fullbacks, which can facilitate transition offense when used effectively. However, when the wingers do not retreat to defensive shape quickly, the fullbacks get drawn out too soon, and teams can simply overload one side of the field and drop a sign in the ground labeling that side the “chance creation station.”

Though they often get too narrow in back, Houston also tries to force other teams to stay in the center to create space on the wings. Here, both strikers check to pull the midfield in and allow the wide men space to cross.

Though they often get too narrow in back, Houston also tries to force other teams to stay in the center to create space on the wings. Here, both strikers check to pull the midfield in and allow the wide men space to cross.

Opposing teams will be less likely to flood numbers forward if Philly shows that it can execute transitions out of the back with a) precision, and b) consistency. The Union’s 2014 offense made teams wary of getting forward, since a confident Andrew Wenger — remember that? It was a real thing! — is a mixture of speed and physicality that poses real questions of a defense. But Wenger’s severe, extended dip in form has revealed just how limited the Union are in terms of transition strategies. The defense, minus Edu, has been wholly unable to make teams pay for committing players forward because the first pass out of the back has been too slow, too inaccurate, or not a pass at all, but a hopeful clearance. Coordinating transitions out of the back will go a long way toward minimizing the potential liability incurred by playing Maidana out wide.

In goal

Another big question facing Philadelphia is — big surprise — in goal. For reasons that only the coaching staff know, the Union have been unwilling to commit to Andre Blake. At this point in the season, John McCarthy has proven himself to be a very talented goalie with a predilection for coming out to challenge breakaways too soon and a severe weakness in distribution. Andre Blake, a player the club traded up to draft because they believed he was far and away the best overall player available, has barely been given a shot (don’t even ask how the No. 2 and No. 3 picks in that draft are doing right now. Steve Birnbaum is going to be in the league a long time and Christian Dean is on the verge of grabbing his chance with Vancouver).

Houston had no central midfield presence against Vancouver.

Houston had no central midfield presence against Vancouver.

When asked about the goalkeeping situation this week, Curtin gave a hilariously evasive answer: “We have a plan in place for that that gives us the best option to win against Houston and also to maintain form for the Open Cup final. We’re still always looking for games to watch and to critique and to break down and see how we’re doing. There’s discussions with Paulo about what’s the best thing for confidence, because confidence goes a long way with goalkeepers.”

He kept going, but it is not worth quoting because the entire response eerily resembles a Donald Trump answer (We’ll do the right thing, and we’ll know it’s right because we will win and everything will be great). I do hope somebody asks Paulo Grillo what the best thing for confidence is, because I’m pretty sure he will say, “Um… playing in games. Duh.”

All of this is to say that Andre Blake should start because he’s a potential long-term solution, and that is what the Union desperately need at the goalkeeping position. If anything good has come out of Blake’s injury woes, it is that the Union may have him around for a few years before he attempts to move on to bigger and better things. Let’s make the most of the future Jamaica No. 1’s time in Philly.

The Dynamo also had no central presence vs RSL.

The Dynamo also had no central presence vs RSL.

How will Houston play

The Dynamo are strong up the flanks and… not so much in the middle. Ricardo Clark is one of the best in the league at getting into the box from midfield, but he is not the possession player the Dynamo need to control matches (that would be Garrido).

If Beasley is available, Houston becomes a real danger going forward, able to advance down either side with speed. Will Bruin, Barnes, and Clark will all crash the box and create havoc off early crosses, and the Dynamo are not shy about putting in those early crosses. So expect Brad Davis, Sheanon Williams, and possibly Oscar Boniek Garcia to provide width and target the Union box early and often.

How will Philly play

If Beasley can’t go, the Union must attack up the Houston left. Coyle used AJ Cochran at left back against RSL, but he may have to move the young defender into the middle with Rodriguez suspended. Regardless of who Coyle slots in on the left, it will be a makeshift defense that has struggled with spacing all season. RSL pushed Devon Sandoval to make wide runs and benefited when both Cochran and Williams stayed narrow and played to defend the cross.

If Philly can isolate Sebastien Le Toux, Eric Ayuk, Barnetta or Maidana on the Houston fullbacks, they will know things are going well. The final piece of the puzzle, though, is getting an extra body into the box behind CJ Sapong.

UnionHOUPrediction: Union 2-1 Dynamo

With the Houston defense struggling with injuries and suspensions, Philly has a real chance to steal points at home. The Dynamo will attack through the air, requiring the Union fullbacks to be much better at pressing and staying in front of players on the wings. Tracking Williams out of the back will be key since he will often be the extra man sent forward if Beasley remains injured.

Houston’s future, with Cubo Torres up top and a healthy squad behind him, looks bright. But right now they are vulnerable and thin. These are the games the Union need to learn how to win if they want to turn into a consistent playoff contender.

The Dynamo have yet to lose when they score first, but they have only one win when they allow the first goal. Coming out of the front foot, then, is essential for the Union.



    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Edu might come on about the 60th minute if there are no other substitution emergencies. I didn’t like that his groin is still sore, so he may not be available.

    • Yeah, there’s no way he starts. Curtin will try to get him game time at the end, but they really don’t want to lose him for the final.
      The bigger question is, what does his re-insertion do to the lineup? Does he just supplant Lahoud/Carroll? Or are there greater ramifications by leaving ML/BC in there for defensive support?

    • LOUD NOISES!!!

  2. Aristeguieta out of the 18?
    I think not, Creaville will watch from the box.

    • Then who’s your fullback if Fabinho or Gaddis get injured??? Creavalle has to be in the 18, since he’s the only backup option at that position. If you want Fernando on the 18, the person left off is Ethan White. Edu can be the backup CB for the game.

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