Match previews

Preview: Union vs Orlando City SC

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union vs Orlando City
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: Sunday, October 25 at 5 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live
Whistle: Chris Penso; Linesmen: Sean Hurd, Jeff Muschik; Fourth Official: Robert Sibiga

And so Philadelphia Union close out the 2015 season against an expansion side that will finish at least seven points ahead of them in the Eastern Conference. It is fitting that the Union would face off against a team that grabbed Pedro Ribeiro — a player who collected goals and assists at a slightly better rate than Fernando Aristeguieta this season — in the expansion draft. Ribeiro may turn out to be no more than a bench player over his career. But for now he is symbolic of a season that began with the Union grabbing high-priced, mediocre players to replace affordable ones of equal quality.

Also, this match, part of a full slate of simultaneous MLS activity, will mark the end of Zac MacMath’s loan to Colorado (perhaps not officially, but in essence). So there’s that.

It was a season of underperforming from player with high expectations. Ray Gaddis failed to make the next step in his development. Vincent Nogueira somehow ended the season without an assist. Two expensive loans underachieved and never secured roles in the first team. Zach Pfeffer stalled.

But it has also been a season that saw the emergence of important, surprising players. Richie Marquez will be in the Union first eleven next season unless the new sporting director Sakiewiczs things and trades or replaces him. Fabinho went from a running joke to a hard runner with a defensive sensibility light that flickers on more and more often. Sebastien Le Toux recovered his form. Brian Carroll was, impossibly, absurdly, and undeniably, still very good.

No matter the positives, though, this was a disappointing season. And after giving up four goals to New York Red Bulls, Philly finishes the year against a team that needs to score twice that number (or pray for a performance from NYCFC against New England that won’t happen unless the Zaphod starts up the Heart of Gold) to make the playoffs.

Orlando key passes vs MTL: OCSC is using all the space on the field to create their offense.

Orlando key passes vs MTL: OCSC is using all the space on the field to create their offense.

State of Orlando

The Lions have won five straight matches (ironically only New England (6) has put together a longer streak this season). And three of those wins have come without Kaka.

Two things have changed since Orlando went eleven games with a single win: Cyle Larin’s scoring boots and something like a real defense. Well, maybe not a defense so much as an offense that is finally operating the way Adrian Heath always envisioned.

After losing Kevin Molino to injury and realizing, as every other coach has, that Brek Shea is not a fullback, Heath abandoned his spacious 4-3-3 for a compact midfield as he sought to protect a shaky defense. Molino had struggled before injury, and nobody stepped up to give the Florida side the danger they needed on the wings if they wanted to play a wide open game.

But, alas, that attempt at compactness did not fit Heath’s personnel. Cristian Higuita and Darwin Ceren like to press, and sitting in front of the back four clearly did not suit them. For the middle third of the season, the Orlando midfield was like a bathroom at Disney at the end of a summer day: A hot mess.

Bringing in Servando Carrasco did not help. The holding midfield sat deep but struggled when asked to do anything more than pass safely. Opposing coaches pressed high; The Lions continued losing.

Now, Heath has the bodies and faith to return to that expansive setup that he always favored. Adrian Winter and the stunning emergence of Carlos Rivas have returned the breakout days of yore to the Citrus Bowl, and — just as importantly — has helped Cyle Larin return to form.

Larin has been impressive all season. He has had lulls when he goes straight to goal and fireworks when he remembers to vary the shape and speed of his runs. He can score with every body part. He’s huge.

In short, Orlando look like a team very close to pushing the Eastern Conference old guard for a playoff spot. Given a slightly longer season, they may have done it this year.

Rivas vs MTL: Connecting at midfield then getting into the final third to play balls in to Larin.

Rivas vs MTL: Connecting at midfield then getting into the final third to play balls in to Larin.

Have you seen the Rivas?

To say Carlos Rivas looked over his head early this year would be like saying Rais Mbolhi looked only mildly disinterested in playing goalie for Philadelphia Union. Or that FIFA is only slightly corrupt.

The past two and a half months, however, Rivas has finally added a smattering of intelligence to an athletic game that met its match in MLS’s physical play. The Colombian can still be wasteful (he remains a horribly inaccurate shooter), but by playing with his head up and moving after passes, he has found a way to make himself a constant threat. Teams that would push their fullbacks high against Orlando are more hesitant after watching Rivas tear apart Red Bulls in late September.

On the opposite flank, Adrian Winter has achieved the same end with more direct running that often narrows a defense, opening space for the attacking flair of Rafael Ramos and Luke Boden, and occasionally Corey Ashe. Like Rivas, Winter has grown into his role slowly, initially struggling to find space when Kaka drifted wide.

With Larin, Winter, and Rivas impressive, Orlando City finally has the ability to keep opposing teams from committing extra players. Whereas midseason OCSC could not make you pay for your mistakes, this one will. Even with Lewis Neal in the lineup.

NYRB first half shots vs Philly: Um, those are some pretty high percentage looks.

NYRB first half shots vs Philly: Um, those are some pretty high percentage looks.

Union response

The only sure thing for the Union — outside of injury absences — is that Steven Vitoria is done. After being pulled at halftime last Sunday, Vitoria left the locker room before Jim Curtin was done speaking to the team. All that aside, Vitoria just does not deserve another chance after playing at a sub-Ethan White level while Ethan White sits. If anything, the Union should be exploring Andrew Wenger in the middle.

Curtin admitted in Wednesday’s weekly press conference that Wenger could not find the additional time and space he needed to be an effective fullback last week. And while that may be true, it still misses the larger problem that Wenger needs to play soccer at a lower level until he rediscovers his form. If ever there was a player who needed USL to become better than USL, it is Wenger.

Running off Kaka, Rivas bursts into space and - this is the new part - plays a perfect ball up to Larin for the finish.

Running off Kaka, Rivas bursts into space and – this is the new part – plays a perfect ball up to Larin for the finish. (click to play)

One huge question for Philly is how to align the midfield as Orlando tries to stretch them and play through to Larin. Kaka plays like a more ambitious Cristian Maidana, drifting wide, deep, or forward to find the ball. In each role, the Brazilian is better than his opponent, so it is more of a feeling out process, a soccer jazz.

Philly can try to bracket Kaka or simply leave him to zone coverage, handing him off as he moves around. Ideally, this would be the plan: Just give Kaka to the next man and return to your position. But that is not how it will really work. Like all great players, Kaka is a gravitational force. You cannot play on his field and ignore his pull.

The Union will have lock down the center of the pitch when Lahoud is chasing the Orlando talisman. A common Orlando move involves Kaka drifting wide, collecting the ball, and taking someone on as Winter or Rivas runs past, receiving the ball a few steps later. Philly can either blanket Kaka when he holes up in this zone or… wait, that’s it. If Kaka gets the ball in Maidana-like spaces, he becomes a double-threat that can drive at a defense or play the pass. Kaka is so dangerous specifically because he, unlike Maidana, can play two ways and take what a defense gives him.

Prediction: Union 1-0 Orlando City SC

Andre Blake will be amazing again, and the Union will put forth a classic deep-and-safe performance. Orlando City needs to overcome an eight goal differential to make the playoffs, so they will have to take chances. Philly simply has to read and capitalize on those chances to go the other way.

Jim Curtin may opt to start the game with a 4-4-2 led by Aristeguieta and Casey or Sapong. This will be the Venezuelan’s last chance to earn a long-term deal with the Union. He has been promising but underwhelming.

In the end, Orlando’s exuberance will be their downfall. Philly can bunker hard with White, Marquez, and Lahoud holding the box. It will be a tight game, but probably disappointing overall. Think past Union closers but with more ennui.

And then the 2015 season is in the past.

Good riddance.


  1. I simply cannot have another season like this one…
    …a house filled with the acridity of feral urine and two dogs too many, bird excrement on today’s copy of the New York Post celebration of New York Mets lining the bottom of san old birdcage- the slough of dead snake skin wafting through the air.
    So go forth coach and players I command you to wake from your slumber… end this tenement of a season on the muted whole note trumpet sustain of Bill Conti’s, Philadelphia Morning; Rocky walking outside to stretch in the 28 degree predawn, the first of an arduous climb from the self defeat of his upbringing – knowing in his heart he is destined for so much more.
    Make no mistake, this Philadelphia Pathos I lament, over and over oh-so- often is yours to bare now too have inherited it… and I ask you to mercifully end this season on a high note. End it though as I can’t stand the sight of you any longer this season… but know in your heart you are so much more.
    then begin the hard hard work of climbing from the basement forevermore….
    …. Faithful to the End.

  2. Thanks for the great previews, Adam.

    • Not sure if you guys are going to be back on the preview again, but if so: Thanks so much for reading the previews (especially this season when they were often, let’s say, somewhat negative in the prediction realm?).

      Even when it’s just catching me forgetting something (like today with the Vitoria suspension), it is still awesome to get feedback and see how the discussion about the game develops.

      That’s all. Just a very, very big thanks.

      • Seriously, you guys should get paid for this. The analysis on PSP is better than what we get from most of the commercial sites. I for one, would not be upset in the least if I started to see some advertisements pop-up on here.

      • + 1

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    Too often, we have ended seasons with “Good Riddance” 🙁

  4. First, I want to echo Z’s comment: thank you, Adam, for the previews and post-game analysis all year. They were insightful and interesting to the end.
    So… Sunday is the first time I’ve decided not to go to a game. I’ve missed other games – vacation, business trips, etc. But I’ve never been in a position where I was able to go and simply decided it wasn’t worth it. My father will be taking my daughter, because she’s not quite suffering from ennui at the same level I am.

  5. Great analysis, as always. But, please don’t try make “Sakiewicz” into a verb. It’s bad enough that we still have occasionally hear it as a noun.

  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    I add my thanks, Adam Cann, to those of others above.
    I am glad Orlando are still alive because they will be likely to bring Kaka and play him. I enjoy watching the world class talents in the league, whatever the results for the Union. Henry was always beautiful to see, as was Beckham’s passing in the All-Star game. One of these days we’ll get the Galaxy as a home game and maybe they’ll bring their stars.

  7. “The only sure thing for the Union — outside of injury absences — is that Steven Vitoria is done”.

    Vittoria is suspended for the last match owing to yellow card accumulation, so he wouldn’t be available anyway.

  8. Thanks Adam! We’ll go to the game, but may just tailgate in lot A and never enter the stadium. We love the players, but I think we need some time away from them.

  9. I’m so, so tired of wishing away vast swaths of seasons. We’ve had more than our fill of milquetoast personnel decisions that do more harm than good. Let’s hope that the recent winds of change bring in an entirely new outlook for next season. Union regime 4.0 has to far outshine anything that Sak/Nowak, Sak/Hack, Sak/Curtin achieved. I’m all set for the ?/? era.

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