Match previews

Preview: Union at FC Dallas

Photo: Daniel Studio

Who: Philadelphia Union at FC Dallas
What: 2016 regular season opener
Where: Toyota Stadium
When: Sunday, March 6 at 3 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live
Whistle: Mark Geiger; Linesmen: Craig Lowry, Eric Boria; Fourth Official: Fotis Bazakos

Last season, Philadelphia Union played a dour opening match against a Colorado squad that was not ready for prime time. On Sunday, FC Dallas will be much, much different.

Dallas nearly snuck into the MLS Cup final in 2015 by riding a wave of talented youth and the dynamic playmaking of Mauro Diaz. They fought off suitors for Fabian Castillo and reinforced the midfield to make another deep run this year.

In other words, if the Union play like they did in the 2015 opener, it will be a long 90 minutes.

Luckily, this Union team is better top to bottom, and there is much more strategic and tactical clarity than under the inauspicious reign of Nick Sakiewicz. Still, the Union remain a club in transition. And opening the season on the road against the team with the best home record in MLS last year will be, let’s say, a challenge.

Who is this Dallas you speak of?

FC Dallas was incredibly dangerous last season because they can attack in so many ways. If teams sat deep, Mauro Diaz simply sprayed the ball around until gaps opened. High pressure? Just release Castillo into the corner. Crowded midfield? Go long to Blas Perez and clean up the trash. The key this season will be to maintaining strong production from midfield without Perez up top to link play.

The most intriguing change Dallas made during the offseason was to acquire Maxi Urruti from Portland and install him as the likely starter up top. Urruti had ten goals in 2014 but only four last season. Both years he had 15 shots on target, so you can guess which return is more reasonable to expect going forward.

Urruti was never able to wrestle the starting position away from Fanendo Adi in Portland and eventually lost minutes to Lucas Melano. He is a hard worker and a willing runner, but, outside of 2014, finishing has been his Achilles’ heel. However, this may be less of an issue in Dallas where Oscar Pareja likes to use strikers as facilitators as much as finishers. Last year, the team’s top three goalscorers were Castillo, Diaz, and Michael Barrios, all running out of slightly deeper positions.

Urruti’s best quality is his sharp, angled runs that drag defenders deep. Dallas wants the striker in constant motion so defenders track him instead of Castillo and Barrios. Additionally, creating depth allows Diaz more time on the ball, and that is when Dallas can overwhelm opponents by bringing Kellyn Acosta forward and pinning the ball in the final third.

If there was one element missing from the Dallas attack in 2015, it is that ability to hold an opponent deep by using the full width of the field. Pareja’s men put in far fewer crosses than any other team in MLS last season because they often ran such a vertical offense through Diaz and Perez to Castillo. Without a true target player, the 2016 Dallas offense needs to be able to spread the ball out in the final third and move off of and around Urruti. This should also help their possession number, which should be far above the fifty percent mark given that teams will be sitting deep when they come to Frisco.

Dallas will be another year older (though still very young) and another year wiser in 2016. Containing their dynamic attackers will require discipline and organization.

Which brings us to the Union.

Best be ready

Here’s the thing: It is completely possible that Philly gets stomped on Sunday. Dallas is loaded and at home, and they want to send a message to the league that they are a force to be reckoned with in Major League Soccer. Few people in the league would be surprised if Dallas was able to pop the Union early and keep them at arm’s length the rest of the match.

But if Dallas can’t get ahead and struggles to break down a defense that last year had the structural stability of a wet napkin, the Union will have shown that they can last 90 minutes against a top opponent on the road. Sure, it’s the first match of the season and hardly the best barometer of success, but Earnie Stewart was brought in to turn around a ship, and defensive organization absolutely must be the first spin of the wheel.

Organization means keeping a tight shape and returning to that shape quickly following turnovers. It also means pressing in groups instead of alone. Finally, it means understanding what the other team is trying to do to you.

The target is clear

Dallas is going to send out one of the most dynamic wingers in MLS against either a rookie right back or Ray Gaddis, who has been slowed by injury all preseason. Castillo is absolutely going to try to get in behind either right back from the opening whistle, and if that doesn’t work, he will put his heels on the touchline, ask for the ball, and take them on.

Last season, the Union started the season with a high line and got run over by speedy wingers like Ethan Finlay. Then they dropped deeper to accommodate Steven Vitoria and got bombed with crosses. This year, Philly wants to play a high line again, and they have the athleticism to do it. But in order to play a high line against a team like Dallas, the Union must counterpress efficiently. Counterpressing is one of those terms that seems simple until you think about it. Does it mean pressure the ball? Does it mean form a first line of defense based on the ball’s position? Does it mean close off passing lanes and then press the ball?

Counterpressing can mean any of the above, which is why it will be intriguing to see how the Union execute it on Sunday. For some coaches, a counterpress is like a catapult in that you need to get everything in place before firing it properly. For others, it is more like trying to cause chaos in the buildup using individual pressure. Philly has traditionally followed the latter strategy, pressing the ball wherever it goes. Against Dallas, however, look for a more nuanced approach that cuts off service to Diaz and forces the home side to recycle the ball through its holding midfielders before attacking. This will give the Union time to recover and ensure that Dallas can’t run unopposed at an inexperienced back four.

If the Union execute a smart counterpress, it will do more for the defense than 11 healthy Maurice Edus. This is the essence of soccer (and Captain Planet): Working as a unit can make one side stronger than a team with more individual talent.

Along with the counterpress, Jim Curtin’s side is also looking for more structure in the middle. After all, you don’t ship 15 assists to Houston on a whim. (I know, I know. You do it to offload Andrew Wenger.) Cristian Maidana’s tendency to abandon the center, paired with the back line’s deep retreats, allowed opposing teams to spread the Union deep and wide. If it sounds nasty, that’s exactly how it played out. This year, Philly needs to keep a presence high and in the center to pressure the ball and keep the back line from dropping. Additionally, this should force teams to start attacks from the channels rather than the middle of the pitch. Of all the teams in the Eastern Conference, only Columbus and New York were able to consistently move the ball into the final third with long passes out of the back line. Sure, Jermaine Jones did it occasionally from midfield for New England, but Jermaine Jones does a lot of things occasionally, and only half of them are positive.

Offensively, Philly needs to possess the ball more in central locations. Jim Curtin wants his wingers to be narrow at times to provide options through the middle. This gives the fullbacks space to advance, and Keegan Rosenberry has shown himself to be quite the offensive asset when he joins the attack.

Bringing extra bodies inside also makes it harder for teams to key on Vincent Nogueira. Wth both Edu and Tranquillo Barnetta on the injury list for Sunday’s match, Dallas will definitely have eyes for the Frenchman. Nogueira’s highlights are long, shapely passes, but his best work is done in tight spaces. He’s a passer and a mover, though often without a mobile partner. For Nogueira to be effective, he needs short options that are in motion so he can move into the spaces they leave behind. These combination plays have been the source of many of the Union’s best preseason moves because they suck in a defense and make the Union’s vertical game effective. Additionally, they can pull wide defenders inside and make it more difficult for teams to trap Philly on the touchline, an event that should pretty much be the center square for Union Bingo at this point.

The final offensive element to look for on Sunday is patience in the final third. Fabinho gonna cross, and who can stop him when he really seems to love it so much. But Rosenberry will play a passing game, Pontius will play a passing game, and Sapong has shown incredible growth as a hold-up player since his return from off-the-field issues last season.

The rise of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona made possession a darling of the analytics community. It has since seen its light fade, but dismissing it altogether is wrong-headed. Possession, particularly on the road, can be a key factor in a match. 01-UnionVdallasPhilly is going to have to absorb pressure. But that doesn’t mean they have to accept it. The 2015 roster had no recourse when its transition game was snuffed out, but this year’s squad should be patient and willing to draw a foul.


There are plenty of big lineup questions for Jim Curtin going into the season, particularly with injuries to Maurice Edu and Tranquillo Barnetta opening up the middle of the park. The surefire starters are Andre Blake, Fabinho, Vincent Nogueira, Chris Pontius, and C.J. Sapong. Beyond that, it’s all up in the air.

In back, Richie Marquez is a likely starter, but Ken Tribbett’s strong preseason and Anderson’s distribution could easily see Marquez slip down the pecking order. On the right, Rosenberry is closer to game-ready than Ray Gaddis, but Curtin may prefer Gaddis against the speed of Fabian Castillo. My guess is that Rosenberry will get thrown into the deep end here because Gaddis isn’t at full fitness, and the rookie’s offensive upside is enormous.

In the center of the park, Nogueira will partner with either Carroll or Roland Alberg. Based on the preseason and the fact that its a road game, I’m guessing Carroll will be in there with either Alberg or Ilsinho in the attacking role. There is also a chance that Fernandes plays in the center but it’s more likely he starts on the right or comes off the bench.

Up top, Sapong and Pontius are certain to play, and either Le Toux or Fernandes will join them. I’m guessing Le Toux because I think the Union coaches know they will be stuck playing a lot of defense, and having a vertical presence on the wing will make a good outlet.

Prediction: Dallas 2-0 Union

This is a tough prediction for me because I’m hoping to be at the game, and on the off chance any Union players read this preview, they’ll be able to rub it in my face if they win.

But fine! That’s a small price to pay for a Union victory against one of the better teams in MLS. So bring it on!

That said, this match should be about discipline and organization. In the modern high pressure game, it is easy to come to the conclusion that running leads to winning. But that is like saying that playing faster will help you win at speed chess.

It’s still about making the right decisions every step of the way. That is something Earnie Stewart would likely agree with.


  1. At last…I can breath.

  2. pragmatist says:

    When trumpeting possession, it seems odd to them predict Le Toux will start, due to his ability to let us play the long ball. It would make more sense to start Fernandes or Alberg on the wing, so that we are able to better control possession up the field.
    I love Le Toux, but he would be better served as a 60-minute sub to take advantage of a tired defense that isn’t likely to be fully match fit in the first game of the season. Let one of the other two start so that we can control the game and grow into it.

    • not sure, could be nice to have someone with the energy to run up and down the right side, if extra help in defense is needed

  3. Knee over the ball says:

    Was that position or possession? I am not sure Fabinho understood your question. Myabe this is a broader issue?

  4. Zizouisgod says:

    Adam – Just curious on why you think that McCarthy would be on bench instead of Jones.

    • Agreed. Saw some other article today that said McCarthy was the Union #2 and thought I must be missing something.

    • old soccer coach says:

      Adam may have one of the future-seeing devices created in the imagination of J.K. Rowling. In the Injury Report on the MLS website listed as posted on March 4th at 5:552 pm, Matt Jones is listed as questionable with a left calf strain.

  5. Lucky Striker says:

    1). avoid ejections.

    2). reduce sets against. Dallas’ CB’s are killers in the box.

    Expecting Gaddis and LeToux if healthy unless suddenly deceased.

    Decision to play Ilsinho for 60 or 30 + will be interesting to watch.

  6. I am fairly new to the Union and have came in when Le Toux came back to join the club. I see why the fans love him from a loyalty/hustle/leadership perspective. He is a true professional it seems; and he seems to be checked into the community as well!

    What i don’t quite see (especially with the off-season signings) why a lot of people still have him slotted as starting.

    Could someone with more knowledge/experience than me please help me out? why should he start over leo? Why shouldn’t we push Ilsinho out and have Alberg in the 10?

    (i read back over this and this seems sarcastic: this is not sarcasm, actually curious due to ignorance)

    The more responses the better! thanks y’all

    • pragmatist says:

      He shouldn’t start. Everything you said is absolutely correct. He’s a fantastic person, and he’s still a very good player. But with the talent that was brought in, he’s a sub. The only argument for him starting is that he is an athletic freak, and he’s likely to be in better shape than anyone on the field. Having that much energy out there is a good thing for the first week.
      I think Leo or Ilsinho or Alberg should be starting over him. But you can also argue that Dallas is a “speed team,” and we need our fastest guys out there.
      I disagree with that line of thinking because if we get into a track meet, we’re screwed.
      His work rate is unparalleled. But his first touch has always been his Achilles Heel. Get the new skill on the field for the first game, and get Seba in as the first sub on that right wing to take advantage of a tired defense.

    • old soccer coach says:

      By your self description, you have been here for Jim Curtin’s entire tenure. I refer you to what you already know of his personality, for me, best summarized by the comment this off season that Conor Casey got Curtin his job, or words to that general effect.
      Second, follow Curtin’s behaviors during the preseason. On this point matters are less clear, but Le Toux was a consistent starter the first four or five times Curtin put a side out onto the pitch. However, he did not start him in the final match, the one he described in the halftime interview as being important for getting players ninety minutes in game conditions. Personally, I took that as a signal favoring Fernandes for the spot, but many others disagree with me.
      Third, goal scorers require gallons and gallons of poise under pressure, and granite-like confidence that they will succeed, no matter how many times earlier in the day they have failed. They must be totally without conscience in the box when any kind of a shot opportunity arises (like Andrew Toney, the Boston Strangler, back in the day.) when playing well, Le Toux has demonstrated those qualities at the MLS level.
      Others have yet actually to walk the walk.

    • I am not new to the Union, having been a die-hard fan since their first home match, and I agree that it’s hard to justify him starting when Alberg and Ilsinho are around — at least until we see what the high-priced foreign talent can do. I would start Seba over Fernandes, though, as Seba has proven himself at the MLS level, while Leo has not (yet).

    • If Le Toux can learn the positional discipline to play in the new system he will get his fair share of starts.
      If this game were at home I’m not starting Le Toux. But this game ain’t at home. Le Toux is a guy who can strip a defender or intercept a lazy back pass and create havoc. He also pounces on loose balls in the box and rebounds off of blocked or saved shots.
      Hell if Barnetta and Edu are healthy Seba is probably coming off the bench. That means he will also be a leader out there on the field.
      That being said, as far as the season goes I see him more as a first sub type of guy. The last thing a tired defense wants to see is a Sebastian Le Toux that knows he is only playing for 30+ minutes.

  7. Hard to think of a tougher opponent for an opening game for a revamped team missing two core injured players.

    My main curiosity for this season is to be whether Curtin steps up or bows out. The focus for Saturday will be on the team shape and movement. Coming off preseason there’s no reason this can’t be right, even if lots of other things may be wrong.

  8. A pleasure to read: I feel my soccer mind growing with your discussion of the counterpress.

  9. “But that is like saying that playing faster will help you win at speed chess.”

    Or that playing faster will help you win NFL football games. As expected, the new year brings a lot more exciting lineup debates than years past when it was “pick the 8 healthy guys, and the 2 least-worst options left regardless of their preferred position. And whatever one of the 5 GKs that happened to be around that day.”

  10. old soccer coach says: consulted 3/6/2016 at 9:10 am
    The above reference – my limited exposure to 21st C academic practices says that above is a proper way to footnote the internet – gives multiple pages [I haven’t read them yet] of the official 2016 MLS Roster Rules.
    The summary article to which I found the link on Union Rumors mentioned points that may help us figure out roster flow between USL affiliates and MLS parents rosters.
    It also gives the Salary cap number ($3,660,000, by memory, not double-checked).
    And apparently there is a cosmetic change about the non-senior roster [salary cap] slots 21-28 subdividing them into two categories although, said the summary article, the substance of qualifying details has not changed since the 2015 version.

    • old soccer coach says:

      I thought I had an email for Dan Walsh, but apparently not.
      if any one reading what I posted immediately above has such an address would you please bring the link and its attendant document to Dan’s attention as is may inform his impending article about roster flow between USL affiliates (BSFC) and MLS parents (PU). Much obliged to you.

  11. old soccer coach says:

    In reading over the 2016 MLS Roster Rules, referenced by me above, there is a provision regarding MLS players loaned to USL affiliates called “right of recall.”
    “If a player is loaned from a MLS Club to a USL affiliate with a Right of Recall incorporated into the agreement, then that player may be recalled by the parent MLS Club at any point during the MLS regular season subject to MLS roster compliance guidelines (e.g. available international slots, roster space). There are no restrictions on the amount of time such player may be recalled.” (, copied 3/6/2016 c. 1:30 pm, OSC)
    I take that to mean that a Union player can be loaned to BSFC and can return to the Union provided his exact slot on the Union roster, together with all of its various affiliated characteristics, remains unoccupied.
    At last we know!
    Maurice Edu may have a “rehab assignment”. Yaro, Washington, et al., may go down for game minutes and return as needed.
    Now it’s between Curt&Earnie and Brendan Burke to work out how much Union needs will disrupt Steel FC team-building, as it should be.

  12. So, what is the rationale behind not having a game day thread?

  13. Has anybody be seen my Solar Rocket?

  14. Oof..I would retire if I was Fabinho. One of the worst games ever.

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