Match previews

Preview: Union vs New England Revolution

Photo: Daniel Studio

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. New England Revolution
What: 2016 home opener
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Sunday, March 20 at 2:30 pm
Watch: 6abc, MLS Live
Whistle: Nima Saghafi; Linesmen: Sean Hurd, Adam Wienckowski; Fourth Official: Alan Kelly

Philadelphia Union’s March schedule has been brutal, and it gets no easier this weekend. New England Revolution expect to compete for MLS Cup, but so far they have had difficulty putting together a complete performance. Jay Heaps is adept at tinkering with lineups and systems in-season though, so expect a classic Revolution Run up the standings at some point in the not-so-distant future. Thus far, however, New England has showcased its weaknesses more than its strengths. Philadelphia Union need to capitalize on those soft spots to open the home season with a win.

New England’s first two matches have ended as draws, but that hardly tells the full story. Against Houston, the Revs went up early through a Diego Fagundez wonderstrike (included below, just because Jay Heaps’ reaction makes me laugh every time), but turnovers in midfield led to chances that Cristian Maidana and Andrew Wenger (remember them?) used to turn the match on its head. New England clawed back to earn a point, but it was clear that the balance between attack and defense was off.

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Last weekend, the Revs played out a dour 0-0 tie with DC United that featured few good opportunities. Notably, Heaps’ men were far more responsible defensively (particularly the impressive Fagundez), but were smothered in midfield by a smart, high pressure system from Ben Olsen. Defensive solidity without sacrificing the bodies in midfield that move to create space for Lee Nguyen is the sweet spot for New England, and Philly will need a system that prevents this from happening.

Olsen’s solution

Ben Olsen used an ostensibly high risk/high reward strategy that often left Steve Birnbaum in man coverage on Charlie Davies. On paper, this sounds suicidal: Davies is a very smart runner who thrives on dragging defenders out of position then running in behind. But the secret about Davies’ runs — and what makes them better than most — is that they are very often designed decoys that keep both central defenders in deep positions so Nguyen, Fagundez, and Kelyn Rowe can find space behind the midfield. These runs separate Davies from the Revs other options up top, namely Teal Bunbury and Juan Agudelo. Both players offer different qualities than Davies, but neither can replicate the well-timed runs across the face of defenders that have become so essential for New England’s success.

Olsen’s system allowed Bobby Boswell to step into midfield to close down Nguyen when the playmaker found a pocket of space. Boswell is about as agile as an overweight traffic cone, so he would be stranded if Nguyen could turn and run at him. Thus, Boswell had to get tight to Nguyen quickly while Birnbaum stayed in Davies’ shirt when the striker went across the formation into the space Boswell left behind. Sean Franklin, then, had to figure out whether to get tight to Fagundez or hold a deeper position to prevent Chris Tierney from overlapping into an ocean of space.

Most of the time, DC executed the gameplan to perfection, squeezing Nguyen and handing off Fagundez between midfield and Franklin as the winger came inside to get on the ball. On the few occasions Boswell was late to step, Nguyen was able to find Davies, who could hold the ball and bring Bunbury and an in-form JeVaughn Watson into play.

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Teal Bunbury’s backtracking helps open up the New England break

It seems revealing that New England’s offense sputtered with Nguyen unable to turn and create, but Houston was largely able to keep Nguyen out of dangerous positions as well. So what else did DC do that kept the Revs from creating chances?

Secondary options

Nguyen is a wonderfully creative player, but New England can generate offense even when he is tightly marked because they can stretch the field through Bunbury and Tierney. Moving Andrew Farrell into central defense gives Jay Heaps two players that can possess the ball and play deep passes through midfield or accurately switch play at a moment’s notice. 

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Without Charlie Davies, New England’s offense can become static when Nguyen is on the ball

Caldwell (L) and Koffie struggled to advance the ball against DC.

Caldwell (L) and Koffie struggled to advance the ball against DC.

Houston allowed Farrell and Jose Goncalves time to pick out passes into the space left when Nguyen checked wide and drew extra defenders. DC used Boswell to help on Nguyen and tightly marked Bunbury, leaving its midfield free to step higher and pressure the Revs’ central defenders. New England was left trying to create chances through Gershon Koffie and Scott Caldwell, two good players who prefer simple passes. The few times New England did generate momentum going forward, they face planted on the final pass, but generally DC was able to prevent breaks by putting the ball on the feet of the New England holding midfielders.

Jay Heaps recognizes this can be an issue, which is why he started Kelyn Rowe in place of Caldwell against Houston. Rowe as a holding midfielder is essentially an American knockoff version of Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey experiment, with the player equally capable of creating dangerous matchups going forward and frustrating odd-man rushes going the other way. Heaps may return to Rowe this weekend in search of more offense.

Rowe or Caldwell?

On the road against a team that creates offense from the break, Heaps could be inclined to stick with Scott Caldwell. The holding midfielder from Akron has proven adept at protecting the back line when Tierney and Watson go forward. Caldwell’s partner, Gershon Koffie, is in the Lahoud/Edu mold as a midfielder that tends to track the ball to the wings, leaving space in the middle. When Koffie chased against DC, Caldwell was almost always sitting in front of the back four.

Against Houston, Caldwell replaced Rowe for the second half and stayed higher up the pitch than Koffie, allowing the Revs to advance the ball through midfield without relying on Rowe or long passes.

Against Houston, Caldwell (L) replaced Rowe for the second half and stayed higher up the pitch than Koffie (R), allowing the Revs to advance the ball through midfield without relying on Rowe or long passes.

However, Caldwell was much less aggressive going forward against DC than he was in his second half appearance against Houston. Stepping higher than Koffie to create angled passes is essential for Caldwell to provide balance to the New England offense. When he stays square, as he did against DC, the Revs struggle to move the ball through midfield without relying on Goncalves and Farrell to slip passes into tight windows. If Heaps opts for a Caldwell-Koffie midfield, expect to see one of the two trying to push further up the pitch to draw attention away from Nguyen.

A third option is to drop Koffie and use Caldwell with Rowe. On paper, this may actually be the best matchup against the Union, who are more vulnerable to quick passing in midfield than DC. Allowing Rowe, Fagundez, and Nguyen to poke holes in the likely Carroll-Creavalle shield is a good basic plan. Furthermore, Koffie’s skillset may not be the most necessary against a Union side that is going to generate more offense with wingers coming central than through midfield creators. Koffie is very good at reading and responding to the game in front of him, but he can lose focus when retreating (watch him fail to track Andrew Wenger on Houston’s second goal) and is less aware of runners coming in from the wings than Caldwell.

No matter how New England comes out in midfield, the onus will be on Warren Creavalle (or Vincent Nogueira, if healthy) to provide an extra man in the middle on offense to keep New England honest and allow Pontius and the other starting winger space to operate.

Playing faster

One notable issue with New England’s play thus far this season is that they have struggled to take advantage of the spacing issues their nimble midfield creates. Nguyen can suck in two or three defenders, which means space is available elsewhere on the pitch.

Thus far, Farrell in particular, but Koffie and Caldwell as well, have been slow to notice when the field compresses and slower still to move the ball across the pitch into open space. Chris Tierney is a fiercesome weapon in space on the left, but he was rarely picked out against DC United (though the one crossfield ball Farrell barely even drove through was gorgeous). Recognizing the space they can attack after drawing a defense in tight will make the Revs a much more dangerous team this weekend.

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Lineup questions

Based on Jim Curtin’s midweek comments, it’s likely that Vincent Nogueira and Tranquillo Barnetta will be available off the bench against New England. Nogueira could return to the first eleven, but given the nature of the visitors’ attack and the strong, mostly-controlled performance by Warren Creavalle against Columbus, it would be surprising to see Nogueira back in there if he has not trained at 100 percent for most of the week. If Philly can’t generate offense against the Revs, though, Curtin will have to be quick with the subs.

The major question for Philly is Leo Fernandes, who should feel heat from Roland Alberg. The Dutch import has played well in two cameos, showing an aggressiveness defensively that Fernandes can’t replicate. However, Alberg has only been used in the middle thus far, and the wide role features a different set of responsibilities. Particularly on the right, where Chris Tierney can sneak off if Fagundez drags Rosenberry inside, understanding defensive roles will be a key requirement for Alberg to overtake Fernandes.

Attacking New England

Curtin has talked about moving opposition center backs as key to an attack, but the Revs pairing is so athletic that they must be treated differently than most. Goncalves and Farrell can run with most wingers, but they tend to lean on their athleticism over positioning. The goal, then, should be to get the central defenders on the edges and make runs in behind them.

Goncalves likes to step into midfield to challenge for the ball, leaving Farrell to drop deeper in protection. This should open lanes along the outside, but Philly will need to play quickly to take advantage of them. Ilsinho’s defensive work was much improved last game, now he needs to pick up his speed of play to make teams pay when they collapse on him.

Furthermore, the mobility of New England’s back line means CJ Sapong needs to embrace his role as a decoy. Houston kept the Revs defense flat, creating large gaps that Cristian Maidana could enter and making the second ball easier to collect. Sapong can have the same effect by looking for balls into the corners in order to pin back fullbacks or, if they stay high, chase deep and hold for support.

Prediction: Union 2-2 Revolution


The Union and the Revs are both struggling for an identity early on. The Union have been both bad and solid; New England has been unfocused twice. Both teams are likely to start out hesitant — particularly with so many key players missing for the Union and Davies out for the Revs — which means an early goal will probably come from a mistake.

Philly has to avoid being the team to make that mistake. Too often they have defined themselves as a team fighting against inner demons: A self-made goalie controversy, last-minute signings that take time to bed in, a player brought in to run the midfield but constantly used as a defensive stopgap. These are all issues to be dealt with before the opponent or longer term on-field growth can even be considered.

Now Philly has moved past its glaring front office issues and shown the ability to earn tough results on the field. But winning at home is the quickest way to reinvigorate the fanbase.

It starts this weekend against a motivated but sputtering Revolution side.


  1. I’m a bit baffled as to why Le Toux doesn’t seem to enter the starting XI conversation. Why not play Creavalle and Alberg in the middle, with Alberg taking Nogueira’s box-to-box role, as was tried in preseason? And instead of Fernandes or Alberg, we put Le Toux on the right wing.

    • I just think Le Toux’s work rate offers so much off the bench. It’s a great luxury to have someone like that to run at tired defenders, and the U finally have it.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      And Le Toux is often a net negative on possession. If the Union want to hold the ball, Seba doesn’t help much.

      • Agreed…. if you have Creavalle and Carroll you can’t have Le Toux.
        Be interesting to see the line up that is for sure…told JC he’d be on his own with me, if he trundled Brian Carroll out for the next 12 weeks but I did not expect that to include Warren Creavalle. I’m sure it fell on deaf ears though.
        Touche Jim.

    • I’ve actually had Le Toux in the first eleven the past two weeks, but I think it’s more important to get Alberg on the field right now. Especially at home where Philly should be trying for more possession rather than countering.

      • As I said above, if we try Alberg in the Nogueira role, we can have both him and Seba on the pitch. Plus, that solves the Carroll/Creavalle problem.

  2. Put Warren in Carroll’s spot and if Nogs is healthy put him in his normal spot. Very strong lineup. If we can pull out 3 points, get Barnetta back to 100% during the bye week, we’ll be ready to make an early run for the top of the eastern conference table. cautiously optimistic.

  3. — have to admit…I see one point this weekend… and I’d be okay with that… provided the play continues to resemble the game played the world throughout.

    • This is basically my sentiment for the entire season: “the play continues to resemble the game played the world throughout.”
      If the style of play trend line continues to move in the right direction, I can live with some early disappointments. And with injury-related personnel limitations, that becomes more challenging.
      BUT, once the team has demonstrated a sustained trend-line, there is no going back. We will all have tasted the goods and nothing else will do from then on.

  4. …and don’t pack away those snowpants just yet, you may want to wear them to the match!

  5. Agree with Adam, I keep laughing every time I think of Heaps’ reaction.

  6. I could see a situation where a fully fit alberg goes in the middle instead of carroll, if nogs also can’t go 90. That would open up the right wing spot, and given that we’ll want to possess, Leo could still end up back out there. Not saying he should, but that it’s an option.
    These “who starts this week?” conversations are far more fun now that we have more than 11 guys good enough to start.

  7. This will be the first snow match I have been to… Have see them on TV…well we will see if it snows or not. Looking forward to the game either way! Come on The U!

    • Sounds like it might be more like the dreaded “wintery mix”. Good luck to those of you going to the game. Go early, slow and be safe.

  8. Poor Restrepo seems to have become something of an afterthought. Since Leo hasn’t shown anything like the form he showed in preseason maybe it’s time Walter made the 18 in place of Fernandes. It’s early, give everyone a chance to show what they got. I don’t want to see another winger (Wenger) run out there automatically for 20 games with no production.

  9. Foul weather often acts as equalizer. Visibility problems, a sloppy pitch and bone-chilling wet kits will only add to each team’s hesitancy. This match shapes up to put a literal damper on last week’s pleasant surprise. I’ll take one point without serious injury, please.

  10. DomesticCat610 says:

    Always have to keep an eye where Fagundez is, that kid is nasty.

  11. Mie una nu mi-a placut o anumita carte care a fost ecranizata, mie mi-a placut seria ecranizata a Jurnalelor Vampirilor pentru ca aduce un mic refresh seriei de carti cu acelasi nume, ca o gura de aer proaspat:D Auroarea cartilor m-a facut sa indragesc seria si sa tin foarte mult la personaje, insa regizorul, a marit orizonturile si poiitilstabile de care era capabila aceasta serie. Sper sa iti placa raspunsul meu si mult succes celorlalti participanti:)

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