Match previews

Preview: Union at Colorado Rapids

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union at Colorado Rapids
What: Regular season game
Where: Dick’s Sport Goods Park
When: Saturday, May 28 at 9 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick (also on SiriusXM FC)
Whistle: Hilario Grajeda; Linesmen: James Conlee, Cameron Blanchard; Fourth Official: Younes Marrakchi

There are some clear similarities between the Western Conference leading Colorado Rapids and the Eastern Conference leading Philadelphia Union. Both head coaches are former MLS players who quickly climbed into the big office after their careers ended. Additionally, both teams have sought to reshape their rosters by throwing together active, physical midfielders behind tireless strikers.

As a result, both clubs have top three defenses despite using a mixture of youth and mediocrity in defense. At the end of 2015, the Rapids were starting Sean St. Ledger and Axel Sjoberg in the center of defense with Marlon Hairston, Drew Moor, and Maynor Figueroa on the outside. Although preventing goals wasn’t the team’s major issue last season, Colorado rebuilt the back line by getting Bobby Burling into the first eleven again, adding Mekeil Williams from Antigua GFC, and dropping journeyman Marc Burch into the left back role. Oh, and they jettisoned talented shot stopper Clint Irwin to chase Tim Howard, so former Union man Zac MacMath has backstopped the team to an incredible 0.69 goals against per match thus far. That’s 9 goals allowed in 13 games. Yeah, that’s good.

And it is particularly impressive given that the Rapids went through a major personnel shift halfway into the season when Jermaine Jones returned from suspension to take up Dillon Powers’ attacking midfield role.

Changes of Colorado

Jones has been undeniably great, and fellow big money signings Shkelzen Gashi and Kevin Doyle have been excellent as well. But only Doyle will be available on Saturday. 

Pablo Mastroeni will likely replace Jones with Dillon Powers, who has been riding the bench since the US international’s suspension ended. Gashi will be a more interesting case, as either Dillon Serna or Dominique Badji could slide into the Albanian’s role on the wing. Serna has been more consistent, but Badji offers a ton of speed to challenge Fabinho, who has struggled against zippy wingers this season. 

Powers, of course, is a very good player, but he is not Jermaine Jones, and the Rapids will need to either push Cronin forward more often or play on the counter to make up for the loss of their big man in the middle.

The Rapids will be extremely pleased that Doyle changed travel plans to make himself available on Saturday. The Irishman has only scored one goal as a starter this season, but his work rate up front makes it incredibly difficult to build out of the back. Pressure will be on Ken Tribbett to make smart first passes under pressure so Philly can attack Colorado before their defensive midfield has established positions and all but locked up the center of the park.

Azi-ronin? Crozira?

These changes make Colorado a far different team going forward, though it does not mean they can be taken lightly. After all, this is a club thriving with a double pivot of Sam Cronin and Michael Azira, guys who all but defined “replacement-level player” before this season. The Cronin-Azira base has proved a brilliant setup for the Rapids because both players have become stupendously good at covering for teammates. When Sjoberg finds himself at sea after chasing into midfield, Azira will cover. When Jones goes off on a wild chase to the wing, Cronin steps forward to make sure teams can’t easily play the ball back through the center and switch fields.

Neither player feels the need to press too far forward, though Cronin will take up more advanced positions during possession.

Seattle may have been the first team all season to move the ball with enough speed to take advantage of the fact that the Rapids basically play with two firemen in midfield, and the result was an all-out assault on the Colorado back line that MacMath somehow repelled with what can only be called quick and brilliant goalkeeping.

In other words, the Rapids can be attacked.

But how?

AmericanSoccerAnalysis shows that the Rapids are outperforming their Expected Goals Against number by over three goals. That means that the ASA model thinks Colorado has been a bit lucky, but is still very, very good. Seattle found an interesting gap in the Rapids defense by looking to play the ball through the center of the back line.

Cronin and Azira sit right in front of the back four to push play wide (like many MLS teams, the Rapids feel pretty good about crosses with a pair of giants in the middle). Those giants like to make sure nobody can run at them, so Sjoberg and Burling will stay tight on strikers, sometimes to a fault.

[gfycat data_id=”GratefulDefinitiveAsiaticgreaterfreshwaterclam” data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

In the clip above, you can see Sjoberg chase into midfield (which he does a bit too often) while Azira and Cronin protect the rest of the back line. Jordan Morris drifts into the right channel and Bobby Burling follows, allowing Clint Dempsey to open up through the center. It takes a great pass, but Deuce gets in on goal only to meet the MacMonster, who makes a fantastic save.

[gfycat data_id=”CheapSandyDwarfrabbit” data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

In the first fifteen minutes, Seattle got Burling and Sjoberg to wander into midfield three times, and each time they squandered a good opportunity to take an early lead.

Philly’s attacking goal, then, should be to pull those central defenders out of position and look to make runs into the space they leave.

This is nothing novel, but it is something the Union have struggled to do at times this season. Philly likes to keep CJ Sapong in the center to occupy the center backs, but Sapong will also check back and pull the back line out of shape. But Philly has not been as quick to find their striker on the ground in recent matches, with many of the longer ground passes going to Tranquillo Barnetta’s feet.

To be clear, this is not a problem. But it does suggest the Union may want to tweak their strategy against a Colorado side that sits its defensive midfield so deep and plays a (surprisingly) high line in back.

Stick with Barnetta?

I have spent quite a bit of time bemoaning Tranquillo Barnetta’s final third decision-making, so a quick clarification: Barnetta has been awesome! But he could make the Union offense even more dangerous than it has been. The Swiss attacker is putting up Sacha Kljestan’s numbers right now despite being on the ball far less than the Energy Drinks’ main man. Kljestan has over 10% of his team’s touches when he’s on the pitch while Barnetta only has 6.6% of the Union’s touches when he’s on the field. Despite that, Barnetta is averaging almost exactly the same number of key passes per match as Kljestan (and as the venerable Diego Valeri). Notably, all three players deliver excellent set pieces, which boosts key pass numbers outside of regular play (Valeri, by the way, sees the ball even more than Kljestan with over 13% of his team’s touches).

So Barnetta has been doing a whole lot with the ball when he has it. However, he also started the season on the injury list and has played 360 minutes in the past two weeks. With an in-conference matchup next Wednesday, should Philly risk their biggest offensive asset against a depleted Colorado side?

Stick with… everyone else?

The same question can be asked about the rest of the Union’s attackers, though perhaps with slightly less urgency. Chris Pontius and Sebastien Le Toux have accumulated a ton of minutes recently, and Pontius’ influence has waned (though his aerial play remains exquisite). Le Toux has found himself quite a groove, and he will likely play as Curtin looks to re-establish the connection between the winger and Keegan Rosenberry.

CJ Sapong has, similarly, played bonkers minutes this season and often transitions into a physically demanding winger role late in matches. Given the Union’s lack of depth at the striker position (still only one pure striker on the roster who has scored a MLS goal…), Philly will have to consider whether it is advisable to send Sapong into what will likely be a huge physical test at the end of a heavy two-week stretch.

These questions of rest are not ones that I try to answer. They are likely based on how a player reports feeling as much as on any physiological testing or tactical considerations. The major point with all of this is that Philly has been quite lucky in how their depth has been tested thus far this season. When Barnetta was out, Roland Alberg and Ilsinho were ready to step in. When Nogueira has gone down, Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle have stepped in admirably. When Ken Tribbett was out, a No. 2 overall pick was there to fill in.

Not to say that anybody outside of the club should have expected Ilsinho, Creavalle, Carroll, and Yaro to drive a climb to the top of the standings, but at least they all came with either experience of a very strong pedigree.

With Ilsinho hobbled, and Sapong logging huge minutes, Philly faces some truly interesting depth questions. Leo Fernandes’ NASL success has not translated to MLS thus far, and Walter Restrepo has yet to leave the bench. Despite showing promise, Fabian Herbers is still sporting a zero in the goals column. In short, Jim Curtin and company have some big decisions to make for Saturday’s match.

There is every chance that Fernandes starts over Restrepo on Saturday. And that Herbers gets his first big minutes.

There is every chance that Fernandes starts over Restrepo on Saturday. And that Herbers gets his first big minutes.

Prediction: Rapids 0-0 Union

Last season, these teams played out one of the most mind-bogglingly awful matches you will see in MLS, and that includes every Chivas USA match. It may not be as terrible to watch this time around, but with a lot of key offensive contributors either missing or in need of rest there is every chance this game has all the back and forth excitement of a rush hour traffic jam.

The Rapids looked vulnerable against Seattle, but the Union were lethargic for large spells of their midweek matchup with Orlando City. Both teams will likely be happy with an injury-free point, though, of course, the home side will likely push for more.

And finally, let’s dwell for one moment longer on Zac MacMath. Remember, this is a goalie who was drafted No. 5, waited his turn behind Faryd Mondragon, saw the center backs that led Philly’s strong 2011 defense leave for a variety of ridiculous reasons, struggled for confidence, was replaced with an useless Mbolhi of money, watched his club trade up to draft another goalie, and… never complained. Now, like Chris Seitz before him, MacMath is a strong voice behind a veteran back line and looking every bit the aggressive, active shot stopper he was expected to be out of Maryland. MacMath was a wonderful member of the community in Philly and he connected with fans in a big way. It’s awesome to see him finding the kind of success that could lead to a more permanent position somewhere else once MacMath is, once again, replaced with an overly expensive goalie who has played in a little thing called the World Cup.


  1. How about replacing Le Toux with Sapong for this match and giving Herbers a start up top?

    Herbers seems more than capable of pulling their CBs around. Sapong always looks effective out wide at the end of matches.

  2. 1. Hear hear on MacMath. But he’s doing well enough that he’ll get a chance to start for someone else in a year or two.

    2. I think Herbers has got to start this game up top. We’re gonna fry CJ if we don’t give him a rest soon, especially against a couple of Ents at CB. Instead of banging with them, give Herbers a chance to sneak in behind or pull them out of position. From what we’ve seen of him, he is probably more capable of doing that than Sapong anyway.

    • Thank for the visual of Burling and sjoberg as ents. It’s pretty awesome. They make everyone look tiny around them, even MacMath.

  3. Also, we probably need to rest some other folks for this game. Le Toux is maybe tireless enough to start again, but I think Pontius needs a rest. And I sure hope Nogueira is ready to play, because I can’t see throwing BC out there yet again. Barnetta is a tough one — he is so critical to the offense. But perhaps we give Alberg a shot for the game.

  4. Herbers
    Barnetta | Alberg | LeToux

    Here is what I would like to see … Barnetta is a wing player. Pontius and Sapong need rest.

    • I actually asked for something like a while ago. Love the concept of using Alberg’s size and talent to hold up play while herbers and le toux make runs and drag defenders. But if we’re going to take barnetta out of the middle, he should get full rest IMO.

  5. Lucky Striker says:

    I’d actually like to see LeToux up top, because Philly won’t successfully attack the Rapid’s CB’s through the air anyway.

    Put Herbers on the wing, and let him use his legs to get comfortable w/o the pressure of having to score. Was told he was versatile enough in college to play out wide-let’s see it.

    The hope is that the Il one and Noggin are healthy enough to see some late minutes off the bench. Lull Colorado to sleep and try to steal it late.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Who replaces Le Toux’s defense down the right flank?
      I think Adam is right that you have a chance to see Ilsinho, but given Jim Curtin’s choice of words last Monday, I, like Adam, would be surprised if Nogueira were in the 18.

  6. philpill says:

    JC took the whole team for more rhan training. Sit CJ & Quillo. Maybe Pontius. More important to get points Wednesday. Start Alberg & Herbers. Maybe Restrepo.

    • pragmatist says:

      +1. And at altitude. Let’s not wear out Barnetta and CJ when we need three on Wednesday. The other guys can get us a draw in Denver.

  7. Old Soccer Coach says:

    The opportunity to have Ilsinho and Nogueira fully healed and fully rested for the 21 games after the Copa America break is an important consideration.

  8. 0-0?! We are gonna put a couple past Zac!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *