Match previews

Preview: Union vs Vancouver Whitecaps

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
What: 2016 regular season game
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Saturday, June 25 at 7 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Armando Villarreal; Daniel Belleau and Jose Da Silva; Geoff Gamble

Vancouver Whitecaps seem to be constantly on the brink of breaking into the MLS elite. The club is loaded with young, athletic talent, but even after finishing second in the Western Conference last season they somehow never looked a real threat to make a deep run in the playoffs. That suspicion was borne out when the Caps were shutout over two legs by eventual champion Portland Timbers.

The notion that a team with Pedro Morales, Octavio Rivero, Kekuta Manneh, Erik Hurtado, Nicolas Mezquida, and Cristian Techera seems almost absurd on the surface. Over 180 minutes, it seems as though one of those players — if not Kendall Waston or Pa Modou Kah on set pieces — would be able to find the back of the net.

But watch Vancouver for any length of time and it becomes clear: Unless Pedro Morales is controlling the tempo of the match (which he does less and less as he ages), the Whitecaps quickly start to look like a pickup soccer team. Any individual can beat you, but an organized defense means it will take a moment of brilliance. In fact, the Caps last two goals came from a stunning Mezquida free kick and a sensational spinning strike from Rivero: Both out of nothing, and both inspiring little momentum.

Where they want to be

The Union can expect Vancouver to attack the same areas as Chicago: Behind the fullbacks. The Whitecaps look to find their zippy wingers in space, and the wide men involve the striker in different ways depending on personnel. If Octavio Rivero is up front, he will stay central and look for service. Hurtado, on the other hand, will curl behind the front line and can act as more of a setup man for midfield runners.

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In either case, the goal is to play quickly. Like many MLS sides, Vancouver is impatient going forward, eager to prey on the chaos of transition because of their struggles establishing an offensive set and creating chances once a defense is organized.

And as implied above, there is no shortage of players that can be game winners, but finding anyone who can be a consistent threat has been an issue.

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The players who are most likely to cause Philly problems are Manneh and Costa Rican winger Christian Bolanos. Both players have four goals and two assists on the season and are difficult to control when they can isolate a defender. However, they are both also inaccurate crossers and prone to individualistic play. The mantra for the Union will be a simple one: Stay in front, stay in front.

Where will Morales play (if he plays at all)?

Coming off a red card suspension, Pedro Morales had a chance to stretch his legs in a Canadian Championship match against Toronto earlier this week. Playing as an advanced midfielder, he showed moments of flair over a 63-minute performance but rarely approached the box. This meant Octavio Rivero, not the most positionally sound striker to begin with, was left on his own. Rivero drifted left, taking Alphonso Davies space and leaving a gigantic hole in the center of the pitch that Nobody McNobody filled.

Carl Robinson can drop Morales deeper into midfield alongside Russell Teibert or the under-performing Matias Laba (who moves like a tin man that hasn’t been oiled this year). While such a team sheet allows Morales to spring counterattacks, it leaves the Caps understaffed defensively. It also leaves the observer wondering if Robinson perhaps underrated the messy but often effective defensive work of Gershon Koffie, who was shipped to New England in the offseason.

Overall, the Union’s plan against Vancouver boils down to two bullet points: First, counterpress well and force the Caps to make the first transition pass a short, wide one (instead of a long, angled outlet). Second, be careful in the box. The Whitecaps have scored a modest 24 goals on the season, but that number looks a lot less impressive when you remove the five (!) penalties collected over 16 matches.

Problems on defense

In 2015, Vancouver allowed 1.05 goals per match. That number is right about where Jim Curtin wants the Union to be. This year, the Caps are sporting a 1.68 goals against average, which is more in line with the 2015 Union’s fugly 1.62.

Issues are myriad, but they start on the wings. Whereas the Union have emphasized responsible defending from wing players (aka, the silent value of Pontius), the Whitecaps seem to shun the idea altogether. Watching World Cup veteran Christian Bolanos defend in his own end is like watching someone cut vegetables for dinner very carefully. They aren’t doing anything wrong, per se, but they could be doing it a lot better, and a lot more efficiently.

Compounding the defensive issues on the wings, the Whitecaps have adjusted to Kendall Waston’s absences in the back line (he’s suspended for Saturday’s match against the Union) by keeping the right fullback overly narrow. This means the left wing is often a free zone where teams can establish attacks or easily get behind a defensive line.

For the Union, that means Fabinho should be able to create havoc with overlapping runs, with Chris Pontius doing his best to keep the fullback inside then curling off toward the six yard box. Union alum Andrew Jacobson has been deputizing at right center back for Vancouver, and he brings a midfielder’s sensibility to the role. This means that he’s very good at reading and closing down play when it happens in front of him, but less aware of his spacing with Tim Parker and troublingly lost when retreating.

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Philly’s goals

It should be business as usual for the Union. Jim Curtin will update CJ Sapong’s status today, but this looks to be a good match to continue with Fabian Herbers, who can pull Jacobson around with his early runs.

Brian Carroll will likely continue in midfield, though Warren Creavalle may be preferred to match the Whitecaps’ speed. Another speed question comes up in back, where Joshua Yaro may be a better match for Hurtado and Manneh but Ken Tribbett may be preferred for his aerial ability against Octavio Rivero. 

The biggest test for Philly will be in transition. Chicago had no midfield to speak of and could only threaten by going direct to the strikers. Vancouver’s central defenders are not elite passers, and the team relies heavily on Morales to start counterattacks. This match, then, will be a bigger test of Tranquillo Barnetta’s defensive sensibilities in a deeper role. The Swiss midfielder was never punished when he pushed forward on Wednesday because that would have required the Fire connecting passes. While Vancouver has proved inconsistent in this regard, they certainly have far more potential to punish the Union if the midfield balance is off.

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Another interesting issue that came up in the comments of the Chicago player ratings is how Philly should adjust to speedy counterattacking threats on the wings. Should Keegan Rosenberry play deeper to minimize that space?

After the US men’s national team lost to Colombia in their opening match of this year’s Copa America, Jermaine Jones voiced his displeasure at being asked to double on Juan Cuadrado as soon as the winger collected the ball. Jones’ argument was that this took him out of position offensively and stunted the Americans’ ability to move the ball forward.

Jim Curtin and Earnie Stewart would likely agree with this argument in regards to Rosenberry. The rookie is such a skilled attacking player that his offense can also be his best defense. By pushing up the pitch, Rosenberry forces the opposition to either bring more men back or risk leaving the right back alone. Unlike Fabinho, who is perfectly happy to settle for a cross, Rosenberry has shown an inclination for combination play around the box. With Ilsinho in front of him, Rosenberry becomes a potent force, one that can break down organized defenses that would otherwise prove quite sturdy.

Since we won't know Sapong's status until after this preview goes live, he remains in the injured column of Seth Finck's stupendous lineup graphic.

Since we won’t know Sapong’s status until after this preview goes live, he remains in the injured column of Seth Finck’s stupendous lineup graphic.

Conclusion: Union 3-1

Vancouver was a very good road team last season, finishing with seven victories away from home. This year they are a far more average 2-5-0. Additionally, the Caps are 1-7-3 when tied or trailing at halftime, but undefeated when taking a lead into the break. In other words, the Union need to jump out ahead early because their opponent has trouble pressing forward while protecting the goal (Robinson’s men are also 1-6-1 when allowing the first goal).

The Union also need to step up the tempo in the final 15 minutes of each half. Vancouver has given up over half their goals allowed in the last third of a half (14/27), indicating tired legs that the Union exploit.

Finally, it’s worth noting that although the Whitecaps have one point over their past three matches, they went on a three-game winning streak before that. This is a team that is inconsistent and somewhat one dimensional, but still extremely dangerous. Philly should win, but they need to play a full ninety. Any lapses in concentration can be pounced upon by a team that flows forward well.

Another win at home will put the Union in a very good place heading into the long, hot July-August slog that has tripped up so many early MLS leaders. Philly’s high intensity system makes them a prime candidate for a summer faceplant, but the team’s cohesion may prevent it. This is the first test of many.

7 Comments

  1. Word is Sapong trained by himself today. Not sure if that means he is 100% out or if he could make the 18 but it looks like it will be Herbers again to start.

    • pragmatist says:

      It would be nice to have him on the bench, and then get him 10-15 minutes at the end. Obviously not if there is danger there, but the sooner he gets back, the better.
      .
      I still want to find a way to play them together.

      • Lots of players we want on the field right now, not a whole lot of spaces available in the XI. Best feeling I’ve had as a union fan. We’re trying to fit no fewer than 8 useful pieces into 6 midfield and striker positions.
        .
        Point is, it might not be very possible, and that’s ok.

      • pragmatist says:

        Yeah, don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling out Curtin or Stewart for having too many good players! I’m just a fan of the 2-striker set, especially when they have such complementary skills.

      • Agreed – but that’s really only possible if Edu can come back and play sole DMid. Then which 3 midfielders do you play?

      • I just see our 2 most important players to success right now as Alberg and Barnetta. You’re right about the complimentary skills, but I think the same logic can be applied to whomever is playing the number 10 role on a given night. I argued this point a few weeks ago, suggesting Alberg might find more success behind Herbers, since he (alberg) is more capable in a holdup sense than Barnetta. Barnetta makes excellent runs and attacks space better, but benefits from a holdup player like CJ in front of him.
        .
        To play devils advocate and find a formation that works for you, I’ll advocate a 4-3-3 that sees Alberg, Barnetta, and Edu patrolling the midfield, with CJ flanked by Pontius and Herbers up top. That might balance out our ability to defend and gets all the aforementioned players on the pitch

      • Great point about fitting the skills of who is at the #10 to who is playing striker.

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