Match previews

Preview: Union vs DC United

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. DC United
What: 2016 regular season game
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Saturday, July 9 at 7 pm
Watch: 6abc, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Sorin Stoica; Claudia Badea and Logan Brown; Jose Carlos Rivero

DC United are halfway through their season and still figuring themselves out. In attack, they have a trio of players who can score, led by a strong hold up man in Alvaro Saborio. In defense, they have size, strength, and fullbacks who are willing to be conservative in their forward movement. In midfield… they aren’t quite sure what they have, or what they want to have.

As Philadelphia looks to rebound from Cristian Maidana’s last second points theft, DC are hoping to build off of a last second smash and grab of their own. To take three points on Saturday, each team needs to do some serious soul-searching (and while they are doing that the should probably figure out their midfields).

DC has the personnel to play a few different shapes in the middle. Marcelo Sarvas (or “that young buck” as Brian Carroll calls him) was brought in to protect the back four after Perry Kitchen moved overseas. In recent weeks, Sarvas has played in the same role as Collen Warner at Houston, sitting behind the midfield and cleaning up messes.

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A big difference between DC and Houston, though, is that Wade Barrett felt comfortable benching Chaco Maidana for a lack of defensive discipline. Olsen, thus far, is still trying to figure out how to fit Luciano Acosta into his team, and the Argentinian wizard’s defensive positioning means the United defense is a lot looser than the one Philly faced in BBVA Compass Park.

United midfield

Earlier in the season, Olsen experimented with Acosta as a sitting striker and got a mix of stunning and stilted results. Acosta looked great against the Red Bulls in early May, but he was a non-factor a week later when the Union squeezed him out of the game (and he threw a minor hissy fit when he was withdrawn).

Acosta is in midfield now, and while he still has all the skills to be a game-changer, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that he may need to learn a bit of patience. As many parents are forced to say, just because you can make a fart noise with your armpit doesn’t mean you always should. Along the same lines, the ability to dink balls into tight spaces does not imply that such a pass is always the best option. Acosta is a confident transition player, but he plays as though he’s a sitting striker even though his current deployment is deeper in the formation. Passes into the strong body of Saborio are far less useful if the ever-dangerous Lamar Neagle and Fabian Espindola don’t have time to move forward into supporting roles.

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Though they are far different players, Acosta poses many of the same questions for DC that Maidana posed for the Union and now the Dynamo: In an age when returning to shape after turnovers is key, can a team with a dedicated playmaker do anything other than bunker and break?

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The answer is yes, of course. Just look at Real Salt Lake. Using a 4-3-3 shape with goalscoring wingers, they give Javier Morales freedom by moving the ball very quickly to discourage midfield pressure. Last Saturday, DC’s only response to RSL’s ball circulation was to drop their wingers deep and cut the legs out of their attack. Real Salt Lake could run this system because they have mobile central defenders with strong technique, so when the ball is dropped back it is not given a mandatory seat on the next flight out of the defensive half.

DC — particularly with Steve Birnbaum out of the first eleven — has no such luxury. Their central defenders are of the no-nonsense variety and smart pressure from the Union can keep Sarvas off the ball and the United offense out of sync.

Relatedly, DC’s back line doesn’t have the quickness to support a high pressure defense with a high line. Boswell, Kofi Opare, and Birnbaum need to play deeper in order to keep an eye on angled runs behind them. This leaves a fearsome amount of space between midfield and defense when Acosta pushes too high defensively, and Sarvas is often pulled much further out of the center than Ben Olsen would prefer.

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But again, the biggest questions for DC are in midfield. Acosta doesn’t fit very well in a 4-1-4-1 system, and Nick DeLeon doesn’t play fast enough, or cover well enough, to make a 4-2-3-1 a believable solution. Olsen, like Peter Nowak before him, bet heavily on being able to convert a talented young wing player into a creative, responsible central midfielder. It didn’t work for Nowak, but Olsen still has time to pull the plug.

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To be fair, DeLeon has improved considerably since the start of the season. Against Real Salt Lake, he was defensively responsible most of the time and played the type of simple game that he must master if he is going to carve out space for himself in the center with short passes that freeze a defense and allow him to pick out diagonals. But the player is not there yet. Particularly with Tranquillo Barnetta in a deeper role from which he can make covert runs forward, the Union should be able to get two players into Sarvas’ zone and drive through the center in ways they rarely did against Houston.

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What does it all mean?

To sum up, if DC goes with another 4-1-4-1 against the Union, the goal is exactly the same as it was last week: Get the deep midfielder out of the middle. Make him follow Barnetta, put two players in his zone, or just commit to give-and-goes through the channels (see: Beasley, Damarcus; Boniek Garcia, Oscar; and Alex, circa July 3, 2016).

If DC uses two deeper midfielders, Philly should look for Alberg and Barnetta between the midfield lines and sit the wingers in the channels to set up triangles to enter the final third.

Union setup

It would be incredibly surprising if CJ Sapong didn’t start up to for Jim Curtin. Given the roster and Warren Creavalle’s patchy form of late, the center of midfield almost needs to be Carroll and Barnetta behind Roland Alberg. If Sebastien Le Toux is available, he may very well start in place of Ilsinho, who has been lacking defensive nous and end product. In back, the only definite change will be Tribbett replacing the wrongly-suspended Joshua Yaro.

Union fans should look for a more organized, coordinated press from midfield. In his weekly press conference on Wednesday, Jim Curtin talked about the wingers and Sapong making things predictable for the midfield. When that happens, you’ll see Barnetta and Alberg quickly closing in as soon as Pontius or Sapong steps toward the ball. When the press isn’t coordinated, you’ll see Barnetta spending a lot more time checking over his shoulder to figure out what lane he needs to cover, because the options aren’t narrowed by the way the front line is approaching the ball.

Likely lineup even if Le Toux passes the concussion protocol (graphic courtesy of the inimitable Seth Finck

Likely lineup even if Le Toux passes the concussion protocol (graphic courtesy of the inimitable Seth Finck

Prediction: Union 3-1 DC United

Philly’s set piece issues may continue to haunt them, but if DC United doesn’t come up with a more compact defensive shape by Saturday, they can’t expect Bill Hamid to stand on his head like he did against Salt Lake to keep things close again. With Sapong back, the Union offense should look more fluid, and, more importantly, they should generate more turnovers in midfield.

The biggest key for Philly will be making sure that DC cannot play through their wingers early. Pinning Espindola and Neagle deep is absolutely necessary, as both can both score and create on the break.

The Union should be the better team, but they need to go back to suffocating opponents in the middle. Saturday is a good chance against a team that can struggle with the first pass in transition.

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On a final note, I’ll add that I love watching Bill Hamid play. He’s an intense ball of intensely burning energy from the opening whistle to the last; it’s awesome. Andre Blake is sensational, but I hope there is a Hamid era for US soccer so the Union and United goalies can go head-to-head on the international level. 


  1. I agree about Hamid. This match arguably features the two best keepers in MLS right now. (Well, OK, maybe I could’ve said that before Tim Howard showed up.)

    • You can say they’re in better form, that’s how well they’ve both been playing. Howard for sure is more seasoned, but he’s a guy on the back end of his career that hasn’t played much these last 6 months. Hamid and Blake are both young guys with bright futures playing for their soon to be European contracts right now.

  2. This is 1st of 3 matches (2 at home) against above-the-line conference foes – with USOC trip to Revs mixed in. Need at least 5 points from them? Bunched table, now looking up at NYC minus 4. Discouraged by silence about Edu.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      In all of UnionLand…. Maurice Edu is the story.
      Where is he?
      What’s the timetable?
      We were told June-ish July….
      T.R.O.U.B.L.E spells trouble.

  3. Zizouisgod says:

    The clip of DC’s deep back line while pressing…oh boy. The gap between their midfield and the backline could fit most team’s outfield ten on a normal basis…incredible.

    Makes no sense to go with C&C midfield like the last time that we played DC.

  4. The Union need to get rid of Anderson. I watched him play for steel against TFC2, and he was absolutely horrible. Union need to cut him and open the international roster spot. I can’t believe he was an opening day starter for union this season.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Agreed that he was badly exposed three times.
      on the other hand he was not so bad against Cincinnati.
      I have been assuming he is playing to shop him during the European summer transfer period, but that’s a guess.

      • MikeRSoccer says:

        He is on loan here. Cancelling a loan requires some contractual finagling and policy decisions for the Union that aren’t worth it. Letting him soak up a roster spot for the season is, unfortunately, easier for the team.

        With that said, I believe this is the second or third player we have taken on loan on the suggestion of Eduardo Uram, the agent of Gilberto (the defensive mid who sat on our bench for a year) and Anderson. Hopefully we won’t be answering the phone when he calls anymore.

  5. philpill says:

    How much does Lloyd Sam change this game?

  6. And now DC has Lloyd Sam on the roster. …. He might actually add something to the team.

    • Adam Cann says:

      I think Sam lets Olsen consider moving Espindola inside, and that dude isn’t a burner but he can get behind a defense as well as anyone in the league. DC can try to push the Union D-line deep and open some space in the center.

  7. MikeRSoccer says:

    I’m concerned about this game. With Yaro out and Ilsinho the likely starter because of LeToux’s injury, DC will surely be flying down our right flank. They know BC, Tribbett, Rosenberry, and Ilsinho are all slow. I’m concerned we are going to get a repeat of that first half vs Chicago.

    • Can definitely see where you’re coming from here, but nobody else in this league is David Accam fast. Trust Curtin and the crew to work this out with a full week to prepare for once, and hopefully they’ve taken a lesson or 2 from that half of soccer.

    • John Ling says:

      If speed is really a concern along that wing, they could opt to start Restrepo, and bring on Ilsinho around 65-70 if necessary.

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