Match previews

Preview: Union vs New York Red Bulls

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. New York Red Bulls
What: 2016 regular season game
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Sunday, July 17 at 7 pm
Watch: FS1, Fox Soccer 2Go, Fox Sports Go, Fox Deportes, SiriusXM FC
Whistle: Alan Kelly; Brian Dunn and Eric Weisbrod; Robert Sibiga

Philadelphia Union and New Jersey Energy Drinks met in US Open Cup play two weeks ago. And though Philly’s neighbors to the north have sent Lloyd Sam down I-95 to DC in the intervening fortnight, little has changed for Jesse Marsch’s men overall.

Since the Union and Drinks played so recently, this will be an abbreviated preview. Another reason to shorten things up? There isn’t much to say about the Jersey boys.

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Injuries affect tactical options

Although Marsch lost Matt Miazga to Chelsea, Gideon Bah seemed a reasonable replacement. However, a rash of injuries has limited the big defender’s influence, and after breaking a tibia against Portland, Bah is officially done for the season.

Bah’s story has been something of an allegory for New Jersey’s season. The defender, like the team, came into the year with big expectations. And although both player and club have looked very good at times, they both have lacked the necessary sharpness to be influential.

Luckily for Marsch’s men, Damien Perrinelle has been playing his way into fitness again, and he will push Ronald Zubar and Aurelien Collin for minutes in the middle. Last season, Perrinelle and Miazga allowed the Drinks to control the tempo of a match with strong passing kept opposing defenses spread wide and gave the team’s excellent midfield space to operate. With Miazga gone and Perrinelle out, Jersey moves the ball with less speed across the back and struggles to split opponents’ lines vertically. Collin’s arrival has helped the speed of play, but the mercurial defender has remained a bit of a wild card defensively (you can see his impression of the movie Lost In Space below).

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A more vexing and less controllable issue for Marsch is the patience defenses have shown against the Harrison side’s energetic attack. By sitting deep and countering, teams like NYCFC have squeezed space away from Sacha Kljestan between the lines. For a significant portion of the opening half on Wednesday, Orlando City also managed to frustrate New Jersey by committing to an extremely low block defensively and transitioning through the unreliable Brek Shea and Harrison Heath. The Lions were simply too disorganized to hold the fort all night, and the match served to underscore the extent to which Sacha Kljestan has become the Energy Drinks most important player.

No Kljestan against Orlando, and there's a huge hole where he usually operates.

No Kljestan against Orlando, and there’s a huge hole where he usually operates.

Kljestan may be unique among MLS midfielders in his ability to introduce elements of hold-up play in midfield. Whereas most teams have to play the ball out to the wings and back in again to move forward in the opponent’s half, Kljestan’s feel for space means he can set up in a tiny pocket away from a holding midfielder and connect short passes as deeper midfielders run through and Bradley Wright-Phillips opens the back line with his excellent movement. The hole left by Kljestan’s absence (he was rested) was stark on Wednesday, and it is with good reason that Marsch calls the mustachioed midfielder his team’s “perfect no. 10.”

Another area of the game that Kljestan will exert his influence is on restarts. Jersey has pulled off some snazzy set pieces this season and number 16 is often at the heart of them. Without their quarterback, the Drinks looked woefully out of sync on dead balls Wednesday night.

Union response

Jim Curtin insists that his team changes its game for no one. And he has generally backed that claim up, with one of the bigger tests being the Union’s comeback win over Jersey in the US Open Cup two weeks ago. Philly maintained their energetic defense and were second best in the first half. A few intelligent tweaks opened things up in the second frame, though, and the Union were able to finish off two devastatingly fast attacks to knock off the men in red.

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Getting through the Jersey defense is simple in planning but extremely difficult in execution. Even more than Philly, the Harrisonians immediately shift their fullbacks forward into attack to press the ball and ensure that nobody can exploit the large pockets of space they leave in wide areas. Additionally, Dax McCarty will often play just ahead of the center backs during buildups so they can spread wider and prevent counters. On both Union goals against New Jersey, they counterattacked before their opponents could cover the wide areas in defense.

First, Philly worked the ball out of the back quickly, edging around an aggressive and, frankly, well-executed New Jersey press. The pressure broke down when Connor Lade gave Rosenberry too much space and the Union fullback found Sebastien Le Toux up the sideline. Even then, Mike Grella’s quick recovery could have snuffed out the counter, but Le Toux put the ball through his legs to Ilsinho and the Brazilian picked out Pontius with a wonderful long pass.

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The second goal was nearly as good as the first, and for Jim Curtin it may be better. The player he championed as a central midfielder — Tranquillo Barnetta — executed a sensational defensive maneuver to dispossess Grella, squirt through the center, and play the ball in behind McCarty, who could see what was coming but couldn’t stop it. Ilsinho. Pontius. Match.

Pontius second: [gfycat data_id=NegligibleLongEyas data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

The Energy Drinks will be on the lookout for those quick, wide breaks on Sunday. And with Perrinelle back in the lineup, Marsch will expect a bit more composure from his central pairing. Philly will hope they do not have to rely on such attacking precision to put pressure on Luis Robles goal. With a full complement of attacking firepower healthy, Jim Curtin will likely look to generate extended possessions in the Drinks’ half and force the visitors’ wingers to defend Fabinho and Rosenberry.


Without Sam, Marsch can deploy designated player and Freddy Adu productivity mimic Gonzalo Veron on the right. Veron was brought in to provide a more consistent scoring threat off the wing to ease the attention that Bradley Wright-Phillips receives in the center. So far, it hasn’t worked out well. Veron, like Adu, is fairly certain he is about to do something perfect, so he slows play down and looks for greatness while MLS defenses catch and dispossess him.

Intriguingly, Marsch brought Veron in as a striker with a lead against Orlando City. The DP’s bustling movement (and the fact that it was Orlando City) enabled him to find gaps in the defense and he got to the endline well.

Although Veron earns the big bucks, Marsch is more likely to turn to homegrown talent Alex Muyl. The all-effort winger has already destroyed Jersey’s team record for ground covered in a match (passing the eight mile mark) and can provide a nice counterweight to Philly’s own workhorse winger, Chris Pontius. Their matchup could be interesting, as both tend to escape coverage by picking spots to burst forward when a defender turns off. Since neither of them are likely to turn off, it should be a good cat and mouse game to follow.

For the Union, the big questions are familiar. Tribbett or Yaro? Ilsinho or Le Toux? With Roland Alberg established in the advanced midfield role, the rest of the lineup fills itself in.

Lineup graphic courtesy of the Human Ilsinho Stepover, Seth Finck

Lineup graphic courtesy of the Human Ilsinho Stepover, Seth Finck

Ilsinho’s brace is probably enough for him to keep his spot ahead of Le Toux, provided he’s over the groin strain that kept him out of the midweek friendly against Crystal Palace. But it would be hard to argue if Curtin preferred the Frenchman’s workrate against a Jersey side that likes to pull its wingers inside and let the fullbacks run the wide areas. Ilsinho is usually pretty responsible as long as he can track back up the wing, but he might be a liability against the movement of Grella and the smart runs of Lade.

As far as Richie Marquez’s partner goes… who knows. Yaro seems to be preferred when everything is equal, but the Union are coming off a very strong team performance with Tribbett doing fine work against a pair of strong forwards. Tribbett is a more conservative defender, and that may be a good thing against the tricky Wright-Phillips.

Prediction: Union 1-1 Energy Drinks

New Jersey wants revenge. Rumor has it that Jesse Marsch has been throwing balls at everything that moves in preparation for this match. He storms to the dinner table, he storms back to his armchair. He storms in place while he pumps gas…

The hope is that the adrenaline both sides will bring to the field doesn’t turn the match into a low quality mess. These teams are usually very disciplined and the manager that can get his squad to prepare for the match as if it was any other game will give his players the early advantage.


  1. Adam,
    The amount of times you called the Pink Cows: “Harrisonians”, “Energy Drinks”, and “New Jersey”… was nothing short of brilliant. Well done, as always, sir 🙂

  2. “He storms in place while he pumps gas…”
    Should be “He storms in place while SOMEONE ELSE pumps gas…”
    It is Jersey after all…

  3. Both of the goals in the USOC match were so magnificent… It brings tears of joy to my eyes just watching the clips…

  4. Rosenberry’s first time curling pass with his “weaker” foot on that first goal. Wow. That should be the first clip shown to Jordan Morris if/when they break the news to him he’s not rookie of the year. Couldn’t have hit it better in a million tries.

  5. scottymac says:

    I guess NJ Energy Drinks is funny and not overly played out.

  6. Rather be a Red Bull than a Bimbo!

  7. der Fussballzuschauer says:

    Is this Philadelphia Union v New York Red Bulls fixture an actual “rivalry game” or what — WHERE is all the pre-game chatter???

    • Pragmatist says:

      I’m probably in the minority, but I’ve never cared one way or another about NYRB. I’ve been more concerned with DC, and I HATED Houston when they wre in the East (Kinnear is a sniveling weasel and coached his teams to match his personality).
      NYRB? Eh.
      But we have been told by the league that they are our rivals, so apparently that matters…

      • I really dislike Sporting KC, especially after last year’s usoc final. Red Bulls, I didn’t really care about until a couple of weeks ago. Man when Marsch slammed the ball down I was laughing so hard. Now all I want to do is get their jimmies rustled.

  8. Columbus Crew finally earned their first win since May last weekend. Can the Union bounce back against a dangerous team that suddenly sees the playoffs as a real possibility?

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