Match previews

Preview: Union vs Real Salt Lake

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Real Salt Lake
What: 2016 regular season game
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Sunday, July 31 at 7 pm
Watch: CSN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Juan Guzman; Peter Manikowski and CJ Morgante; Mark Geiger

Two teams separated by one point after 21 games face off Sunday in Chester, both looking to build momentum at the end of a month that, quite frankly, they would both rather forget.

Despite playing four out of five matches at home in July, Real Salt Lake captured a total of four points. They scored three goals across five matches, sprinkling four home draws around a shutout loss in Vancouver. Additionally, RSL lost their only real central striker, Yura Movsisyan, to injury last weekend, and will likely start Olmes Garcia up front against the Union. Garcia is technically a goalscorer in the same way that Freddy Adu is technically still a soccer player. Yes, that’s his job. But no, he hasn’t done it well in quite some time.

Morales in the first half vs SJ: Far from goal and drifting around.

Morales in the first half vs SJ: Far from goal and drifting around.

The Union have not fared much better. A breezy win over DC United and a comeback draw with the Energy Drinks were sandwiched between dispiriting losses to bottom-feeding Houston (via Chaco Maidana) and a surging Montreal. In between, Philly went out of the US Open Cup on penalties, giving up an embarrassingly simple goal off a set piece in the process.

Philly has extra incentive to get full points with four Eastern Conference opponents up next, and three of them on the road.

RSL Attack

If Movsisyan is sidelined, Jeff Cassar’s side need to find a new route to goal. They have been reluctant to settle for crosses this season, and that should be no different with Garcia up top. Instead, RSL will probably turn to the old warhorse Javy Morales for inspiration. Though he has bundled through the past two seasons attempting to play in a 4-3-3 shape, Morales is far from a perfect fit for the system. Though Cassar has basically bet his job on the spacing allowed by the modern shape, he will have to consider either a narrower lineup or a return to the 4-4-2 in which Morales previously thrived.

The goal when playing through Morales is to get him into the same spaces that David Villa occupies for New York City FC. By rotating the front three through the box and sending fullbacks and midfielders on late runs, RSL can push defenses deep and let Morales pick out the superb passes on which he made his name. You don’t have to go back very far to see what the aging Argentinian can do.

Below, he starts the move then sneaks behind San Jose’s midfield to the edge of the box. Then magic.

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Morales after the 60 min mark: Pushing up through the left channel as RSL looked to overload that side to create space for him.

Morales after the 60 min mark: Pushing up through the left channel as RSL looked to overload that side to create space for him.

Indeed, Real Salt Lake shifted heavily to the left side of the pitch after Movsisyan’s injury, and that bias became even more pronounced when Demar Phillips replaced Chris Wingert at left back. Cassar’s side used every inch of available space on the left touchline to draw out the San Jose defense so Morales would gain an extra moment or two near goal.

And it worked. Not only did Luke Mulholland even the scoreline, but Garcia, Phillips, and Martinez all found shots in the box by rotating around Morales. With Keegan Rosenberry coming off All-Star festivities, Jim Curtin may be tempted to play Ray Gaddis on the right this weekend. He should resist that urge. Given Joshua Yaro’s struggles for consistency and the issues Ken Tribbett has had with speedsters this season, it will be essential to have Rosenberry’s positional sense in the back line on Sunday. Even though the rookie looked a bit at sea following Nacho Piatti, he is both the best defensive option and a player who may be able to get forward and keep Plata from exploring space behind the defense.

Shots, shots, shots-shots-shots

One worrying recent trend for Salt Lake is their shot selection. RSL is capable of generating a ton of shots, but over the past two matches they have been settling for more strikes from distance and fewer in the box.

This trend doesn’t seem to reflect a change in strategy so much as an inability to penetrate the center of the pitch. In Morales, Beckerman, and Mulholland, RSL has three midfielders who can flow into the attack. Ideally, these forward moves are balanced by more conservative wide runs from the fullbacks, who will wait for possession to be established in the attacking half before moving forward.

RSL shots vs SJ: Mids settled for the long ones.

RSL shots vs SJ: Mids settled for the long ones.

Recently, however, shaky defense has meant fewer runs from Mulholland and Beckerman. Instead, the midfield has settled for longer shots and Joao Plata has become the only player consistently driving into the box. Notably, Mulholland’s goal against San Jose came on one of his few forays forward after Movsisyan went down.

Boys in back

Perhaps the most interesting matchup of the night will be CJ Sapong against the RSL center backs. Sapong continued his scoring (0 goals from open play since May 14) and shooting (zero games with multiple SOG since May 14) rut last weekend with his most anonymous display of the season. In many ways, Sapong is the trendsetter for Philly. When he presses intelligently, it sets the table for the rest of the defense to shape up behind him. When he over pursues, it often tempts Roland Alberg forward, stretching the midfield and leaving Tranquillo Barnetta to chase ghosts.

Perhaps just as importantly, when Sapong is making good runs through the box, he sucks defenders away from the center, opening it up for Chris Pontius and Alberg.

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The most intriguing part of Sapong’s game this season, though, has been his physical battles with defenders. Early in the year, there was good balance in how Philly’s frontman engaged physically by both challenging for aerial balls and taking fouls from behind on passes into feet. Recently, the scales have tipped toward the aerial challenges, with Sapong less involved as a simple outlet from midfield. Partially, this reflects the way Roland Alberg interprets the advanced midfield role, with the Dutchman preferring to be an endpoint rather than a ball mover like Barnetta.

The Salt Lake center backs are not the most physical duo, and it will be interesting to see how they decide to handle Philly’s tough striker. The Union should try to post Sapong on 19-year-old stud Justen Glad. For all his agility and intelligence, Glad hasn’t filled out enough to engage in extended physical battles. And with only nine fouls on the season, he knows it. If the Union can establish Sapong as an outlet with his back to goal, they will be able to maintain a possession-based buildup even without the suspended Barnetta’s movement. Additionally, forcing Glad to stay tight on Sapong is key to creating space for Pontius on the left. Glad has shown himself to be an excellent reader of the game, and even with Pontius’ excellent movement this year, he will struggle to fool the young defender.

There is, of course, a downside to this strategy. RSL’s other young, talented center back has developed a wonderful sense for how to draw in defenders and create space for his midfield. Aaron Maund took a few years to develop (it helped to get out of Toronto, where young players seem to plateau a good distance below their potential), but now looks to have a long MLS future ahead of him. Playing to Glad’s left, Maund is by far the more aggressive of the two, striding forward both with the ball and without. In fact, part of what makes Glad so impressive is his ability to read and react to Maund’s forays forward, covering the space behind with a few early steps to his left.

By posting Sapong on Glad, Philly puts pressure on a young player who hasn’t mastered the physical side of the game. But they risk giving Maund more freedom to step into midfield and help RSL build. Maund’s willingness to carry the ball forward helps his team tremendously by pulling in defenders. RSL doesn’t have the fastest midfield, but they do tend to play quickly and efficiently, meaning that once a defense is out of shape, the ball moves into the final third in a hurry.

Union questions

There are two huge lineup questions for the Union heading into this weekend. First, of course, is how to play without Tranquillo Barnetta, who has largely driven the team forward in both advanced and deeper roles this season. The clearest option is to play Roland Alberg in front of Warren Creavalle and Brian Carroll. But make no mistake: that is a midfield that can struggle to generate offense. Carroll and Creavalle will provide good protection for the defense, though, and that may be the first order of business after the back line was so exposed by disorganized, slow pressing and a lack of communication when wing players rolled off fullbacks through the center.

Creavalle and Carroll should be able to keep RSL from penetrating the center, and this will allow the Union fullbacks to stick to their wider roles. Following the Salt Lake wingers is absolutely essential for Philly’s wide defenders, since Plata likes to drive inside when he sees the center open and Burrito likes to start narrow, lose his fullback, then curl to the back post.

Additionally, playing with two defensive-minded players means Curtin can stick with Joshua Yaro despite the rookie’s shaky display last week. Yaro’s defensive game requires simplicity, and he absolutely struggled to understand how Montreal attacked him by rolling Piatti and Shipp out of the same channel. But the advantages of Yaro are well documented. The kid provides a key offensive starting point and he can bypass levels of defense with his passing. This may prove necessary since Creavalle’s passing radar has been low on batteries in his past few appearances.

The Union also have the less palatable options of playing with both Alberg and Herbers ahead of Carroll or throwing Derrick Jones into the deep end. Don’t expect either to happen. The midfield that most maximizes both surprise and likelihood still has both Creavalle and Carroll in it, but with Fabian Herbers gliding around behind CJ Sapong instead of Alberg.

The second question is that nagging Yaro problem. For all of Yaro’s standout moments, the defensive line has seemed less cohesive with him in it since his return from injury. Whether Yaro is simply trying to do too much or whether he is having confidence issues that affect his communication, it’s fairly clear that right now the best defensive lineup involves Ken Tribbett.

There is also a slim chance that Curtin moves the unsuspended Ilsinho to the center and keeps Sebastien Le Toux on the wing. Though this is appealing from an attacking standpoint, the Brazilian’s defensive shortcomings — and the Union’s heavy reliance on lungs in midfield — make the move unlikely.

Probable lineup courtesy of All-Star snub Seth Finck

Probable lineup courtesy of All-Star snub Seth Finck

Prediction: Union 1-1 RSL

Philly needs to prove it can rediscover a tight defensive shape and turn opposition-half turnovers into chances. Counterattacks starting from deep positions have driven an uncomfortable amount of the team’s offense over recent weeks, and that’s not how the team that chugged through the early months of the season played.

It will be essential for the Union to control the left side of the RSL attack, either by pushing Keegan Rosenberry high or by carefully instructing CJ Sapong to channel the ball toward Glad and the right side of the RSL back line. The visitors will attempt to build a midfield structure in front of their defense that bends but doesn’t break and transitions quickly to take advantage of Olmes Garcia’s one real talent: Fast running.

For the Union, the goal will be to hold possession long enough to overload the wide areas and take advantage of the lax defending that Burrito and Plata fall into when they aren’t involved offensively. With Carroll and Creavalle, however, Philly will need to hold the ball long enough for their defensive-minded midfield to get upfield and bring bodies to the wings.

A final thing to look for is whether Cassar uses Burrito on the left of the formation more than usual. Plata is often stationed left so he can cut inside, but Burrito plays more like Piatti, reading play and drifting into holes. After watching Montreal dissect Philly’s defense, Cassar may see if he can do the same.


  1. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Been wondering when Herbers might step ahead of Alberg.

    • +1. 4-4-2?

    • pragmatist says:

      How does that look? I want him in there, too, but it opens other questions.
      Blake and the Defense stays as is. But do you play a diamond midfield? And if so, is it Carroll at the back, with Ilsinho up top and Seba out right? (WC to the bench, in this scenario.)
      I think that solution is more plausible with a player like Edu at the CDM spot of the diamond.
      If you’re playing a flat-four, you may swap Carroll for WC, but you’re opening a defensive Pandora’s Box with that.
      It feels like we are still a piece or 2 away from this type of flexibility…

      • If they did start Herber over Alberg, I think it would look more like a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid like this:

      • So obviously any lineup w/o Barnetta is makeshift, but if you acknowledge that Sapong isn’t getting it done solo and Herbers isn’t effective enough solo yet, maybe:

        Sapong, Herbers
        Pontius, Ilsinho, Le Toux (because of Adam’s key pass metric)

        Its a lot to ask of both Carroll and Ilsinho, but tell them at the outset they just need to give their best 60min then come off.

        RSL is w/o their top striker and would probably be happy with a point. W/o Barnetta on the field, I feel like our standard 4-2-3-1 would result in a 0-0 draw.

    • Alicat215 says:

      Just insert Herbers exactly where Alberg plays in the withdrawn forward role… change in shape needed. Herbers can play that role from what he has shown…..easily. I don’t think ES or JC is going to change shapes for personnel either……they are pretty dogmatic about the 4-2-3-1. With all the injuries a few weeks back….they never tinkered with shape. But I agree with OSC here, would be interested to see what Herbers does there.

      • Dogmatic? Or inflexible? Or is Curtin just in over his head?

      • Alicat215 says:

        Could be all the above……

      • I agree. As I’ve been saying for weeks, Alberg plays as a withdrawn striker anyway. But Herbers, unlike Alberg, can contribute to build-up play. So give him the flexibility to drop slightly further back to help in possession and build-up, or push forward to play off Sapong. It’s a lot of judgment to ask of a young kid, but he might be up to it. (And without Barnetta it might be our best option nonetheless.)

        Really, this is basically what CPfeif suggests above. Put Herbers in the same position Alberg has been playing in, and he’ll play it a little differently — maybe better.

      • der Fussballzuschauer says:

        Who was that who called the German rookie Herbers a “misplaced central attacking midfielder” in the comments section of the NYCFC 3-2 Philadelphia Union match report here at PSP back on June 18th? … 🙂

      • Alicat215 says:

        He’s grown on me, produced….and Alberg has been rather invisible the last two matches……

      • Alicat215 says:

        Exactly, he’s more suited for this role than a target striker. It’s warming to your heart that supporters are favoring the young German over the tulip sniffer, isn’t it? Hehe!

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