Match previews

Preview: Union at DC United

Photo: Daniel Studio

Who: Philadelphia Union at DC United
What: Regular season game
Where: RFK Stadium
When: Saturday, August 6 at 7 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Jair Marrufo; Linesmen: Andrew Bigelow, Jose J. Da Silva; Fourth Official: Jaime Herrera

This is a far different DC United team than the one Philly tap danced on less than a month ago. Then again, this is going to be a much different Philadelphia Union team than the one that slogged through July.

Trying on new tops 

DC brought in a pair of strikers since they were blasted by the Union. Patrick Mullins arrived from New York City and Kennedy Igboananike was acquired from Chicago Fire. One of those was a good move, and the other was Kennedy Igboananike.

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Both strikers were brought in because they offer alternatives to Alvaro Saborio’s hold-up play. Igboananike brings speed and… let’s call it unpredictability. Mullins drops deeper to facilitate buildup play and open channels for DC’s aggressive wide players. Against Montreal, Mullins provided a counterweight to Luciano Acosta, dropping into the right channel as the Acosta attacked through the left. His goal was very well taken, pushing off the back of his defender and knocking the ball down and into the net.

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About those wide players: One of them is Nick DeLeon. After experimenting with DeLeon in the center, Ben Olsen moved the tricky dribbler back outside and the returns last weekend were very positive. Some players are good at creating their own space; other players are good at exploiting any space you give them. DeLeon is the latter.

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On the outside, he quickly recognizes holes in the back line and anticipates balls in behind. He slips off to the touchline to create space, and he drifts inside when the opposing center mids are absent. Most importantly, though, he’s just far more confident in his responsibilities on the wing than through the middle.

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Across from DeLeon, Patrick Nyarko is healthy again and continues to be tricky in the final third. He collected four key passes and drew four fouls in the offensive half in only 64 minutes against Montreal last weekend. And even more importantly, he attacked the box from the outside and drew attention away from Acosta. With Fabian Espindola gone, Nyarko is a more selfless option on the left, cutting inside and looking to find options cruising through the center.

Acosta, restored to a slightly deeper midfield role alongside Jared Jeffrey, provides both creativity and impatience in equal measure. His defensive innocence places a heavy burden on Marcelo Sarvas (see below), but his ability to seem dangerous even when he hits the goal frame about as often as Nick Foles hits receivers is now vital for DC. Nyarko, DeLeon, Igboananike, Mullins: None has shown that they can disrupt a defense on their own. But all first three excel at attacking retreating back lines, and Mullins is billed as a finisher.

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But is DC really different?

Maybe. Possibly.

(It’s important to note that no matter what else happens, DC United are a bad team when Kofi Opare and anyone but Bill Hamid start in back. They are an inconsistent team that can overcome a lot of mistakes when Steve Birnbaum and Hamid are on the pitch.)

In Nyarko and DeLeon, Ben Olsen has two wingers who can play solid defense, though it’s not their first nature. Pushing them to be responsible is vital for DC’s chances of making a run at the playoffs. The other key becomes Jared Jeffrey, or whoever partners Acosta in midfield.

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Though Jeffrey has become more restrained (unlike Mix Diskerud), he still loves to burst forward, often to great effect but also when holding the middle is more appropriate. This leaves Sarvas stranded in the center, and the Brazilian should have been sent off with two yellow cards against Montreal. Luckily, Didier Drogba’s petty response to Sarvas’ cynical 81st minute foul earned the red card Ted Unkel should have bestowed to DC’s holding midfielder.

Fortunately, a red card wasn’t necessary to keep Sarvas out of Saturday’s match. An earlier caution doomed DC’s midfield sweeper to a one match suspension, and it’s unclear how DC will deal with Sarvas’ absence, and they could end up moving Jeffrey deeper and DeLeon back to the center. If this happens, it should be a field day for Barnetta and/or Alberg through the center. Jeffrey has none of Sarvas’ defensive instincts and he certainly doesn’t have his wizardly ability to commit 12 fouls, get called for four, and pick up a card on one out of every seven cautionable offenses.

Overall, DC, like the Union, is still searching for balance in midfield. And both teams attempted to address their needs in the transfer window in round-about, creative ways.

Olsen makes the most of a weird roster

United couldn’t continue with DeLeon’s inconsistency in the center, and they needed more attacking movement to maximize the defensively indifferent Acosta’s value. Instead of acquiring someone to play through the center, they moved DeLeon, put a greater load on walking question mark Jared Jeffrey, and brought in an array of striking choices. It is entirely unclear how well these pieces will all fit together, but DeLeon was stellar last weekend and Jeffrey’s aggressive late runs have been more boom than bust.

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It is hard to shake the idea that Ben Olsen will once again take a roster that doesn’t make much sense and look to grind out points by protecting the box and piling bodies forward whenever the wingers or fullbacks get isolation out wide. It’s not pretty, but as long as Sarvas (when he’s not suspended) offers, let’s say, 80 percent of the protection that Perry Kitchen gave the back line last year, it might be enough to lift DC into the playoffs in a volatile Eastern Conference.

Union notes

The Union, of course, needed to replace Vincent Nogueira and add proven striking depth. So of course they signed an attacking midfielder-cum-winger and a forward who has played 15 minutes of game time since April.

That said, Charlie Davies, the newly minted backup to CJ Sapong, got off three shots in those fifteen (19 with extra time) minutes and put all of them on frame (though the first was a scuffer).

Davies brings two major short-term benefits and one big longer-term boost to the Union. First, he’s a known commodity both for the technical staff and many of the players on the roster, so he should bed in quickly with the group. Along with that, Davies knows MLS and shouldn’t suffer the adjustment period a player like the 21-year old Armenian striker Chicago sprung for may go through. Philly, unlike Chicago, isn’t buying for next year.

Second, Davies is the threat to run in behind a defense that the Union have lacked. For all CJ Sapong’s speed and power, he finishes many of the same types of moves as Conor Casey. Sapong, oddly, remains something of a box poacher.

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Although Davies will bundle home his fair share, he’s a far craftier striker far from goal. He reads the ball carrier and the back line simultaneously and indicates where he wants his passes. If there was even the slightest chance that Jim Curtin and Earnie Stewart were willing to try two strikers up top together, they could do a lot worse than Sapong as a hold-up man and Davies running off of him. The first will work his socks off in physical battles and the second won’t mind one bit being the beneficiary of that work.

But it’s fairly clear that Davies will be Sapong’s backup, and therein lies the third, longer-term benefit of adding the experienced former US national team player. CJ Sapong needs to grow his game, and for all the mental growth he has shown over the past year — the consistent defensive effort, aerial battles, timing runs through the box — the striker has a lot of untapped potential.

One way to make Sapong much more of a threat is to help him develop his reading of the back line. Right now, he has a tendency to relish physicality for its own sake, giving defenders some of their own medicine because he can. The Sapong of the future should be using that physicality to set up a disappearing act, where the defender expects a shoulder and turns to see Sapong drifting off and pointing into space behind, looking for the through-ball winner, a la Davies below.

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If the Union’s new acquisition can impart some tricks of the trade, he will be worth all the GAM, TAM, and whatever other funny money he cost.

The Bedoya bump

Though Davies could have a big role to play down the stretch, Alejandro Bedoya’s transfer is the real signal of intent from Philadelphia. While Davies will definitely be available on Saturday, Bedoya is still in the maybe column, and even if he plays it will likely be as a late contributor only.

Though something of a square peg with rounded edges that will be asked to shimmy into a circular no. 8-sized hole, Bedoya is simply an excellent all-around player. And more to the point, he is a player that can fit into a role rather than forcing a role to fit him.

Tranquillo Barnetta’s main adjustment when transitioning from an advanced midfield role to a deeper spot was to run even more. The Swiss man has had his good and bad days next to Brian Carroll, but the consistent outcome has been more transition chances for opponents and a less patient Union offense. Even receiving the ball far from goal, Barnetta’s instinct is to drive it forward. Bedoya should provide both more balance in midfield and steady improvement as he grows into a No. 8 instead of subconsciously bucking the offensive restraint the role requires.

In his review of the Bedoya deal, MLSsoccer’s Matt Doyle pointed out how easy it has been for teams to find space on the counter against the Union since Vincent Nogueira’s departure. The Montreal match was easy pickings, but Doyle also mentioned that Brian Carroll has been forced to chase players out of the center more often since his French dance partner left. Below, you can see Carroll pulled out of the center and the giant swath of space left behind. Philly deals with the danger, but only after Burrito Martinez has arrived in a very dangerous position without hitting any resistance.

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That chasing comes from the waterfall effect of moving Barnetta deep and inserting Roland Alberg in an advanced role. Alberg’s best defensive work comes when he closes the ball down far up the pitch because that’s where he usually finds himself (see below).

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This isn’t too surprising, but it does highlight the unique way Barnetta plays the advanced midfield role, essentially acting as the surprise calvary waiting behind the hill during battle. Barnetta’s relentless running manifests as pressure from behind when he’s at the No. 10 position. This both compresses space in the center of the pitch and has the knock-on effect of making the Union midfield a far more cohesive and closely-positioned unit when the Swiss man is at the point of the triangle.

All of this is to say that however Bedoya interprets his attacking responsibilities, the main contribution he must bring — and fairly quickly — is organizational. This means offering a short option to every member of the back line, understanding the need to drop deep immediately when Carroll is out of the center, and providing patience and control on the ball so Philly can once again start to pull open some holes and hit Barnetta in deeper roles.

Waterfall effect

Adding Bedoya and Davies while subtracting Sebastien Le Toux means changes for the best player off the Union’s bench, Fabian Herbers. In truth, these changes have been coming for a while. With CJ Sapong struggling to offer a reliable option over the top, Herbers isn’t the best change of pace striker to bring on. Herbers has grown into a slightly deeper role that allows him the freedom to connect a pass in midfield then slip through the defensive line with guile rather than speed. His shifty movement seems to fit a slightly deeper role either through the center or off the wing.

In all likelihood, this means Herbers will start pulling 30 minutes on the right when Ilsinho’s tracking back shifts from ‘won’t’ mode to ‘can’t.’ For a time, Herbers will interpret this as meaning he’s a second striker playing through the right channel, and he will need to work hard to involve Rosenberry on the outside and not just look to get on the end of plays by arriving late from the wing.

In jettisoning Le Toux, the Union are placing a heavy burden Roland Alberg to transition into a supersub. Along with Herbers, he will be expected to consistently impact games off the bench, and he must show that he can accept a reduced role and provide a spark in more limited minutes.

Additional lineup notes

Fabinho is suspended for Saturday’s matchup due to yellow card accumulation, but Tranquillo Barnetta returns from suspension. Ray Gaddis will slide in for Fabi on the left, but Barnetta may play up top or as a No. 8. The question is whether Jim Curtin wants Barnetta back in an attacking role for 90 minutes or whether he’s willing to start the midfielder in a deeper role and move him forward.

Further complicating things, Barnetta is currently listed as questionable with a lower ab strain.

DC is without Chris Korb, Alhaji Kamara, and Chris Rolfe.

Prediction: ????

This hasn’t been a typical preview because… what do you say? DC United is going to look different, the Union will probably look recognizable to start the match but could look far different by the end. Given Alberg’s somewhat listless performances of late Fabian Herbers should be granted a start, but in all likelihood, the Dutchman will remain in the first eleven until Jim Curtin can call on Bedoya and move Barnetta forward.

Leaving all the recent roster moves aside, one huge truth looms: The Union really need to beat DC United this weekend. There are 12 games left in the season and Philly is a better team than everyone under them in the table right now. That means they need to take full points off those teams and let the chips fall where they may against better opponents. It’s a race to make the playoffs, then all bets are off.

The Union have acquired the pieces to make a postseason run, but they have to make those pieces fit together without dropping soft points along the way. It’s no easy task, but Philly is in a far better position to make noise than they were a week ago.

Jim Curtin told PSP at the start of the season that he had a midfield that would never stop running. Now he has Alejandro Bedoya, Tranquillo Barnetta, Brian Carroll, and — potentially — Maurice Edu. That’s a lot of running, a lot of experience, and, well, a lot more.

Time to put it all together.


  1. pragmatist says:

    I learn more about the game each week, just from reading these articles.
    But I will argue with one last point: “The Union really need to beat DC United this weekend.” No, they need to at least get a draw. This is a road game, without the full roster, against a team that is finding its offensive footing. A win would be great. A draw is expected. A loss is very not good.
    Next week’s game will be a better bellwether of the rest of the season. So we need to “survive and advance” this week, until the new additions and positional shiftings have a few days of practice to acclimate.

    • @prag – That’s a very fair take. I’m bullish because I think dropping any points to DC when they don’t have anybody remotely able to protect the back line will be a real confidence killer. And I think that picking up points on the top 3 teams in the east will be extremely difficult, so getting full points against bottom 3 teams is possibly the only way to work towards the home field advantage that Philly really looks like they’ll need to make a deep run.

      That said, I’m 73% certain that Bill Hamid is 86% magic. So if he decides the game will end it a tie, it might just end in a tie no matter what anybody else does.

      • Pragmatist says:

        We’ve been substandard, to be kind, on the road this year. Seems overly optimistic to expect a similar result as the last match.
        But you make a great point about Hamid. Maybe we’ll end up watching two of the best keepers in the league duel it out. Not sure my heart can take that, on either end…

  2. Prediction – 6-0 Union. Ha! Kidding… but I really want 3 points. Gotta get back on track at he start of August here.

    • Buccistick says:

      No, I think you’re on to something — at least if the Union’s official roster is to be believed:
      Since this morning, when I spotted those bloopers, the webmaster seems to have corrected the age typo. But Davies’ aerial promise remains … towering!

  3. Sad story about Rolfe. He is in really bad shape after a concussion several weeks ago.

  4. Lucky Striker says:

    Ab strain ? More of the same then. Better luck next week if ‘quillo is out as well.

  5. Fabi isn’t suspended. Already served a yellow card suspension. Curently has six, won’t be suspended again until 8.

  6. If Gaddis starts AND Barnetta sits and we kick on with Creavalle/Carroll against Hamid, 2-0 loss. If Bedoya is able to give 30, 1-1? 1-2?

    They do need to win. On 30 points with 12 to go. Last 3 seasons, 6th in the East averaged 46.67, so the U need to get 1.42 PPG to clear a historical red line. A loss today and that jumps to 1.55 with 5 matches against TFC,RBNY, MTL out there. Road games against a chasing NER, a crap CMB team, crap CHI really are must wins. That Sept stretch of home for MTL, road POR road TFC looks ugly. A road PPG of 0.6 isn’t going to take us far, no matter how you slice formations or say the other teams suck.
    The high water mark of 2011 and 48 points / 1.41 is ahead of this year’s
    1.36 46.24 pace, what once seemed assured now may be in danger. Curtin needs these guys to dig a bit deeper .

  7. der Fussballzuschauer says:

    Lancaster native Russell Canouse made his 2.Bundesliga debut in Vfl Bochum’s season-opening 2-1 victory over former DDR-Oberliga outfit 1.FC Union Berlin … Canouse came on as an 89th minute substitute replacing the former Arsenal and Fulham prospect Thomas Eisfeld as the central attacking midfielder in Bochum’s 4-2-3-1 formation.

  8. Hard to beat a club three times on the clip, especially when there is so much parity in the league. Add to that our record at RFK, I’m not optimistic about tonight. I’ll be happy with a point.

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