Match previews

Match preview: Philadelphia Union at D.C. United

Photo: 215pix

Who: Philadelphia Union (10th place, 2 points, 0-1-2) vs. D.C. United (11th place, 1 point, 0-2-1)
What: 2017 regular season game
Where: RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
When: Saturday, April 1, 7 p.m.
Watch: TCN-Phi, MLS Live
Whistle: Ricardo Salazar; Ian Anderson, Peter Balciunas, Sorin Stoica

Philadelphia Union has no rivalry like its D.C. United rivalry.

Over the years, fans and observers have tried to make more of the Union’s matches with the New York Red Bulls, but with D.C. United, there has been real history and acrimony. There have been bench-clearing brawls, angry staredowns, and various trades between the two.

Rosters have changed, and, as a result, the bad blood that existed between these clubs a few years ago may have dissipated. But make no mistake, when it comes to Union rivalries, this is the more organic one, the one that was earned on the field.

Three games into the 2017 MLS season, it pits 10th and 11th place teams against each other. That may not sound like much, but this season, Union have looked at times like a potentially solid squad waiting for new pieces to gel (and for an extended home stretch). United, on the other hand, have struggled mightily, looking nothing like the offensive juggernaut that lit up the scoreboard in the second half of last season.

Which Union and United will show up this week?

Projected D.C. United lineup

Scouting Report: D.C. United

United’s acquisition of striker Patrick Mullins in mid-2016 combined with a formation change to turn the club into the league’s most exciting attacking side, averaging 2.54 goals per game over their final 13 regular season matches.

Through three games this year, United have yet to score a goal and surrendered six. To put that in perspective, the last time they had been shut out before this year was July 9, when the Union dropped a 3-0 win on them.

What happened?

Playmaker Luciano Acosta and striker Patrick Mullins have played together for a grand total of 28 minutes, that’s what.

Acosta missed the season’s first two matches before playing the third against Columbus, and Mullins left that match with a hamstring injury. The striker is expected to miss Saturday’s match too.

United are also giving up a lot of shots on goal. Bill Hamid has faced 16 shots through three games, more than all but one goalkeeper in the league. (Granted, it helps that Minnesota has changed goalkeepers.) Hamid has been human, stopping just 10 of them, his 63% save rate well below his typical performance.

Hamid is playing behind a central defensive pairing that includes Sean Franklin, a career right back who head coach Ben Olsen has moved inside to replace Bobby Boswell. Meanwhile, midfielder Nick DeLeon has moved to right back, where he closed last season, and center midfielder Marcelo Sarvas has been stationed as a No. 6 defensive midfielder. It may well be that Father Time is finally catching up with the 35-year-old Sarvas.

All the changes and absences have added up to create a rough start for United. In attack, they haven’t been finishing, they’re getting caught in offside positions, and they’re giving up fouls in bad spots. In defense, they found themselves stretched regularly against New York City FC in their second game and got killed on through balls to runners on goal.

That said, the season is just three games old. Olsen has demonstrated the ability to adjust to circumstances in the past, most notably last year, and we could see some lineup and tactical changes this week to alter the paradigm.

  • Injury report: Out: GK Eric Klenofsky (right MCL sprain), MF Rob Vincent (left knee meniscus), FW Patrick Mullins (hamstring injury)
  • Suspensions: None.

Lineup image courtesy of Seth Finck

Scouting report: Philadelphia Union

The Union have driven the attack for only a single half of soccer this year: the first half at home against Toronto. Then a missed Alejandra Bedoya penalty kick and a dubious penalty in favor of Toronto killed their momentum and turned the game around.

Everything else has been the approach of a pragmatic traveling side playing for a road point, which we’ll probably see again Saturday. Union head coach Jim Curtin has likely not forgotten what D.C. looked like late last season.

Defensively, the Union continue to make adjustments to protect right center back Oguchi Onyewu as he returns to full fitness and form after two years away from the playing field. Right back Keegan Rosenberry has been more cautious going forward, and left center back Richie Marquez has had an eye on each player flanking him to watch for the next great covering play he needs to make.

Some have lavished praise on Onyewu, but that appears to be grading on a curve from those expecting he was washed up. Onyewu has been positionally sound, solid in the air, and as physically strong as ever. However, he has demonstrated difficulty with quick, lateral changes of direction, and the few times he has been caught even slightly out of position, he has gotten smoked. However, keep in mind he has played just three games and could improve, despite his 34 years, because he is likely still kicking off two years worth of rust.

The lack of a true No. 6 defensive midfielder to shield the back line could leave Onyewu vulnerable, as it did briefly but notably against Orlando, but for the most part, the Union have deployed a solid defensive shape. Derrick Jones has been a defensive ball hawk, while Haris Medunjanin may not make many tackles but generally puts himself in adequate defensive positions. Add to that a high level of defensive effort from attackers Alejandro Bedoya, Chris Pontius, Fabian Herbers and C.J. Sapong, and you can see why the Union have surrendered just two goals this year from the run of play.

Herbers has looked good in moments, but don’t be surprised if Ilsinho gets the start Saturday. The Brazilian looked great in preseason, appears to have dropped a good 20 pounds over the off-season, and netted another goal in last weekend’s friendly against Bethlehem Steel FC. A more dangerous dribbling threat from the right could open play for Bedoya and Pontius by requiring the United defense to sink in to help left back Taylor Kemp.

What the Union clearly need is more from their attacking midfield. Herbers has had some great moments, but Pontius has been largely invisible, save for the opportune header here and there. Meanwhile, Bedoya has produced as many offside calls (6) this season as shots (5) and key passes (1) combined and has played so far upfield that he has often been disconnected from the possession game.

The fact that Philadelphia’s fullbacks aren’t providing much in attack surely hasn’t helped. If you want a sense of how aggressively Curtin wants to play this match, watch Rosenberry and Fabinho. If they’re flying forward early, things could get fun. If not, settle in for a conservative slog.

  • Injury Report: Out — DF Joshua Yaro (shoulder), MF Maurice Edu (ankle/tibia); Questionable — FW Charlie Davies (ankle), DF Ken Tribbett (Achilles), FW Jay Simpson (ribs), MF Brian Carroll (illness)
  • Suspensions: None.
Player to watch

Sebastien Le Toux. The Union icon faces Philadelphia for the first time in a D.C. United uniform. He isn’t the first player to feature for both sides, but he is surely the most beloved by Union fans. He got his first action for United in their last game, playing 30 minutes as a second half sub. As Union fans know, his touch may not be great but his engine and instincts for the goal are well known.

Key matchup

Jose Guillermo Ortiz vs. Oguchi Onyewu. D.C. United have brought 42 percent of their attacks down the left side this season. Don’t expect that to change with Onyewu still proving he can continue to play at this level. Ortiz will get his first start up top in place of Mullins, and while he has yet to score in MLS, he netted 15 times last year for Alajuelense in Costa Rica.


1-1 draw. United has struggled offensively, but they won’t stay scoreless forever after last year’s attacking explosion. Expect the Union to play conservatively and be content to walk away with a road draw, knowing full well they’ll follow it with three straight home games and six of eight at home. A road point is just as valuable in April as in October.


  1. I hope we win.

    • Yea.. I agree.. I think a win here is psychologically important for the team at this point. 3 points in 12 with a tie is not acceptable with the level of talent on the team…

  2. Prediction: Somebody is getting Salazar’ed. Hope it’s not us.

  3. pragmatist says:

    It’s funny to me to read “with Onyewu still proving what he can do at this level.” He has spent most of his career at a higher level. But I understand those days are long past. Just an interesting statement to read about a seasoned Euro vet.
    The most telling line of the entire article: “Which Union and United will show up this week?”
    God only knows, for both. If Simpson and Ilsinho are fully healthy and start the game, I think we win without much trouble. If we run out Herbers and CJ to start, we’ll be looking at Classic Union…which is not generally a compliment.

    • Totally agree, re: Onyewu line. I rewrote that line I don’t know how many times, and every time, it seemed not quite right.

    • Idk, even with Simpson healthy I might still go with CJ since he has scored in back-to-back games now. He might not be a 10+ goal-a-season guy but if he gets into a hot streak like last year I say ride it until it ends.
      Ilsinho is a must for me tho. He brings abilities that Herbers/Pontius do not and tends to tuck inside to help more in the buildup which they do not.

      • pragmatist says:

        I have equated Simpson and CJ. With that in mind, Simpson is more symbolic than anything. Plus, I like the idea of being able to bring CJ on with 20 minutes left to take on tired defenders.

      • Fair. They are different but overall equivalent in my eyes so far as well. Simpson is better on the ball and combines well while CJ is good at occupying both centerbacks with his physical play. Both have scored this season.
        Also you are right, CJ’s bruising style of play would likely be more effective against tired defenders.

      • pragmatist says:

        Imagine if we were able to bring on subs like Fafa and CJ with 20 minutes left. Speed on the wing, strength in the middle. I know I wouldn’t be happy to be a fullback that’s already played 70 minutes and had to face that.
        No, we’re not talking about bringing in Gareth Bale and Ibra…but it’s our (very) poor man’s version.

      • Both of CJ’s goals this year have been on breaks in transition. A lot of his goals last year were on tap ins. There has not been a doubt that he can do this. Where he struggles though is when the union have possession running a 1/2 field offense and he needs to control the ball in small spaces or utilize creative movement to make space. I think that Simpson can do this, so should start if healthy.

      • Simpson’s goal was a dirty one too. And something must be said for each of them getting into those positions in the first place.
        Agree with you that Simpson is the better player in sustained possession. But CJ should get some starts too. Maybe he is even the better option for away games or games when the Union are not likely to have much possession because of his defensive work and his athleticism on the counter.

      • I would disagree, it looked dirty, but it was a special and alert finish for him to spin it past the keeper at close quarters like that.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    If United post a brace I’m heading straight to Cynicism Corner on way to Cliff of Union Despair.

  5. Andy Muenz says:

    Given the name of the first Assistant Referee, let’s just hope the Union are Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day while United is left to Bungle in the Jungle.

  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    In reference your bench choices, I understand the emotion behind four attackers, but I see no moves nor depth to cover a center back injury or ejection.
    Also, you omitted Jack Elliott who, judging by past behavior of the technical staff – last Saturday’s “training session” with the Steel – may be ahead of Tribbett in their minds.
    I would have said the most important observation in the article is that Mullins and Acosta have been on the field together for 28 minutes.

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