DC heads to Philly looking to extend its eight game unbeaten streak against a Philadelphia side that is reeling through a five game winless streak.
This match sees two teams charging in opposite directions as DC took over sole possession of the Eastern Conference lead with their midweek comeback win over Orlando while the Union are plummeting down the table having lost seven of their last nine matches and are coming off a thorough dismantling in Vancouver last week. The team’s rosters are going in different directions as well as DC is nearing full strength with a number of players returning from injury while Philly is getting rocked with key injuries.
A full roster is a good problem for DC’s Ben Olsen to have as he now has some choices to make in his starting XI and with United playing the second of eight games in four weeks, being able to rest some of his aging players might be crucial as the MLS season drags into the heat of the summer. Of course designated player Eddie Johnson is not available as his career appears to be over and team MVP Fabian Espindola has a knock to his quad that kept him out against Orlando, but that’s about it for the players likely out for this match. Last year’s rookie sensation, Steve Birnbaum, and this year’s biggest off-season acquisition, midfielder/defender Markus Halsti, should be available for selection for the first time in weeks. Philadelphia on the other hand will be dealing with the loss of the key defensive leader Steve Vitoria who was their big defensive signing this winter and have been reeling with a goalkeeper carousel of injuries and poor form.
So given the situation, it is a bit of a crapshoot to figure out the lineups, but I do think Olsen tipped is hand a bit in the midweek game as he rested Chris Rolfe for most of the game only bringing him on to score the game-winner late in the match and given the way some players performed in roles maybe not suited for them. Chris Pontius Started at forward and was largely ineffective until he dropped back into midfield later in the match, same with Michael Farfan who got his first start as a wide midfielder and was pretty underwhelming in that role. Olsen brought on Jairo Arrieta and Rolfe to play those positions and they teamed up for the game winning goal. Farfan has been effective in the middle, but lacks the speed to cover enough ground as a wide player, especially in transition which is crucial to DC’s counter attack and their defensive posture after a turnover. Pontius has just simply failed to regain his form as a forward, but is still a very effective midfielder.
So, I suspect Olsen rewards Arrieta with a start at forward with Luis Silva playing underneath him in a kind of hybrid 4-5-1. In midfield, Rolfe should be good to go and Olsen has favored Nick Deleon on the opposite side, but with DeLeon being a bit erratic as well as having picked up a slight hamstring twinge, I think Pontius gets the other wing midfield role with Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud in the middle. In defense, Olsen has been juggling Chris Korb and Taylor Kemp on the left but I think with Philly having a crowded midfield and relatively weak wing players having Kemp out there for his wide play on offense gives him the edge over Korb for this match. Kofi Opare scored the tying goal against Orlando and has been an able fill in for Birnbaum when he rolled his ankle five weeks ago, but if Birnbaum is ready to start, this would be a good game to ease him back into the starting lineup to get his game fitness back. Then Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin have been iron men across the rest of the backline in front of Bill Hamid.
Philly on the other hand has some real problems in their defense with the loss of Vitoria and the hideous play of their goalkeepers in general. Rais Mbolhi has been banished for his awful play, then their rookie backup, John McCarthy looked promising out of the gate, but pulled up lame at the first post and their former number one pick, Andre Blake has been unable to see the field and is now injured too. Youngster Brian Sylvestre on loan from the Carolina Railhawks looked pretty good in Vancouver and is likely to start again, but he also got shelled in Vancouver so we’ll see. As for the defense, without Vitoria and Carlos Valdes, Maurice Edu has had a run at center back which didn’t look promising at all and he is now back in midfield where he can do less damage. Former DC defender Ethan White has been largely ineffective and then last week, another rookie, Richie Marquez got a shot, but then got tossed for a reckless hack in Vancouver and will be suspended for the DC match.
It seems likely Philly coach Jim Curtin will go with his usual 4-5-1 with the big Venezuelan, Fernando Aristguieta as the lone forward with Cristian Maidana playing underneath him. Across the midfield Andrew Wenger has been starting over Sebastian LeToux on one wing lately with the speedy and unpredictable Eric Ayuk Mbu on the other. Zach Pfeffer has been holding down the middle with Edu while the crafty Vincent Nogeira works himself back to fitness after bouncing back and forth from the injured list most of the season. Given the lack of warm bodies, it seems likely the Brazilian Fabinho gets a start on the outside allowing Raymond Gaddis to join Ethan White in the center of defense with Sheanon Williams playing the other outside back in front of Sylvestre in goal.
That is not a lineup that should put much fear into anyone. DC has advantages in nearly all areas offensively and defensively. Obviously Silva and Arrieta are crafty enough to get around White and Gaddis, Williams will be tough for Rolfe to exploit often, but he has proven efficient when he does get the better of his defender and he’ll get chances. DeLeon on the other side should have the edge over Fabinho who has been less than thrilling when he’s seen the field. Especially as Philly’s wingers rarely defend very well if they ever bother to defend at all. Kemp and Franklin should both be able to help in the attack and could swing things totally in DC’s favor. Philly does clog the middle well, but DC doesn’t attack down the center much anyway unless it’s a quick counter off a mistake which negates them being able set their defense.
Defensively, Mbu is frightening but totally erratic and he doesn’t seem to mesh well in their offense, so he could be a handful for Kemp, but Birnbaum or Opare have the athleticism to manage him if Kemp is caught upfield. Aristeguieta is a beast and has a deadly shot, but nothing Boswell hasn’t handled well in this league for the past ten years. Maidana and Pfeffer or Noguiera are very crafty, but Kitchen and Arnaud are easily their match.
Both teams play a similar style in the sense that they try to stay tight defensively and pounce on counters or force mistakes. Unfortunately for Philly, DC simply has better players for those roles even if Espindola doesn’t play a minute. I fully expect this to be an ugly midfield battle at first, but then DC will exploit a Philly mistake and pretty much cruise to victory from there, assuming the soccer gods keep their nose out of things and everyone plays to their abilities. Philly’s defense is simply too threadbare to keep United off the scoreboard for the match barring celestial interference, and even if Philly grinds out a goal, DC will wear them down in the end much like they did against Orlando.
DC even has the edge in the intangibles too. Their record is 5-4-3 all time against Philly and 3-3-0 in Philadelphia but swept Philly last year with two 1-0 wins. Obviously DC is the much hotter team in MLS right now with 3 wins in the last 4 games, while Philly has lost 4 straight. Philly is also a paltry 1-3-1 at home having lost their last 2, and 3 of their last 4 at home, while DC is 2-1-0 on the road having won their last 2 after an early season loss in NY.
No matter how you slice it, DC is the big favorite on paper and soccer gods willing should add three more points to the coffers on Sunday.