DC United head to PPL Park in Philadelphia to take on the Philadelphia Union in match that could easily have crucial implications on the playoff picture for both teams. As Eastern Conference rivals, this match could have more than a six point swing for the winner as it will likely decide the tie-breaker between them as well.
After their stunning 4-1 win over Real Salt Lake last Saturday, DC United now has an unexpected, but glorious opportunity to boost their playoff possibilities even higher if they can manage a two game win streak for the first time in over two years by beating their newest rival Philadelphia tomorrow night.
Philadelphia currently sits in the ninth playoff slot, but a mere two points ahead of United and DC has a game in hand as well. So, a win and DC passes the Union likely into a wild card slot (depending on other results this busy week), and even better than that, DC would hold the head to head tie breaker on Philly as the teams tied 2-2 in their first meeting this year.
The win over RSL has to have given DC a major boost in confidence that should come in handy as they are facing a Philly team that has one of the toughest defenses in the league, and is coached by the last man to lead DC United to an MLS cup, Piotr Nowak. DC playing with some confidence will be especially valuable as the Union have been stumbling of late, after floating around the top of the table for most of the first half of the season.
Philly started the season 8-4-7, but have only 1 win since July 17th, going 1-3-6 in their last 10 games. However, as their 13 ties signify, they are a tough team to outright beat and they are tops in the league at late goals to come back and secure a tie. However, they do often start matches badly and give up the first goal, which could be trouble against a DC team that can load the nets in a hurry if they score early like they did against RSL.
DC United is also as healthy as ever heading into this match, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to tinker with the lineup that thrashed Salt Lake. Perhaps Olsen brings in Santino Quaranta or Daniel Woolard for Austin Da Luz or Marc Burch respectively, or maybe even starts Charlie Davies and shifts Dwayne De Rosario back into midfield shifting Stephen King to the bench, but I don’t think any of those things happen. King played one of his best matches of the year, Da Luz was very respectable, and even Burch earned his keep. Plus, obviously DeRo has proven once again that when he’s lined up at forward he can punish defenses.
Also, this game is perhaps more important than the weekend match looming in Columbus. DC already holds the edge on the Crew after the season opening thrashing of them, so a tie on Sunday gives them the tie breaker over the Crew should it come to that.
So, I expect Olsen to go with DeRo and Josh Wolff as forwards, Da Luz, King, Clyde Simms, and Andy Najar across midfield from left to right, and Burch, Brandon McDonald, Ethan White, and Perry Kitchen across the backline from left to right in front of Bill Hamid.
Philly, on the other hand is quite a bit more tricky to figure out. Former DC winger, Freddy Adu is just recently back healthy as is Stefani Miglioranzi, but right back Sheanon Williams is a bit dodgy coming back from a concussion and a balky hamstring, as is former number one draft pick, Danny Mwanga trying to come back from hip strain. Plus, Philly has a glut of games coming up starting with this one.
So, best guess is that Nowak goes with the guys that gutted out a point in KC last Friday. I think it’s almost a dead lock that Sebastion LeToux and the Serbian, Velkjo Paunovic start at forward, then in midfield it should be Amobi Okugo, Roger Torres, former DC midfielder Brian Carroll, and Michael Farfan across midfield from left to right. The ¾ of their defense will no doubt be Gabe Farfan, Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes, but the right back will be interesting if Williams is unable to go 90. Midfielder Kyle Nakazawa played there against KC, but wasn’t very convincing. Perhaps M. Farfan could be brought back to bookend his brother if Miglioranzi or 16 year old Zach Pfeffer are going to start, but my money is on Nakazawa getting another shot at it, completing the defense in front of former UMd keeper Zac MacMath, who will be backed up by pool keeper Chase Harrison, who had a brief stint with DC, since both Mondragon, and Philly’s third keeper are out injured.
So, looking at the matchups, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. With Paunovic up top for them, they end up playing more of a 4-5-1 similar to the system that Chivas used to flummox DC last week. In that game, Chivas dominated midfield and DC was chasing all night, but then again a nucleus of Mondaini, Moreno, and LaBrocca are perhaps a bit more experienced than Torres, Okugo, and Paunovic.
Anyway, Olsen can negate a lot of that if he keeps King on the field and keeps DeRo at forward, as King will do a lot more dirty work than DeRo would like to do which will help Simms from getting stretched out of position and over-run which Chivas was able to do. Conversely it keeps DeRo closer to their goal where he is the most dangerous man in MLS the past two months.
Bottom line if DC negates their central threat and therefore strands LeToux by himself, then the Frenchman will only be a threat on counters running onto long balls, and I believe White is capable of staying with him athletically, well as much as anyone in MLS can, anyway. Then it’s a simple matter of Kitchen shutting down Okugo (or maybe Freddy), and Burch or Woolard shutting down Farfan. Imminently doable, as long as Mwanga doesn’t come on late with the game close as he would then be a huge matchup problem alongside LeToux.
Offensively, Olsen has some serious firepower likely to come off the bench as well in Charlie Davies, as he will be far more effective going up against a tired Califf and hatchetman Valdes by coming off the bench for Wolff in the second half. Now, to start the match, DeRo should scare any backline in the league after what he personally did to RSL, and even though Califf and Valdes have been pretty light’s out good this year, Wolff is clever enough and DeRo flat out good enough and determined enough to score on anyone. Then Najar against G. Farfan will be interesting, as will Da Luz versus a banged up Williams or a dodgy Nakazawa. Either matchup could go either way, but I like DC’s chances, especially Najar, who has been red hot lately but overshadowed somewhat by DeRo’s ridiculous numbers recently.
As for the trends, as usual they don’t really favor DC very much. Of course DC lost in Philly last year, their only time playing there, but then again, they have scored 2 goals against the Union every time they have played them including that 3-2 loss and a 2-0 win here last year and a 2-2 tie here earlier this year (as well as an Open Cup PK win that was 2-2 in regulation). Even better, DC is the best team in the East on the road at 5-4-4, although they are coming off a loss in Seattle and have actually lost two of their last three on the road. Still, United does seem to play markedly better on the road overall, and they have to know how crucial this match is to their future.
As for Philly, while they are 6-1-8 in PPL Park, it is perhaps a bit deceptive. Certainly sounds impressive, but in fact after bolting out of the gate to go 5-0-4 at home until June, they have gone 1-1-4 since then, although the win did come in their last home match, a 1-0 win over the Crew two weeks ago. Unlike their habitual slow starts to games followed by a fabulous record of coming back to tie or win late, the Union are the opposite so far on the season, having started pretty well, but have merely been scrambling to hang on lately.
If the game goes to form, DC has a very good shot at a crucial 3 points and an end to a mind boggling streak of 73 games without winning two in a row. If DC can come out with their normal road energy, but snag a lead with their current confidence and determination, combined with Philly’s typical slow start, then the game gets interesting. Philly will come back of course, but United might have some answers with Davies coming off the bench as well. Should be a wild one given their history, and a tie does neither team any good.
No way I risk using the Martin curse by calling this one. Fingers crossed. (Hey, it worked last time!)