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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Union-Dynamo: Lineups and pre-match observations

UNION (4-2-3-1)
Wenger-Maidana-Le Toux
Bench: MacMath, Okugo, Fabinho, Fred, Cruz, Carroll, Ribeiro.

Houston Dynamo (4-4-2)
Bench: Lisch, Brunner, Arena, Johnson, Ownby, Carrasco, Lopez.

-  With the Union returning to MLS play, Rais M’Bolhi is restored to his starting place between the posts. The consensus from within the organization is that Zac MacMath’s work to advance the Union to the U.S. Open Cup final earned him the start last Tuesday against Seattle, but M’Bolhi is back to the No. 1 status. It’s his second start in a Union jersey.

- The Union make no changes in the field from the side that logged 120 minutes at the midweek. That’s an interesting decision. We’ll see how long until fresh legs are summoned on in this one, whether it’s Danny Cruz, Pedro Ribeiro or Amobi Okugo.
- In shape and in personnel, it’s largely the same starting XI that the Union have gone with regularly of late. The defense is untouched, as is the front four. It’s imperative that the Union get a goal early and prevent the Dynamo from sitting in and counterattacking.

- Injuries have taken a toll on the Dynamo this season, and that’s why they’re in position to miss the playoffs for just the second time in nine years, a remarkable run of consistency. Missing tonight is forward Will Bruin (foot), midfielder Oscar Boniek Garcia (concussion) and defenders Corey Ashe (knee) and Jermaine Taylor (concussion). That’s in addition to the long-term injury absence of goalkeeper Tally Hall (ACL tear). It’s an injury-riddled side that the Union can and must exploit.

- Given the absences, this isn’t your typical Dynamo side. Yes, they’ll still be dangerous on set pieces as long as the aerial ability of Ricardo Clark and the deadly left foot of Brad Davis are out there. But with the speed of Omar Cummings and Giles Barnes (and absent the hold-up play of a traditional No. 9 like Bruin), expect the Dynamo to try to hit the Union on the counterattack more, though I'd question the Dynamo's ability to sit in for 90 scoreless minutes.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Open Cup hangover: Why history is against the Union this weekend

History isn’t in the favor of the Philadelphia Union this week. If the Union want a win this weekend
Maurice Edu, left, Sebastien Le Toux and Zac MacMath won't be much happier
to see the trend of what Open Cup runners-up have done in their
returns to MLS play in recent years. (Times Staff/TOM KELLY IV
against the Houston Dynamo as they return to MLS play, they’ll have to overturn an unfavorable recent trend.

Not since 2007, a span of five U.S. Open Cup finals lost by MLS teams, has the loser of an Open Cup final won its next MLS game.

The last time that happened was in 2007, when FC Dallas lost at home to New England, 3-2, in the Open Cup final, then turned around and beat Columbus on the road three days later.

Open Cup runners-up over the last five years are 0-3-2 in MLS contests after the final. Take it back 10 all-MLS finals (excluding the 2008 title game between D.C. United and USL First Division side Charleston Battery), and the Open Cup hangover has produced a 3-5-2 record in games after teams’ finals stumbles.

All but one of those games came within four days of the Open Cup final (though even the eight-day respite afforded the 2011 Chicago Fire didn’t prevent them dropping a game at home to Dallas).

Conveniently, five of those 10 post-final collisions have been at home, as the Union are this weekend. But location matters little: Home teams are still only 2-2-1, slightly better than the 1-3-1 on the road. Read more »

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Open Cup final: Lineups and prematch observations

Union (4-2-3-1)
What they're playing for: The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
(Times Staff/Julia Wilkinson)
Gaddis -Valdes-White-Williams
Wenger-Maidana-Le Toux
Bench: M’Bolhi, Lahoud, Okugo, Carroll, Fred, Cruz, Ribeiro

Seattle Sounders (4-4-2)
Bench: Hahnemann, Anibaba, Ariza, Pineda, Cooper, Martins, Pappa

- The first name on the team sheet is the most telling: Jim Curtin is sticking with his man, putting his faith in Zac MacMath in what could very well be the last time he plays in front of the Union faithful. His shootout heroics are why the Union got to the final, and the hope from Curtin is that he’ll lead them to the organization’s first trophy.

- Curtin also gets his dream midfield scenario for the first time, pairing a dynamic holding midfielder (Maurice Edu) with his preferred deep-lying playmaker (Vincent Nogueira) and his preferred central attacking midfielder (Cristian Maidana). Injuries and international absences had long prevented this from happening, but this is the chance for the Union to put out its strongest team at just the right moment.

- With everyone available, someone had to make way to the bench. That turns out to be Amobi Okugo, despite playing very well of late. Objectively, Okugo might be a little better at his position than Ethan White, so the decision for Curtin was to field your best 11 players or your best starting XI.Seeing Okugo relegated to the bench is a nod to Curtin’s stated desire to have central defenders (like White) play as central defenders and midfielders (like Edu) play as midfielders.

- Seattle named unchanged lineups that are essentially their best XIs the last two games in MLS, including a 3-2 win against Real Salt Lake last Friday. They make just one change today, with Obafemi Martins rested for Chad Barrett. Along with Martins, the bench includes Kenny Cooper, the second-leading scorer in the modern era of the U.S. Open Cup with 13 goals. That includes a goal in each game this season, six in total, plus five goals in seven MLS games against the Union.

- If you’re looking for a key for the Union tonight, it might just be taking care of Andy Rose, who has three goals in his last two games. He could really shift the balance making those runs off the attention given to Clint Dempsey.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Union-Red Bulls: Lineups and pregame thoughts

Union (4-2-3-1)
Bench: Blake, Le Toux, Nogueira, Maidana, Valdes, Brown, Williams

Red Bulls (4-4-2)
Bench: Meara, Kimura, Eckersley, Bover, Christianson, Stevenson, Sene

- Jim Curtin said pretty bluntly Thursday that he wants players training before a game. When Rais M’Bolhi didn’t arrive back in the states until Friday, the decision was made to go with Zac MacMath for at least one more game. The appearance is MacMath’s 100th in MLS, 99 of them starts.

- Given the conditions and the Open Cup final looming Tuesday, the Union are resting most if not all of their big guns. They have only four regulars out there, not including Carlos Valdes, Sebastien Le Toux, Conor Casey (who doesn’t make the bench), Cristian Maidana or Vincent Nogueira. The conditions are poor, and that might factor in, but the challenge is clear to the reserves to take care of business.

- That said, this isn’t a youth team. Brian Carroll is out there with the sole objective of keeping a clean sheet. Danny Cruz and Fred are well rested. The biggest revelation concerns Pedro Ribeiro, who apparently has supplanted Brian Brown in the forward pecking order.

- The gaping absence for the Red Bulls is MLS leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips, who’ll sit the bench with a hamstring injury. In place of his 21 goals this season, Thierry Henry will lead the line, and Tim Cahill gets a start after a sub appearance midweek. Given the glut of games for the Red Bulls (including CONCACAF Champions League Wednesday), not pushing Wright-Phillips makes sense. Saer Sene is also looming on the bench.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Jim Curtin weighs in on his future

It’s been a busy week for the Philadelphia Union, and that’s just the club’s participation in the rumor mill.

Rumors have been swirling particularly swiftly this week over the possible appointment of a new coach full-time. First, there was this report by’s Kevin Kinkead about a possibly imminent hire:

Then there was Union CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz quickly distancing himself from those reports to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, adding the name of Rene Meulensteen to the list of potential replacements on the record for the first time:

(It should be noted that Meulenesteen’s visit(s) to PPL Park had been reported prior to Sakiewicz’s confirmation. This would also be a good time to point out my column on the matter, as published last week.)

The topic obviously came up in interim manager Jim Curtin’s weekly press conference on two occasions Thursday. Read more »

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Toronto-Union: Lineups and pre-match observations

Philadelphia Union (4-2-3-1)
Le Toux-Maidana-Wenger
Bench: Blake, Fabinho, Berry, Fernandes, Ribeiro, Brown, Wheeler, Cruz

Toronto FC (4-4-2)  
Bench: Konopka, Orr, Richter, Hall, Dike, Gilberto, Wiedeman

- Vincent Nogueira picked up a small groin knock that rules him out tonight, meaning the question of how Jim Curtin flows together all his midfield pieces will have to wait for yet another week. Cristian Maidana slots into the central attacking role, and Maurice Edu slides back into defense temporarily to pair with Ethan White in the absence of Carlos Valdes (international duty). Andrew Wenger, fresh off his brace against San Jose last time out, gets another deserving start at right wing.

- Look for the Union to try to exploit a battered Toronto backline missing Steven Caldwell and Justin Morrow. This is a team that has surrendered 11 goals in its last four matches, so expect the Union to get at them, perhaps targeting Nick Hagglund and Mark Bloom on the same side of the field with runs by Sebastien Le Toux and Amobi Okugo bombing in from deep in midfield.

- New manager Greg Vanney shakes a few things up for Toronto. In comes Daniel Lovitz, while it appears as though Dominic Oduro will be up front instead of on the wing. Gilberto apparently picked up a calf injury that will allow him to be on the bench, but his absence along with Jermain Defoe’s ongoing injury drastically hurts the Reds’ firepower.

- The key battle today, it would seem, is in the center of midfield. Michael Bradley can tip a game on its quickly, especially when he has a speedy forward like Oduro ahead of him. That puts the onus on Okugo and Brian Carroll to limit his touches and close down his time and space on the ball.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The silver lining of the Union's trip to Houston

Lost in the hysteria of Tuesday night’s thrilling win over FC Dallas in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup – a win that earns the Union a chance to play for their first trophy in club history on home soil in September – was the crucial realization of what it means to compete on two fronts.

Less than 70 hours after the celebrations died down at Toyota Park, the Union will have to figure out a way to field a team to take on Houston in a meeting of playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference.

That’s for the third game in seven days, barely three days removed from 120 grueling minutes in the Texas summer heat, to turn around another effort in the sweltering conditions of Houston.

It’s a task that will test the newfound depth that Union manager Jim Curtin boasted about this week, for sure. But there’s a twofold installment of good news for the Union.

1) All things considered, they’ve got some fresh legs;
2) Whoever gets named, it won’t be worse than the last squad to represent the Union in Houston.

Let’s address the latter point first: Here’s what the team that faced Houston last July 6 looked like.

The predicament for the Union was so dire that John Hackworth actually opened the door to the doghouse to let Roger Torres out for 19 minutes, trying to bring some shape to what might have been a 4-2-4. He was joined among the illustrious subs by a 30-minute runout for Don Anding, his only MLS appearance, and a late cameo by Matt Kassel. The unused subs? Jimmy McLaughlin, Cristhian Hernandez (whose name MLS spells wrong) and Chris Albright. Yet despite all that, the team still almost scratched out a result, only separated from a draw by a soft goal by Ricardo Clark on a defensive breakdown.

That game was on the back end of a two-game Western swing, the Union having snatched a draw from the jaws of victory against Real Salt Lake July 3. They were missing Michael Farfan and Danny Cruz due to injuries picked up vs. RSL, Michael Lahoud and Kleberson were on long-term injury absences, and Keon Daniel and Jack McInerney were away at the Gold Cup.

This trip Friday is hardly that desperate. In addition to Curtin divulging Tuesday that “we had planned on calling some guys back from Philly anyway”, he has some fresh legs at his disposal.
Read more »

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The original Union: A sit down with Amobi Okugo

(Design by Leslie Small)

It isn't often I use this medium for the purpose of promoting links, but I did want to put the back page that we colleagues fashioned today out there. That art was connected to this feature on Amobi Okugo, the last connection to the original Union squad, and a player who has been one of the club's most integral over the last few seasons.

I had an in-depth conversation with Okugo, discussing how close he was to leaving the Union, what it's taken to survive when so many of his colleagues have gone elsewhere and what he sees next for him, with his contract up at the end of the year. The fact that he's pictured scoring against Dallas last year, then scored Tuesday night against Dallas in the Union's penalty-kick advancement from the U.S. Open Cup semifinals ... well that's a coincidence.

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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Union-Montreal lineups and prematch thoughts: Jack Mac's back

Philadelphia Union (4-2-3-1)
Le Toux-Nogueira-Cruz
Bench: Blake, Fabinho, Okugo, Lahoud, Fred, Brown, Wenger.

Montreal Impact (4-2-3-1)
Bench: Bush, Ouimette, Jackson-Hammel, Duka, Tissot, Nakajima-Farran, Mallace.

 - The Union waste no time inserting Carlos Valdes back into the lineup after inking him to a new deal Monday. The Colombian’s return to fitness was relatively simple, as he mentioned Monday that he’d been training for 10 days after a two-week post-World Cup hiatus. Who he’d be paired with seemed the bigger mystery as the week progressed, but Ethan White gets the nod with Austin Berry not making the 18. He's pretty far down the depth chart.

One of the other big decisions was whether Maurice Edu, after 45 minutes in Wednesday’s All-Star Game followed by a cross country flight, would get the nod. Perhaps that's why he's in a more attacking position, with Brian Carroll to do the dirty work of holding. I suspect Carroll is preferred to Michael Lahoud given the latter's lengthy international ordeal this week.

- Interestingly, the odd-man out, even with Cristian Maidana still nursing a hamstring injury that rules him out completely, is Amobi Okugo. The last time Okugo didn't start an MLS game when not suspended, Peter Nowak was the Union's manager.

- The debut of Rais M’Bolhi will have to wait another week as he’s not in the 18. Chalk up another start for Zac MacMath as he nears 100 league games.

- Expect Brian Brown to play a role in this one. Danny Cruz has been less than convincing than late, and if the Union are up after 60 minutes, Jim Curtin may want to get a break for Conor Casey with the Dallas U.S. Open Cup semi looming just 72 hours away.

- Frank Klopas has vacillated between using one striker or two in his preferred formation. This week, he’s settled on one away from home, making the decision between fired-up former Union player Jack McInerney and Union killer Marco Di Vaio. Di Vaio got the nod in the midweek CONCCAF Champions League game going 90, so McInerney gets his homecoming start. While the McInerney nod isn’t a shock, no Di Vaio in the 18 is a bit.

- All things considered, that’s a fairly attack-minded midfield from Klopas with Andres Romero, Felipe and Justin Mapp marauding forward.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Open Cup final draw: Union win chance to host final

The plot has thickened in the Philadelphia Union’s search for its first trophy.

A coin flip Monday night in Portland associated with the MLS All-Star Game has handed the hosting duties for the 2014 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final to the winner of the Union’s semifinal against FC Dallas.

Should the Union beat Dallas Aug. 12 at Toyota Stadium (9 p.m.), the club would play for its first trophy on home turf at PPL Park in the final. They’d face the winner of the other semi between the Chicago Fire and Seattle Sounders. The date of the final will be either Sept. 30 or Oct. 1.

The coin flip was performed by U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati as part of a live stream by of the popular Men in Blazers podcast. Each of the four remaining clubs had a ceremonial representative present, with the Union represented by All-Star Maurice Edu. (The histrionics start around the 51-minute mark of the video.)

The home-field advantage in a potential final could change the dynamic for the Union, who embark on a stretch of three games in seven days around the Open Cup semi. They host Montreal in MLS play Saturday, then venture for a Texas doubleheader with Dallas Tuesday and Houston Friday. They have eight days off after that.

The trip to the semifinals this season matches the Union’s deepest run in the tournament. In 2012, they also made the semifinals with a chance to host the final but lost to Sporting Kansas City at home.

The Union have games scheduled Sept. 27 at D.C. United and Oct. 2 at home against, fittingly enough, Chicago.

The last final held in the Philadelphia area came in 1994 when Greek American A.C. beat Bavarian Leinenkugel, 3-0, at UGH Field in Oakford. The Philadelphia area has a long history with the competition, dating from the first of an all-time high five titles for Bethlehem Steel, the first of which came in 1915.

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Friday, August 1, 2014

Drafting the past: The Union's SuperDraft miscalculations

The Union’s big midseason move has been sprung, with Rais M’Bolhi joining arguably the only unit on the team that didn’t require reinforcement. In any event, the Union are getting a clear upgrade at the moment over Zac MacMath, and possibly a shot-stopper who has already surpassed anything MacMath will become, though I’d deem the jury still out on that assertion.
Algeria's Rais M’Bolhi, making a save against Russia's Alexander Samedov
during the World Cup, became the Union's latest goalkeeper of the future
with his signing Wednesday. (AP)

It’ll be a couple of weeks before the MLS Players Association releases its summer salary numbers. We know that the Union regard him as one of the top goalkeepers in MLS, and we’ll have to wait to verify if he’s compensated that way. The Union have already expressed a willingness to buck conventional wisdom to splurge for Carlos Valdes, so you’d expect the same for M’Bolhi.

In my column Thursday, I opined on the conundrum at the heart of this move: That the Union upgraded a position that needed no upgrading, leaving them to find a way to get value out of their goalkeeping glut.

There’s two key parts to that valuation: What the Union are shelling out to M’Bolhi (which we don't know for a while), and what they’ve already used on MacMath and Andre Blake. I’ll ponder the second half of that question first.

Let’s get this out of the way quickly: The Union haven’t the slightest clue how to judge goalkeeping value in the SuperDraft. In the time the Union have been in MLS, they’ve been the only club to draft a goalkeeper in the first round. They’ve done so twice. They have no intention of playing either beyond this weekend.
Read more »

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Forecasting the Crystal Palace plan

There’s always a debate around this time of year as to how to handle midseason friendlies within the grind of an MLS season. Add competition on another front for the Philadelphia Union in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and it’s even more complex.

That’s the conundrum Jim Curtin faces this week as his team prepares to take on English Premier League side Crystal Palace Friday night at PPL. There are so many factors – the tactical, between the physical need to rest regulars and the mental need to get those on the fringes of the squad some action, plus the pride aspect of wanting to put on a decent show for the fans while not rolling over to opposition from a superior league – for Curtin to manage.

“I always think anytime you’re representing your league, you should put your best effort out there,” Curtin said Wednesday at PPL Park. “Too many times you see in these games, whether it’s against a club from Mexico or England, they won’t get our best punch so to speak because we’re in the heat of the season. It’s tough. There’s is the business side where they do make a lot of money off the games, so I get that part of it. … Say you’re juggling an Open Cup game with a league match and then they also throw in a friendly, it becomes this, ‘how much do you want to kill your team for a result against a team that’s in the preseason and doesn’t really have their legs?’ It’s a tough one to answer because you’re torn either way.”

Curtin said Tuesday that there would essentially be two shifts of players logging 45 minutes each, which makes sense to give the entire roster a nice run out. Curtin also hinted that a couple of guys might get around the 90-minute mark.

So here’s my two cents on what the Union should (not necessarily will) do, gleaning a little from what Curtin said Wednesday and the team’s current needs:

First half
Wenger-Nogueira-Le Toux
Read more »

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