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Match Preview: Union vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

After a 3-0 shutout on the road against a depleted Chivas USA side, the Philadelphia Union return home to play one of the hottest clubs in MLS - the dangerous Vancouver Whitecaps, led by midfield maestro Pedro Morales.

Designated Player Pedro Morales is the engine of Vancouver's offense.
Designated Player Pedro Morales is the engine of Vancouver's offense.
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Union vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

PPL Park - Chester, PA

June 7th, 2014

7PM EST - The Comcast Network, TSN, MLS Live

Last Saturday the Union played a Chivas USA side that was content with a bunker and counterattack gameplan (minus the counterattack). This weekend they will face a young Whitecaps team that attack with relentless fervor and employ more pace going forward than any club the Union have played thus far this season. With only one loss in six matches away from home, the Whitecaps have become one of the best MLS teams on the road.

What to Expect from the Vancouver Whitecaps

Carl Robinson is living proof that promoting an assistant coach to full-time manager isn't always a bad idea. The first-year manager sets his team up in a 4-2-3-1. Up top is the red-hot Erik Hurtado, the former fifth overall Superdraft pick who has scored 3 goals in his last three matches. With his burgeoning confidence and blinding speed, he managed to turn Portland's Osvaldo Alonso, one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS, twice before slotting the ball into the net. If not Hurtado, expect to see the large, physical Omar Salgado. The 6'4" striker has largely been a bust since being controversially drafted first overall in 2011 (before Darlington Nagbe, Will Bruin, and the Union's very own Zac MacMath).

Behind Hurtado will be the play-maker: designated player Pedro Morales. The 29 year-old Chilean spearheads the ferocious Whitecaps attack with his pinpoint passing and nose for the goal. Morales has garnered 5 goals and 5 assists in just 11 matches. On either side of him will be Uruguayan (flopper) Sebastián Fernández and promising starlet Kekuta Manneh, who will become a full-fledged star once he learns how to use his pace and agility to become a more consistent player. Be on the lookout for Canada's brightest hope for the future, Russell Teibert, and Jamaican international Darren Mattocks, one of the fastest players in MLS. This is a young, exciting, and freewheeling offense that will have the Union back-line dizzy if they aren't careful. It's as if no one has had the time to teach them that football is a cruel sport sometimes won by soulless, veteran squads dedicated to a boring, defensively minded style of play. For the sake of aesthetics I hope this day never comes.

For all of the speed in the front of the lineup, the most important part of this Vancouver team is its pair of central midfielders, Gershon Koffie and Matías Laba. Koffie has blossomed under Carl Robinson into a more efficient distributor and fitting partner for the holding midfielder Laba. A former Toronto FC designated player, Laba has been Vancouver's best player this season. He's responsible for cleaning up messes in front of the back-line, enabling the offense to push forward without worry. Traded to Vancouver after the influx of big-name talent in Toronto, Laba has been a seamless addition that has been key to the Caps' success this season.

If John Hackworth wants to find a weakness in this Vancouver side, he should look no further than their back four. Right back Steven Beitashour is busy representing Iran at this summer's World Cup, so replacing him will likely be former Aston Villa midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker. Reo Coker has struggled mightily at right back after being pushed out of the central midfield by Koffie and Laba. The Union would be smart to attack Reo-Coker's side and exploit his lack of pace. At left back, Union fans will recognize a familiar face in Jordan Harvey. When he played regularly at PPL Park back in 2010, Harvey could be counted on to help out the Union attack consistently (something that can't be said for any left back that played for the Union before or after Harvey was traded) but his defensive positioning left a little to be desired. Since the Whitecaps traded Alain Rochat to D.C. United last scene, Harvey has been slowly improving on the defensive end, holding off 2014 third overall pick Christian Dean and solidifying his starting left back slot. In the middle of the backline the Whitecaps start a pair of big, aging centerbacks in former American international Jay Demerit (34) and Irishman Andy O'Brien (turning 35 this month). With Danish goalkeeper David Ousted marshaling the posts, this is a slow but smart defense.

What to Expect From the Philadelphia Union

Close down attackers outside the 18 yard box: as of May 18th, the Whitecaps hit more shots on target outside the 18 yard box than any other team in MLS. The Union are known to give an attacker or two an opportunity to smash in a shot from 20 yards out (Just ask Bernardo Anor). If Amobi Okugo or Maurice Edu give Koffie, Morales, or Hurtado the slightest bit of space, you can be guaranteed that they will be punished for their sins.

Start the same back four as last week: While the Whitecaps score plenty of goals from outside the box, they don't often shoot from the middle third of the 18 in front of goal (Zones 1-3 on this graphic). Furthermore, they don't tend to score.from crosses very often either. This makes sense since Carl Robinson has sacrificed size for speed in their attack. Communication between MacMath and the back four will be vital in order to keep the speedy Vancouver attackers in front of them and off the score-sheet. Hackworth must start Okugo to utilize his athleticism and leadership in the box. The Whitecaps also give up more goals from crosses than any other club in MLS, so Hackworth has to bite the bullet and start Fabinho on the left. The idea of Fabinho versus quick wingers like Sebastian Fernandez and Russell Teibert is a terrifying one, but only the Brazilian can deliver decent crosses from the left back spot.

Maurice Edu must start at the defensive midfielder spot: John Hackworth has been pressed for Brian Carroll's return to the starting XI despite the fact that Carroll has not featured in a Union win all season. If there ever was a matchup this season where Carroll would be more out of place, it would be this one. Just like starting Austin Berry and Aaron Wheeler together a few weeks ago against the Revolution, Hackworth would be begging for disaster and a pink slip. Let Edu start in his natural position. He has the athleticism needed to marshal the middle of the pitch.

Start Zach Pfeffer: I couldn't believe my eyes last week when I saw Fred's name in that starting XI. Sure the Union got away with it against listless Chivas USA, but this is not the week to try the soccer gods twice. Asking the 34 year old Brazilian to run with Kekuta Manneh or Darren Mattocks up and down the right flank or center of the field is too much. It's time to give the 19 year old from Dresher, PA a start already. Either put in the middle behind the striker Conor Casey, or let Cristian Maidana start in the middle and let Pfeff Dogg run at the old and slow Nigel Reo-Coker all night on the left.

Desired Lineup (4-2-3-1): MacMath; Fabinho, Okugo, Williams, Gaddis; Edu, Nogueira; Pfeffer, Maidana, Cruz; Casey

Moreso now than at any other point this season, John Hackworth will be coaching for his job. The Union will have a 10 day break after this Saturday before the Union return to PPL Park to play a US Open Cup match with minor league affiliate Harrisburg City Islanders. That's ten days that a new or promoted coach could use to get familiar with his team before a "tune-up" match. A win keeps the Union's already meager playoff chances on life-support. With just 14 points in 15 matches played, a draw or loss would make it highly unlikely for the team to reach 50 points, which is widely believed to be the threshold for a team qualifying for the MLS Cup playoffs. The plan is simple: play mistake-free soccer and mix energy and precise passing on the offensive end to create good shots on goal. It will take a monumental effort for the Union to stop this terrific Vancouver offense, and I'm afraid to say they will likely come up short.

Prediction: Philadelphia Union 1-3 Vancouver Whitecaps