Game: Philadelphia Union vs. Colorado Rapids
Date: Saturday, March 7th
Time: 4 PM
Venue: PPL Park
Television: 6ABC, MLS LIVE
Crisis averted! Now onto the real business.
This Saturday the Philadelphia Union will start their 6th season of existence against an upstart Colorado Rapids squad. In their lone meeting last year in July, the teams played to a wild 3-3 draw, highlighted by 2 late Colorado goals and 2 Union red cards. However, both clubs missed the postseason after late season collapses. The Union managed only 2 points in 7 matches after losing the US Open Cup Final in September, while the Rapids managed only 2 points in their final 14 matches.
What Philadelphia Will Look Like
While there are doubts as to how the Union will look upfront - one striker or two - there's little doubt as to how the starting XI will look in defense. Rais M'Bolhi returns as the Union's unquestioned number 1 goalkeeper. M'Bohli spent much of his short tenure with the Union last season splitting his time between the Union and his native Algeria for African Cup of Nations tune-up matches. With that competition in his rear view mirror, the 28 year old Algerian can focus purely on his club commitments. M'Bolhi was the MVP of the Union's 3-1 trouncing of the New York Red Bulls in last Saturday's IMG Suncoast Pro Classic championship game, coming up huge with save after save. In front of him will be the aforementioned Vitoria and young defender Ethan White, who will need to prove to the Union faithful he can be relied on to be a consistent start. They will be flanked by Sheanon Williams and Ray Gaddis. Gaddis had a breakout season as one of the league's premier one-on-one defenders, while Williams is looking to rebound after a poor 2014 season.
Maurice Edu and Vincent Nogueira, arguably the team MVP last season, will occupy the center of the midfield. Le Toux will return once again to the right flank, but one to watch Saturday (and this season) will be Andrew Wenger. The 23 year old Lancaster, PA native flourished last season when he was moved from striker to the left wing, and now with an offseason to fully get comfortable with his new home on the field he should be a nightmare for opposing defense with his lethal combination of size and speed. Cristian Maidana will need to step up and feed the forwards with a healthy diet of through and aerial balls. After a slow start to last season thanks to questionable nutrition, Maidana finished the season strong with a team-leading 11 assists. New addition Fernando Aristeguieta, who had four goals in his three preseason appearances, will be expected to carry the load on offense.
Danny Cruz will be questionable with a hamstring injury, but the bench looks stronger this season with players like Conor Casey, CJ Sapong, and homegrown product Zach Pfeffer.
What Colorado Will Look Like
At the end of July, the Rapids were 2 points behind second place in the West. Then their defense was crippled by injuries to Drew Moor and Shane O'Neill, and they ended the season with 12 losses in the final 14 matches and 62 goals allowed, good for dead stinkin' last in MLS. Head coach Pablo Mastroeni did what he could this season to fix the defense and add some physicality to his midfield. He accomplished half of that plan.
Until Moor returns, the defense still looks like a mess. Since Zac MacMath won't be able to play, look for last year's starter Clint Irwin to start in goal. O'Neill, now healthy, is one of the country most promising defensive prospects. However, he's still learning on the job. Next to him will be likely be veteran centerback Bobby Burling, with former Seattle fullback Michael Harrington and Marc Burch rounding out the back four. Curtin should be doing what he can implement as much pressure on this shaky defense as possible.
Colorado did a much better job of bolstering the midfield. Sam Cronin and Marcelo Sarvas are very good midfielders that will do a much better job of preventing opposing playmakers from running amuck. The Rapids also added a pair of young Argentinian midfielders in Lucas Pittinari and Juan Ramirez. Ramirez, 21, is a speedy winger that was signed this winter as a young Designated Player. Combining these additions with some of MLS's best young attacking players (Dillon Powers, Deshorn Brown, and Dillon Serna) should produce a lot of goals this season for Pablo Mastroeni's side if they figure out how the pieces fit together.
What To Expect
The good news about making few offseason acquisition is that. well, we know what to expect from the Union. Under Jim Curtin, the club's quick ball movement have given any club (unless hindered by fatigue) its fair share of trouble. Against a makeshift defense like Colorado's and an offseason to regroup and recover, I don't expect that trend to change. The Rapids will use their bountiful pace in attack to try and create holes in the Philadelphia defense. I anticipate an entertaining match with multiple chances on both sides. Unlike last July, the Union build a lead and hold it until the final whistle. Prediction: Union 3, Colorado Rapids 2.