It was only two weeks ago that the Union last took on D.C. United, but the outlook was much different back then. The Union were losers of four straight and goals were being scored against them at the rate of ships charging down the Delaware River. Fast forward two weeks and there are definite signs of life. Two wins against teams at the top of the Eastern Conference. Two clean sheets. Nine shots on target and just three shots on target allowed.
The Union's defensive shift
The Union have finally shown a commitment to defense and it's working. But the revelation is not about players putting more pressure on the ball. It's about the team sitting deeper and absorbing more of the opponent's pressure. The change can be viewed in this chart of their opponents' passes per Union defensive action (tackles attempted plus interceptions). This stat is used to assess defensive pressure and where it begins on the field. The higher the number the less defensive pressure. The chart shows the four game losing streak and then the two game winning streak. And the stat is broken into the two halves of the field, the attacking half and the defensive half.
Note the change in the winning streak. The higher numbers indicate the Union are sitting deeper and allowing the opposition more passes before moving in to defend. This has allowed them to better maintain their defensive shape and limit their opposition to three shots on target against.
The Union more dangerous on offense
Sitting deeper has opened up the Union's counterattack as well. It took DC United dropping to 10 men before they could break through, but their offensive strength was never more apparent than against the Red Bulls. This year's Red Bulls are implementing the high press and it's been working for them. But that style of play only feeds the Union strength. Bringing a team forward to press risks exposing space in the back that the Union are good at exploiting. Take a look at the passes attempted per defensive action of two recent Union opponents, Toronto and New York.
Here you can see the Red Bulls are pressing into the Union's defensive half, fairly aggressively. The Union managed two goals against them. Now notice the Toronto pressure. They were clearly sitting much deeper and it gave the Union fits offensively as they managed just one shot on goal in that game.
The Union ability on the counterattack and desire to kick the ball long to avoid pressure forces opposing managers like D.C. United's Ben Olsen to make a key tactical decision. They have to ask themselves, "Do I really need to bunker in at home against the Union?" Most managers want to play attractive soccer for their home fans, especially against what many consider to be a poor side. Fans would reasonably expect that. But the reality is the best thing to do against the Union is to sit deep and play hot potato with the ball. If you sit deep you can snuff out the Union's counter and take advantage of their weakness defending the counter. Playing proactively can actually play to the Union's strength.
Curtin said in his weekly press conference that the team needs to mix it up and not just have a bunker identity. This is true, but don't expect Curtin to change what's working on the road this week.
The Union's lineup
Given the two game win streak I image Curtin will make as few changes as possible. There are a couple personnel pieces to factor in, however. First, Brian Sylvestre was called back to Carolina for their US Open Cup match on Wednesday. He will be back for Saturday's game but you wonder if Curtin will go back to McCarthy just to rest Sylvestre. Sylvestre has barely played a dozen games in four years. I figure he's had plenty of rest. This guy is the Rip Van Winkle of goalkeepers. So he should start.
Aristeguieta is back from his Venezuela camp and is in good form to replace Casey. Given Casey was hobbling from a quad tear after 53 minutes against New York, this is great timing. But Casey's effort these last two games should be applauded. He turned around the season last year when he got into the lineup and hopefully he started the same trend this season. We'll see if Aristeguieta can maintain the momentum Casey started at the forward position.
It appears as though Ray Gaddis won't be forced back into action this week so expect the suddenly hot Fabinho to get the start again.
Vitoria still looks to be out and that leaves a decision to start White and put Edu in for Carroll or pair Edu with Marquez, and leave the dependable Carroll in the starting lineup. Given White played injured last week with fluid in his knee, I see Curtin playing the safe route.
Despite the fact that Le Toux and Wenger have still not opened their 2015 account, they will get the start against DC United. We can hope (yet again) that they finally break through and score a key goal on the road. Eventually it has to happen, right? Here's how I see the lineup shaping up given the current injury list.
DC United's week
The key for DC United this week is their midweek road test at Portland, which saw Portland victorious 1-0. That's a lot of travel and a very quick turnaround for the game. However, Olsen kept Chris Rolfe, Nick DeLeon, Davey Arnaud, Michael Farfan, Luis Silva and Fabian Espindola in D.C. this week. He also started Perry Kitchen on the bench. Expect Rolfe, Arnaud, Kitchen and likely DeLeon to step right back into starting roles. So while the week is tough for United, they should have a reasonably rested group for the Union at home.
Making Olsen's tactical decision even more difficult is the fact that United has just one point in their last three games. There will be some pressure to go after the three points. But Olsen is too pragmatic a coach to try and take the game aggressively to the Union. As a result the Union won't be able to crack United's excellent defense and United will find their way to a goal. D.C. United 1:0 Philadelphia Union.