The Philadelphia Union match (5pm EST, ESPN2) at D.C. United may be the undercard to the Gold Cup Final pitting Jamaica against Mexico (7:30pm EST, Fox) but it's no dull affair as this series has been the best matchup in MLS this season. The Union and D.C. United have touched gloves three times already and each game was decided by a late dramatic goal. It was Zach Pfeffer's stoppage time goal in round one that gave the Union a much needed win. United countered with win in D.C. on a controversial handball call which gave Chris Rolfe the winning penalty kick. The third match was in the U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 where the Union, down and man and down a goal, fought back and earned the 2-1 win with a late strike from Fabinho. Round four figures to have all the elements for more drama as the Union are clawing their way back into playoff contention and need the three points.
What to expect from D.C. United
After three games we know what to expect from United. They boast the stingiest defense in the league allowing just 0.91 goals per game. They score by committee and the results are pedestrian, resulting in just 1.18 goals per game. Chris Rolfe leads the team with six goals, but the other 20 goals scored have been spread over 10 players. Despite having the third best point per game record in the league, United failed to put a player on next week's All-Star game roster. But that just reveals how deep and well coached the team is. There is no one star, but a collection of committed teammates.
The new wrinkle for D.C. United comes from a recent trade. They welcome Real Salt Lake's all-time leading scorer Alvaro Saborio to the mix, and sent back attacking midfielder Luis Silva in exchange. How Saborio is deployed and how he is used will be interesting to see, if Ben Olsen puts him in the mix this weekend. He brings a veteran presence and physical play to the forward position that D.C. United was definitely lacking.
What to expect from the Union
There are two key storylines to this week's Union lineup. First is the return of Fernando Aristeguieta. After Tuesday's heroics he is clearly back in the mix. But his understudy for the last month and a half, C.J. Sapong, has done more than enough to keep the starting job, leading the team with six goals. Jim Curtin has, for whatever reason, seemed reticent to start two strikers, but the Union just extended Aristeguieta's expensive loan and have just thirteen games remaining to determine if he is going to be part of the long term future. Meanwhile, C.J. Sapong most clearly should be part of the future. Does Curtin pick one or does he finally tinker with a two striker set? The two striker format does sound very appealing but the Union don't have the ideal personnel for shuffling that would need to take place in the midfield. Let's take a look at some two forward formations and see what might work best
A 4-1-3-2 is an option, moving Noguiera up to the 10 and Maidana out wide. But those players have been very effective in both the 8 and 10 positions, respectively. Noguiera has struggled to produce as the central attacking midfielder and the wing in that formation forces Maidana to play more defense than he's really capable of playing. A 4-4-2 would put Noguiera back where he belongs but again forces Maidana out wide. In this formation he'd at least have more support defensively. The Union did try this formation in the opener against Colorado but Maidana wasn't in that starting XI. Perhaps something unorthodox like a 4-3-1-2 would work best but that's a very defensive formation when D.C. United's strength is really on the defensive side of the ball. There's no great answer in my opinion for the two striker dilemma. It will be interesting to see what Curtin chooses to do.
The other storyline is the trading of fan favorite Sheanon Williams to the Houston Dynamo for essentially cap space. Williams is going to be a free agent this winter and the Union ensured they got a return for his services, and presumably opened up enough space for a summer transfer. Until that next transaction occurs, this move will continue to be a puzzle.
As far as the Union are concerned for this weekend, the trade creates two challenges. The first is a lack of depth a fullback. The Union are now one injury or a red card away from seeing a lot of Raymond Lee at back. We all still remember his disastrous debut in Kansas City and are not anxious to see him on the pitch any time soon. The second issue is a lack of offensive polish coming from the defensive line. Sheanon was the one who put that nice cross onto the head of C.J. Sapong that earned the Union the 1-0 win over Seattle. That's not a cross that can come from the foot of Ray Gaddis. Williams gets forward more and even if he's not the starter, he offers a great bench option if the team is tied or down a goal.
With Vitoria in street clothes on Tuesday and the trade of Williams on Thursday, the backline is very thin. Given Curtin is unlikely to alter his 4-2-3-1 formation, I'm going to propose the following compromise for Sunday's lineup.
Update: Sylvestre in goal
Sapong played wide with Kansas City and has played there a little for the Union, so he is familiar with the position. Even though he wasn't as effective as we've seen him up top, the Union have struggled on the wing all season, so putting him out wide is a small risk to take. Find a way to get the best players on the field.
Prediction: The Union are flying high after their huge Open Cup quarterfinal win on Tuesday, but they'll come back to earth in time and give their heated foe D.C. United all they can handle. The Union will earn a 1-1 draw on a late goal from a Frenchman.