Game: Philadelphia Union vs. Houston Dynamo
Date: Sunday, September 20th
Time: 7:00 PM
Venue: PPL Park
Television: FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports 1 HD, FOX Deportes
Sunday evening, the Philadelphia Union will host the Houston Dynamo for their lone meeting of the season. Both teams are technically still alive in their respective playoff hunts (that's what happens when more than half of the teams make the playoffs), although both teams will more than likely spend November at home. This match will mark the return of former Union right back Sheanon Williams to PPL Park, and my guess is that the reception from the Union faithful will likely be a (*ahem*) booming welcome.
The two teams last met exactly 365 days ago at PPL Park in a listless 0-0 draw. Highlights included a controversial no-call after it looked like Vincent Nogueira was taken down in the box late in the match, and a Pedro Ribeiro shot from close range that banged off the post in stoppage time. The Dynamo, who were just as injury-plagued a year ago as they are now, never threatened the Union goal the entire match. However, they still managed to survive and leave the Delaware Valley with a point. The Union have not beaten the Dynamo at PPL Park in almost 3 years, with a 3-1 win on September 23rd, 2012 being the last time that happened.
Jim Curtin will need to use the Houston matchup to figure out some of the Union's squad issues, as the U.S. Open Cup Final is less than two weeks away. It's late in September and the Union still are not sure who their number one goalkeeper is, with the decision needing to be made between John McCarthy and Andre Blake. McCarthy has had great moments in the sun as the Union's starting goalkeeper this season, however his distribution from the back has always been poor, and his aggressiveness in coming out to challenge opposing attackers has hurt the Union at times. In his limited time starting, Blake has looked stronger and seems like he could be the Union's number one next season, but Curtin has been reticent to commit to him. Despite McCarthy's strong showing in the Open Cup, I still think Blake should be the unquestioned starter, not just for Sunday but for the Open Cup Final on September 30th as well.
Maurice Edu is slowly making his way back to form after a groin injury that's kept him sidelined since August 1st. He was a full participant in training on Wednesday, so he could be available for Sunday. The Union need his leadership and help with counterattacks if they plan on lifting the Open Cup trophy. Finally, Curtin needs to find out to fully integrate Cristian Maidana, who will return from his two game suspension after allegedly spitting at Lee Nguyen, and Tranquillo Barnetta in the same midfield. Although Barnetta has done his part to create chances (and provide some much-needed defensive cover in crucial moments) and Maidana is tied with MVP candidate Benny Feilhaber in assists this season with 14, the Union have still struggled to score goals.
The Dynamo are coming off a crushing 3-1 home loss to fellow Western Conference hopeful Real Salt Lake last Saturday night. Thanks to injuries, numerous international call-ups, and good ol' MLS inconsistency, they now sit six points behind sixth place Portland with six matches left. First year head coach Owen Coyle will have his hands full trying to organize a fragmented defense that will suppress the Union attack. Not only are the Dynamo missing defenders Jermaine Taylor, DaMarcus Beasley, and Kofi Sarkodie because of various injuries, but they will also miss Raul Rodriguez. Rodriguez, the Dynamo's best defender this season, will be serving a one game suspension due to yellow card accumulation. Sheanon Williams, coming off a rough game against RSL, will likely start at right back for the Dynamo. Curtin and the Union know better than anyone how much trouble Williams can cause when he presses forward, so they will to keep close watch on him. Houston's midfield is still dangerous with talented MLS veterans like Giles Barnes, Oscar Boniek Garcia, and left-footed free kick wizard Brad Davis. Former Chivas USA goal-scoring machine Cubo Torres hasn't been the star Houston expected. He left Saturday's match at halftime with a minor groin injury, so Owen Coyle will have to decide between rolling the dice and pairing Torres with the team's leading goalscorer Will Bruin or using five midfielders like they have done for much of this season.
Nothing less than three points should be acceptable Sunday. Not just to keep the Union's (feeble) playoff hopes alive, but to inject some confidence into the team as it inches closer to the Open Cup final. They will need to strike early to further unsettle the Houston backline. Houston have had the Union's number over the last few years, but perhaps the Union can get rid of that mental block this Sunday. I say the Union will manage to show enough life to manage a meager 1-0 vitory.