Time: 9:00 PM Eastern (7:00 PM Mountain, 1:00 AM UTC)
Venue: Dick's Sporting Goods Park (Commerce City, Colorado)
Referees: REF: HILARIO GRAJEDA AR1: James Conlee AR2: Cameron Blanchard 4TH: Younes Marrakchi
Television: The Comcast Network, Altitude
Streaming: MLS Live
How often in any sport does the first place team in one conference play the first place team in another? It's pretty rare. Now how often were those teams near the bottom of the league the season before? You're getting the picture that this game between the Philadelphia Union and the Colorado Rapids is a pretty unique affair. And it's not just a story of amazing turnarounds, it's a story of two teams getting it done in remarkably similar ways. Both teams are actually riding solid unbeaten streaks of eight for the Rapids and six for the Union. But there's more. Allow me to make the case.
Exhibit 1: Defense first and an old friend
The Colorado Rapids have the best goals against average (0.75) in the league having allowed just nine goals this season. The Union, despite the pair of bizarre goals allowed against Orlando, are third in a league with a 1.08 GAA. Both teams' success is anchored around defenses that are hard to break down and keepers that are playing very well. In fact Union fans will remember the opposing net minder very well, the Union all-time leader in games played at keeper Zac MacMath.
Exhibit 2: Who needs possession?
Not only do the Rapids and Union have effective defenses but they are stylistically very similar. Here is a chart of the teams in MLS and how direct they pass the ball and how how much pressure they apply on defense.
Notice that the Union and Rapids are right on top of each other tactically. They both present above average levels of defensive pressure and both are slightly more indirect with their passing. And it's probably not a coincidence their possession numbers are almost the same with the Rapids at 49% and the Union at 48%. Stylistically the two teams are both middle of the road but that's more than okay given their focus on defense.
Exhibit 3: Frugal approach (so far)
Not counting Tim Howard who will become the Rapids goalkeeper after the Copa America Centario, the Rapids and Union both rank in the bottom half of the league in player salaries. Once Howard joins the club they will jump to the sixth-highest paid team, but for now they've reached the top of the West with a smart, efficient team with few high profile stars. The two players that are high priced for the Rapids won't be with the team as they prepare for the Copa and Euro, Jermaine Jones and Shkelzen Gashi. Coach Pablo Matroeni is expected to put Dillon Powers in charge of the 10 role, but who will replace the grit of Jermaine Jones? All he's done since coming to MLS is win. Okay, maybe a few other things too.
Cross examined: Foul play
There is one way the Rapids are very different from the Union, and that is in the use of fouls. The Rapids are first in the league with 15.6 fouls per game while the Union rank 18th with 10.3. Oddly, the Union are the third most fouled team in the league and the Rapids are the second least fouled. So expect some of that lopsided ugliness.
Does the jury have a verdict?
What will be the difference in the match now that we've seen that the teams play pretty much the same brand of soccer? Will it be the lack of firepower for the Rapids without Jones and Gashi? Will it simply be home field advantage? Will the fouls catch up to the Rapids? Expect a knock down drag out match with beauty at a premium. I just have a feeling the Union aren't done with controversy this week and will be part of a messy 1-1 draw. The game to decide East vs West supremacy will result in a hung jury.