With the Concacaf Champions League on pause until late summer, the Philadelphia Union turns their attention completely to the MLS slate. After a narrow 1-0 victory last weekend against the New York Red Bulls, Jim Curtin’s side will head to the Capitol to play DC United on Sunday.
DC United have struggled in the first weeks of Hernan Losada’s tenure, with injuries plaguing more than a third of the team since preseason began. Typical starters such as defender Steve Birnbaum, goalkeeper Bill Hamid and Yordy Reyna have all yet to appear in a match this season.
However, Losada’s team is getting fitter, and have improved each week ever since a 4-1 defeat at the hands of the San Jose Earthquakes on May 1. Curtin doesn’t expect the trip to Audi FIeld to be a walk in the park.
“You can tell their coach has them very well organized, they are difficult to play against. Whether they play with a back three or a back four, they cause a lot of problems for teams, and I thought they were a bit unlucky against Orlando [in their last game],” Curtin said of DC United.
After starting the season with a leaky defense, the Black and Red have only allowed one goal in the last 180 minutes, with a makeshift defensive unit that consists of Brendan Hines-Ike, Frederic Brilliant, Jose Antonio Vazquez, and backup goalkeeper Jon Kempin.
It may not be DC’s first-choice defense, but the Union will still struggle to break them down. Curtin will need to be tactical with how he puts his team on the field, with one wrinkle a definite possibility: dropping Kacper Przybylko from striker to attacking mid.
Przybylko came off the bench against the Red Bulls and slotted comfortably into the No. 10 role, playing behind in-form striker Cory Burke and Sergio Santos. According to Curtin, the Polish striker can occupy the opposing defensive midfielder, which will most likely be Junior Moreno, and play facing the defense head on.
“Cory and Sergio can threaten and run behind and occupy the center backs and keep them pulled back,” Curtin said. “Kacper can arrive later in the box, where he’s a little more free and doesn’t have the center back draped on him like he often does in the game. So I just think it’s a real dangerous threat that could come up.”
At the moment, it is tough to keep any of those three players off the field. Burke has scored in the last two games he’s started, Przybylko is the scoring leader in the Concacaf Champions League, and while Santos hasn’t gotten off the mark yet, he is still a necessary piece to the Union attack.
Curtin will have to figure out where to put Jamiro Monteiro should the other three all start. However, the size advantage on set pieces with the likes of Burke (6’4”), Przybylko (6’4”), and Santos (5’11”), is a combination that will leave a lot of fans salivating.
“Obviously, it gives us a huge advantage on attacking set pieces just because of the sheer size and physicality,” Curtin said. “It gives us something that I’d like to add, another layer.”
Curtin noted that he didn’t get to see Przybylko at the No. 10 spot as much as he may have wanted to against the Red Bulls. Additionally, squad rotation has kept Przylbylko, Burke, Santos and Monteiro from all being on the field at once for most of the early campaign.
Regardless, the natural-born striker has no problems slotting in a bit deeper and focusing on linking with his teammates.
“I brought it up two days before the game as a possibility that [playing as the No. 10] could come up,” Curtin said. “He embraces it, he likes the idea. It can give [him] a little bit of a break from getting kicked, getting pulled on by the center backs. Now [Przybylko is] facing them which is a little bit different. It is a wrinkle that fits our group.”
“With guys going away with national teams, with guys going away for different things, it is good to have some flexibility within the team,” Curtin said.
Philadelphia’s trip to DC United will be their last away match for nearly a month, and the penultimate contest before MLS action will step away for an international break. The next month will be a great time for Curtin to work on the new “wrinkle” before the long summer slog begins, and you can expect that to start on Sunday.