PBPP: Union face toughest challenge in 2012

Philadelphia host first-place Earthquakes Saturday at PPL Park

When the San Jose Earthquakes visit PPL Park, they will represent the toughest challenge to date this year for the Philadelphia Union.

It's not just because they come in leading the West and riding a five-game unbeaten streak, although that's a reflection of this confident group.

The bigger issue is the red-hot Chris Wondolowski, who is tied with Thierry Henry for the league lead in goals scored with eight. To put this into perspective, Wondolowski on his own has outscored 10 MLS teams including the Union.

How about these numbers for Wondolowski:

Going back to 2011 he's scored in 13 of his last 16 games.

Going back to 2010, he has scored 48% of San Jose's goals.

Since 2010 he has scored 21 road goals. And these impressive feats go on, and on, and on.

He's doing well despite the fact that every team who plays against him structures their game plan specifically to stop him. So far, that hasn't worked.

When you talk about the 29-year-old veteran forward, you don't hear people reflect on his speed, strength or powerful shot. I'm not saying he doesn't possess any of those skills, but that's not what is said about him.

What people will say is he has an amazing instinct to find open and dangerous spaces. He also has a knack for being around the ball and not wasting chances. Consider this: He has taken 27 shots this season, with 14 of them on target. The result is eight goals, and many other near misses.

The best way for the Union to defeat San Jose is by keeping “Wondo" off the board, which is easier said than done. One would expect Carlos Valdes and Danny Califf (if he's back starting) to see a lot of Wondolowski Saturday at PPL Park. It will be all about team defense and communicating. Defenders need to have their head on a swivel, even more so than normal, because one mistake and Wondolowski is behind you and headed for a goal scoring opportunity.

A major key to the game will be to try to stop the supply of the ball to the dangerous Quakes goal scorer. That task becomes more difficult for the Union with the steady Brian Carroll listed as doubtful (right hamstring strain). Very few players can shut down the middle like he can. The Quakes are also dangerous from the flank, scoring five goals off of crosses.

Right back Steven Beitashour already has four assists, pushing forward up the flank. He had seven a year ago to lead the team and has picked up 11 assists in his last 24 games, so it's no fluke. Whoever matches up against him (Union left midfielder and left back) have to have their “A” game to prevent Beitashour from becoming a major factor.

The Union will be looking for a first-ever three-game win streak, and will also be looking to extend their impressive streak of 332 consecutive shutout minutes.

In addition to likely missing Carroll, they will be without two other starters and a manager versus the Quakes due to suspensions. In the case of the missing starters, the club has options. Assuming Califf starts, Sheanon Williams or Raymon Gaddis could be on the right. If it's Williams on the right, Gaddis, Porfirio Lopez or Chris Albright could all figure into the mix on the left. Third-year midfielder Amobi Okugo is the most likely option to replace Carroll if he's forced to sit out, 

Replacing Keon Daniel on the flank might be trickier, as those available don't possess the same qualities as Daniel, but again, there are plenty of options in a deep Union midfield.

The Union are still trying to get it going offensively, but to win this game against high-scoring San Jose, one would think that the defense will have to take center stage again.

See you at PPL Park.