Preview: Philadelphia Union VS F.C. Dallas

There’s no place like home.

After a four game road losing streak, playing in front of the passionate Union faithful is a welcomed change. Despite early season struggles, the Union (1-5-0) have by no means dug a hole they can’t climb out of. In fact, just 6 points separate Philadelphia and third place in the Eastern Conference. Furthermore, the expansion side is one of only three teams (Columbus and Kansas City being the others) to have played less than seven games so far this season, meaning more points to be had the rest of the way. Simply put, there’s a whole lot of season left. 

Couple all of this with the fact that no other MLS team has played less than three home games so far, compared with just one for the Union, and perhaps its not so surprising that the youngest team in MLS is off to a rough start. 

There are encouraging signs on the field too. The Union have played far better than a four game losing streak would lead you to believe. Against Real Salt Lake, there was no doubt who the better team was in the first 25-30 minutes, something even Salt Lake Head Coach Jason Kreis acknowledged after the game. Philadelphia moves the ball gracefully and efficiently at times, but aside from the Home Opener, far too many attacking sequences have broken down one or two steps too soon. Mistakes in the defensive third have been the story this season, something Philadelphia knows they need to cut out in order to be successful. 

So what does all this mean? Well, not much this year if the Union don’t start winning. Ownership knows this. The Technical Staff knows this. Players know this. And fans know this. The Union are built for the future, perhaps better than any other team in the league, but that doesn’t take away any urgency from Saturday’s match against FC Dallas (2-1-4). 

After ties in four of out Dallas’ first five games, two straight 1-0 wins have the Hoops just three points shy of being in a tie for second place in the Western Conference. Then again, aside from LA, every team in the conference has between 9 and 13 points, but that just makes every game even more important. Dallas is looking to build off of their current momentum, but the 13,231 opposing fans in attendance in Houston for their last away game won’t compare to the atmosphere expected on Saturday.

The home crowd will provide an advantage that Manager Peter Nowak’s side hasn’t had in over a month. The real key, however, will be cutting out the mistakes that have plagued the Union nearly every game. Scoring first is also vitally important. Philadelphia has done so just once this season, not coincidentally in their only win, a 3-2 triumph against D.C. United in the club’s Home Opener. The Union hope that a match in Philadelphia will be just what they need to turn their season around.

How is each side looking as the Union look to win the second of two matches at Lincoln Financial Field before moving to their home grounds, PPL Park, on June 27? Let’s take a position-by-position look. 

Goalkeeper – Philadelphia Union

Chris Seitz would be the first to tell you he’s struggled at times this season. He’s shown flashes of his vast potential, but the mistakes have overshadowed the good. A 2.33 GAA is too high for any MLS ‘keeper and Seitz will have to start bringing that number down in order to instill confidence. Nowak hasn’t hinted at replacing Seitz as the starter and it looks as if the first-year starter will be given time to work out the kinks.

One thing is for sure: Nowak, Coach John Hackworth and Goalkeeper Coordinator Rob Vartughian haven’t lost confidence in Seitz long-term. He’s still the future in net for the Union; it’s just a question of how quickly he realizes his potential. A strong performance this weekend would go a long way, but the onus doesn’t fall solely on Seitz. The defense in front of him will have to do a better job marking, as two of the three goals last week were virtually impossible for Seitz to prevent. 

Goalkeeper – FC Dallas

Kevin Hartman has settled in as Dallas’ keeper after manning the net for two straight 1-0 victories. Hartman’s worst showing of the season, a 4-2 loss to D.C. United in a U.S. Open Cup play-in match, doesn’t count against his stats, so the 14-year MLS veteran is sporting a stellar 0.67 GAA in three starts. 

Hartman’s last performance against D.C. United may have been his finest of the season, with a few highlight saves including the NAPA Save of the Week. Hartman is in good form, so the Union will need to test him early and often to break through.

Defense – Philadelphia Union

The Union’s backline is clearly underperforming, with far too much talent to be giving up the most goals per game in the league. That stat is a bit skewed by the fact that Philadelphia’s last two opponents, LA and Salt Lake, are tied for the most goals scored in the league, but not a single member of this unit would tell you they’re happy with the way the group is playing. 

The main problem seems to be committing a very costly error, usually in the first half, that causes the Union to play catch-up the rest of the game. When a team is desperate for a goal, they push forward a bit more than they otherwise would, leaving holes exposed in the back. Jumping out to an early lead on Saturday would do wonders for Philadelphia’s defense, allowing them to play their game with the knowledge that all they have to do to win is hold Dallas down.

Defense – FC Dallas

Dallas’ defense has been stellar the last two games, recording shutouts against Houston and D.C. Their stinginess has been a full-team effort, but the defense has certainly done their part. Heath Pearce, who will report to U.S. National Team camp following Saturday’s match, is the biggest name in the backline mix, but he’s actually been featured plenty in midfield roles this season. It remains to be seen where Dallas Head Coach Schellas Hyndman will feature Pearce on Saturday, but expect to see him in the back with all of their offensive guns healthy, most likely at left back.

Ugo Ihemelu will start in the center, joined by George John, a pairing that hasn’t been easy to beat in recent matches. Rookie Zach Loyd, the 5th overall selection in the 2010 SuperDraft, will likely slot in at right back. 

While this unit has been strong, they’re not unbeatable. If Philadelphia’s midfield and perhaps even backline help out in the attacking third, the Union should be able to do what Houston and D.C. were unable to do - score.

Midfield – Philadelphia Union

The return of Stefani Miglioranzi will help, as the midfielder’s ability to break up the opponent’s attack and initiate the counter-attack is invaluable for a young expansion side. The probable return of Sebastien Le Toux will also improve this unit, with Fred able to move back into his familiar attacking midfielder position. While Kyle Nakazawa drew the start against Salt Lake and performed well, particularly on set pieces, he’ll likely be relegated to a role off the bench with the midfield fully in tact. 

Many expected Shea Salinas to start last game, but Nowak instead used him as a spark plug off the bench. Salinas has been just that and it’s a good bet that his impressive pace will be employed again this Saturday when the defense begins to tire. 

Roger Torres has experienced some inconsistency adjusting to the physicality of MLS, but his creativity and attacking instincts are evident every time he touches the ball. Once the 18-year-old learns how to channel his skills for 90 minutes, he’ll be even more difficult to contain.

Midfield – FC Dallas

Dallas will likely go with a 4-5-1 formation on Saturday, with Brek Shea and Atiba Harris along the left and right flanks, respectively, midfield maestro David Ferreira in an attacking role, Captain Daniel Hernandez in a holding role, and Dax McCarty helping out on both sides of the ball. 

Hernandez is the glue in this midfield, allowing the rest of the unit to push into the attack. Ferreira is a dynamic playmaker who racked up 7 goals and 8 assists last year and has 3 assists so far this year. McCarty isn’t far behind as a playmaker, with 6 assists last year and 2 this year to go along with a goal.

Attack – Philadelphia Union

The likely return of Sebastien Le Toux will provide a much-needed shot in the arm for an offense that only scored once in two games in his absence. According to Nowak, playing on Saturday is “more than possible” and Le Toux has proclaimed himself ready to play. Exactly how long and whether or not the Union’s leading scorer starts is another story, but there shouldn’t be too many lingering effects from the left knee injury sustained over two weeks ago. If Alejandro Moreno and Le Toux pick up where they left off playing at home, the home crowd will be in for a treat.

Le Toux’s return helps Moreno, who is most effective when holding the ball up in the opponent’s territory and finding his teammates. That dynamic was on display in the Home Opener, with Moreno having a hand in all three of Le Toux's goals. With only 4 shots and 1 SOG on the season, one would think Moreno will start looking for his shot more as well. The Union’s offense has only clicked on all cylinders once this season, but boy was it pretty when it did. Oh, and that three-goal performance came in the only other home game so far this season. 

Attack – FC Dallas

FC Dallas leads the league in both shots (107) and shots on goal (42), so they’re not afraid to let it rip. Led by Jeff Cunningham, this unit only has 9 goals in 7 games, meaning shots haven’t always translated to goals. Dallas’ offense has played just well enough to get a result in all but one game this year, with strong defensive efforts leading to 6 points in the last 2 matches despite only 1 goal in each of the games.

If Hyndman in fact opts to field a 4-5-1 formation, Cunningham will serve as the lone striker. Major League Soccer's second all-time leading scorer, with 125 career tallies, Cunningham scored his first non-PK goal of the season last week, but he's undoubtedly still among MLS’ most dangerous attacking players.

Cunningham netted 17 goals last season to take home the 2009 MLS Golden Boot thanks to a second-half run for the ages. With 16 goals during the team’s final 14 games, Cunningham was deservedly named to the MLS Best XI squad and was a finalist for the league MVP award. The striker also added 8 assists to his league-leading goal tally. Containing Cunningham is the obvious key to the match for the Union on the defensive side of the ball.