Preview: Union to Battle Revs at PPL Park

When the Philadelphia Union (4-8-2) return to MLS action against the New England Revolution (4-9-2), the first-ever meeting between the two clubs, the Union will look to start the second half of the season with a bang following Wednesday’s All-Star Game. In actuality, Philadelphia are one of only two clubs in MLS yet to hit the halfway point (Chicago), with Saturday’s showdown marking the fifteenth match of their inaugural season.

After a difficult start to the season that saw the Union fall to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings due in large part to road games galore, the tides have turned in the club’s favor of late. With 10 of the remaining 16 league matches taking place in the cozy confines of PPL Park, the stage is set for a playoff push down the stretch.

Philadelphia are only three points out of fourth place in the East, but only two teams from each conference automatically make the playoffs, with the next best teams from either conference grabbing the final four spots. Before the Union can even begin to think playoffs, however, the club must focus on taking three points this weekend.

The Revs have struggled overall this season, but their recent form suggests they are playing with renewed confidence. After going through a brutal stretch of 14 matches in all competitions with only a single win, the club has won four straight, including an impressive 2-0 victory over the league-leading LA Galaxy in their last MLS match. Over the same four game stretch, New England have held opponents scoreless with a 5-0 goals to goals-against ratio.

The Revolution boast two MLS All-Star starters, menacing holding midfielder Shalrie Joseph and defender Kevin Alston, both of whom are tough to beat on the defensive side of the ball. Helping that cause for the Union will be recent midfield additions Eduardo Coudet and Justin Mapp, both of whom figure to immediately enter the playing time mix.

With Philadelphia’s confidence also at a high coming off a dramatic 2-1 win vs Toronto in the club’s last league match and strong showings in international friendlies against Celtic (1-0 win) and Manchester United (1-0 loss), let’s dive right into a few of the matchups to watch on the pitch.

The Union attack vs Kevin Alston and the Revolution backline

New England’s defense has been porous for most of the season, with a 1.73 GAA that is only slightly better than the Union’s 1.88 mark. The last four matches, three of which have come in SuperLiga play, have been a different story though, with the Revs shutting their opponents out all four times. Most impressive was the club’s 2-0 win against the Galaxy on July 10, although that match was played at Gillette Stadium.

Leading the defense for the Revolution is Alston, who is a handful on the right side of the field. Danny Mwanga will likely see plenty of the second-year star, as will Sebastien Le Toux, fresh off an All-Star start of his own. Le Toux will likely be lined up in the midfield again, but no player covers more ground over the course of 90 minutes, so he’ll spend plenty of time in New England’s third.

The central defensive pairing of Darrius Barnes and Emmanuel Osei have been tough to contend with recently, and they’ll see plenty of Mwanga and Le Toux, as well as the always hard-working Alejandro Moreno. Rounding out the backline is Seth Sinovic, who has been a regular starter at left fullback. The foursome’s ability to continue their stingy ways may very well determine the outcome of Saturday’s tilt.

Zach Schilawski and Marko Perovic vs the Union backline

It’s no secret that Philadelphia’s defensive unit was shaky early on, but they’ve cut out the mistakes and begun to play with cohesion, which has enabled their individual talent to shine through. Over the last eight matches, four of which have been friendlies, the club has only given up more than a single goal once, and that was when the club was pressing for a game-winner against San Jose. Giving up just one goal in 180 minutes plus to Manchester United and Celtic is no small feat, especially when you consider the five goals United scored against the MLS All-Stars.

Captain Danny Califf and Co. will be up against an attacking pairing of Schilawski and Perovic, both of whom have shown the potential to be dangerous in their first season with the Revs. Schilawski, the 9th overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, is tied with Mwanga for the league lead amongst rookies with five goals. Perovic signed with New England in March from FC Basel, where he scored eight goals in 28 appearances. The left-footed attacker has three goals in his last four matches and has experience against some of the top clubs in the world, including FC Barcelona during Basel’s 2008-09 UEFA Champions League run.

With eight out of the Revs’ 15 goals on the season coming from the attacking duo, the Union may be able to register their first shutout of the season if they can shut down Schilawski and Perovic.

The Union’s revamped midfield vs Shalrie Joseph

Aside from the result itself, the biggest mystery going into Saturday's match is the midfield formation Manager Peter Nowak will field from his cavernous stable of options. The Union now feature 12 players who are listed as midfielders, and that doesn’t include Le Toux.

Le Toux, Fred and Miglioranzi figure to hold onto three of the four starting spots, leaving one opening that will likely be handed to either Coudet or Mapp. Nowak could also decide to go with five midfielders for the first time, with both newcomers slotted into the starting XI.

Roger Torres is listed as questionable for the match, potentially leaving the diminutive midfielder vying for playing time along with Andrew Jacobson, Amobi Okugo and Kyle Nakazawa. It’s really anyone’s guess until the lineups come out prior to kickoff, and you can bet Union fans will be tuned in even more closely than usual.

Regardless of who the Union run out on Saturday, the always-feared Joseph will be waiting as the link between New England’s defense and frontline. Joseph is as good as any two-way player in the league, breaking up plays and jumpstarting the counter attack time and time again over the years. The Union will be better served moving the ball around quickly to avoid Joseph, rather than trying to go through him. If the expansion side can minimize the All-Star’s impact, they’ll have a much clearer path to three crucial points.

Last Match Highlights

Philadelphia 2, Toronto 1

New England 2, LA 0

Philadelphia Union Injury Report

OUT: MF Shea Salinas (R fibula fracture)

QUESTIONABLE: MF Roger Torres (R ankle sprain)

PROBABLE: DF Jordan Harvey (L ankle contusion); FW Danny Mwanga (R ankle sprain); FW Alejandro Moreno (R knee contusion)

New England Revolution Injury Report

OUT: GK Preston Burpo (R leg surgery); FW Kheli Dube (R MCL sprain); MF Jason Griffiths (L hamstring strain)FW Edgaras Jankauskas (L adductor strain); FW Taylor Twellman (concussion)

QUESTIONABLE: FW Zak Boggs (concussion); MF Nico Colaluca (R ankle sprain)

PROBABLE: DF Cory Gibbs (L quad strain); DF Chris Tierney (rib contusion)

Match Information

Date: Saturday, July 31, 2010

Time: 3:30pm ET

Location: PPL Park, Chester, Pa.

Television: 6abc, MyNetworkTV – WQMY

Talent: JP Dellacamera (play-by-play), Kyle Martino (color analyst)