Looking to simultaneously snap a five-match winless streak and extend a two-match unbeaten streak, Philadelphia Union will head south on I-95 to RFK Stadium for a Sunday showdown with D.C. United. While the matchup pits the two clubs with the least number of points in MLS against one another, the Union have been competitive in almost every match this season, something that can’t be said for United.
A 3-1 loss to FC Dallas on Saturday handed D.C. their second five-match losing streak of the season, leaving them with a league-worst 12 points in 20 matches. Another loss on Sunday would give the Black-and-Red a share of their longest losing streak in franchise history, a dismal state of affairs for the most successful club in MLS history. The four-time MLS Cup champions haven’t won a league match since July 10 against Seattle, a span of eight matches, and have scored just three goals during the stretch.
It’d be hard to argue, on the other hand, that Philadelphia have been outplayed in any of their last nine league matches, aside from a 3-1 loss in Dallas that was precipitated by an early red card when the club was up 1-0. The Union have had well-documented struggles finishing in the attacking third, holding leads and avoiding defensive lapses, but the club is playing an attractive, attacking style that has drawn rave reviews from across the league.
Road contests have been particularly troublesome for Philadelphia, with the expansion side struggling to a 1-8-1 record and -13 goal differential on the heels of five first-half red cards. But D.C. haven’t been much better on their home pitch, with a 2-7-1 and -9 goal differential. On the season, United’s league-worst -22 goal differential is twice that of the Union’s -11, which is the second worst mark in MLS by a narrow margin. While Philadelphia’s sixth ranked offense on a per-match basis has only been shutout three times, D.C. has gone scoreless on 13 occasions, just two shy of the MLS record of 15 shared by Toronto (2007) and New York (2009).
Statistics paint a negative picture for the Union, but a foundation for future success has been firmly established. Philadelphia already have one bona fide superstar in 26-year-old Sebastien Le Toux, and Danny Mwanga isn’t far behind at the tender age of 19. With a fluid and attack-minded midfield -- albeit one that has only produced three goals and five assists this season aside from Le Toux’s contributions -- a defense with enough individual talent to be successful, and a goalkeeper who has taken his lumps but also exhibited signs of his vast potential, the Union appear to be on the cusp of being a very difficult club to beat.
[inline_node:286734]Even with the recent additions of 35-year-old Eduardo Coudet and 29-year-old Juan Diego González, the Union’s roster still ranks second youngest in MLS with an average age of 25.3, behind only D.C. United’s average of 25.0. Such has been the strategy of Union Manager Peter Nowak, who has clearly emphasized steady growth and the development of young talent.
Youth will be one subplot on Sunday, spotlighted by two of the most promising teenage attackers in the league, Mwanga and 17-year-old United academy product Andy Najar. Arguably D.C.’s most dangerous weapon, Najar has also been versatile, slotting in at fullback, central midfield, right wing and forward already in his rookie season. While the dynamic Honduran has been mentioned in Rookie of the Year conversations, Mwanga is the undisputed frontrunner, needing just four goals to tie Damani Ralph’s all-time mark of 11.
Another intriguing storyline heading into Sunday’s tilt is Nowak’s return to D.C. for the first time since leaving for a position with the U.S. National Team. As United’s head coach for three seasons, Nowak compiled a 42-27-25 record and led the club to an MLS Cup title in 2004, his first season in charge. Featuring as a player during his tenure was current D.C. Interim Head Coach Ben Olsen, who recently took over for Curt Onalfo after the former DCU boss departed with a 3-12-3 record at the helm.
Matchups to watch:
Branko Boškovic vs Stefani Miglioranzi and Eduardo Coudet
When United completed the signing of 29-year-old Montenegrin midfielder Branko Boškovic on June 14, the club hoped their newest Designated Player from Rapid Vienna of the Austrian Bundesliga would bring a playmaking ability previously lacked in the middle of the pitch. While Boškovic has yet to break through with a goal or assist in five league matches, he did score within the first minute against the Harrisburg City Islanders in an Open Cup match and has the potential to be dangerous when afforded time on the ball, especially in space.
Boškovic will attempt to navigate between Philadelphia’s midfield and backline, but he’ll have to contend with the holding midfield combination of Miglioranzi and Coudet first. Both veterans excel at staying behind the ball, warding off opposing forays and distributing intelligently. If they can keep Boškovic from frequently penetrating into Philadelphia’s third and creating angles for D.C.'s strikers and other attacking midfielders -- likely at any given time to be some combination of Najar, Chris Pontius, Santino Quaranta, Danny Allsopp, recent signee Pablo Hernandez or all-time leading scorer Jaime Moreno -- to spring free, the Union will have an opportunity to walk away with three points and their first shutout in franchise history.
Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga vs D.C.’s backline and Bill Hamid
When an attacking duo has three more goals than an entire team (16 to 13), one can safely bet it’ll be a point of emphasis to contain them. Staring down Le Toux and Mwanga will be Hamid, who became the youngest goalkeeper in MLS history to win a league match when D.C. edged Kansas City 2-1 on May 5. Following his appointment as Interim Head Coach, Olsen named Hamid -- the first United Academy player to be signed by the first-team -- to replace Troy Perkins, who the club acquired in a pre-draft deal with the Union for Fred, the #7 overall pick (which was used on Jack McInerney) and allocation money. The 19-year-old ‘keeper has performed well in two matches since seizing the starting role, but D.C. has been unable to earn a result despite his efforts.
Mwanga’s goals have come in bunches this year, and the phenom is looking to tally in his third straight match for the second time this season. Mwanga has benefitted from the attention paid to Le Toux, but he also has been a deadly finisher when given the opportunity to score, converting 35 percent of his shots and 58 percent of his shots on goal. Le Toux has an opportunity to enter rarified territory with a goal and an assist Sunday, which would make him one of four players in MLS history to reach double-digit goals and assists in his club’s first 20 matches.
United's starting backline -- a unit that consisted of Devon McTavish, Carey Talley, Julius James and Marc Burch against Dallas -- will have their hands full with the size, pace and cohesiveness of Le Toux and Mwanga. The league’s second worst defensive unit (1.75 GAA) -- ahead of only Philadelphia (1.79 GAA) -- will need to prevent Le Toux from finding enough space on the wings to cut into the box with the option of shooting or feeding an onrushing Mwanga, as he's done successfully on numerous occasions this year. Le Toux has also been deadly receiving service at the top of the area with his back to the goal and finding the rookie streaking past him, a sequence that yielded goals against Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake. If United can limit the chances of Philadelphia's prized pair, goals may be hard to come by for either side on Sunday.
Last Match Highlights
Philadelphia Union Injury Report
OUT: MF Shea Salinas (L fibula fracture)
PROBABLE: DF Jordan Harvey (L groin strain)
DC United Injury Report
OUT: MF Brandon Barklage (L ACL tear); DF Juan Manuel Peña (R quad strain); GK Andrew Quinn (R meniscus tear); DF Rodney Wallace (L fibula fracture)
QUESTIONABLE: FW Chris Pontius (R hamstring strain)
PROBABLE: MF Clyde Simms (L calf strain)
Date: Sunday, August 22, 2010
Time: 2:00pm ET
Location: RFK Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
Television: Live Well HD Network, MyNetwork TV – WQMY
Talent: JP Dellacamera (Play-by-Play); Kyle Martino (Color Analyst)
Referee: Alex Prus; SAR (bench): Craig Lowry; JAR (opposite): Eric Proctor; 4th: Jorge Gonzalez