Interim team manager John Hackworth takes the reins of the Philadelphia Union on Saturday against a D.C. side sitting atop the Eastern Conference and looking for revenge.
It’s the second meeting this month between the regional rivals. Philadelphia went down to Maryland two weeks ago and knocked United out of the U.S. Open Cup with a thrilling 2-1 win in extra time. Antoine Hoppenot’s first Union goal sank D.C. and set up a quarterfinal matchup with the Harrisburg City Islanders on June 26 at PPL Park.
The Open Cup win ended a four-game D.C. winning streak. Ben Olsen’s club is sitting on 27 points with a league record of 8-4-3.
Both clubs used a number of starters in the June 5 Open Cup match. Olsen paired DP striker Hamdi Salihi with veteran Josh Wolff and used first-choice forward Maicon Santos off the bench.
The biggest difference for D.C. this time around is the likely inclusion of Dwayne De Rosario in the starting XI. The 2011 MLS MVP did not play in the Open Cup and made way for Branko Boskovic in United’s attacking midfield role. He’s returning from national team duty with Canada and should be the first starter penciled in.
D.C. also get a huge boost with the availability of Chris Pontius. The forward/winger scored five goals over six league matches before a muscle strain temporarily sidelined him.
Andy Najar and rookie Nick Deleon are United’s primary wing options -- both started in the Open Cup game. The only attacker unlikely to play is Danny Cruz, who remains questionable with a hamstring strain.
We saw United’s first-choice defense in Maryland. Look for Emiliano Dudar and Brandon McDonald as the center half pairing with Daniel Woolard at left back and Robbie Russell at right back.
D.C. recently sent young center half Ethan White on loan to Richmond. That means Dejan Jakovic is likely third on the depth chart at CB. Chris Korb is a serviceable defensive option who can play just about anywhere. Former Orlando City man Lewis Neal can fill in at fullback in an emergency situation.
Perry Kitchen played behind Boskovic in Maryland and he’ll assume his holding midfield role behind De Rosario on Saturday.
First-choice goalkeeper Bill Hamid is once again situated in the starting XI, but Joe Willis is a more than capable backup.
Keys to the Game
The Union beat D.C. in Maryland with a smaller, faster lineup. The first-time pairing of Carlos Valdes and Amobi Okugo was able to stifle D.C.’s attack and mostly prevent service to Salihi up top.
It was the same story on the wings, where fullbacks Ray Gaddis and Gabriel Farfan played well against Najar and Deleon. Philadelphia’s smaller defense looked more mobile than past Union backlines and did an excellent job of denying final balls in the attacking third.
Don’t underestimate the addition of De Rosario to the D.C. lineup. Boskovic is a quality attacking midfielder but De Rosario is the best in the league. He’ll create opportunities where there are none, and find ways to open up opposing defenses.
The addition of Pontius also allows Olsen a lot more flexibility with his roster. D.C. can theoretically start Santos and Salihi up top, with Pontius on the wing. Another option is Pontius up top with either Santos or Salihi coming off the bench. United can theoretically bring three quality attackers off the bench.
The Union opened up United’s defense by drawing yellow cards on Dudar and McDonald in the first half of the Open Cup game. D.C.’s defense has been vulnerable, allowing 19 goals this season.
It'll be interesting to see how the Union come out with Hackworth at the helm. While we shouldn't expect drastic changes, it's reasonable to expect Hackworth to put his own imprint on Philadelphia's formation and style of play. That transition may take some time, but with a team that's already familiar with their new interim manager, the adjustment period should be minimal. At 2-7-2 in league play, a win on Saturday would go a long way towards helping the Union dig out of an early-season hole.
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