It’s the perfect storyline: parent club hosts affiliate club with a trip to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinals on the line.
Philadelphia and Harrisburg have played three exhibition matches since the clubs formed their partnership in 2010, but this is the first matchup that counts for something. Tuesday night’s tilt at PPL Park pits the clubs against each other with the winner moving on to face either Sporting Kansas City or the Dayton Dutch Lions.
TICKETS: Union vs. Islanders
The City Islanders started their cup run with a 2-0 win over PDL side Long Island Roughriders. Then Bill Becher’s squad knocked out both the New England Revolution and New York Red Bulls in rounds three and four of the tournament. The Islanders dispatched the Revs on penalty kicks after a stunning comeback from a three-goal deficit before booting the Red Bulls from the tournament with an equally impressive 3-1 extra time result.
Union fans will be most familiar with former Philadelphia players Morgan Langley and J.T. Noone.
Look for Langley on the right side of the midfield, while Noone plays more centrally. Langley brings a lot of speed and creativity to that right flank, while Noone is a good distributor behind the likely forward pairing of Brian Ombiji and Sainey Touray.
Touray, a former Red Bull, scored twice against his ex-club in the fourth round victory on City Island. He scored seven times for Harrisburg and added six assists in 2011.
Ombiji is a smaller and faster player -- more of a forward/winger hybrid. He’s been with the Islanders for a number of years now and has more experience than some of the other players on the team.
Andrew Welker and Jason Pelletier will likely round out Becher’s midfield. The pair, both Pennsylvania natives, are mainstays in the Islander starting XI. Pelletier has four assists in league play this season, while Welker has 11 goals in 34 career appearances for Harrisburg.
Yann Ekra is the team’s leading goal scorer in USL Pro play with five tallies in nine league games this season. He scored against the Union in this month’s friendly and entered as a sub against New York. Forward Lucky Mkosana and winger Tom Mellor are other quality bench options for Becher.
Harrisburg’s likely center half pairing is 28-year-old Andrew Marshall and former Union supplemental draft pick Tom Brandt.
Brandt, a Penn product, signed with the Islanders following the supplement draft. Marshall played four seasons with Crystal Palace Baltimore before joining Harrisburg.
Former Vancouver Whitecap Bilal Duckett is a first choice fullback with Stephen Basso on the opposite side.
They’ll play in front of goalkeeper Nick Noble, who recently returned stateside after a successful spell in the Swedish second division. The West Virginia product stands 6-4 and brings experience and composure to the backline.
Just like the Islander offense, there’s depth on defense. Players like Dustin Bixler and Adrian Leroy are more than capable of filling in for Harrisburg’s starters.
Keys to the Game
The coaches know each other and the players know each other. There won’t be many tactical wrinkles to this game. It’s just a matter of which team executes and which team controls the run of play.
Harrisburg displayed a whole lot of guts and grit in the back-to-back wins over New England and New York. There’s no question that Becher’s club is prepared to go full steam for 90 minutes, or 120 minutes in the case of those two games. It’s a solid squad with a lot of players who have experience beyond the level of USL Pro.
One thing that Harrisburg does well is move the ball to wide areas and run at opposing fullbacks. Langley, Ombiji and Mellor are all very good when going forward in space. Philadelphia’s fullbacks struggled in the 3-2 friendly loss earlier this month.
For the Union, it’s a matter of replicating the performance from the last two league games. Philadelphia’s offense came to life against Kansas City, and the smaller but more mobile defense shut down Sporting’s attack. The set piece defending was drastically improved and the team enjoyed its most complete effort of the 2012 season. Philadelphia will likely come out on top if both teams are at their best, but there isn't much room to slip up against a proven MLS killer.