After a week of All-Star activities in Philadelphia, the Union get back to business on Sunday with an Eastern Conference showdown against the New England Revolution.
Jay Heaps' new look Revs are a far cry from a side that struggled immensely in 2011, performing poorly in the league and seeing their supporters stage a walk out at Gillette Stadium last July. It's a younger, harder working squad with talented players who seem to enjoy working with a new manager.
This will be the first meeting between New England and Philadelphia this season. With a 2-0-2 record, the Union have not lost to the Revolution since joining the league. Philadelphia thumped the Revs 3-0 at Gillette Stadium last season, while the return trip to PPL Park played out to a wild 4-4 draw after the Union conceded a 3-0 lead in the first 45 minutes.
Heaps' squad has a 6-9-5 record, 23 total points, and a slim 3 point lead on Philadelphia in the conference standings.
French striker Saer Sene has been an excellent signing for the Revolution. The former Bayern Munich II man leads the team in scoring with 8 goals and brings a good skill set to the table. He's a big guy, listed at six foot three and 185 pounds. But he does have good speed, and he plays well with the ball at his feet, something you don't normally see for strikers of that size. He can score in a variety of ways and poses a threat around the box.
Lee Nguyen is having a great year as a winger/second striker in Heaps' system. He's second on the team with 4 goals and has 2 assists as well. The former American international is clever with the ball at his feet and is a solid creator on offense.
U.S. International Benny Feilhaber is listed as questionable for this game with an ankle sprain. American fans should know his capacity for making plays as an attacking midfielder. He's only got 1 goal and 1 assist this year, but that's not necessarily indicative of what he's capable of doing.
Designated player Jerry Bengston, who scored in his Revs debut, is not available on Sunday. The Honduras international is playing for his country in the London Olympics.
That leaves Ryan Guy, Fernando Cardenas, and rookie Kelyn Rowe as other attacking options. Rowe is a player who can set up as a winger or a striker. Cardenas and Guy are typically better used up top.
Diego Fagundez and Jose Moreno are other options, but they have not played a lot of minutes this year.
Shalrie Joseph got his designated player contract and continues to be a rock in the defensive midfield for New England. Now 34 years old, the MLS veteran is aging, though he hasn't really lost a step. He's a little bit more of a defensive guy now, and less of a box-to-box type, but he's got 3 assists and 1 goal despite the slight change.
Starting left back Darrius Barnes is out of this game with an abductor strain. That means Heaps can either move midfielder Chris Tierney back to a fullback position, or bring in Florian Lechner to fill the spot. Heaps does have a number of guys who can play different roles within his 4-4-2 system.
Right back Kevin Alston is a former All-Star, and has been having another mostly consistent year on the backline.
A.J. Soares and Stephen McCarthy have improved this season as a central defensive pairing. They were both rookies last year, thrust into important roles with little to no experience in the league. The Revs backline conceded 58 goals in 34 games in 2011. This year the team has conceded 25 in 20 games, which is a big improvement from last year.
And you can't forget Matt Reis in net. 2011 was a nightmare year for the veteran, but 2012 is much improved. His save percentage is up slightly, and the guys in front of him are allowing fewer shots on goal.
Keys to the Game
The Revs' offense has really struggled in July, scoring just one goal in the last three games, and just three goals in the entire month. Compare that to June, when the team scored six goals in four, and went unbeaten during that stretch.
For the excellent season Sene is having, he's only scored once in the last eight games. The Revs need him to get back on target to make a push at a playoff spot.
It's essentially a matchup between the Union's 4-3-3, and the Revs 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1 if Nguyen plays second striker). Both teams would prefer to keep the ball on the ground under their new managers, which was not really the case when the defensive minded Steve Nicol and Peter Nowak squared off last season. With playmakers Nguyen and Feilhaber on the field, the Revs try to use their mobility to open passing lanes and squeeze through balls behind defenders.
It's a critical matchup for Philadelphia, who can move into a tie for 8th place with a win. This is another "six-pointer", and the first game of the second half of the season, following the All Star break.