Remember last year when the Vancouver Whitecaps waltzed into Union territory expecting to take points on Sebastien Le Toux's Ring of Honor day? Yeah... bad plan.
Philly turned up the heat and the 'Caps melted like... like... man, just can't think of the right metaphor.
That loss was ugly, but the costlier ones came at home. Vancouver's seven home wins last year placed them above only San Jose (2), Colorado (6), Orlando City (6) and Chicago (6). That's a gang you didn't want to be caught hanging out with in 2018.
So the Canadian side has flipped the script in a major way. Huge turnover -- led by the loss of Alphonso Davies to Bayern Munich and the all-too-predictable trade of Kei Kamara -- has been facilitated by new head coach Marc Dos Santos. The skipper has long been rumored to be a future head coach and now he has his shot. No longer a bunker-and-counter side, Vancouver is comfortable with the ball in back and has the ball moving skill of Jon Erace in midfield to progress forward without the jailbreak desperation of 2018. In-Beom Hwang is a focal point of the attack now and if pure talent is any indicator than Joaquin Ardaiz will break into the first eleven with regularity before the year is out. There is a lot to look forward to as a Whitecaps fan, but this team hasn't put the pieces together quite yet.
The biggest red flag for the 'Caps thus far? They give up far too many shots. According to American Soccer Analysis, 17 shots against per match is living more dangerously than RSVPing for event called Red Wedding 2: Electric Boogaloo. Contrast that to the Union's 8.5 shots allowed per match, which is the best in MLS. Additionally, Vancouver's opponents are only finishing 8.1% of the shots they take. Across all of 2018, only Seattle, Red Bulls, and DC United even approached a number that low. Philly? They've given up goals on 11.8% of shots taken, which is second highest across the last two seasons. In short, Vancouver's number is likely to move up at some point (and Philly's may drop a bit too).
One of the biggest questions for the Union involves personnel. This will be their second long trip out to the west coast in three weeks and it comes ahead of their first midweek showdown of the year next Wednesday against Cincinnati at Talen Energy Stadium. Given that, there is a chance Jim Curtin could opt to rest veterans and turn to his depth as the club prepares for an important string of home games in May.
If he does turn to the bench, Curtin has some good options. Warren Creavalle, Derrick Jones, and Anthony Fontana are all available in midfield while David Accam, Fafa Picault, and Kacper Przybylko -- who has been tearing up USL -- can come in up top. On the back line, Kai Wagner's suspension means Curtin will do one of three things: 1) Shift Ray Gaddis left and bring in Olivier Mbaizo, 2) Start Matt Real, 3) Start Fabinho. If Mark McKenzie was healthy, you could argue that Curtin might consider rolling with three center backs to support the attacking tendencies of Real and Mbaizo, but given the young CB's recent appendectomy and fairly unique skillset, it's unlikely the Union will make such a drastic shift.
While the Union are looking to be more tactically flexible this season, they will still be looking to create high turnovers and play forward in a hurry. A week ago, this meant Jamiro Monteiro stepped into the No. 10 role so he could prevent Samuel Piette from becoming the central hub of Montreal's ball movement. Vancouver doesn't have a player quite as key to their buildups as Piette, so Curtin may opt to return Brenden Aaronson to the No. 10 and push Monteiro to a No. 8 role. He could also rest Medunjanin and play Monteiro alongside Warren Creavalle in a 4-2-3-1 or push Creavalle to the No. 8 to create a strong defensive block in the center of midfield.
Perhaps the most interesting question, though, is not the obvious ones at goalie, fullback, or midfield. It's up front: Cory Burke has been scoring goals recently, but this match seems like a good opportunity to return David Accam to the first eleven and let him work off of Burke. That could mean Accam and Picault wide in a 4-2-3-1 or Accam joining Burke up front in the 4-4-2 diamond.
Either way, this is certainly a match that the 2019 Union will feel they have a chance to win. Last year's side set a record for road wins but this one is deeper and should be able to challenge for points almost everywhere they go. The loss to the Galaxy in LA should prove a blip, as a soft penalty and an early injury disrupted the proceedings.
To catch Philly at Vancouver, tune in to PHL17 at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday, April 27.