For a coach with a team stuck at the bottom of MLS’ Eastern Conference, manager John Hackworth was all smiles during his press conference Wednesday.
And it wasn’t because of the Zac MacMath growth chart giveaway promotion.
With his team scoring just three goals in the last five matches and still seeking their first win since July, offensively, led by forward Jack McInerney, the Union have struggled to say the least.
“I think you’ll see a little bit of a twist tomorrow night,” Hackworth quipped. “I think you’ll see some guys who’s sole job it will be is to provide Jack with support. Hopefully, that can translate [into a win] for us. We haven’t provided Jack with the support that he needs to be successful and we have to do a better job of that.”
On Thursday, the Union will face United for the fourth time in all competitions this season. In what has become quite the rivalry since an overtime upset in the U.S. Open Cup earlier this year, a nasty affair has ensued each time these two have linked. For United, it enters PPL Park (8 p.m., ESPN2) coming off a 2-1 win over New England. For the Union, its last win was also against New England -- in July. Despite holding the edge in possession in its last five matches, finishing the football still plagues a team that uses the five foot, 10 inch McInerney as a target striker.
With playmaking midfiielder Michael Farfan out due to yellow card accumulation, the personnel against United is being kept close to the vest, but its very likely that both Freddy Adu and Danny Cruz will lend support on attack pinching in from the flanks while a TBA will sit behind all three controlling the midfield. An early probable lineup suggests midfielder Gabriel Gomez, but it’s a guessing game as to who will fill that role.
“Greg Jordan’s going to start in place of Michael Farfan tomorrow, Ben Olsen,” Hackworth joked in a ruse designed to keep United’s boss on his toes. “In all seriousness we have a lot of players who are right there behind Michael that we expect and would love to see the production [out of] that Michael is giving us. So this becomes a fantastic opportunity for those guys and it was a good battle for the last couple days to for who is going to win that spot. My hope is that the player replacing him puts on a good show, because it can only give us some excellent options going forward.”
Conversely, United are without reigning MLS most valuable player Dwayne DeRosario, out for the rest of the season after suffering an MCL sprain. DeRosario, among the league leaders in assists (12) on the season is a major loss, but as Hackworth explained don’t look for that to switch fortunes significantly in the Union’s favor.
“We prepared for a game three times with him and now we have to prepare for a game without him, which in some ways that makes [preparation] more difficult,” said Hackworth. “But regardless of who they play they have a strong bench and a very good team, [even with DeRo] not being on the field…we watched [United] the last game and what it looked like, and they were able to play a very strong game and get a result.”
But it’s less about United (though Hack relished the idea of playing spoiler) and more about a team that is down -- but somehow not out. In a season that could be made into an award winning screen play, perhaps the craziest storyline is that mathematically the Union could still swing playoff momentum in its favor. After United on Thursday, the club hosts Houston on short rest and a win in both could make things interesting.
Realistically, are the playoffs a forgone conclusion at this point? Perhaps. But Hack’s been in soccer long enough to see and know that far crazier situations have happened.
“If we can come in a play the role of spoiler in both of these matches, it actually puts us with a little bit of momentum like you wouldn’t believe,” Hackworth said. “So statistically, again we are not out of it and to get these games back to back would mean a lot. Now it’s about management. These two games are so close we have to do a good job with getting the right guys some rest and putting out a lineup that’s still going to be competitive on the field.”