D.C. United (6-1-3, 21 points) at Philadelphia Union (1-7-3, 6 points)
What: Major League Soccer regular season match; When: Sunday, 7 p.m.
Where: PPL Park, Chester, Pa.; Tickets: here.
TV: Fox Sports 1 with John Strong and Alexi Lalas.
Radio: None; Social: Follow the action via Twitter: @TheUMatchday
Parking: $20 at all PPL Park approved lots; Mass transit: Shuttle service to and from Chester Transportation Center
There’s just no way around it: the opening stretch of the 2015 season for the Philadelphia Union has been difficult. The coaches and players are feeling it, too.
“It’s been a real tough time, obviously,” head coach Jim Curtin said, exasperated, at the club’s weekly press conference. “I’ve never been a part of something this difficult. I guess maybe at Villanova when I was playing there, but professionally, this is the first time I’ve gone through a tough time like this.
“And the only way to get it right, and fix it, is through the hard work you put in at training and then the 90 minutes that you get on the weekend to execute and get out of a hole.”
Yes, that opportunity will be presented to the Union again on Sunday when they take on a streaking D.C. United team. United are going in the complete opposition direction of the Union, currently riding an eight-game unbeaten streak and are fresh off a 2-1 win Wednesday night against Orlando City.
But, perhaps United can offer the Union some hope. After all – and it’s truthfully hard to believe this – D.C. won just three games a mere two seasons ago in 2013. They went 3-24-7, a tough year that United head coach Ben Olsen had to go through, only to follow it up with a 23-10-11 record since.
“Benny’s a really good young coach,” Curtin said. “He’s a great motivator, gets a lot out of his guys. I’ve had a lot of discussions with him in the past, dating back to when I was the interim coach. He’s seen a lot in this league as a player, then as a coach.”
Olsen’s seen it all, the ups and the downs, and has always been a role model for Curtin. He specifically mentioned how, along with Union technical director Chris Albright, the two used to watch Olsen, a Harrisburg Pa. native, play for FC Delco.
“I can pick his brain and learn a lot from him and the things that he did during that time that were good and the things that were bad,” Curtin said. “And how you can learn from it. And again, I think we have a similar mindset about the game.
But they certainly won’t be able to count on Olsen taking it easy on them. United have been beaten just once this entire year and own a three-point lead on top of the Eastern Conference, a regular season title they also nailed down last year.
For United, it starts where Curtin ideally wants it to start – defensively. They’ve allowed just eight goals in 10 games for a league-best 0.80 goals against average. While it’s a team effort, goalkeeper Bill Hamid has posted four shutouts and leads the league in save percentage (minimum of 10 shots faced). He is potentially on his way to joining the U.S. Men’s National Team for the upcoming 2015 Gold Cup.
“That rock in the back that’s doing really well,” Curtin quipped.
But it’s been a re-built defense, too. Veterans Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin joined prior to the 2014 season and immediately stabilized the back line. Boswell, a center back, has started every game since he’s joined – and a league-best 64 in a row overall – and Franklin has started all 10 this season and 29 last year.
While neither is particularly dominate in the air, Boswell is fourth in the league in clearances with 76. Franklin, a right-footed full back, is second amongst all defenders in chances created with 13. Both are vital to United’s overall game plan.
Of course D.C. is fairly pedestrian– and it is often noted as such – in the scoring department. They’ve scored 13 goals this year, just 7th best in MLS (by average) and may not have the type of forward that causes opposing defenders to lose sleep at night. But there is depth there, including a healthy Fabian Espindola, Chris Rolfe, Jairo Arrieta, Chris Pontius and Luis Silva, who started his first game of the year on Wednesday.
That responsibility will fall on another reshuffled back line for the Union. Rookie Richie Marquez has been suspended for one game following his red card against Vancouver after two promising performances. That likely leaves Ethan White and Maurice Edu to pair at center back if Steven Vitoria (left knee strain) cannot go. For White, it won’t matter who’s out there since the group is familiar with each other.
“And like I said before, we’re all pro athletes,” White said. We’re all paid to do what we do and you know we're going to deal with the changes that come through. We've all played together. I’ve played with Maurice, I’ve played with Steven. You know they've played been together so long, so no matter who's playing, we'll be ready for it.”
That also goes for Brian Sylvestre, the team’s likely goalkeeper for Sunday. Sylvestre joined the team on a short-term loan and while his status is still uncertain for Sunday, he’ll likely be in the net if John McCarthy (concussion symptoms) cannot go. Luckily, with Sylvestre’s time in preseason, he’s still a familiar option for Union defenders.
“I’ve played with Brian a few times now,” White said. “I think he is an excellent shot-stopper, just a big body to have in there… We talk to each other a decent amount, both on and off the field. So just having a little relationship is better than having nothing.”
In addition to Marquez, Fernando Aristeguieta (international duty), Andre Blake (right knee) and Mike Lahoud (right quad) are ruled out. Joining McCarthy and Vitoria as questionable are Antoine Hoppenot (left hamstring) and Fred (right hamstring).
But as White said, the injuries are nothing his teammates aren't used to -- it's part of the business. But Sunday will also potentially mean a littler more, as in a chance to beat his former team. The Union traded for White in exchange for Jeff Parke prior to the 2014 season. But for the 24-year-old defender, it’s just another game.
“They have some dangerous guys,” he said. “Chris Rolfe, Fabian Espindola, Chris Pontius, Nick DeLeon, Luis Silva, all those guys can make a play. You just have to beware of them. I’m familiar with most of them, so I can try and help my team by telling them what their strengths and weaknesses are and what they like to do. Like I said, it’s any other game, you know? It’s the MLS and any game can go anyway so you just have to be prepared and come out to fight.”
What do you think is a gameplan for success against D.C. United? Leave your comment below.
Contact Union press officer Chris Winkler at firstname.lastname@example.org.