Preview: A battle to maintain defensive structure on Saturday

Wayne Rooney’s arrival flipped DC United’s 2018 season. The English legend combined with Lucho Acosta last season to devastating effect, and if not for a collapse against Columbus in the playoffs, there was a real chance Ben Olsen could have taken his team deep into the postseason. 

Wayne Rooney’s impending departure has had the opposite effect. The striker looks tired, listless, and frustrated this year, and the Get Out Of Red Card Suspensions For Smacking An Opponent’s Head Card delivered to Zlatan’s doorstep never made it to Washington, DC, meaning Rooney is likely to miss Saturday’s showdown with the Union. 

United’s remaining schedule is brutal, and they could quickly see Toronto or Orlando City haul them below the playoff line if things don’t turn around in a hurry. 

The Union also need these points on Saturday. With Atlanta United and LAFC looming, Philly has a terrifically arduous home stretch coming up. Jamiro Monteiro’s return will help, but it’s the overall defensive shape of the team that needs to return to early season form. Against Chicago Fire, the Union couldn’t control their opponents in the first phase of buildup play, and when the Fire moved up the wings the Union’s No. 8s had been sucked too central to help. Additionally, the back line was so deep that Ray Gaddis had long pressing runs to make, and the first half turned into an ugly game, but not the type of ugly game the Union enjoy. In other words, it was a mess but Philly wasn’t winning second balls the way they want to.

After DC’s disspiriting midweek loss to Red Bulls — both teams finished with ten men, and after a strong start for New York neither side looked inspired in the second half — Ben Olsen’s team should recognize a clear need to sort out its midfield. Felipe and Junior Moreno do not have the coordination of Moreno and Russell Canouse, but the latter’s injury and Chris Durkin’s continued absence means Olsen has few options other than to tweak his tactics and hope for improvement. If the Union can rediscover their transition game, they should find a lot of space to attack and a very disorganized opponent. 

A key matchup to watch in this one is the battle up the Union’s left flank. DC likes to attack up their own left, but they send Paul Arriola and Leonardo Jara galloping up the far side in search of long switches. Tracking those runs will be a big job for Kai Wagner and Jamiro Monteiro. But, more importantly, recognizing that space up that side is open in transition will be essential. Whether it’s a striker drifting wide or Monteiro and Marco Fabian communicating and taking that space, the wide area is the most vulnerable for DC and the Union need to pull center backs into that zone or attack it with numbers on the break. 

Philly and DC do battle this Saturday, August 24, at 7:30 p.m. Arrive early to meet Union greats on the Toyota Plaza and welcome the players to the pitch with a brand new chant from the Sons of Ben and Keystone State Ultras! The match will be live on PHL17.


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