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Is the Philadelphia Union match a trap game?

A tactical look at how the New York Red Bulls can beat the Philadelphia Union.

Photo credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports
Photo credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports
John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

"Philly are not a good team. They are a bad team." Yes, this could've been said by just about anyone, in reference to just about any sport, at just about any time in history. The quote that I am referring to though comes from this week's Seeing Red podcast, in which host Mark Fishkin points out the obvious: the Union are not good at playing soccer. The New York Red Bulls, for the time being, appear to be quite good at playing soccer.

Additional factors, including the Red Bulls' home field advantage, the absence of several key Philly players due to injury/suspension/international duty, and the Union's cataclysmic goalkeeping situation, only reinforce the notion that this weekend's game should be a sure win. Then again, my memory is littered with memories of games the Red Bulls absolutely should have won. How, then, can the Red Bulls avoid this potential trap and come away with all three points on Sunday?

Strengths of the Opponent


Weaknesses of the Opponent

To be brief: everything. We'll start from the back and move up the field.

First choice goalkeeper and World Cup veteran Rais Mbolhi was banished from the team and manager Jim Curtin said that Mbolhi will not play any more games with the Union. In a bizarre training ground mishap, the next two goalkeepers on the Union's depth chart, John McCarthy and former number 1 SuperDraft pick Andre Blake, suffered injuries within 45 seconds of each other. Thus, for the third consecutive game, Jim Curtin will have to turn to newly signed Brian Sylvestre in the hopes that the on-loan keeper can stand up to the flurry of shots will undoubtedly be faced with come Sunday.

Rais Mbolhi facially sums up the Union's season thus far

At the back, both of Philly's first choice centerbacks will be out, with Steven Vitoria injured and team captain and designated player Maurice Edu suspended due to yellow card accumulation. Curtin's preferred left back Raymond Gaddis, as of this writing, has not practiced this week due to a left ankle sprain and is listed as questionable for Sunday's match. The Union's backline will thus most likely consist of Union original Sheanon Williams, former-Scum Ethan White, rookie Raymond Lee, and another in a long line of MLS Brazilian defenders thoroughly-undeserving-of-one-name-status, Fabinho. If that back four doesn't scare you, don't worry, it shouldn't.

Coming into the season, the Union's midfield looked to be the team's greatest strength. Over the course of the first third of the season, however, this group has failed to live up to its potential. Maurice Edu moved back to defense after starting out the year in midfield, leaving Philadelphia without a Dax-esque defensive presence at the back of midfield. In Edu's place, longtime MLS vet Brian Carroll has stepped in. While some are very high on Carroll, I--as someone whose perspective is admittedly colored by his thugish stretch with DC during the formative years of my MLS fanhood--view Carroll as a bit of a one trick pony, if that pony's one trick was cynical fouls that disrupt the flow of play.

Disappointing starts from former Red Bull Sebastien Le Toux and the once promising Andrew Wenger have left room for unproven talents Eric Ayuk and Zach Pfeffer to step in. The lynchpin of Philly's midfield, Vincent Nogueira, has dealt with nagging injuries throughout this year and came off last weekend with a hamstring injury. Although he has practiced this week, it remains to be seen whether or not he will start or be at 100% this Sunday. If Nogueira can't go, Curtin may try to speed up midfield destroyer Michael Lahoud's recovery from injury.

Up top, newly acquired designated player Fernando Aristeguieta will almost certainly miss out after spending this week with the Venezuelan national team. Meanwhile, second choice CJ Sapong returned to practice this week after serving a suspension for DUI, although he is unlikely to regain fitness in order to figure this Sunday. That leaves Curtin with few options, meaning he will most likely turn to Red Bull killer Conor Casey as his lone striker. Against any other opponent, Casey would be considered an average forward at best, but Red Bulls fans will be wary of Casey's clever movement in the final third and his use of brute strength to out-muscle defenders near goal.

How to Beat the Union

Last week's encounter with FC Dallas featured two talented teams who each sought to control the game and build from the back. This week's match will look entirely different, with the Red Bulls likely to control upwards of 60% of possession while Philly will bunker deep and look to hit on the counter. If Nogueira is unable to return from injury and Lahoud is ready to go, a midfield pairing of Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud would hold little of the ball but would clog up the middle and disrupt the Red Bulls' rhythm in attack.

The Union's setup may make the team's task a bit more complicated than the gap between the two teams in the standings might suggest. Jesse Marsch's high press has yielded opportunities (and goals) against proactive teams that attempt to build out of the back. Moreover, the team has counterattacked deftly when the opponent has pushed too many numbers forward.

Against teams like Philly who park the bus, such as the Colorado Rapids earlier this year, the Red Bulls have struggled. The three man central midfield has been very successful when attempting to retain the ball and control the middle of the field, but neither Sacha Kljestan nor Felipe have displayed the type of playmaking ability that can split apart a well-organized defense.

A cautious approach from Philly will force Jesse Marsch to infuse more dynamism into his team. As great as Chris Duvall and Taxi Lawrence have been this year, neither has proven to be a consistent offensive threat. While Roy Miller's overlapping runs were a crucial part of the team's offense last year, the fullbacks this year have been relatively conservative. In order to break apart Philly defensive posture, Lawrence, Duvall, or perhaps even Miller off the bench will need to break forward, lest the team's attack become rigid and predictable.

Just as it has been throughout the early parts of last season and this season, the team may rely on some individual magic from Lloyd Sam on the right wing. Sam, after a quiet night against Dallas' Moises Hernandez, will match up with either an injured Raymond Gaddis or Fabinho. This will be the most lopsided one-v-one matchup on the pitch come Sunday, and, should the Union successfully stifle Kljestan and Felipe in the middle of the park, could be the most likely source of goal-scoring opportunities.

The Red Bull offense hasn't struggled this year per se, but it hasn't flourished either. Without Thierry Henry or, perhaps just as importantly, Peguy Luyindula to break down opposing defenses, the team has relied on turnovers, set pieces, and a little bit of luck in order to score. Ten games into the season, the team has yet to score more than twice in the same game. When Philadelphia come to Harrison on Sunday in defense-first mode, don't be surprised if the Red Bulls struggle to generate chances and goals. In its entire franchise history, the Union have only gotten one result at Red Bull Arena, an ugly 0-0 in the dog days of summer. In order to prevent a similar game from transpiring on Sunday, Jesse Marsch will have to make his offense a bit more dynamic or rely on a bit of individual magic from his attackers to snatch all three points.

What do you think? Will the Red Bulls easily prevail over the lowly Union or will they struggle to overcome their not-so-archrivals? Have your say in the comments!