Philly Soccer Page’s Adam Cann with a Union-tinged preview of tonight’s major MLS match-up.
Philadelphia is the fifth largest city in the United States. When the Houston Dynamo rose from the ashes of the original San Jose Earthquakes in 2005, Philly became the largest US city without an MLS franchise. In 2010, thanks in large part to a powerful grassroots campaign, that changed. And in 2011, the Philadelphia Union are a playoff team.
The New York Red Bulls franchise, a caffeinated version of the even more heinously named MetroStars, stand in stark contrast to the Philadelphia story. Around since the start of the league, they were handed a star-studded roster in 1996 and expected to crush all challengers and become MLS’s signature team. Yet, with the trophy case still bare, the Red Bulls continue to buy big and flop hard. And in 2011, they need to beat Philadelphia to keep their playoff destiny in their own hands. Or hooves. Whatever bulls have.
But leaving club histories aside, this is New York and Philadelphia. No factual justification is needed when geography and American football long ago sowed the seeds of a rivalry that, unlike any with DC, has actual representation in Congress. Add to the mix that New York’s season is on the line and Philly can drop as low as the third wild card spot if they lose and you have a game that truly deserves its spot in prime time.
Both teams will be missing one of their starting strikers for the match. While Red Bulls fans may argue that Thierry Henry is a bigger loss than Veljko Paunovic, they would be wrong. Henry has carried much of the goalscoring load for New York, but Paunovic’s ability to play between the lines and open space for Sebastien Le Toux has been one of those keys to the season that never shows up in John Harkes’ Keys to the Game (Thursday’s predicted Harkes’ Keys: 1) Stop Le Toux, 2) Don’t Give Up Goals 3) Marquez Something Something). The injuries create opportunities for a trio of young players bidding for post-season minutes. Juan Agudelo may not start up top, but trust that he will play significant minutes for New York. Danny Mwanga and Roger Torres have been on the outside looking in for most of the season and their performances on Thursday will likely determine who is the first sub off the bench in the playoffs. The two Union young guns combined for the winner when these teams faced off in April, which brings us to the fun topic of Tim Ream.
Ream had the second assist on the Union’s goal at PPL Park, making a singularly horrific pass to Mwanga that led to Torres’ winner. That play stands as a metaphor for the US international’s shambolic sophomore season. Not that he has been offered much help by Rafa I-Don’t-Marq-uez-anyone. The Ream-Marquez partnership is a perfect place to begin a compare/contrast of these teams. And there are really just too many beautiful comparisons to ignore.
1) Ream-Marquez vs Califf-Valdes
One American, one international. Ream is supposed to set the world on fire, but so far all he has done is make Jurgen Klinsmann’s seat hotter. Califf returned to MLS, gave up his captain’s armband, and put together an MVP season. Marquez and Valdes… well, one is a superstar who has been one of the best signings for any MLS team and will be for years to come. The other is Marquez.
2) Faryd Mondragon vs Nothing
The Union fell short of the playoffs and the Flyers fell short of the Stanley Cup. Both teams got wise and plugged the most important hole on their team: Goalie. That Mondragon came with enough leadership to teach leadership classes on Leadership Day while leading a leadership hike up the mountain of victory is a nice bonus. Not sure the three-headed monster in the New York net can say the same. Side note: Look at the Red Bulls roster page. Every player stands in front of the words, “New York Is My Home.” Now go to Google maps and search Red Bull Arena…
3) Zac MacMath-Michael Farfan vs Corey Hertzog-John Rooney
I know what you’re thinking Red Bulls fans: Who? But it’s true. You drafted those guys this year. Michael Farfan, affectionately known as Marfan, is a Rookie of the Year candidate. MacMath lived up to the hype filling in when Mondragon went down. John Rooney got a call from the England national team. They said, “Hey, tell your brother to stop slide tackling people. Thanks, bye.”
4) Thierry Henry vs Carlos Ruiz
New York does win the battle here. Without Henry, they are nowhere near the playoffs. Remember that time Thierry Henry got a silly red card right before the biggest match of the 2011 season? Yeah.
On Thursday, the Union will come out in a 4-1-3-2, with either Freddy Adu pushed high or Danny Mwanga starting alongside Seba Le Toux. New York will counter with a 4-4-2 that will look more like a 4-3-3 if Dane Richards starts wide to allow Agudelo into the lineup. Leaving Richards wide would be a smart move for the Red Bulls, since very few strikers have emerged once they enter the Bermuda Triangle patrolled by Califf and Valdes. The Union are susceptible to speed and can be broken down on the dribble. Will Hans Backe realize this? Don’t get your hopes up.
Philadelphia will look to pressure the ball early, but if the game becomes muddled, they will sit back and wait to counter. The underwhelming Freddy Adu must have a strong match for the Union. Everyone’s eyes will be on Le Toux, and given space and time Adu must become the chance creator he was brought in to be. Despite his poor performances thus far, Adu is a lock for a starting spot in the playoffs. He must show he can lift this team to the next level offensively.
This match does not need a lot riding on it to make your heart race. Union right back Sheanon Williams trained with New York in 2010 before joining Philly, and he sums Thursday night’s game up well: “We already have a rivalry [with New York] and we don’t like each other very much, so we’ll definitely be going hard after each other.”