Coming off a nice road victory last weekend at Salt Lake, FC Dallas will now head in the opposite direction to take on Philadelphia. The Union are tied for 4th in the Eastern Conference with 7 points; having won 2, lost 2, and drawn 1 so far this season. Dallas also sits fourth – in the Western Conference – due to goal differential, but with 3 wins, 1 loss, and 1 draw they have 10 points; tied with 2nd place Seattle and 3rd place Houston.
Formation: 4-4-2 (Diamond)
After a rough start to the season that saw Philadelphia drop it’s first two games, things have turned around with back to back wins and three straight games unbeaten. But it’s hard to properly assess if this team is actually good or just the same old Philadelphia we see every year. The changes began late last year when new Sporting Director Ernst Tanner was hired to redevelop Philadelphia. Even though Philly ended the season with 50 points and a playoff appearance, the history of the previous 8 seasons, and the struggles at the end of the 9th one necessitated a change.
Tanner and Philadelphia went into the offseason with a plan to get younger, both within the Union setup as well as with their USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel. They decided the best course of action would be promoting from within and bringing in some younger players to round out the roster…oh yeah, and bring in Mexico superstar Marco Fabian, that should help too. But besides Fabian, one of the new pieces brought in who has really made a difference is 22 year old left back Kai Wagner. Bought from the German 3rd division, Wagner has brought a steady attacking presence from the left wing-back spot to go along with steady defending. He’s already made become a fan favorite and is making a solid impact on the field. Another young gun brought up, from the academy this time, is Brenden Aaronson. Making his debut down in Atlanta, Aaronson filled in for the suspended Fabian and scored Philly’s only goal of the game, which ended up being a draw. He has since become a starter playing with both Fabian, Alejandro Bedoya, and whoever coach Jim Curtin asks to fill in at defensive midfield, most likely Haris Medunjanin.
That brings us to the next change Tanner brought to Philadelphia – a new formation and tactical setup. For most of the past few seasons, coach Curtin has deployed a 4-2-3-1 system like almost everyone else in the league. But Tanner has asked the team to setup in a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield. This formation in fact has been the deciding factor on several offseason moves. Gone is CJ Sapong, who was traded to Chicago for a boatload of GAM/TAM. In came Sergio Santos, who was brought in from Chile. His speed and wing play appear a better fit than Sapong’s skill set. Out went Keegan Rosenberry, who I guess didn’t fit the system well (or who Colorado totally overpaid for). In for Rosenberry has come Raymon Gaddis, who played out of position in the opposite full back spot last year, and academy prospect Olivier Mbaizo. Also brought in after week one is midfielder Jamiro Monteiro, who has only appeared briefly as a sub in one game thus far.
A diamond midfield usually asks three of the four mids to get forward and join the attack to support the two forwards. The full backs bomb up and down the wings to provide width in attack and then get back in position on defense. The problem for Philadelphia early in the season was the defense. Through the first three games, Philly gave up 6 goals; but the past two have been clean sheets. Center backs Auston Trusty and Jack Elliott have been sturdy in defense and Andre Blake is still probably the most overlooked keeper in the league. The problem was that diamond in the middle. Medunjanin did not have the best start to the season and was to blame for a few goals by not tracking runners from the opposing team’s midfield. Diamond formations are tricky because multiple midfielders must move in unison and be able to rotate around each other’s positions. If one midfielder gets caught out of position, big pockets of space open in the channels because of the vacant midfielder or because the other midfielders have to rotate out of their positions to cover.
This will be the key area of attack for Dallas. If Dallas lines up in their 4-3-3 formation, it’s going to either force Philadelphia’s fullbacks to stay back covering them or force the two left and right midfielders to mark them. Both can be win’s for Dallas – by holding back key attackers or pulling space open in the middle. Dallas will have to exploit the space it creates by making late runs into the attacking third or exploiting a fullback who’s gone too far upfield.
Key Matchup: Carlos Gruezo vs Marco Fabian
After a brief mention at the top, I barely spoke about Marco Fabian. He’s super talented and could win a game all by himself against the right team. Dallas sometimes has trouble dealing with no.10s of his quality (who doesn’t, right), by allowing them too much time and influence on the field. Gruezo is going to have to keep him out of rhythm and limit his ability to control how the Union play.
Three Keys to the Game:
1. Break the Diamond – I’ve spent enough time talking about it, but truly, a diamond is a tough formation to perfect and I don’t know if this early on Philadelphia has it sharp enough. Dallas has the exact pieces to exploit this.
2. Who Needs a Striker – When you have Paxton Pomykal. And Carlos Gruezo. And Bryan Acosta. Ok, truthfully, we can’t continue to rely on our midfielders to score all our goals, but it is fun to watch. Hopefully Jesus Ferreira can use his goal in the last game to kickstart a hot streak and lock down that no. 9 spot.
3. Attack Medunjanin – The main man to attack in that Diamond formation is Medunjanin. Philly’s first game against Toronto laid bare the blue print for beating them. After initially marking Michael Bradley around the top of the box, Medunjanin relaxed and let Bradly slip into space, where he would go on to score unmarked. Dallas can use this inattentiveness to free up Paxton or someone else for easy chances in the box.
Another person I have failed to mention thus far for Philadelphia is David Accam. After coming over last season from Chicago he went on to have a terrible season, scoring just once and with zero assists. He started on the bench the first few games but scored twice in their win over Columbus and again against FC Cincinnati. Accam can be a real threat, obviously, but playing more centrally puts the onus of containing him on Matt Hedges or Reto Zeigler. Ask any center back to cover a winger and you’re going to get the side eye from all of them. Hedges and Ziegler are good, experienced defenders and can certainly contain him, but he could also force them into some bad situations and end up with a goal. It’s because of Accam’s recent form that I do not think we will escape with a clean sheet. But I also think Dallas picks up three points, so a 2-1 win is the call here.