And so it begins, a new season, a new start…blah. If you feel the start of the season has snuck up on you, welcome to the club. It seems like only yesterday I was watching FC Dallas on my phone through intermittent internet coverage and conversation while on a trip, eventually resorting to updating sports apps minute by minute as the game really heat up. Alas, our season ended then. But here we are at the start, the bottom, if you will, of the mountain. Our season long journey to the summit, the MLS Cup, begins with a home opener against Philadelphia. That’s right, not only do you have a long season to look forward to, you also get these ridiculous prose, un-witty puns, and general blasé preview articles from your’s truly. Welcome back everyone!
With introductions out of the way, here’s our preview of Philadelphia. I will get this out of the way now, in my mind, the Union are on the edge of being a top team in MLS. They don’t have the household names (Alejandro Bedoya does not count) or historical success to put them front of mind, but don’t snooze on this team. After leading the Eastern Conference for a few weeks last season, and winning their first playoff game in franchise history, the Union are on the up. Head coach Jim Curtain was under attack from the fan base even up through the beginning of last season. Previous iterations of the team were always disappointing, underwhelming units who never seemed to be more than the sum of half their parts. But Curtain found a system that really fit his players last year, a high pressure style that was semi malleable from week-to-week. What finally appeared to be their main system last year, and what the expectations will be this season, is a 4-4-2 diamond formation.
The diamond midfield formation is tricky to implement for a number of reasons. It takes all four midfielders being on the same wave length at all times. They must move together, react together, defend and attack together. They have to cover for others when someone gets pulled out of position, and they have to be versatile enough to effectively play each other’s role. It’s not as rigid a system, physically, movement wise, as it appears. As the ball is played through the midfield and players are tracking runners, you may find the left and right midfielders on the same side of the field. You may have your central attacking midfielder following another mid down past the central holding midfielder. When these situations arise, each guy has to see not only their own formational holes, but also the spaces they need to fill when the ball turns over. I like to think of it as a motion offense like in basketball. The midfielders are constantly rotating through necessity (chasing the ball) and creativity (attacking). But if a team gets out of sync in the middle, things can go south quickly. And it’s much easier to get pulled apart when guys stop filling in for each other, even if only by accident.
That’s what makes this midfield so compelling. At the top of the diamond is a young, up-and-coming USMNT caliber player, Brendon Aaronson. He was ranked #7 in the last MLS 22 Under 22 series (right behind a certain FC Dallas duo, ahem, ahem) but he is really growing leaps and bounds. The fact that multiple sites say he can be a no. 10 or no. 8 highlights perfectly the responsibilities needed in this midfield.
Flanking him on the right will be the forever working Bedoya and on the left new/old DP signing Jamiro Monteiro. He was on loan for a while before going back to his parent club before being bought out-right over the winter. He’s a “relentless box-to-box midfielder” according to his MLS bio. I believe tenacious is more fitting but, whatever…he’s really good. He has 9 assists last season, good for second on the team, and his work rate is greater than even that of Bedoya’s.
At holding mid will be one of two new signings. After losing Haris Medujanin though the waiver process, Philly went out and picked up Jose Andres Martinez from Venezuela and Matej Oravec from Slovakia. Each has the qualities necessary to man the middle, but it will be interesting to see how the young new faces adapt to their surroundings. They could prove the weak link in the middle of the field, especially in the first game of the season.
Up top sees the return of Philadelphia’s new favored son…Kacper Przybylko… (knew it.) The big man was a big hit last season notching 15 goals and four assists. His running mate up top will most likely be Sergio Santos who recorded four goals last season. The pair of strikers in this system will be called upon to pair the way most dual striker setups do. They will play off of each other, making runs to open up space, working one-twos between themselves, holding up play for other attackers to join. They will press the back line when out of possession. Not to Maxi Urruti levels (pshhh…as if they could) but enough to be mindful of. It’s a bit reductive to say that Przybylko is the stationary striker and Santos the runner, although at 6’4” the Pole fits the bill. Even still, each brings a complimentary skill set that works well with the other.
That leaves the back line to discuss. Fortunately for Dallas, it appears stellar left back Kai Wagner will miss this game due to fitness issues. Although he’s back in full training after injury, it doesn’t appear he will be quite up to snuff, at least to start the game. And I can’t imagine Philly risking injury to one of their best players at the very start of the season. So that leave’s the intel diggers out there inserting (squints)…Matthew Real at left back. He’s a Homegrown player who, I will not lie, I have never heard of. (I’m nothing if not honest, mostly). He’s joined on the right by Raymon Gaddis. In the middle will be, presumably Jack Elliot and Mark McKenzie. Both are good, young central defenders (McKenzie also made that Under 22 list). Each can distribute from the back well and is solid defensively. But it’s the full backs who we need to really focus on because they provide a key to this system. The diamond midfield tends to run narrow, to keep the midfielders from giving away precious space in the most important part of the field. This means there is plenty of space on the wings, both to attack and to attack from. Wagner was one of the premier attacking fullbacks in the league last season, providing eight assists from the wing. Although he’s not playing, his position (left back) is where Philadelphia creates width for themselves. Both fullbacks will get forward plenty to whip in crosses and be general menaces, but the left back spot was the most fruitful last season. Hopefully it won’t be for this first game.
There are also some key players on the bench to keep mind here. Ilsinho is a super-sub to kick start the attack. Is is tricky and creative and terrifying and mesmerizing. He might pull an elastico on you, nutmeg you or both at once! If Martinez does start in the middle, that leaves Oravec available. Aurelien Collin is a dependable center back if needed and Warren Creavalle is another quality mid on the bench.
Key’s to the Game
In a slight format change I’m going to give some general thoughts rather than the tired “Three Keys” idea. So what is FC Dallas to do with this up and coming Union team? Well, formational-ly speaking Dallas already plays a good game with a 4-3-3. Dallas can move the ball effectively through either winger and bypass the midfield, where they are outnumbered. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Michael Barrios and Reggie Cannon constantly attacking down the flank all game against the youngster Real. If Dallas can also manage to start drawing Bedoya and Monteiro out of the middle, you could see them start quick hitting early crosses or cutting inside much further from goal, just to get the midfielders turned around. Likewise, if the new defensive midfielders appear vulnerable, they may be able to pick their way through the middle with some combination play featuring Cobra. The Union have a solid back line and keeper (Andre Blake, forgot about him didn’t you) and they won’t make it easy on Dallas, but there should be opportunities there for the Hoops.
Short and sweet this year - Give me Dallas in the home opener with a 2-1 win. Folks, it’s good to be back - Let’s Go Hoops!