Philadelphia Union’s Strengths, Weaknesses, & Players to Watch with Scott Kessler

The following was written by Scott Kessler of The Brotherly Game, a Philadelphia Union blog on SB Nation.  I exchanged a few points of the strengths, weaknesses, players to watch and external storylines coming into tonight’s Third Round U.S. Open Cup Match at PPL Park.  You can read my take on the Rochester Rhinos by going to The Brotherly Game post here.

Strengths: Right now the Union’s main strength is in goal. Who plays against the Rhinos as Philadelphia’s goalkeeper is up in the air, since Zac MacMath and Chase Harrison were both out on Saturday and Chris Konopka played in Toronto, but if one of the other two is healthy then the Union will most likely revert back to him. Since MacMath’s first missed game due to concussion symptoms, Harrison and Konopka have stepped into the starting goalkeeper role amiably, performing well versus FC Shackle 04 (German Bundesliga), FC Dallas and Toronto FC. Considering how well MacMath was doing prior to his injuries, it’s been very lucky for the Union in regards to how well their back ups have played when called into action, with only two goals given up in three games (one friendly, two MLS play). Otherwise, it’s somewhat bleak for the Union.

Weaknesses: Offense and some of the overall defensive play. The Union have struggled to score this season and the team looks worse offensively than it did during the Carlos Ruiz-phase in 2011, which left many fans hungry for a more explosive and threatening attack. After trading star striker Sebastien Le Toux to the Vancouver Whitecaps for allocation money, the Union have managed to score only eight goals, tied with Toronto for the lowest amount in MLS. Last year the Union got away with an animic offense due to a stellar defense, but this year, between injuries, trades and poor tactical decisions, Philadelphia has looked up-and-down in the back. While the team’s goalkeepers have performed when ask, as previously mentioned, the defense hasn’t been up to par recently. The team is tied for fifth in goals given up, which would typically be good for any team if not for the fact that recent defensive lapses have caused the Union to squander mutiple opportunities for points, with the latest mistake culminating in Toronto’s first win and points of the 2012 MLS season. The Rhinos will most likely see a backline of Raymon Gaddis (though he is sick, so Michael Lahoud or Michael Farfan may play instead) at right back, Sheanon Williams and Porfirio Lopez (Carlos Valdes is suspended due to a red card last year against DC United) at center back and Gabriel Farfan at left back. With Lopez in the lineup and Valdes out of the gameday 18, there is only one natural defender left in the squad – Chris Albright.

Players to watch: Josue Martinez – I think the former Costa Rican international striker, still only 22, has the chance to start this game after playing well in his last two substitution appearances. He hasn’t started a game since the beginning of the season, but Martinez is quick, fast and brings a lot to the Union offense that typically isn’t there this year. He has still yet to score in a Union jersey, but at some point the poor form that followed him from Deportivo Saprissa will go away.

Michael Farfan – The former University of North Carolina All-American (two times) has excelled for the Union since he was drafted in the second round of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. Though he was taken out of his comfort zone, right midfield, at the start of the season, Farfan has done his job when asked by head coach Peter Nowak to cover in the back or otherwise. The problem for him this year has been that he’s smothered offensively when asked to play centrally or at full back, but when he makes runs forward his skill is clear to anyone that watches him. Once Farfan is given full reins again at right midfield or right wing, he’ll regain the form that put him into the group of finalists for last year’s MLS Rooke of the Year award.

Storyline: Nowak is on his heels in terms of fan opinion and though he is suspended, due to an ejection from last year’s loss to DCU, his plans and tactics are in place for this game. A loss to the Rhinos at home would be devastating for a team that is not on track to make the playoffs in MLS and doesn’t appear to have a chance at any other trophy at the moment. For Nowak a loss could mean public opinion turns so negatively toward his decisions this season that the Union ownership has to seriously discuss removing him and Nick Sakiewicz, among others, from their soccer positions. A win would mean some pressure is removed and the Union can go into a two week break with their heads high, before hosting DCU on June 16. Also, this is the first USOC home game ever for the Union.
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