Opening day throughout the MLS is upon us. Philadelphia Union are set to begin their 2018 campaign against Eastern conference foe New England Revolution tonight at 7PM. Here are 10 things to watch for as the Union begin anew.
1) David Accam – far and away the best attacking weapon Jim Curtin has fielded as Head Coach of the Union
Curtin continuously mentioned the importance of speed in his 4-2-3-1 system. “Speed kills,” Curtin would say from time to time. Finally, Curtin and the Philadelphia Union have deadly speed atop that 4-2-3-1 formation. Accam’s acquisition obviously brings the possibilities of endless DOOPing. The outstanding winger possesses the deadly speed which draws attention from opposing coaches and players.
Much like Fafa Picault’s ability to take off like a rocket last year, Accam regularly finds himself in a dead sprint passed a defender and into the opponent’s final third. However, Accam’s talent is not solely gaining entry into the final third. Once there, he creates like very few others can. Watch for any moments where Accam receives the ball in space. Also keep an eye out for Accam to take on defenders in 1v1 situations. The skill Accam utilizes so well is his ability to make the first man miss. In other words, once Accam makes one defender miss, he removes that player from the play. With one man out of position, Accam can create 2v1 situations which places increased pressure on the next defender subsequently causing chaos for opponent’s back-lines. Keep an eye out whenever Accam has a chance to punish a backpedaling defender.
2) Watch for Philly’s high pressure up top and the forced turnovers as result as a way to generate offense
The suspension of the other speedster up top for Philadelphia, Fafa Picault, may hamper the Union’s ability and desire to force pressure early and often on New England’s midfield and defense. The Union ideally would like to press New England’s wingers, a tactic that work exceedingly well throughout preseason. Accam and presumably Fabian Herbers (Marcus Epps could play but he logged extensive minutes with both the Union and Steel FC this past week) will need their running shoes tonight.
Pay particular attention to the manner in which Philadelphia applies their high pressure system. If working properly, no man should ever be too far out of the play. In other words, Philly’s top four will press in a zone like pattern forcing play up the sidelines. The goal is to cut off passing lanes while simultaneously corralling the opponent into playing the ball up the wing where a speedy midfielder like Accam can quickly chase down the pass. The zone-like pressure ideally forces defenders into kicking errant passes onto the foot of a pouncing Union player.
Adam Najem, Anthony Fontana, or Borek Dockal – whoever plays the #10 tonight – play a key role in this high pressure system. They play almost like a free safety would in the other football. They remain close to the pressing forward and wingers attempting to cut down on any pass out of the back in hopes of sparking a quick counterattack opportunity. Transition is key, and whoever fills the #10 slot early one will have to move the ball accurately and quickly for the pressing to work successfully.
3) Watch for Andre Blake’s distribution and decision-making with the ball at his feet
Why worry about Andre? Why is this important? Jim Curtin wants his team to dominate possession for all 90 minutes. On a number of occasions in seasons of the past, Blake suffered a few hiccups with his distribution. His athleticism will remain both unmatched and unquestioned in addition to his awareness and communication abilities.
However, the most difficult aspect of the game goalkeepers must master is playing with their feet. Tomas Romero, Philadelphia Union academy player and starting Steel FC keeper has explained the importance of mastering all skills a keeper needs to thrive. “I always take pride in playing good with my feet… I get upset after the match if I don;t play good with passes,” said Romero after a practice last season.
One can only imagine the Jamaican international keeper takes a similar approach to playing a clean game with his feet on a weekly basis. Watch for how Blake uses his feet to impact the offense. If a team wants to possess the ball, the keeper must remain vigilant at all times when distributing the ball to his teammates.
4) Watch for New England Revolution’s star midfielder Lee Nguyen to make an impact
Nguyen is hands down the most explosive and talented creative midfielder in the American ranks to date. At 31, he sits just one assist away from becoming just the 19th player in MLS history with 50+ goals and 50+ assists. Tonight he could get that assist. But he has to see the field first.
Assuming Nguyen takes the field in some capacity tonight, most likely as a second half substitute, he will most certainly look to make a considerable statement with his on field efforts. After all, there is no better way to silence his many critics than creating or scoring a goal for his club on the road. After holding out of almost all of the preseason, Nguyen returned to camp despite an ongoing saga regarding his desire to be traded like forward Kei Kamara – Kamara was sent to Columbus.
Friedel remained adamant that Nguyen will not be traded and New England’s front office did not help things much when they openly criticized Nguyen for not honoring his contract when his holdout first began. Nguyen is no stranger to big moments. Tonight could be yet another monumental moment for the American midfielder if he tallies another assist.
5) Watch for New England’s new Head Coach Brad Friedel and his usage of substitutes
The former USMNT, Aston Villa, Blackburn, Columbus Crew, Liverpool, and Tottenham goalkeeper transitioned from playing to coaching. When looking at Friedel’s career path through the soccer world, one thing is apparent, Friedel has virtually an infinite amount of experience and knowledge to share. But, can he succeed while standing on the outside of the same white lines he called home in his playing days? Jury is still out.
In addition to appearing in over 450 Premier League matches, Friedel played in three World Cups for the U.S of A. The exciting quarterfinal run in the 2002 World Cup featured Friedel in all five games. A certain Philadelphia Union coach may or may not attest to that team being the best USMNT and far better than any teams of recent past. Hot take alert…
Although Friedel’s days as a head coach will be marred in trade request drama, New England remains poised to improve. A new head coach, a couple of international imports in Wilfried Zahibo from France, the Swedish born left back Gabriel Somi, and the highly-tauted Ecadorian winger Christian Penilla, and a fresh young American goalkeeper in Cody Cropper provides the often ridiculed New England Revolution organization to once again enjoy winning soccer. In most MLS previews though, that outcome is far from a possible reality. Nonetheless, keep an eye on which players Friedel selects for his starting XI and in-game subs. (Hint Hint: pay particular attention to the interactions between Friedel and Nguyen amidst the trade request noise).
6) Watch for lively interplay exchanges between Accam and Fabinho up the left side of the pitch
The secret is out. Accam and Fabinho traveled to Clearwater only to arrive back in Chester as committed members of a delightful on-field bromance. Their interplay makes it seem as if they were communicating telepathically at times this preseason.
During many preseason matches, spacing the pitch helped create build-up play. No rocket science involved there. In possession, expect Haris Medunjanin to remain defensive while Alejandro Bedoya and Anthony Fontana look to create pressure toward the top of the goal box. The pressure up New England’s central channel will ideally free up space for wingers to create.
But Accam and Fabinho have taken this simple style of play to another level. They consistently move and make a variety of runs and combinations allowing them to attack defenders with the element of surprise all match. Pay close attention when the Union posses the ball along the right-wing. Fabinho and Accam will hedge a bit toward the center of the pitch allowing 1v1 opportunities for each once the ball is whipped diagonally from the wing to Bedoya/Fontana/Medunjanin and quickly out wide up the left flank.
A 32-year-old veteran and an elite MLS goal scorer have seemingly linked minds on the pitch. That relationship should be fun to watch develop, but it starts tonight with match number one.
7) Watch for CJ Sapong to continue scoring ways tonight
Last season, Sapong was continuously roughed up each match as he carried a ton of weight for Philadelphia’s attack. But this year, Sapong has reinforcements. Accam’s addition will more than like provide Sapong with an opportunity unlike any he has had with Philadelphia in the past: the chance to be the “goal scorer” instead of “Mr. Everything” and then some as in season’s past. Sapong has stated that his style of play remains the same year after year. He will not stop going 110% toward the opponent’s goal until the game is through. Accam and Dockal should provide space for Sapong to generate goals with less physical exhaustion.
A New England back-line commonly mistaken for a brick of Swiss Cheese should help Sapong generously in his never-ending quest for goal. The Revolution finished their preseason 3-1-3. They conceded goals in every match. Good sign for DOOP’ers everywhere. Need more indication that at least two smoke bombs will be set off amidst loud DOOPing tonight? Despite New England’s impressive attacking depth, very little was done to bolster the lackluster defensive bunch from 2017.
Last season, New England allowed a staggering 61 goals, second most in the MLS. Philly conceded just 47 goals thanks to Blake and all-around good guy John McCarthy. In fact, in 13 overall home matches against New England, the Union have 10 clean sheets. Watch for a lot of goals out of Sapong and company and yet another clean sheet for Blake tonight.
8) OFF-THE-PITCH: Check out some new stadium murals painted outside of section 131
The murals were professionally designed by Jay Cuncliffe. Cuncliffe created stunning visuals for fans to enjoy while walking the stadium concourse. If you find yourself on that end of the stadium, sneak a peek.
9) OFF-THE-PITCH: New concession stand vendors!
Earlier this week, the Union announced a multi-year partnership P.J. Whelihan’s Pub & Restaurant. In addition, to hosting future away match viewing parties, P.J.’s will now have two concession stands at Talen Energy Stadium. Head to section 101 or 122 to sample the new stadium fare. Check out their food offerings and prices – still most likely overpriced. Philadelphia now houses three iconic food spots in the Philly area: Chickie’s and Pete’s, Philly Pretzel Factory, and now P.J. Whelihan’s.
10) OFF-THE-PITCH: Tune into PHL17 to enjoy the Union broadcast – it’s sort of new
If you are watching at home, tune into PHL17. The game can also be streamed at philadelphiaunion.com locally and MLSsoccer.com nationally. Philadelphia agreed to a brand new broadcasting deal this off-season guaranteeing their matches will now be accessible to a much larger audience than in the past. The partnership has been much-needed for years and served as vital moment this off-season in terms of looking ahead into the future growth of the club. See how PHL17 tackles Unoin Matchday coverage.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports