The Philadelphia Union have started their MLS campaign with an unbeaten record so far and stringed together two wins in a row after their most recent win over San Jose. This time out the Union are traveling to bitter rivals New York City, who are the current MLS champions, something you might have missed due to the size of their championship ‘banner’… Here are 5 things to watch heading into the rivalry game
5 Things to Watch
1. Harriel Has Been World Class
There were real question marks over the situation at right-back for the Union, Mbaizo struggled immensely in the opening game against Minnesota and was at fault for their opening goal. While many were happy to give Mbaizo a few more games to prove he deserved the starting role, Jim Curtin had other plans and replaced Mbaizo with youngster Nathan Harriel, and what a brilliant decision it’s turned out to be.
Harriel was the best player on the pitch for the Union’s win against San Jose, he was everywhere. He won 9/16 ground duel, 3/4 aerial duels, made 3 clearances, 7 tackles, and 4 interceptions. Harriel also played a huge role in pressing high up the pitch and allowing the front three to capitalize on mistakes for the opposition. He’ll be a massively important player for the Union as the season goes on and another impressive outing against a top side like NYC will really cement him as one of the Union’s brightest stars.
2. Cory Burke Does It Again
This is my first proper season watching the MLS and covering the league and specifically the Union, I’m from the UK so I’m a huge soccer guy, always have been, but never really gave the MLS a chance until now. Anyway, in my preseason notes for the Union, I made many notes pointing to the fact that Cory Burke will be a bigger player for the Union over any other forward (this was before the Uhre signing).
I predicted that Burke would cause Minnesota trouble, and he did, and I truly think Jim Curtin has a very tough decision to make when all 4 of his strikers are fit and healthy. Burke has scored in both of the games he’s played and he’s looked the best out of the 4 Union strikers so far this season. I think he should start again at the weekend, mainly because his size and hold-up play will be very useful with how the Union will be forced to play, but also the fact he’s a much more clinical finisher than both Carranza and Santos.
3. New York City Will Be Tough
Obviously being the reigning champions of the league, New York City will be the toughest test so far for the Union and this game will be a huge tell for where the Union is currently at. NYC will use their usual 4-2-3-1 formation with Castellanos leading the line.
4-2-3-1 is a very good formation that seems to have dominated modern football, a very versatile formation that allows for numbers going forward, even with the solo striker, but it also allows for numbers when defending. With the 5 in midfield, and 2 holding midfielders in that 5, the middle of the field will be congested and tough to play through.
The Union will really have to maximize the little time they’ll have on the ball and attack down the wing with both Wagner and Harriel. NYC is averaging 55% possession through their three games with a pass accuracy of 81%, while the Union is averaging 39% possession and a pass accuracy of 67%.
4. Castellanos and Moralez Ones to Watch
NYC has talent all over the field and has a very good bench to back that up so it’s tough not to just say their entire squad are ones to watch in this game but I’ve decided to single both Castellanos and Moralez out.
Moralez has easily been the best NYC player this year and I’m not sure it’s close, he’s been extremely consistent as their number 10 and has been the main player to keep the flow of the game going for NYC. Martinez will need to be on top of his game if he’s to keep Moralez quiet in this one.
I think, from my preseason scouting of the MLS, Castellanos might be my favorite striker in the MLS. I love his movement in the middle, always tough to handle for defenders, and is a very smart soccer player when it comes to positioning and where to be in the box. While he hasn’t scored in the MLS so far this season, he has 4 goals in Champions League and I have a really bad feeling he’s about to break that MLS duck at the weekend. Talles Magno also deserves an honorable mention because he’s been on fire in the Champions League too.
5. NYC Out of Form, Union Need to Take Advantage
I have been heavily informed by my fellow Union writers about the whole Champions League curse for MLS teams and so here I am buying into it like all the NYC fans are right now because their team hasn’t enjoyed the best of starts to their MLS Campaign, with 1 win, 1 loss, and 1 draw.
They just played mid-week in the Champions League and scrapped through in a grueling game and so there will be a chance the NYC team is out of sorts for the game against the Union and it’s something the Union must take advantage of. Don’t allow NYC to keep the ball and slow the pace of the game, get at them from kick-off, and be relentless off the ball.
One final point I need to make because I’m a petty, sarcastic Brit is if the Union does lose against NYC, we can always blame the fact the players will be distracted by the sheer size of the NYCFC MLS Champions banner. They’ve somehow managed to get it smaller than Charlotte’s chances of winning the league this year, it’s pretty impressive when you think about it…
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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union, Andrew Zwarych