I have to be honest – Not many, including myself, had high hopes for the inaugural edition of the Leagues Cup, the newly founded mid-season tournament between Liga MX and MLS Clubs. Now that the round of 32 knock-out stage has arrived, I think many can say the entertainment level the competition has provided on almost a nightly basis so far has exceeded expectations. Clubs can finally visualize the path to lifting the first-ever Leagues Cup in front of them, with the knock-out stage matchups set, and already underway. Thursday night, the round of 32 comes to Chester, PA as your Philadelphia Union takes on D.C. United with a spot in the round of 16 on the line.
2023 Season So Far
Wayne Rooney has made this team more competitive, no doubt. Up to the Leagues Cup break, DC has a record in MLS play of 8 wins, 6 draws, and 10 losses for 30 points, which has them in the 9th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference for the time being. They’re at least back in the mix of things, and hopefully, another transfer window curated by Rooney will see DC take another few steps forward. But the one glaring issue with DC right off the bat?
Their away form is responsible for a majority of their dropped points. With a record of 4 wins, 4 draws, and 3 losses at home, DC has a much worse record on the road, with 4 wins, 2 draws, and 7 losses. To get to the round of 32 and earn the right to play in a win-and-move-on game, DC beat Montreal by a score of 1-0, which ultimately gave them the edge over Montreal as the second team in the group to qualify for the knock-out stage.
In MLS play, DC United is tied for the 9th most goals scored with 32, but are also tied for the 5th most goals conceded with 34, and allow the 8th most goals per 90 minutes. So while DC might be able to get up the field and score some goals, they have a hard time keeping their opponents from doing the same. Christian Benteke has been DC’s biggest threat with 8 goals, and also leading the team in stats such as Expected goals, Non-Penalty Expected Goals, Total shots, and shots on target.
Another big piece to D.C.’s success has been Taxi Fountas, who’s 2nd on the team in goals with 6, as well as expected goals, shots, and shots on target. D.C. will still be without Fountas who is being investigated for the second time in consecutive seasons for allegedly abusive language, so someone else will need to pitch in on the attack for D.C. Thursday night if they want to break down a stingy Union defense.
I’ve got to go with Christian Benteke for D.C. United. He’s big, he’s aggressive, and he can finish off chances in several ways. I’m not sure “fun” is the right word for it, but watching Union’s center backs like Jakob Glesnes, Jack Elliott, and Damion Lowe – who are all pretty big, aggressive guys – go up against a guy like Benteke makes for a lot of really good battles and a lot of nervy moments. One thing that D.C. does excel at, is getting crosses into the box.
They’re currently ranked 5th in the league in the number of crosses into the penalty area and are tied for 3rd in total passes into the penalty area. DC’s plan is to get up the pitch whenever they see an opportunity and to just spray the ball into the box and hope Benteke can get on the end of it. It seems like too simple of a plan, but with a guy like Benteke, it can cause all sorts of problems for backlines that aren’t ready to be as physical and as demanding in the air as defending Benteke can require. It’s going to be a great battle to watch between him and the Union backline.
For the Union, I’m going with the hot hand in Daniel Gazdag. 6 goals in his last 4 games across all competitions, and now closing in on becoming Union’s all-time leading goal scorer. We know what Gazdag can do from the PK spot, and in the last game, we saw him score an absolute beauty from open play. It seems like Gazdag’s confidence in his goal-scoring ability is at an all-time high right now, I’ve never seen a guy so effortlessly step up to take PK after PK after PK.
Hopefully, the Union can start to find Gazdag in open space more so he can put the rest of the league that calls him a penalty merchant alone. Listen, I don’t care if something like 14 of his 16 goals in all competitions has come from PKs this season…he’s OUR penalty merchant.
Line-up-wise, Jim Curtin was a little reluctant to give too much away in his pre-match press conference. He admitted that he may have brushed over a question about the 3-5-2 formation Union has adopted this season, maybe in hopes not to show his hand too much, but ultimately noted the flexibility this team has and how they can line up in several formations. Because of the wing-backs D.C. use and how they like to get the ball into the box as much as possible, I tend to think Union will go with a 3-5-2 to best deal with the influx of dangerous balls heading into the penalty area.
I think the line-up should mostly look the same as last game. Andre Blake in net, Kai Wagner, Jakob Glesnes, Jack Elliott, Damion Lowe, and Nate Harriel in the back, though Mbaizo is always an option on the right as well. Keeping the midfield the same with Jose Martinez, Jesus Bueno, and Daniel Gazdag, and finishing off with Mikael Uhre and Juliana Carranza up top. While newly acquired Tai Baribo won’t be available for tonight’s match, it’s likely that he will be in attendance and could be introduced to the fans.
The Union should win this game, hands down. The 0-0 result at Subaru Park earlier this season feels like a different Union than we’re watching now, but they’ve got to make sure they’re taking care of business. Head Coach Jim Curtin said the team’s entire focus is on the League Cup, and it should be! No MLS until the tournament is over, Union has a chance to host late into the tournament, and with only 4 games left to win, it’s probably Union’s best chance at not only lifting a trophy this year but qualifying for CCL next season as well.
They’re at home, against a team that on paper and in the standings is not as good as you, and there’s a chance to move onto the round of 16. There’s no excuse for this team not to move on to the round of 16. But again, they’ve first got to handle the business in front of them. Don’t miss Union takes on D.C. United on Tuesday night at 8 pm via MLS Pass on Apple TV.
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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union