Who: Philadelphia Union vs LAFC
When: Saturday, September 14th @ 06:30 pm ET
Line: Philadelphia Union +160 | Draw +300 | LAFC+132
The Union will have a chance to host LA for the first time ever, after losing 4-1 in southern California in June of 2018, and a win would be huge — Philly are hanging on by a thread in the race for first in the Eastern Conference, trailing NYCFC by three points. First-place gets you a crucial bye in the playoffs.
Philadelphia Union vs LAFC match preview
Against a full-strength LAFC, a Philly win isn’t the most likely outcome. But recent LAFC results give the Union a certain amount of hope. Here are a couple of storylines in the lead-up:
1- This is a very nice opportunity for Philly to go against an elite opponent, and test whether they can win a one-off home game against a very good team. The 3-1 win over Atlanta in their last game before the international break was a positive sign. A draw or loss to LA wouldn’t write the Union off, but a harsh loss would tamper some excitement heading into the playoffs.
The concern with Jim Curtain’s team is a lack of game-breaking talent, specifically attackers. Ilsinho is the league’s most impactful super-sub (possibly of all time), but he isn’t as effective as a starter, and the Union don’t have elite attackers in their XI. It’s hard to compete for trophies in MLS without a reasonable counter to players like Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi.
Philly need Kacper Przybylko to prove he can put the ball in the net at a consistent rate, which he’s shown in the past few weeks — he’s scored four goals in the last five games, scoring 13 on the year and going 90 every game since an April 27 draw in Vancouver. When the Union play Brendan Aaronson, Marco Fabian, and Jamiro Monteiro in midfield (MLSsoccer.com projects them all to start), they lack scorers beyond Przybylko.
2- As ever, the big tactical question in a game involving the Union is whether Curtain plays a diamond formation. Bob Bradley won’t shift from a 4-3-3, but he could adjust his team’s tactical approach to match numbers in the midfield. If Vela plays (and he hasn’t since being removed from the last El Trafico with a minor muscle injury, though he has been removed from the injury report), the Union could attempt to condense his space centrally with the diamond.
One of the more impressive elements of Philly’s rise this season has been their tactical flexibility. Curtain’s Coach of the Year case (which is very real, against Bradley’s and Matias Almeyda’s) is based partly on that flexibility. Playing a diamond against such a dominant and talented team like LA could be a risk. Whatever Curtain puts out, it will be a calculated decision, and Bradley will likely have some counter.
Haris Medunjanin’s mobility will be tested against the fast, ball-moving LA midfield. Medunjanin has been great this season, and his ability to hit exquisite balls out of the back has been huge for Philly, but he isn’t amazing as a ground-covering defensive midfielder. If Latif Blessing and Eduard Atuesta can find a way to isolate him, they could put Philly’s defense on its heels and set Vela up to devour the damage.
3- Rumors this week have had LA as being in contention to sign Mario Mandzukic, the 33-year-old Croatian forward who is out of favor at Juventus. That would certainly be a coup. Mandzukic, as an aerial power and an effective defender from the front, would fit as the head of an LA front three. His arrival would indicate that Rossi is likely to be sold in the summer, to create a front three of Brian Rodriguez, Mandzukic, and Vela. Philly can be glad they’re not going against that on Saturday.