The New England Revolution will play their third match in seven days on Saturday night as they welcome the Philadelphia Union to Gillette Stadium. The Revolution managed to halt a five-match losing streak on Wednesday when they drew 3-3 with Chivas, but are still struggling through a nine-game winless run. Philadelphia also played on Wednesday, but they lost 2-1 to Columbus despite playing with a man advantage.
Philadelphia is a fellow struggling Eastern Conference side after they trudged out to an awful, awful start to the season. Right now it's tough to say where exactly their strengths lie. Offensively, a new potency is being discovered through Jack McInerney and Lionard Pajoy. McInerney especially seems to have that extra something that can put a striker over the top as a real threat. Of course, it helps that Freddy Adu is pulling the strings, though his playing time has been inconsistent.
Defensively, the Union will be without captain Carlos Valdes, so the Revs may have caught them in a vulnerable moment. In the absence of Saer Sene, guys like Jerry Bengtson and Lee Nguyen need to step up and shoulder the scoring load. Zac MacMath has been suspect all year as a goalkeeper; this would be the perfect opportunity for a secondary scorer to get his stats up. That doesn't mean that this team will be easy pickings, however. Whomever replaces Sene - smart money would be on Diego Fagundez or Blake Brettschneider - still needs to play a clean, smart game to get on the score sheet.
TBM: So...yeah. This season happened. After the positives of last year, how completely shocking was it to see Philly start the 2012 season so poorly? And just how off his rocker was Peter Nowak, really?
ER: I think everyone tried to be as optimistic as possible after the unpopular offseason changes (I myself picked them to finish in 3rd place in the East). I think most of us assumed that the players being brought it would be of sufficient quality to replace much of what was lost through the departures of Faryd Mondragon and Sebastien Le Toux. Once the results turned poor though, confidence dropped and you could see the team drifting from its 2011 form.
As far as the second part of that question, I don't have a degree in psychology, so I'll leave that up to someone more qualified.
TBM: While still not technically out of reach, the playoffs at this point look like a pipe dream. Don't feel bad, we're right there with you. That said, the Union have shown some improvement since John Hackworth took over. What can you tell me about the differences between him and Nowak, and what's a special quality that he brings to the table as the head coach?
ER: The biggest difference that I can tell, at least from what I've seen, is that Hackworth will tell it like it is. One of the big things that was said by former players about Nowak was that you didn't always know where you stood with him. I think Hackworth seems to be a better communicator, and we've seen that in the media as he has been rather candid in his remarks about certain players (Freddy Adu and Roger Torres are two examples). He also seems to value consistency within the team; since he has taken the reins you have seen a much more steady lineup choice to the way Nowak picked the team.
The special quality would be his experience with youth development. His time coaching at the college ranks as well as in the US U-17 system puts him in a great position to develop the younger players on this team. His vision clearly has players like the Farfans, Amobi Okugo, Jack McInerney, and Zac MacMath in the mix.
TBM: Talk to me about the Farfan twins. I mean, I love these guys. They look like they have endless amounts of talent and potential, and along with guys like Williams and McInerney, they seem to be forming a solid core of young, high-quality players that could serve Philadelphia well for years to come. Have we seen the finished article yet, or do you think these guys are poised to break out in a big - maybe even national/international - way?
ER: It's going to take some time, but the signs are there these guys have what it takes. Michael Farfan is probably the more publicized of the two, because he plays a flashier role as a creative midfielder which earned him a place in this year's All-Star Game. If the Union could pick up a gifted finisher in the offseason, it might help Michael gain even more recognition as a quality playmaker. Gabe has also shown signs of being good at passing and attacking down the left. Hackworth has continued to show a desire for a left wingback as opposed to a more defensive-minded fullback, which Gabe has grown into pretty well.
I'm not sure these players are poised yet for the bigger stages though. Jurgen Klinsmann has a large pool from which to choose, especially now that he's seeking out foreign-born U.S. citizens. I think team results for Philadelphia would help the younger players on this team get Klinsmann's attention in the long run, much like players like Geoff Cameron and Steven Beitashour have more recently.
TBM: Give us an under-the-radar player Revs fans should watch out for in this match.
ER: He's been around for a couple of seasons now in the league, but Danny Cruz got a bit lost with D.C. He played a lot for the Dynamo a season ago, but the quick development of Nick DeLeon meant Cruz was expendable. He's now with the Union, and he's speedy and gives a lot on the wing. He hasn't gotten on the scoresheet for the Union just yet, but it might be coming soon. He's obviously a player that Hackworth likes, and fits the system quite well.
TBM: Finally, let's have your starting XI and a scoreline prediction.
ER: Carlos Valdes tweaked his hammy in the Columbus match, so I expect that Sheanon Williams will be asked to slide over into central defense, especially if Bakary Soumare is still questionable. I also think Hackworth may have seen enough out of Adu to give him another shot at starting.
MacMath; Gaddis, Williams, Okugo, G. Farfan; Lahoud, Carroll, M. Farfan; Cruz, McInerney, Adu.
My prediction will be a 3-2 Union victory.