Tonight, the New England Revolution will take on the Philadelphia Union at Gillette Stadium. It's a battle of basement versus best, as the Revs sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference table while the Union currently reside at the top.
Due to time constraints, I'll get right to the Q&A. Today's is with Scott Kessler of The Brotherly Game, SB Nation's Philadelphia Union blog.
TBM: With 18 games played this season, the Union find themselves tied for first in the Eastern Conference with two games in hand on the New York Red Bulls and boast one of the stingiest defenses in the league, allowing just 16 goals to this point. What has been the secret to this defensive revival after last year's woes, and how much of a culture shock has it been as both blogger and fan to suddenly find Philly competing at the top of the table?
SK: The country of Colombia should be thanked for the glorious revival of the Philadelphia Union defense. Goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon and his compatriot Carlos Valdes, a center back, have helped to take the Union defense from probably the most porous and cringe worthy in the league, to one of the most reliable in MLS. Mondragon commands his back line like no other goalkeeper can. His verbal ability is par none, including his grasp of languages (he's fluent in six languages, including Spanish and English). At 40-years of age, Mondragon can't get to every ball anymore, he's not physically able. Instead of sensational, Sportscenter Top10 worthy saves, Mondragon positions himself to prevent those kinds of saves from being necessary. Valdes helps him survive the rigors of MLS life by stopping almost every shot that is sent toward Mondragon. Creating a partnership with Califf that is rivaled by few pairs in MLS, Valdes has aided Califf in a youthful rebirth and given Sheanon Williams the ability to flourish in his first full MLS season. Overall it hasn't been that much of a shock. The Philadelphia Eagles, Philadelphia Flyers and, of course, the Philadelphia Phillies have changed the culture of Philadelphia sports in the past decade. No n longer are fans expecting losers. Nowadays the expectations have begun to swing toward championships. It's great to be in first place, but is it unexpected considering who the head coach is?
TBM: As good as the defense has been at PPL this season, the Union appear to have great struggles scoring goals. If you subtract the six-goal explosion against Toronto, Philadelphia has only scored 15 goals in 17 matches. Sebastien Le Toux, an MVP candidate last season, seems especially to be struggling to find the back of the net. Do you think this is a case of a player returning to the norm after a fluke season, or is there a greater problem affecting the Union offense that needs to be addressed?
SK: It's a combination of Sebastien Le Toux regressing to the mean and Nowak trying to fit Carlos Ruiz into his offensive game plan. Last season the team benefited from three things: (1) Le Toux having the definition of a career year, (2) Danny Mwanga having a Rookie of the Year season and (3) Alejandro Moreno facilitating play in the Nowak system. This season Le Toux is creating opportunities, just not making his own count, Mwanga has had playing time as a supersub and Ruiz is not a target striker like Moreno. For much of the beginning of the season Ruiz was playing toward the midfield with his back to the goal. That's not the type of player he is; he's a poacher's poacher. Now that Ruiz has more freedom to do what he does best, which is baiting the opposing defense and barely being offside or onside on any given play. Once Le Toux finds his scoring touch, that's when the offense will be fine. The parts are there at this point, it's a matter of all of them clicking.
TBM: Give us an under-the-radar player Revolution fans should watch out for in this match.
SK: Is Keon Daniel still considered under the radar? The Trinidad and Tobago international has thrived with the Union since joining the team in 2011 from the Puerto Rico Islanders. Despite playing predominately in the center of the midfield with both his national team and he Islanders, Daniel has been employed by Union head coach Piotr Nowak as a left midfielder. He has some deceptive speed and is quite good when pushing the ball down the sideline. His crossing isn't too bad, either. In fact he's really one of the better players on the team at crossing the ball into the box. The only problem for Daniel right now is that fellow left midfielder Justin Mapp has had some great displays of his talent of late, which has made him the first choice in Nowak's eyes. Daniel is, and probably will be in the future, more consistent than Mapp and deserves to get more playing time - especially at his cut rate salary of $46,410.
TBM: Who do you think the Union fear most on the pitch for New England?
SK: It's my belief that every team in MLS fears Joseph, and for good reason. The Grenada native is one of the most complete midfielders in MLS and if the team was better the past couple of years he may have been up for multiple MVP award considerations. But he's not playing in this game, due to suspension. That leads me to Rajko Lekic, the Danish striker that the Revolution brought in to alleviate their offensive woes. While he has not impressed to the point that people were expecting when he was signed, Lekic posses problems for the Union defense that most forwards in MLS do not. At 6'1", Lekic is taller than everyone on the Union's side of the field, sans Mondragon. The Union have suffered from poor set piece defense and an inability to win important balls in the air versus tall players. Expect to see crosses into the box often for the Dane in order for New England to have a legitimate chance at winning this game.
TBM: Finally, give us your projected starting XI and a scoreline prediction.
Goalkeeper: Faryd Mondragon
Left back: Gabriel Farfan
Center back: Danny Califf
Center back: Carlos Valdes
Right back: Sheanon Williams
DCM/Holding CM: Brian Carroll
LM: Justin Mapp
CM: Roger Torres
RM: Kyle Nakazawa
ST: Carlos Ruiz
ST: Sebastien Le Toux
Bench: Zac MacMath, Keon Daniel, Danny Mwanga, Amobi Okugo, Jack McInerney, Michael Farfan, Juan Diego Gonzalez
Prediction: 2-0. Union defense holds firm as the Union offense takes advantage of the missing Joseph and Cochrane.