Philadelphia Union look to keep up winning ways versus the Rapids

May 17, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin (6) makes a point to an official during against the Houston Dynamo the second half at Talen Energy Stadium. The Union defeated the Dynamo, 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
May 17, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin (6) makes a point to an official during against the Houston Dynamo the second half at Talen Energy Stadium. The Union defeated the Dynamo, 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports /

Don’t look now but the Philadelphia Union are suddenly back in playoff contention and with a win over the Rapids, their prospects can be looking up.

The ins and outs

Philadelphia Union (3-4-4) vs. Colorado Rapids (2-7-1)

When: Saturday 7 p.m., Talen Energy Stadium

Where to watch: The Comcast Network

Streaming: MLS Live

PRO Referees: Jose Carlos Rivero, Craig Lowry (AR1), Anthony Vasoli (AR2), Sorin Stoica (4th)

Coaches: Jim Curtin (Philadelphia Union) – Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado Rapids)

Winning is a habit

More from Philadelphia Union

What a difference a week makes. The Philadelphia Union have climbed into a midtable position that is more indicative of their actual team strength. The Rapids, on the other hand, are mired in a slump where they can’t string consecutive positive results together. This seems like a classic trap game but the Philadelphia Union are becoming a force to be reckoned with. three straight wins and four straight clean sheets will do that for a team. The goals have also been spread out for the Union with five different goal scorers in their last two games. It’s a tough task to stop a balanced attack but that’s just the task at hand for the Rapids.

The Rapids have recently altered their formation switching to a 4-4-2 in hope of freeing Shkelzen Gashi and scoring more goals. The change looked like it worked as the Rapids as they took down the Earthquakes 3-0 but then they followed that result by falling 3-0 to the Chicago Fire. Which Rapids team is the real team? We ask David Schaut of Mile High Sports who joins us for the Opposition’s Corner this week.

Opposition’s Corner

Chuck: The Rapids have scored the fewest goals in the league. How will they attempt to break down the suddenly stout Philadelphia Union defense?

David: The Rapids recently moved to a 4-4-2 that had an immediate impact and led to the Rapids’ 3-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes last Saturday. They took a step back on Wednesday in their 3-0 loss to Chicago, but they remained in the 4-4-2, and all signs point to them returning to the formation on Saturday. When in the 4-4-2, Marlon Hairston and Eric Miller push up from the right and left fullback positions, respectively.

They like to get the ball into the corner and send in crosses for the attackers to get their heads on, and the likes of Kevin Doyle and Alan Gordon thrive on those balls. When the ball isn’t being pushed up the sides, expect long passes from the defensive mids. Dillon Powers and Michael Azira have strong long passes and big attackers like Gordon excel at fielding those balls. The Rapids haven’t controlled the ball well this year, so don’t expect short passes that matriculate the team up the field. The Rapids are much more likely to counter using a long pass and a strong run.

Chuck: Looking at the start for the Rapids, what is the real team? Last year’s squad that eked out 1-0 wins, this year’s squad that is an absolute roller coaster, or something in between?

David: The Rapids are somewhere in between the successful 2016 team and the underperforming 2017 team. One thing a lot of people don’t realize is the injuries that they’ve had to deal with. The Rapids’ 2016 leading scorer, Shkëlzen Gashi, wasn’t even able to play a full 90 minutes until May 6 against Vancouver. In the next game against the Earthquakes, he scored two goals. The Rapids’ 2016 MLS Defender of the Year nominee, Axel Sjöberg, hasn’t played since the second game of the season after hurting his hamstring, but there’s a strong possibility that he returns against the Union.

Also, Tim Howard was suspended for three games after a postgame altercation with a fan in Kansas City, and all three games he missed were losses. The Rapids also traded away two starters to Minnesota early in the season, and Mohammed Saeid, who’s the only player received in the trade who’s starting, is only just now beginning to gel with his teammates. But, to your point, last season the Rapids eked out one-goal wins. It’s difficult to secure one-goal wins when you’ve been held scoreless in four of your last five games. So, they’re definitely not as bad as their record suggests, but they are a long ways from the Western Conference Finals team of 2016.

Chuck: Players to watch on each team and why.

David: The first for the Rapids is Gashi. The whole team struggled against the Fire on Wednesday, but he notched two goals in a game less than a week ago and was the most aggressive Rapid on the field. Another person to watch for is the aforementioned Sjöberg. The Rapids’ defense is a whole different animal when he’s anchoring that back line. For the Union, one of the players is C.J. Sapong. The Rapids struggled mightily against Nemanja Nikolic on Wednesday and let him score two of the Fire’s three goals. Sjöberg and Jared Watts will have to be on top of their game if they’re to prevent Sapong from having a big game. The Rapids will also have to game plan for Alejandro Bedoya. His combination of pace and technique make him a difficult matchup for Powers or Azira.

Chuck: Score prediction with goal scorers for each team.

David: I’m going to say 1-0 Rapids. I know I just talked about the Rapids’ inability to score goals this year, but their attack has been much more aggressive of late. Even in their 3-0 loss to the Fire, they were attacking more quickly than usual. I think Doyle will get the start for the first time in two games and put the goal in for the Rapids. The Union have been playing great defense, so I don’t see much of a possibility that the Rapids score more than one goal. I also think the addition of Sjöberg (if he’s fit to play, which is still up in the air) will bring a lift to the defense and help the Rapids secure the victory.

Lineups/ Injury Report

Roland Alberg is still struggling with his quad injury but the plan is that he’ll travel to Real Salt Lake next week. This means that the experiment of Ilsinho at the 10 (which has oddly gone well) will continue for at least one more game. While this is the third game in eight days, don’t expect squad rotation from Jim Curtin. With the strong defensive shifts that the team has put in combined with the fact that they were visibly tired against Houston would suggest that rotation is needed but until Jim Curtin actually does it, I won’t predict it.

There are no new updates on the health of Maurice Edu and Joshua Yaro at this time. Expect Saturday’s lineup to look like the one below:

Keys to the game

Don’t underestimate the Rapids: While the Philadelphia Union are performing better of late, this is not the time to underestimate the team at the bottom of the Western Conference. With the emotional high that the team is riding it can be very easy to look past this game to the trip to Real Salt Lake. Doing so would lead to a flat performance and the end to the winning streak.

Rotate rotate rotate: This isn’t really a note for the team in general but more for Jim Curtin. The three attacking midfielders have played a lot recently and the depth is there to rest at least two of them. Ray Gaddis and Oguchi Onyewu could also use a rest ahead of Real Salt Lake as the games will only come at a faster rate with MLS teams on the verge of entering US Open Cup Play.

Next: With each clean sheet, Jack Elliott’s star rises

Play your game: The Philadelphia Union are now establishing an identity as a compact defensive side that can pick teams apart on the offensive end. The Union aren’t particularly efficient but with the amount of chances that they create, the team is able to put the ball in the net. Against the Rapids, the Union can’t try to alter their game when things are working.