COMMERCE CITY, CO - JUNE 04: Jamie Smith #20 of the Colorado Rapids takes a shot against Sheanon Williams #25 of the Philadelphia Union at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on June 4, 2011 in Commerce City, Colorado. The Colorado Rapids and the Philadelphia Union played to a 1-1 tie. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
The keyword in this entire post is going to be: Defense. You're going to read it until you've got a hatful of sick and an excuse to leave work early. I've done a lot of analysis in the past few hours of what makes Philadelphia so very much better this year than last year, and the answer is twofold: The addition of Faryd Mondragon, and from there the construction of one of the tightest defenses in the league.
It's oft been said in sport that Offense wins games, but Defense wins championships, and nowhere do I think that is more true than with this season's incarnation of Peter Novak's Union. This is going to be a marked difference from Hans Backe's more offensively-minded New York Red Bulls, who hope that their impressive offensive weaponry of Thierry Henry, Juan Agudelo, and Luke Rodgers (to name just a few) will carry the day by scoring a ton of goals.
Philly fans may balk at the comparison with their heated rivals, but I'm making this comparison for an important reason: I want Rapids fans to know what kind of match they ought to expect. Another goal glut like against the Red Bulls? Or a slug fest like against the New England Revolution?
This very much depends on how the Union intend to pursue the game, and how the Rapids intend to break down the Philadelphia Defense. If Philly decides that they want to grind out the result and rely on keeping things tight in the back and playing on the counter, this could be another slug fest. If Philly feels confident and decides to get forward with numbers (Ruiz) to back up the impressive Mwanga and LeToux, then we have a potentially much more entertaining game on our hands.
However, I feel like the Union has a better chance of winning if they play defensively. Colorado had trouble even opening up the simple catenaccio of New England. Colorado simply does not do much against teams that play defensive soccer.
The key for Colorado against the Union is to somehow unlock their defense, and force them to put numbers forward. This would most easily be accomplished by quickly putting the Union on their back heels and pressuring the goal. An early goal against the Union is an absolute must in this game if Colorado is looking for the win. Sanna Nyassi's quickness and Omar Cummings' finesse could very easily overwhelm Danny Califf and the centerbacks, but overwhelming Faryd Mondragon is another story entirely.
The key for the Union is to be patient and hope that Colorado gives them opportunities down the flanks. Wide play has been a trouble for Colorado for most of this season. Philly won't be too keen on trying to play through the middle just to lose possession to Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz, so we should expect to see the wide midfielders creating most of the opportunities.
My Prediction? At best, I think this game is a draw. If the Rapids can somehow pull this one out I will be happily surprised. Philly is unbeaten at home this year, and looks to continue that streak.