Friday, April 23, 2010

Red Bulls Preview: Sizing Up Philadelphia Union

Tomorrow figures to be a historic day for MLS rivalries when the Red Bulls welcome (and I use that term loosely) Philadelphia Union to Harrison.  Apart from the SuperClásico in L.A. - where Chivas and Galaxy share a facility - no two teams in MLS are, or likely will be, closer than the Red Bulls and Union, who are separated by just 90 miles. The potential for this to become a rivalry that equals or even surpasses Red Bulls-DC United is there, though these things take time.  Give it a few years and a couple of controversial games and MLS could have something really special on its hands.

Let's not sugar coat it - New Yorkers hate Philadelphians and vice versa.  Even before the Union had a team of its own, the Sons of Ben supporters group would make the trek up to Giants Stadium to cheer on whoever was playing the Red Bulls.  The rivalry stretches across other sports as well - Giants fans hate Eagles fans, the Mets can't stand the Phillies, and even the Yankees have gotten in on the act of late.  But it really goes further back then that.  Since colonial days, the two metropolises have competed for supremacy.  Sorry Philly, you lost.

Rivalries and trash talking aside, it's really the game itself that will matter most when the teams square off on Saturday at 4pm.  The Red Bulls will be looking to extend their unbeaten streak at their new home against a Union team that has seen highs and lows in the early part of the season.  The Union's season opening loss in Seattle is something they managed to put behind them fairly quickly, when they unceremoniously dumped DC United in their first home match in Philly, with Sebatsian Le Toux's hat trick accounting for all of their scoring.  Back on the road, they lost to Toronto FC in an ugly, physically brutal encounter that has to rank as one of the stinkers of the early MLS season.

Through three games, the Union have already managed to acquire a bit of a reputation as a physical (some would say thuggish) team.  Toni Stahl set the tone when he was sent to the locker room before halftime in Seattle for a clumsy tackle from behind.  Captain Danny Califf was red carded for an elbow in Toronto and will play no part in Saturday's match as a result, though he should figure in the US Open Cup game on Tuesday.  It's still early, but it's fair to say that Philly is starting to take on the character of its manager, Peter Nowak, who, as Mike Petke can tell you, is one tough customer.  Nowak will no doubt have his team up for the match and it could get very feisty.

The other big talking point from the Union's early games has been the play of goalkeeper Chris Seitz.  Though Bouna Condoul's blunder in L.A. probably ranks as the biggest keeper error of the MLS season so far, Seitz has been anything but steady in between the posts for the Union.  In the cauldron of Red Bull Arena, could we see another meltdown?

One youngster to watch out for is the Colombian midfielder Roger Torres (pictured), a spark plug who, for my money, has been the most impressive Philly player through three games (sorry, Sebastian Le Toux).  His weighted pass to Jordan Harvey for the Union's lone goal in Toronto was a thing of beauty.  Most of the Union attack has run through Torres and the Red Bulls could have their hands full in trying to control him, with neither Carl Robinson nor Seth Stammler possessing the pace to keep up.  After seeing the way that the quicker FC Dallas exploited open space against the Red Bulls last Saturday, you have to wonder what Hans Backe's plan is for this weekend.

Given Califf's absence, Seitz's early season jitters and the Union's propensity for having players sent off, you'd have to like the Red Bulls' chances to put a goal or two past them.   On the other hand, rivalry games like this tend to be unpredictable.  Though I'd be very surprised to see the Union walk away with all three points based on their early season form, the Red Bulls will probably need to score more than one to prevail.

At the very least, let's hope the drama is on the pitch and not in the stands.

Oh, and Ben Franklin's son was a loyalist.
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