Juan Agudelo vs. Philadelphia Union
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Davies: Four keys to Saturday night’s pivotal clash with the Philadelphia Union

Saturday night at Gillette Stadium the New England Revolution will take on Eastern Conference foes the Philadelphia Union in a match that has huge playoff implications. The Revs sit on 29 points and are currently in sixth place, holding onto that last playoff spot. They’ll be facing a desperate but confident Philadelphia side who are on 27 points and are coming off a U.S. Open Cup semifinal win over the Chicago Fire midweek. The Union are generally strong at home and struggle on the road, but they’ve pulled off some surprising results away from Chester in recent weeks. It’s vital that the Revolution capture three points at home this weekend given that just six points currently separate fifth place from 10th place in the East. Here are four ways to ensure that they do so:

Attack Young Center Backs

Philadelphia have implemented a youth movement led by starting center back pair Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie. As expected there’ve been bumps in the road for the defensive duo, but they’ve also shown potential. At times they’ve been overeager when diving in for tackles, leaving gaps for opposing attackers to exploit. Their athleticism is what allows them to recover most of the time.

Getting the Revolution attackers (Teal Bunbury, Cristian Penilla, Juan Agudelo, Diego Fagundez) behind the Union’s backline and pulling their defenders out of position should lead to several chances on goal. The Revs will need to pressure the young center back duo when they’re in possession in an effort to force them into making quick decisions, and that could lead to turnovers in the final third (and chances for the Revs).

Shut Down the Midfield

The midfield is where the Union is strongest. Led by captain and U.S. Men’s National Team veteran Alejandro Bedoya, playmaker Haris Medunjanin, and newest addition Borek Dockal, there is a wealth of experience and Philly’s success weighs heavily on their shoulders. They are all capable of scoring goals and creating chances.

Bedoya is known for his tireless work rate and gritty performances. He’s an emotional leader who demands the most from his team, and to frustrate him early on is key to putting him off his game. To do so the Revs must limit his time on the ball and close him down early.

Medunjanin has a gifted left foot and great vision to pick out passes anywhere on the field.

He’s lethal with free kicks and a great deliverer on set pieces, so the Revs need to be cautious in committing fouls in and around the box. The primarily left-footed midfielder isn’t the most athletic, so New England must utilize their speed to open space in the center of the pitch.

Dockal, the Czech international, is the team’s joint-leading scorer with five goals on the year. He can strike the ball well with both feet and is technically sound. The best way to stifle him is to be physical and tactically alert. The key to winning this game is winning the midfield battle.

Slow Down the Wingers

Fafa Picault and David Accam have tremendous pace and the Union rely on them to create chances. Philadelphia look to switch the point of attack to get these wingers isolated in 1 v. 1 situations, and they can go right or left which makes them unpredictable and a serious threat.

They’re encouraged to take on opposing defenders and generate crosses for the center forward. Outside backs (Andrew Farrell, Brandon Bye, Claude Dielna, Gabriel Somi) need to anticipate when the Union will be switching the point of attack to deny these wingers room to run. When the ball is in the air the backs have to be closing down the space between them and Picault/Accam so that their first touch has to be perfect in order for them to keep possession.

Close Down the Game

In recent matches the Revolution have struggled with finishing games strong as individual mistakes and mental lapses have cost them points. In order to rectify this pattern they must maintain possession in the final third, be tactically aware and not give away unnecessary fouls in their half. It’s crucial that the substitutions come at the right time and that they bring energy and commitment to lock down the game.

The Union have struggled this year in front of goal without a true finisher. CJ Sapong, who registered a career-high 16 goals last year, has an underwhelming three goals and one assist on the season and has lost his starting spot to former Bethlehem Steel forward Cory Burke. Their defense has been leaky at times, conceding 37 goals on the season, with 10 of those coming in the last four MLS matches. If the Revs stick to their game plan and play intelligently, they’ll have every opportunity to pick up three points. These rivals square off against one another twice in the next two weeks and New England have to be looking to grab at least four points, if not six based on the current standings.

With the Union just two points back of the Revs for that final playoff spot in the East, there’s no better opportunity than this weekend to spark a turnaround and be a catalyst for a strong playoff push.