PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Union will field an attack-minded lineup in their penultimate preseason game Wednesday against D.C. United.
With an eye on the Major League Soccer season opener March 2 against Toronto FC, Union head coach Jim Curtin will throw together a lineup that resembles the way the team wants to play at Talen Energy Stadium throughout the 2019 campaign.
“We’ll play a very attack-minded group, something similar to what you’ll see a lot at Talen Energy this year,” Curtin told reporters in a conference call from Clearwater, Fla.
Curtin confirmed Sergio Santos and Cory Burke, who didn’t play in Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the Montreal Impact, will start up top and receive a chance to impress in what is still an open competition for the two starting forward positions.
“You’ll certainly see those two in the starting lineup tonight,” Curtin said. “It’s a healthy, open competition at that spot. Nothing has been decided in terms of who are the two that are going to start versus Toronto.”
Santos and Burke weren’t used in the Rowdies Suncoast Invitational opener due to minutes management by the staff, which is attempting to give every player an equal opportunity to state their claim to a place in the Week 1 starting XI.
The hope for Wednesday’s game is for Marco Fabian to link up more with the forwards after he played a solid half against the Impact.
On some occasions, the Mexican midfielder dropped deep past the center line in an attempt to gain possession, but the focus since Saturday has been to keep Fabian as forward as possible.
“What you saw was Marco trying to fit into a new team and wanting to be on the ball,” Curtin said. “Conversely, you had Montreal who was sitting in with 9-10 guys behind the ball so sometimes the only way to get on it was to get a little deeper. That’s a natural reaction when you’re a top player and not getting on the ball.
“During the week, we worked on having Marco stay higher up the field, in between the lines so he’s in good position to support more Cory and Santos than the centerbacks.”
With 10 days left until the first game of the regular season, there’s one midfield spot up for grabs, which is on the left side of the 4-4-2 diamond.
Brenden Aaronson, Derrick Jones, Anthony Fontana and Warren Creavalle are the candidates to start alongside Alejandro Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin and Fabian in the midfield.
Aaronson impressed the coaching staff, who has been high on him for most of the preseason, in Saturday’s defeat.
“I thought Aaronson was one of the bright spots against Montreal,” Curtin said. “I thought he had an excellent game and did a really good job for us. You can see his engine, ability to run and pop up all over the field. Still a young player, but I felt he left a good impression with the coaching staff after that match.”
Jones and Fontana came on as substitutes in the loss to Montreal, while Creavalle sat out with a left rib contusion.
Although there’s a growing sense based off everything we’ve heard and seen from preseason that Aaronson has a legitimate chance to start on the left part of midfield, the competition is still open for now.
“It’s an ongoing process to find the best combination in our midfield,” Curtin said. “That’s hasn’t been decided yet and tonight will be a little bit of a different look in that regard on the left hand side.”
As for the back line, Curtin stated the team is working on more cohesion in that part of the field after Montreal overwhelmed the right side and found success against Kai Wagner.
“Overall, on their right-hand side, they did create a lot of 2 vs. 1 situations,” Curtin said. “We can do better with our help and defending in front of Kai in a lot of instances as well. It’s a demanding system for the outside backs, getting up and down that line, but we still have two more games in preseason to work on some things.”
The outside backs carry a ton of responsibility in the winger-less system, and Curtin is hopeful whichever full backs play on Wednesday and Saturday against United Soccer League side Ottawa Fury will get forward more.
“As the fitness of the group gains, the thought is to have our outside backs cover even more ground and specifically join into the attack more than they have in the past preseason games that way we’re making teams adjust to us and have to deal with us, rather than them running at us,” Curtin said.
One player who won’t see much time in defense on Wednesday is center back Mark McKenzie, who picked up a small ankle sprain in training.
“Mark unfortunately picked up a bit of an ankle sprain yesterday,” Curtin said. “Would’ve gotten more minutes tonight, but a little injury will prevent that.”