In the span of a year, the Philadelphia Union have gone from bottom feeders to conference leaders. They sit four points clear atop the East and have only lost once in their last ten games. As with any change of fortunes in MLS, the exact cause of their rise to power is hard to pinpoint. Former DC United attacker Chris Pontius has been a huge addition for the Union, cementing his place as a regular starter and racking up team-leading totals in goals and assists, C.J. Sapong's prolific early-season goalscoring helped to rescue valuable points (although he's injured now and won't play on Saturday), and Tranquillo Barnetta has added a much-needed creative spark to the squad. Whatever the sequence of events that landed the Union in their current position, the end result is the same: the Union are a quality team who can score goals and put points on the board.
Philly's next potential victims are the Vancouver Whitecaps, who have galumphed their way through the 2016 season. With a win here, a blowout loss there, and a few draws along the way, the Caps are managing to keep their heads above water but haven't done much to improve upon last year's impressive results. However, with six playoff spots available and little more than bragging rights in store for the Conference and Supporter's shield winners, the real test for every team will come in the latter stages of the regular season and the playoffs. That being said, the Caps are teetering eerily close to the red line just above seventh place, and more subdued performances like those recently against Houston, New England, and Portand won't do anything to steady the ship.
At this point in the season, even the most casual fans must be beginning to notice the clear problem the Caps face in 2016: a leaky defense. For reasons difficult to comprehend, clean sheets have been as elusive as Octavio Rivero's goals this year. One or two have happened on occasion, but on average the Caps back end has been as leaky as an unstanched wench. David Edgar has been brought into training recently and could be a defensive remedy, but for Saturday's game the main source of Whitecap hope will be that the Union's defending has also been less than watertight. Philly let three goals slip past Andre Blake in each of their last two games and haven't kept a clean sheet in over a month.
Judging by this hilarious Union Pre-Game video (in which the announcers butcher everything Caps-related from name pronounciation to Pedro Morales' country of origin), the Union are wary of the Caps attack. Union Manager Jim Curtin was blunt in his assessment of his team's recent defensive performances, saying that if they continue to defend the way they did against Chicago, they'll lose. However, with only a couple of days to prepare after a mid-week match against Chicago, it wouldn't be surprising to see a tempest of goals from both sides.
Carl Robinson's squad selection for Saturday will be as enigmatic as any this season. Given that the second leg of the Amway Canadian Championship will be contested on Wednesday, there's a good chance that certain starters will be rested. Here's my shot in the dark:
As with any MLS match, prediction is any man's game and what's past is only prologue. But given the circumstances, I have to give Philadelphia the benefit of the doubt.
Prediction: Union 2 - 1 Whitecaps