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Playing on the road: Tedium and tactics

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Getting a result on the road is hard. It’s so hard that the phrase “getting a result” doesn’t even refer to winning but coming home with a draw.

So what makes playing away so difficult?

Our series concludes with pregame challenges and away tactics.

Pregame prep

While the focus of road trip is squarely on the 90 minutes of game time, there are hours to fill before and after actually traveling and then at the team hotel. Some of this time is taken up with team meals and meetings, others in helping the body adjust to the stresses of travel in treatment or individual and team workouts. That still leaves a lot of hours in the day.

Or, as Jim Curtin, who spent nine seasons in the league as a player before he became an assistant coach at the Union, puts it, “The life on the road thing — it has its boring, boring, times but it has that hour and a half release where you can go nuts. It’s a special thing, not many people get to do it.”

Curtin explained, “Everyone wants to say, ‘Wow, you guys are so lucky, you get to see so many cool cities.” And that’s true, we do get to see the city and go out after the game. But from the player’s standpoint, you are literally cooped up in the hotel room and it’s boring, I gotta be honest.”

“One day we sat around on a road trip and kind of calculated the amount of wasted days of your life. On game days in particular where you have an 8 o’clock game and you’re up in a hotel room at 8 or 9 in the morning and you literally — you have your team meals and your team walks and that kind of stuff — but it’s a boring, boring existence. It’s not a glamorous or fun as it sometimes gets portrayed in the media. Not complaining because it’s not a real job, it’s not real work, but it’s kind of a unique experience when you’re watching terrible movies on TNT and TBS for a lot of your life. It’s pretty dull.”

Even watching TV in the hotel room, as Okugo explained, is turned into a recovery exercise. “There’s different little mechanisms where you can rest your body right. If you’re chilling watching TV in the room, have your legs elevated. We have these little lacrosse balls that Kevin and Paulie and the rest of the guys on the training staff give us that you can put on pressure points. That really helps with the muscles after a long flight.”

Those long flights can come as a surprise to foreign players coming from countries and leagues that are geographically much smaller than the US and Canada, and MLS. Curtin explained, “To the foreign players in our league, this is a shocking thing, like, “We’re gonna fly to Los Angeles and back and we’re gonna play one soccer game?” People don’t understand how that affects guys legs, everyone responds different to travel — it can be hard to get yourself up and going the next day for the game.”

Playing away from the familiar resources available at PPL Park can present its own particular challenges simply in terms of the logistics of coaching.

“When you know you’re going on the road, it’s a little, you know, different,” Curtin explained.

“Our film that we like to do before the game, that gets pushed back to the hotel…You don’t have the resources that you have in your home stadium where you can print something off immediately when you do your scouting report and it’s right there whereas on the road you’re kind of flying around to a Kinkos or a place like that and kind of juggling and piecing together things that way.”

Tactics on the road

Playing on the road means different tactics, and those tactics can be determined by a number of factors.

“Usually on the road you want to play more defensive, though with certain teams that can change, you can risk a little bit more,” said Okugo. “Depending on where you’re playing, there are some places on the road where you know you have a good chance to steal points and there are other places on the road where, the coaches might not say it, they chalk it as if we get a result then great. We try to balance it out. Depending on how the team goes and who we’re playing against, where we’re playing, we may try to play more safe. Depending on who we’re playing, we’ll try to press it for the first 15 minutes, try to sneak a goal and then drop our defensive line and hold for however long it takes to get out of there with a tie or a win.”

Curtin said, “It changes each game for sure. I would say the first thing, where we would say we like to press at home, we like to press perhaps 20 yards in front of the circle. So almost to the other team’s back four is where we like to pressure them. What we talk about on the road — depending on the team now — it’s give or take five yards behind the top of the circle. So it’s about a 20 to 25 yard difference in where we’re picking up our line of confrontation and where we kind of want to start things. Just because when you go on the road, the first ten minutes of the game are usually crazy and if you give up a goal in the first ten minutes you got the crowd on their side — those moments that come up where guys start to get small and disappear happen a lot quicker.”

Dropping the line of confrontation helps with defensive organization and clogs an opponent’s entry in the the attacking third. But it also frees up space for the Union to quickly counter.

“If you’re dropped off,” Curtin explained, “you can kind of keep things organized and in front of you. Similar to how we played against New York. Does it look beautiful? No it doesn’t, but it gets you through it. And it frustrates the other team, for sure. Do they still create chances? Sure they do, they have the ball a lot. But it has a little ebb and flow and we’re a pretty good counterattacking team — probably better than a lot of teams give us credit for with Danny and Seba out wide. They’re a pain in the butt to play against for guys because they can run forever. So part of it is playing to our strengths. On the road we do like to drop back and be organized first before then we look for the counter.”

Curtin continued, “There are discussions though every week where if we think it’s a team where we can press a little higher we’ll do it or if we’ll drop off. It depends on their personnel. If they have a defender who’s comfortable on the ball that can kind of make the game — that dictates a lot of that starting point stuff.”

All of the preparation to play on the road — beginning in the preseason with planning flights, hotels, and catering, organizing the equipment needed to travel, enabling the players to be as physically, mentally, and tactically ready to be successful away from home — come to nothing if the players aren’t together as a team.

“It’s a unique thing,” Curtin explained. “I wish I could bottle it up and tell you what exactly gets results on the road, but the most cliche thing is having 11 guys that are all bought in. We tell our guys to just play a good game. If everyone here, all eleven guys have a good game, we’ll beat most teams in MLS. If we have five guys have a good game three have a terrible game, and the rest play great, we don’t work well, that’s not the Philadelphia Union at all.

“We don’t have an Henry that, like when New York’s playing terrible, he can score a goal or two goals from nothing. Landon can do the same thing, Robbie Keane can do the same thing. We don’t have that and our guys know that — and it’s a good thing. That’s why I say we are more of a team than these other groups just because we’re not individuals; we all have to be good on the day to get a result. And we’ve done that more than we haven’t this year. We’re not perfect but we’re getting better.”




  1. This has been an interesting series. Thanks!

  2. “we’ll try to press it for the first 15 minutes, try to sneak a goal and then drop our defensive line and hold for however long it takes to get out of there with a tie or a win.”
    While I understand this tactic, I despise it as a fan. Too often a team holds for 85 minutes then breaks at the end. It’s one of the biggest reasons why we’ve seen slumps in August-September because we start playing scared. It’s elementary to say, but 3 points is so much more helpful than 1. And often when 1 is the aim, you end up with zero. At least when 3 is the aim, and things go bad, you often still get 1.

    • I agree with this. 15 minutes is not that much time. I can understand if you press 15 minutes in the first half and get run around then you back off. Maybe try again in the first 15 minutes of the second half. I understand playing conservative for a tie with less than 15-20 minutes left, i’ll accept that. But purely playing to hold on for 75 minutes plus is ridiculous. That’s a recipe to fade at the end of a season. It might work for single table leagues, but when playoffs are involved you simply must peak then. It’s proven in every other major american sport. Peaking at the end of the year is 100x more important than running away with the league and limping it at first place.

  3. This aspect of soccer has always annoyed me. In no other sport do away sides play differently than they do at home. I understand playing for the draw if you’re holding on from 70 on, but why don’t teams try to win from the beginning regardless of the venue?

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