Stock rising/falling: Union 3-1 Red Bulls

Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Philadelphia Union scored three surprising and amusing first half goals to put away New York Red Bulls on Saturday. Andrew Wenger’s deflected strike started the scoring and his slow roller finished it off. In between, Fernando Aristeguieta speared a header at Luis Robles that the Red Bulls goalie ushered into the net like he was helping a scared rabbit find its hole. In other words, none of the goals were pretty.

But, and this is important, they were three of the Union’s only first half chances, and all three were on frame. And sometimes, when you put the ball on frame, crazy things happen.

When they weren’t scoring, the Union were absorbing wave after wave of Red Bulls pressure. Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam were granted space and they responded by challenging Philly’s talented fullback duo time and again. The goal frame and Rais Mbolhi ensured Philly held onto their lead going into halftime, and in the second forty-five the Union seemed more prepared to bunker and counter, though they were far more successful at the former than the latter.

Overall, it was not the type of performance that will have you predicting a playoff appearance, but it certainly suggests the Union know they have to create a system that maximizes the resources they have.


Rais Mbolhi

The Algerian goalie makes his second straight appearance on this list, and even his harshest critics can’t say he doesn’t deserve it. With Red Bulls streaming forward, Mbolhi controlled his box while showing stellar reflexes to keep his side ahead as the first half wound down. It was close to a flawless performance and will do a lot to endear Mbolhi to fans who are still put off by the way the Union have handled the goalkeeping situation over the past year. Two good performances do not make a season, but Mbolhi looks much more like a starting keeper than he did during his scattered and often listless performances last season.

Maurice Edu

If you are going to come out with a 4-2-4 lineup, and one of the middle two is coming off an injury, you better be sure your captain is ready to rule. And Mo Edu did his best to step up against near-impossible odds, as he continually forced Red Bulls to rely on wide men instead of Sacha Kljestan in the final third. Edu was playing almost a pure midfield sweeper role for most of the match, with the Union struggling against a 3-on-2 disadvantage in the middle of the park. Last season, Edu’s quality shined through only in short bursts: A sprint to cover his defensive partner, a quick, darting run up the middle to add some juice when the team was flagging. Thus far, Edu is acting like he wants to be a more consistently dominant force in the center of the park this year. He will have to be if Philadelphia is going to make a playoff run.

Andrew Wenger

If you asked Andrew Wenger, he would probably tell you almost every goal he has scored in his career was better than the two he scored on Saturday. But that doesn’t make the last two worth any less. Philadelphia’s system relies on the wingers to pin teams back so the kind of possession advantage New York enjoyed Saturday doesn’t translate into a glut of chances. Wenger and Le Toux did not provide the sort of consistent threat the Union were hoping for, but Wenger did what he often struggled to do last season: Put the chances he got on frame. And with Nogueira laboring, and Conor Casey AWOL in the buildup, Wenger and Le Toux can hardly take full responsibility for the peripheral role they played in the proceedings. In the end, it was another performance that will have opposition managers game planning around Wenger’s abilities. And that’s what the Union need if they want to create space for their newly signed striker.

Fernando Aristeguieta

Speaking of that new striker, the Venezuelan notched his fourth goal in three matches, pouncing on a free header and cheerfully celebrating when Luis Robles forgot what his job was. The most notable aspect of Aristeguieta’s game so far has been his ability to find space when crosses are coming in. With that in mind, the Union need to improve their crossing accuracy considerably if they are going to play a lineup like the one that started Saturday. Without an attacker in the hole, Philly might as well have tweeted out their game plan before the opening whistle. And a route one offense requires quality coming into the box for big strikers to feast on.


Ray Gaddis/Sheanon Williams

It was a disappointing night for Philadelphia’s fullbacks. They survived, but they did not smother Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella the way Jim Curtin might have hoped. Part of the issue was a system that allowed so much space on the wings that Sam and Grella could drift a little bit deeper and create a lot more space. Another part of the problem was Bradley Wright-Phillips, who had Ethan White on the back foot all game with a strong physical showing, meaning the fullbacks were essentially isolated and couldn’t be as aggressive as they would like. In those isolated situations, the Union fullbacks should thrive as two of the best in the league. But Williams bounced between strong (and very strong) challenges and allowing Grella enough space to cut and shoot while Gaddis had another oddly indecisive day, often a step slow to close down, a bit deep to challenge, and just a bit out of position all night. These are fixable issues, but they were fixable issues last year as well.

Steven Vitoria

It is still hard to get a read on Steven Vitoria. He has rarely been challenged directly, even after run outs against two quality MLS opponents (hat tip to Mr Edu here). However, if we can pinpoint the most positive and negative aspects of Vitoria’s performances so far, they would be his aerial presence and his acceleration respectively. Vitoria is a massive presence clearing the box, but he looks as slow on the turn as an injured Carlos Valdes. And injured Carlos Valdes turned like a full tanker ship going into the wind. Vitoria putting up at least MLS-average showings each weekend is key for Philadelphia’s season. This team should be able to score, but they need to lock up the back with Mbolhi and Vitoria in order to produce consistency.

Vincent Nogueira

Even on a grainy feed, on a team without jerseys, I expected to be able to pick out Vincent Nogueira. He moves at a different speed than most other players. The term “buzzing” has rarely had a soccer player that it fit so well. So it was worrying that Nogueira wasn’t simply off his game, he was hardly in the game as a whole. Injuries mean the Frenchman will probably be a bit behind the curve until he gets another week or so under his belt, but even an inaccurate or slow Nogueira remains enough of a threat on the ball to worry opposition defenses. On Saturday, Nogueira was rarely on the ball, and when he was he faced immediate pressure. A slow start may be inevitable, but the Union need Nogueira up to full speed before too long.

Conor Casey

OK… so a Casey/Aristeguieta lineup was based on Casey’s strong second half against Columbus right? The only justification that makes any sense is that Jim Curtin thought Casey could drop off and facilitate the counterattack during buildups, then move high as an outlet when the Union were under pressure in their own end. Since there was hardly any buildup possession, it’s hard to say Casey wasn’t capable of being a playmaker, but that is certainly not what he ended up doing. Instead, with New York using their width intellgently, Casey was relegated to doing windsprints between the central defenders and the fullbacks. It was hardly the best use of his talents, and it meant the Union had nobody to put pressure in the middle until Red Bulls reached the deep-lying Edu and Nogueira. That continuous pressure New York supplied on the Philly defense was not simply the result of a good plan by Jesse Marsch, it also came from Jim Curtin’s tactical missteps. But, hey, that’s what preseason is for.


  1. I am curious Adam, your position on what is the most effective starting IX and what you consider will be the starting IX.
    There seems to be an odd man out in the midfield/attacking positions if Maurice Edu plays in the midfield. Who will that odd man out be?.
    A few have argued on other pages that it could be Cristian Maidana. From my POV, that is a decision that would really affect the chance of playing anything remotely close to ‘the beautiful game’. This team struggled and found itself in ruts often last year with cross, cross, cross move the ball sideways sideways sideways even when Chaco was on the field let alone not on the field. What are your thoughts. Thanks.

    • I have been wondering the same thing but I keep going back to a 4-2-3-1:
      .Wenger—–Chaco——-Le Toux
      With Sapong coming on around 60-70mins to freshen things up top and occasionally start for one of Fernando/Wenger/Le Toux.
      Playing a 4-4-2/4-2-4 with Le Toux and Wenger leads to too much space between the wingers and the fullbacks that teams can feast on and likely means one of Nogs or Chaco would not start.

      • Completely agree. Leaving Maidana out is crazy talk. He’s the best playmaker on the team, and our best shot at holding any possession requires him and Nogueira on the field together. That’s the exact starting lineup we should be using Saturday. Sapong & Pfeffer can be the first two off the bench.

      • pragmatist says:

        I like CJ, but this is the exact Starting XI we should be using. CJ can come on late for any of the 4 guy up top. Maybe a spot-start in a 2-srtiker set, based on opponent. But there shouldn’t be much of a discussion about the default starters. It’s (^) those guys.

      • J in Section 125 says:

        I agree with your starting line up.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Edu, Beardnando, Chaco…that’s a lot of molasses up the spine…but that is the best we have.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Cross fingers…cross the ball…cross fingers…cross the ball…cross fingers…cross the ball…keep repeating.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    I’m curious if there was a reason why CJ Sapong didn’t play. Was it because Curtin wanted to start Casey and they had a 3-0 lead by the time sub time came around or was it something else?
    Also, Michael Lahoud’s stock has to be rising. I’ve never seen him get forward so much and actually make some nice passes…Oh, wait a minute, that was Fabhino (who did actually make some better crosses/passes than usual).

    • The Chopper says:

      I think Casey needed game minutes fir fitness and Curtin at least wanted a real game chance to see what happens when Casey and Fernando are paired together. He now has his answer.

      if the formation includes two strikers, it will be Sapong and Fernando. That combination looks promising. Not just in generating chances, but in disrupting the opposition buildup when they take possession.

      • The Black Hand says:

        I agree 100%…if we go with two up top, it should be Beard and Sapong. It also gives us Casey as a sub. He can still punish a back line…just not for a long period of time.

      • The Chopper says:

        If Casey is healthy, it allows both Caetic and Hoppenot to head to Harrisburg. Wenger and LeToux can always move up in a pinch.

  3. Bunker and Counter.
    This is Jim Curtin’s vision for better or worse. Enjoy!

    • Yup.
      And once again I argue the position of, if you feel the other team has more quality- than I am fine with this general principal of play bunker and counter like Chelsea in big games, but when you deem yourself to be the better team you have to get on the front foot- particularly when playing at home. Also, it is important to have a defensive philosophy (I hope that doesn’t include putting 10 players behind the ball) I am okay with the counter strike mindset, but more importantly I think it is necessary to have a cohesive philosophy on how you intend on recovering possession in order to transition to attack. I hope the manager has this plan. It will be painful to watch us bunker and counter bunker and counter every game if we are offering 60% ball control to the other team- particularly if we are giving possession to maiden teams or Montreal.
      I have worries this team is going to be quite painful to watch– but hey we won the game. The game means more to me than just wins and standings- its a meditation and the human movement needs to be soothing.

  4. Andy Muenz says:

    “If you asked Andrew Wenger, he would probably tell you almost every goal he has scored in his career was better than the two he scored on Saturday. But that doesn’t make the last two worth any less.”
    Actually, what makes the last two worth less than the others was that they came during the preseason and most of Wenger’s other goals came in games that counted.

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