Match previews

Preview: Philadelphia Union vs San Jose Earthquakes

Photo: Daniel Studio

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. San Jose Earthquakes
What: 2016 regular season game
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Saturday, April 30 at 4 pm
Watch: 6abc, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Ricardo Salazar; Adam Wienckowski and Eric Weisbrod; Jorge Gonzalez

Philadelphia Union just took three points off of a New York City side with no real idea how to attack on the road. This week they face a team that has notched four goals in three road matches but cannot keep the ball out of the net when they travel.

San Jose Earthquakes are a strong, well-organized side… except when they aren’t. Figuring out where Dom Kinnear’s team breaks down is key to sending them to a third road defeat and continuing Philly’s good early season form.

The strategy in San Jose is simple, yet it is extremely difficult to combat. The Quakes line up in a 4-4-2 that fluidly shifts into a 4-5-1 defensively when necessary. That caveat is essential because Kinnear’s greatest trick as manager has been to build his defense around his offense, meaning Chris Wondolowski is the conductor and guide that creates the rest of the team’s structure when they shape up to defend.

San Jose defense

Against teams that play with three in midfield, the Quakes will push Quincy Amarikwa onto a central defender and let Wondolowski cut off the passing lane to the opponent’s deepest midfielder. As the Union build play out of the back, San Jose will seek to create separation between the center backs and force the ball to stay on one side of the pitch. This tactic was extremely effective in last Sunday’s 1-0 home win against Kansas City because Lawrence Olum did not drop between the central defenders, but stayed five yards ahead, allowing the Quakes to cut him out and essentially force the ball down the left over and over. Watch it all play out in the video below.

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If a team moves the ball out wide then recycles it and does not return to its offensive shape quickly enough, Wondolowski will press the center backs hard, often catching them off-guard. With Amarikwa on the other central defender, this leads to bad decisions and turnovers. It is a strong system built around Wondo’s ability to read play quickly and cut off the free midfielder. The other two midfielders are man-marked by Fatai Alashe and, usually, Anibal Godoy. Additionally, San Jose’s wide players do yeoman’s work tightly marking wide players out of the game.

San Jose forced Besler to look short and Coelho (right) to play long. He did well, but it wasn't what KC wanted.

San Jose forced Besler to look short and Coelho (right) to play long. He did well, but it wasn’t what KC wanted.

When it all comes together, it becomes a weirdly suffocating version of a man-pressure system. The press is not so much on the ball — which is where the Union press begins — but on the surrounding players. This is why it is extremely important for the Quakes to force the weaker central defender to start attacks.

The whole thing is well-organized but goes against the modern grain by placing an emphasis on covering runs in a man-oriented fashion instead of the more popular pure zonal structures. Against Kansas City, Wondolowski would often push Matt Besler to the left, making it difficult for him to connect with Olum while simultaneously limiting the center back’s impressive passing range.

Even though he was rarely under direct pressure, Besler could not pick out the long crossfield balls he loves because Simon Dawkins would track the far side runner. KC’s best moves often developed when they could recycle the ball into very deep positions then advance it through Nuno Coelho at right center back. He would pick out longer ground passes to Dom Dwyer, who is very, very, very good at turning defenders and spreading play to the wings.

When Coelho had the ball, Wondolowski would drop into midfield to track Olum and leave Besler alone. But if play moved back to the left, Wondo was quick to step to Besler — while shadowing Olum — and prevent the long pass.

Where does it break down?

One of the interesting features of San Jose’s defensive system is that it often forces the opposition fullbacks to become ad hoc playmakers. The fullbacks will be pressured by wingers when they receive the ball, but if they can quickly find a midfielder or get past their man, it opens the game up and San Jose becomes vulnerable.

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Undoubtedly, Dom Kinnear and his staff are looking at Fabinho’s absence as a signal that they should be forcing play down the Union’s left all match. Philly needs Ray Gaddis to come through in a big way offensively, both with his movement to open himself up and with his passing, which has always been haphazard under pressure.

San Jose’s defense also struggles when it doesn’t have time to shape up. This happens to most teams, but it’s exacerbated for the Quakes because their back four are very poor retreating at speed. If the Union can move the ball through midfield and get Tranquillo Barnetta, Vincent Nogueira, or Ilsinho running at the defense, Philly can spread the ball wide and punish the box. The Quakes resort almost immediately to scramble defense, and as good as the midfield is at tracking runs, the defense is bad. They coalesce around the middle and the midfield drops deep into the box, meaning there is acres of space available around the box if the Union can calmly pick out runners.

They are always dangerous

The Quakes have only collected one point from three road matches because playing the type of man-oriented defense they employ is difficult and tiring, and, again, they’re doing it with a back four you wouldn’t bring home to mom.

But it is notable that while teams can score on San Jose, nobody has managed to shut them out.

The typical thinking is that a team needs somebody like Cristian Maidana, or a version of him, who can unlock defenses with needle-threading passes. Technically, the Quakes have such a player in Mattias Perez Garcia. But Dom Kinnear’s experiments with a central playmaker have not been ubersuccessful, so he has returned to a system that flows playmaking through off-the-ball runs.

Essentially, San Jose seeks to turn less technical players into creators with great off-the-ball movement. A collection of speedy, alert wingers surround Wondolowski and Amarikwa, and the goal for everybody is to pull the defense until it breaks. Wondolowski has made a living by anticipating where spaces will develop in a defensive structure, and Amarikwa loves to run off the shoulder of defenders. Both players will constantly weave across the back line, trying to separate a defender from the herd like giant cats hunting on Planet Earth.

In the video below, Wondolowski successfully separates Amadou Dia from the back, creating a huge space for Alberto Quintero to attack. With this type of movement and separation, the Quakes don’t need a magician to find holes in a defense, they just need their own players to have ears up and recognize when the gaps are developing and where.

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In the video below, Wondolowski again stretches the back line and a big space develops in the right channel. Amarikwa is slow to see it, and the incoming pass is imperfect. But the play itself shows just how good Wondo and the Quakes are at engineering those holes.

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The other feature of the San Jose offense that is a direct carryover from Dom Kinnear’s days in Houston is the quick cross. Jim Curtin is emphasizing the notion of three men in the box to attack crosses, and Kinnear’s teams might as well have their photo next to that bullet point in every MLS tactics book.

Whenever a Quakes player collects the ball within ten yards of the opposition box on the wing, they will check for runners and look to cross. Wondolowski and Amarikwa are always in there, and the far side winger will charge in as well. The center midfielders, who are not offensive-minded in general, crash the top of the box to collect scraps and keep the ball in the final third. San Jose will create chaos once the ball is delivered into the box, and if Philly scuffs their clearances they will see crooked numbers on the scoreboard in a hurry.

Union goals

Philly needs to focus on how to move the ball out of the back successfully. The major tenets are to drop a midfielder between the central defenders and to create passing lanes to Sapong out of the back. In the video below, KC is able to play directly to Dom Dwyer, who wriggles out of trouble to start a good attack. The Union midfield must be extremely mobile, dragging Quakes around the park during build-up play. If Philly can get their playmaking midfielders goal side of Quakes defenders, they have every chance of doing what every other home team has done against San Jose this season: Score multiple goals. 

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The other point of emphasis should be transition offense. The Quakes are very open after turnovers in midfield, and the Union have become quite adept at creating them. Philly’s transitions off turnovers, however, still leave something to be desired. When they do it right, it looks great. But the Union have not found the same rhythm in the counterattack that they have developed in the counterpress.

With starting center back Andres Imperiale suspended, Philly needs to put immediate pressure on Victor Bernardez and, likely, Marvell Wynne when recovering the ball in midfield. Pushing them to turn and retreat removes the foundation of the San Jose defense. If those players can sit deeper and keep the ball in front of them, they are rarely troubled.

UnionSJ2Prediction: Union 3-1 Earthquakes

Philly should win this game. But at the same time, if they can be undone by simple runs like the one that created Jordan Morris’ first professional goal, it will be a long day at Jurassic Park.

Although Jim Curtin said in this week’s press conference that Ken Tribbett looks good in practice, he also said the player admitted he was less than one hundred percent. This suggests Joshua Yaro will continue in back and face possibly his toughest matchup yet. David Villa is extremely difficult to mark, but his days of running in behind are over. Wondolowski is simply a positional wunderkind, and he will pounce on any positional mistakes Yaro makes.

The other big lineup question is whether to stick with Sebastien Le Toux out wide or introduce Ilsinho to run at the Quakes back line. Ilsinho looked rusty last weekend, and Le Toux has a goal and an assist in his last two appearances. The Frenchman has developed a knack for arriving at the second ball off Sapong’s knockdowns, and it seems likely that Curtin will stick with what has been working on the wing.

Keys to the match include Ray Gaddis’ positioning and Philly’s transition offense. If Gaddis chases and leaves the back four, Richie Marquez will be forced to chase out wide, and while he can hang with almost anyone out there, the waterfall effect of these actions is very bad for Philly. Despite looking like the Big Boy mascot all grown up, Wondolowski remains a brilliant mover and a deadly force in the box. Removing a central defender from that danger area is a death knell for the Union.

Philly also needs to find fluidity in their counterattacks. They have done an excellent job of capitalizing on mistakes this season, and San Jose’s back four, with Wynne central and the inconsistent Kofi Sarkodie out wide, will make a boo-boo or two.

But, again, it is always easy to see the vulnerabilities in Dom Kinnear’s system. But he has proven so adept at implementing it — no matter the quality at his disposal — that exploiting those vulnerabilities is a far more difficult task.

With extremely difficult matchups against LA (home) and Montreal (road) next, the Union need to show they can exert their will on a Western Conference opponent Saturday.


  1. MikeRSoccer says:

    I would really like to Ilsinho get the nod for this game. I agree that he looked Rusty on Saturday, but I believe that had more to do with him being played out of position as a CAM. Ilsinho is not a CAM, he is a winger, and it is apparent every time that Curtin tries to play him there.

    Moreover, the passing interplay between Rosenberry and the RW will be particularly important in this game. Ilsinho is capable of complicated one touch passing, LeToux is not.

    • pragmatist says:

      I completely agree. Ilsinho has looked worlds better on the outside than he has in the middle. Platooning him and LeToux seems to make the most sense, and takes advantages of their strengths.

    • Jim Presti says:

      Because of Ray’s offensive deficiencies, the Union will need to build off the other side of the field, meaning you pair Rosenberry with Ilsinho to jump start the attack. Le Toux just can’t play in tight spaces. Lacks the touch.

      • +3

        Let’s see if Curtin is smart enough to agree.

      • At the same time, you can bet that SJ will try to force the Union to play out of the left side of defense as Adam notes.
        Just to play Devil’s Advocate:
        Le Toux could be useful on the right to make vertical runs behind the defense. A long diagonal ball from Marquez or Nogueria could get him in. If not, it could also serve open up space for Barnetta between their defensive and midfield lines or for Rosenberry to advance upfield on that side.

      • pragmatist says:

        We all generally agree with that. My opinion is that he is more likely to have space to make those vertical runs after the 60′ when SJ’s defense is tired, and the speedy Energizer Bunny starts attacking them. (Now I have Monty Python in my head. Dammit)
        If SJ’s strength is their midfield, we can match that strength, while holding onto a 2nd half wild card.

      • Jim Presti says:

        I just don’t see Quincy or Wondo leaving enough space for either CB to move the ball into the midfield – so take Nogs and the DCM out of the picture. Most likely, they’ll force Marquez to play long or for Gaddis start the attack. can’t remember the last time I saw Gaddis hit a decent diagonal that switched the attack. Plus the idea that Le Toux can run in behind, assumes that there will be space behind the SJ line. The matches I’ve seen, SJ doesn’t hold a high line

      • I haven’t watched SJ at all this season yet so if you have and say they play with a deep line then I have to agree with you. Still, judging by Besler’s passing chart above, it looks like there is some opportunity over the top.

    • I agree that ilsinho has been far more effective as a winger, but that doesn’t mean he can’t or shouldn’t play centrally if the union are pressed into needing him there. However, his short, controlled passing style means we need different wingers in support of him. Le toux isn’t going to play a possession game like that, whereas Leo could (though he hasn’t so far).

      • Alberg is available now as well, as another option. I actually like the idea of a Barnetta-Ilsinho-Alberg trio, and let the three of them move around as needed between the wings and center.

  2. As a soccer novice, I love these tactical articles from Adam, they are very educational. The most troubling line was “Philly needs Ray Gaddis to come through in a big way offensively”, and I’m a Gaddis fan. The other reason to always read all the way through are the great references, to wit this week, “Jurassic Park” and “Big Boy mascot all grown up”. Both pale to “Lego-come-to-life” description for Morris though. Keep up the good work!

    • @swat – Cheers! Morris’ head is pure lego.

    • Absolutely agree. Love Gaddis as a defender, but we need to do everything in our power to simplify the attacking role he has to play vs. The one fabinho is expected to play. Lots of checking short for nogs, BC, and pontius to help him ease into the pressure I’d expect San Jose to throw at him. Anything to avoid “hoof it and hope”

  3. Can’t wait. Should be a great game. My prediction: 3-2 Union

  4. der Fussballzuschauer says:

    I love this site’s weekly graphic showing the first team, substitutes and sad men who are dropped/suspended … But why can’t goalkeeper Matt Jones ever be on it somewhere? … After all, it is Jones and not McCarthy who has been sitting on the Philadelphia bench for the Union’s last four MLS matches … This feels odd, sticking up for an Englishman, but still … 🙂

    • Heh. I mentioned Jones absence on the weekly suggested lineup too.
      I’ve been interested all season to see if Jones can beat out McCarthy to be the #2 when Blake is with the Reggie Boys.

      • der Fussballzuschauer says:

        Another month or so (when Blake goes off on international duty with Jamaica) and then we all find out who the real Philadelphia Union # 2 goalkeeper is.

  5. Interesting to not see Washington in the 18 with Fabi out. Assuming you picture Creavalle or Tribbet slotting in should a fullback go down?

  6. Here is my main question: How successful can the Union be if BC is the starting 6?
    There are some followup questions that need to be addressed to help answer the underlying question:
    -Does Edu automatically get that slot when healthy?
    -Should we start Nogs at the 6 to deploy Alberg or Creavalle as the box to box? Edu when healthy?
    – Does the quick start suggest we will try to move Edu to clear space and $$?
    – Will we attempt to move to a single 6 instead of a sudo-double pivot to optimize the (attacking-esk) midfielders?
    – How does Yaro’s showing change things? 3-5-2?
    Again I think if we are in a transition–as it appears– I feel like it would be worth a few games without BC on the field. But maybe we wait for US Open Cup for this type of deployment or simply just later in the summer.

    • pragmatist says:

      Amateur opinion warning (talking about my own):
      This year was set with the expectations of making the playoffs. That is a reasonable goal with BC starting. He does specific things well, such as was illustrated in the Player Ratings article this week. But NYC is one thing. Let’s see how he does against Wondo, and then against LA, who is playing lights-out right now.
      But all in all, he can get us to the goals we all had in mind before the season. Past that, well, stars need to align.
      Edu does get that start when healthy. He’s a better Creavalle. He plays until he proves he is incapable of positional discipline. My thinking is that he wants to be a part of this team and its current direction. He won’t try to be a superhero, like he had to do last year.
      Nogs is rarely successful at the 6. That spot is BC/Creavalle until Edu is healthy.
      We move Edu only if there is a specific reason to do so. Such as, we clear all the cap space, and there is a viable superstar available. My guess is that is not likely to be this season, particularly since he won’t get healthy until after the summer window is underway, and Earnie won’t want to take pennies on the dollar for him.
      (Skipping the pivot question…dunno.)
      No 3-5-2 forthcoming. They will be sticking with the 4-man backline unless a particular late-game situation calls for a change. Besides, he (or Tribbett) and Marquez lock down the box very well. If that formation is the plan going forward, don’t ticker now and mess with the pair you expect to be there for a few years or more.

  7. Michael from SF says:

    SJ Earthquakes fan here. Excellent analysis. Can we hire you to handicap future Quakes opponents?

    • pragmatist says:

      Theses guys are fantastic. Some of the best and most in-depth analysis you’ll find anywhere in the US.
      We are very proud of our PSP writers. Adam, Ed, Scott, whoever else I’m embarrassingly forgetting…all of them are fantastic.

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