Match previews

Preview: Union vs LA Galaxy

Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. LA Galaxy
What: 2016 regular season game
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Wednesday, May 11 at 7 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Sorin Stoica; Jeff Muschik and Danny Thornberry; Marcos DeOliveira

Preparing for a midweek road match against LA Galaxy is no easy matter. Will they bring the stars? Will they send a squad of roadies? Luckily somebody at the Monday presser was oddly persistent with this line of questioning, and Jim Curtin made it clear that he’s expecting the big guns to show up in Talen Energy Stadium, and his expectation was confirmed by a video the Galaxy posted of the team traveling to Philly.

The Galaxy are flying with 15 goals in their past five matches following a goalless draw with Vancouver. The current incarnation of Bruce Arena’s Galaxy is very much in flux, but it limits good chances and moves around the opponent’s box better than any other team in MLS. And when Giovani Dos Santos is playing the game on “Beginner Level,” that’s about all you need.

Normally, Los Angeles finds success with strong defensive structure and elite final third players who make chances count. The team’s attacking organization is often unstructured, with everybody given freedom to move around Robbie Keane as an axis point. In Keane’s absence, however, the Galaxy slowly morphed into a counterattacking side that could absorb pressure and pick a team apart on the break.

Gerrard operated from deep positions early but moved up the pitch later on. His attacking passes didn't connect, but he made them from excellent positions.

Gerrard operated from deep positions early but moved up the pitch later on. His attacking passes didn’t connect, but he made them from excellent positions in the center of the attacking third.

Is Gerrard any good?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of LA’s tactics this season has been the use of Steven Gerrard. For those who have followed Gerrard’s career, he has the interesting distinction of being a player who has seen his position disappear as the modern game has evolved around him. From a central midfielder to a hybrid attacking mid/striker to a holding midfield player, Gerrard played all over the pitch for Liverpool because what else are you going to do? Not start Steven Gerrard? And, to be fair, he earned his minutes with a relentless, wild-eyed vigor that was somehow matched by delightful technical skill. Also, dude can shoot.

By the time he left England, though, Gerrard’s legs had clearly gone, and the positional la-dee-da-ness that was overlooked or baked into his role was easily exposed. That hasn’t changed in Los Angeles, but the Galaxy do their best to protect Gerrard from his laziest tendencies: Giving him Baggio Husidic (and possibly Jeff Larentowicz on Wednesday) as a safety net, and keeping a somewhat lethargic defensive line high enough to make sure sneaking behind Stevie G is tough to pull off.

In attack, the former England captain is growing into a role formerly occupied by a different England captain: Sitting deep and looking to release attacking players early. This being Gerrard, of course, he still lopes into the box on occasion.

Gerrard has the freedom to move throughout the middle third of the pitch depending on how a team presses the Galaxy. In a 5-2 win over Real Salt Lake earlier this season, he snuck between the central defenders but tilted left, pushing Ashley Cole up the pitch and forcing RSL to move their formation upfield, exposing their lack of speed. Once the visitors adjusted by bringing on Javier Morales, however, Gerrard struggled to put pressure on Morales and the long-time MLS vet controlled the tempo of the second half (though he created few big chances). 

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The real question is how LA will operate with Gerrard, Keane, and Dos Santos on the pitch together. This is clearly still a work in progress as Gerrard and Keane can both slow the game down, which makes Dos Santos a non-entity. Finding ways to open things up with longer passing is going to be the secret to getting the most out of this talented trio.

RSL passing vs LASoft spaces and safe places

Notably, the Galaxy struggled when Gerrard replaced Robbie Keane on Sunday, and undoubtedly that was partly due to Gerrard being a poor defender. However, Jay Heaps also deserves credit for finally recognizing that Lee Nguyen was never going to get far enough upfield to cause real danger to the opponent, so he replaced his key playmaker with numbers.

Specifically, LA struggled to deal with a three-man front line of Juan Agudelo, Teal Bunbury, and Femi. The three strikers occupied the Galaxy’s back line and opened up gaps for Diego Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe to operate from wide spaces in midfield.

Key to New England’s success, though, was that they placed creators in the wide spaces but also specifically targeted the top of the box for passes. LA knows they have soft spots wide in midfield, but they tend to be very good at forcing play wide or long from those soft spots.

KC passing vs LA

KC passing vs LA

It’s almost like Bruce Arena is exploiting the tendency for a modern playmaker to drift from the middle. Here, Arena says, take that space wide in midfield, but good luck doing anything productive there unless you are willing to play into the head of your striker or can figure out how to get someone else in between the lines in the center.

And that is how you end up with Javier Morales for RSL, Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, and Diego Fagundez for New England, and Benny Feilhaber for Sporting Kansas City all working slightly further away from goal than they would like. The only thing that was different for New England post-60 minute mark on Sunday was that they made a conscious effort to play the ball into a central area once it was picked up wide (though LA also didn’t adjust where their wide mids played after going to a 4-4-2 (still very central), forcing Bruce Arena to substitute both wide mids to regain the team shape).

What does this mean for Philly?

The Union fit the mold of a team Bruce Arena will watch with interest. Philly is most threatening through the channels, using CJ Sapong as a sounding board for attacks but rarely funneling those attacks down the center of the pitch. Sapong will play the ball wide and join the play, but the real point of playing to his feet early is to force the defense to commit to him so space opens down the flanks, or fullbacks don’t stay tight with their central partners and the channels come free.

In the latter stages of the match, New England occupied the left half-space with Rowe and Fagundez. They targeted the zone behind Larentowicz and Gerrard very effectively with angled passes.

In the latter stages of the match, New England occupied the left half-space with Rowe and Fagundez. They targeted the zone behind Larentowicz and Gerrard very effectively with angled passes.

Arena is generally fine with this system. LA is generally strong in the air in their box, and they play such a narrow midfield that once the ball is played wide they are fairly certain they can keep it there. Look at the passing charts for Salt Lake and Kansas City. New England’s is even worse, with Jeff Larentowicz in (and this is hard to admit) wonderful form locking up the center of the pitch.

The big key for Philly will be getting into those central areas because that’s what facilitates a collapse of LA’s very strong defensive system. Get behind the midfield in the middle and the basic defensive movements that keep LA so solid break down.

The Union can do this by getting Tranquillo Barnetta on the ball while moving forward. This requires either excellent transitions or tight midfield spacing to work a short passing game. Larentowicz was simply excellent smothering transitions on Sunday, and the problem with a transition game is that it also opens the Union up to counters which are going to be increasingly dangerous as LA learns to use their front three effectively.

Possessing the ball in midfield is likely the most powerful option Philly has against the Galaxy because it forces the visitors’ front men to play defense. Robbie Keane and Gio Dos Santos want to play defense about as much as they want to fly to Philadelphia on a Wednesday, which is to say, about as much as Sam Bradford wants to play for the Eagles right now.

But simply holding the ball and moving it across the back line, into midfield, back to a central defender, and around again won’t cut it. The purpose behind this play has to involve stretching the LA midfield so Keane and Dos Santos have to either drop into midfield or leave gaps free.

When the ball is wide in the middle third, LA will move their tight midfield three across the field to close it down. At least one of the front three will drop deep to make it difficult to pull off a long switch, and the other two will shadow defenders and take up counterattacking positions. For Philly, that ball wide in midfield must be followed by quick passes to Vincent Nogueira before LA shifts over. This will allow Nogueira to catch the Galaxy in motion and look behind them into space in front of the back line. It is by no means an easy move, but Philly has the personnel — a comfortable deep distributor, an attacking midfielder who makes good vertical movements, and active wingers — to pull it off.

Galaxy attacking

Here is where it gets interesting for LA. A wealth of ridiculous attacking talent has yet to spend much time on the field together, and many are predicting that Robbie Keane and Gio Dos Santos will crowd each other out of games. But that may not be the case. Dos Santos actually doesn’t have that much interest in the ball when he isn’t trying to shoot it with ridiculous technique. Getting on the ball in midfield or during sustained possessions requires a lot of work and, for the most part, he can’t be bothered. Keane, on the other hand, requires praise the ball. He has to be involved or he starts gesticulating and criticizing.

So, yes, both players prefer similar spaces off the ball, but only one of them is likely to be off the ball all that often. And Keane’s presence allows the third member of this dangerous trio the freedom to move into his own spots of comfort.

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Gyasi Zardes is in the process of emerging from his winger-cocoon and spreading his striker’s wings. A solid dose of hold up play to go with elite speed and one-v-one skill is making Zardes look more and more like he could actually become the focal point of future US national teams (distant future, at this point, but still).

The Union want Zardes to lean hard on those old winger tendencies, which means letting him drift wide and keeping him there. With Keane in the mix, Zardes has a stronger tendency to slip to the wings, and this blunts the LA attack by freeing up the central defenders to stay tight on Dos Santos.

Second, Philly want Zardes wide so they can close Keane down quickly when he collects the ball in transition. Having played with some good distributors, the Irishman’s own passing skill is often overlooked, but he has been so successful in MLS because he can start the breakouts that he finishes.

The final, and perhaps most important point about LA’s offense is that it moves around the box incredibly well. When the ball is played into the danger zone at the top of the box, the passer and usually at least one other player immediately look to penetrate the defensive line. This makes defenders drop and opens space in an extremely good area that was not there before.

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Many players ask for a pass through the lines once the ball is in the central area, but the Galaxy just go, go, go. They pull off the rare feat of making a defense react like a key pass has been played before it has, and, ironically, this opens the defense up for a key pass. The excellent LA Confidential blog describes this as the Galaxy’s Y-formation, but it’s as much about the movement as the shape.

Union lineup questions

Jim Curtin has nearly the entire squad at his disposal, so the big decisions are at center back, defensive midfield and right wing. In back, Joshua Yaro has shown continual and significant improvement, but still has a very long hill to climb. Ken Tribbett’s brief stint in back was notable for a high degree of consistency, but the Union were also lucky not to be punished when Tribbett and Keegan Rosenberry were battered and bailed out by Andre Blake.

Unfortunately for Tribbett, unless he is clearly at 100% and outperforming Yaro in practice, the incumbent will likely remain in place. Either central defender will likely be a key kog in the Union’s gameplan as they seek to push a defender into midfield when the Galaxy front men get lazy. This will help immensely with freeing up Barnetta to get behind the visitors’ mids.

Philly’s holding midfield is another place where two players have performed well enough to start and Curtin’s decision will likely come down to feel. Warren Creavalle has the athleticism to chase the Galaxy around, but Curtin might prefer to sit Brian Carroll in front of the back line and see if LA can work around him.

On the wing, Sebastien Le Toux has been productive, but Roland Alberg and Ilsinho offer a greater ability to possess in midfield and open the game through short passing that pulls LA out of the center.

Prediction: Union 1-2 Galaxy

This is a new Union, but it’s still the same Galaxy that knows how to go out and get points on the road. Furthermore, it’s a Galaxy with Giovani Dos Santos playing like the guy on your rec team that shoots all the time imagines he is playing.

Another reason to worry is that LA is likely to try and bypass the Union’s press with Gerrard’s long passing, and to the extent that they can do that Philly will struggle. On the other hand, Gerrard can’t get away from anybody these days (unless it’s after the 90th minute, in which case he will clown anybody that gets close to him for some reason), so an effective press could stunt LA’s high flying offense.

The Union need a big test to show MLS they are for real, and this is as big as it gets. LA comes in with stars, with a great coach, and averaging three goals a game for almost a month running. Philly has youth, energy, and growing self-belief.

The Philly faithful will need to be on form with noise from the opening whistle to keep their team going in what could be a very tight affair decided by a few moments of brilliance. LA has more players that can execute that brilliance, but the Union have a goalie that has been operating his own personal brilliance institute since early March.

Are the Union for real? Let’s find out.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    Seems like the Union’s best chance is for fans to find out what hotel the Galaxy are staying at, go there, and make lots of noise tonight to keep them awake.
    That or make sure Andre Blake is wearing his cape!

    • I think you mean AND… and make sure Andre Blake is wearing his cape! The Union have quite the task at hand. I really want them to play well. Show me something tomorrow night gentleman!!

  2. The Galaxy are taking a very long trip, on short rest, so that might knock them down a peg. They have another game this weekend too. I suspect that, even though they are bringing all the Big Boys, they may not all start. For this reason, I think it’s possible we could win this match, but it will take a few spectacular saves by AB to make it happen. I mean, we can definitely score on these punks. I will predict a 2-2 draw, with Blake being his usual Human Highlight Reel self to earn us the point.

    • Scott, this is LA’s only match this week. Short rest won’t matter. Gerrard only played 30 minutes Sunday, Keane 60 and Ashley Cole was on suspension.

    • That’s a good point, in that Arena won’t have to rest for the next match. But he still has to worry about guys getting pooped out in this match. Keane, Zardes, and Dos Santos each went 90 minutes 4 days ago. They are liable to wear down in the second half. Especially given the long travel, which all the players will tell you takes its toll.

  3. Also, Adam, you neglected to mention LB as a lineup question. I have to wonder if we’re better off having Ray Gaddis defending Zardes than Fabinho. The counterargument is that LA is gonna score at least 2 goals anyway, so we put Fabinho in there for firepower. But I would worry that Lletget will keep him pinned back anyway, and then Zardes may roast him (or, even worse, get him carded off the pitch). So I would be inclined to give Ray the nod tomorrow night.

    • pragmatist says:

      I think your firepower argument is the answer. They are going to get their chances, we need to fight fire with fire.
      Besides, Fabi and Pontius have had some pretty good moments together, as well as Fabi having the natural proclivity to shoot every now and then.
      I’m not worried about the left side of our defense, either. LA will be streaking down our right side all night long.

  4. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Not the usual predicted starting lineup graphic?
    Fabinho or Gaddis? You did not highlight that decision, suggesting for you it is not a decision, and given your emphasis on the importance of possession and quick, incisive ball movement I infer your assumption is Fabinho?
    Alberg or Ilsinho? Since Alberg has yet to play on the flank this season, is not Ilsinho more likely? Of course, Jim Curtin has shown a little more flexibility this year, in some ways. It would be interesting to see Ilsinho, Barnetta and Alberg as the three attacking midfielders behind Sapong, but 90 minutes is a long time for each one of them, still.

  5. Hard to add to this stellar write up… for me, if I’m a host on All Things Considered – I’d argue this game is likely to come down to finishing – which when afforded fluky opportunities, the Union have been stellar and when afforded lovely build up and quality service, the Union have been pretty paltry… not withstanding LA’s obvious pedigree to put the ball in the net.
    Simply— you can’t sky sitters over the net, as an example, and expect to get away with it… had they won the last game, (when was that BTW- seems like forever ago- is it possible both legs of UCL were played since the SJ game- I’m uncertain) like they should have, I would be happy to see the team play well and get beat by LA, as it is— related to that last game and the man advantage and the wasted 2 points– a result seems necessary to keep the self belief growing– which is what this season is all about, development- measuring yourself against the big stick.

  6. philpill says:

    Instead of “relax,” I looked at SJ as a confidence builder ahead of the next 3 weeks of a roller coadter ride. It will surely test the manager’s skill in lineups well beyond his comfort zone of trotting out the same lineups to the extent possible. Again, 0-5 I can live with – if it’s progressive. Which – to me – if JC has a biggest fault – it’s loyalty over Best XI. Hopefully,

  7. As always, an excellent write up. The XI I’d most like to see is this: Blake, fabi, marquez, yaro, rosenberry, bc, nogs, pontius, barnetta, ilsinho, sapong.
    We’re going to need decisive distribution from the wings back into the middle, so unfortunately that removes gaddis as an option. Equally important, I don’t want robbie Keane to be able to receive the ball at his feet. BC isn’t tracking anyone that far, but then again Keane isn’t running that far either (ditto gerrard at this point too). I like that match up.

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