Match previews

Preview: Union at New York Red Bulls

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union (4th in the East, 42 points, 11-11-9) at New York Red Bulls (2nd in the East, 48 points, 13-9-9)
What: Regular season game
Where: Red Bull Arena
When: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 7 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Jose Carlos Rivero; Linesmen: Corey Parker, James Conlee; Fourth Official: Mathieu Bourdeau

Alright, let’s do this again: Philadelphia Union travel to New Jersey to face the Drinks once more.

The Union are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of Montreal Impact and two points up on DC United. They are a less panicky six points up on New England, who sit just below the playoff line.

Since we have already reviewed the Cows this season, let’s dive into a few aspects of their defensive pressure, what makes it successful, and where it has weaknesses.

The pressure pit

Unlike the Union, who drop off a bit if they aren’t counterpressing, Jesse Marsch’s pressure is more constant. It is a man-oriented pressure, which means players tend to shadow their opponent from a few yards away, allowing them to receive the ball but quickly pressing to force an errant pass or, at minimum, push the ball toward specific players.

Against, Toronto FC two weeks ago, the Energy Drinks spent the first half focusing on Marky Delgado. Pressure on the young midfielder was designed to force him into courageous passes. Delgado misplaced three balls from his own half in the first forty-five, and when Greg Vanney made the move to a 3-5-2, it was clear who would be making way.

Man-oriented pressure is a useful hybrid between man-marking and a purely zonal system. Instead of using space to orient themselves on the field, the defense uses the other team. This means that Jersey will build their defensive shape around the ball carrier and the closest players to him. The keys to successfully executing this type of pressure are, a) Minimizing the amount of space the other team has available for a next pass, and b) signaling from the ball-presser that allows the rest of the team to read and react to his movements.

Thus will you see Bradley Wright-Phillips work hard to push the opposition to one side of the pitch (lately the Drinks’ right). This lets one wide midfielder slide toward the center while the other wide mid chooses between stepping high to close off a pass to the fullback or staying off to allow the fullback a pass, depending on whether New Jersey feels the fullback is a weak passer or not (or, at least weaker than the man passing him the ball).

The downside of man-oriented pressure is that it means your defenders are often a yard or two away from attackers, so a high quality pass-and-move team can work around pressure if they are willing to commit enough players around the ball. Additionally, teams can do what Philly did last time out and make the focus of their attack quick, big switches that allow them to advance the ball and attack open spaces on the run so the defense can’t get re-set.

A final issue can arise if the team doesn’t remain compact. This has actually been a recurrent issue for the Union this season, with the center backs dropping so deep that the opposition can easily use their striker as an outlet to relieve pressure; Fanendo Adi thrived in such a role in Portland.  

[gfycat data_id=CrispWildBlueshark data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

On Toronto’s goal above, New Jersey’s man-oriented pressure is broken when two players step to Michael Bradley. Both Sean Davis and Felipe believed they should step to the ball, when Felipe should have slid right to cover a forward passing lane since the goal of pressure would be to force Bradley to move the ball to a less dangerous opponent who can’t advance it.

Instead, Bradley keys a quick attack that moves both forward and wide. This two-dimensional shift makes it quite a bit more difficult for the Cows’ defense to adjust. In fact, they never do. Felipe starts to follow the ball, Davis ends up behind Bradley, and Damien Perrinelle follows Altidore across the formation, opening the entire center of the box. Once a man-oriented press is in retreat, it must switch to man-marking, and that change is when it is most chaotic and easiest to break down.

Philly’s success against Marsch’s press this season hasn’t come through breaking pressure like above. Instead, it has come by switching fields and advancing up the flanks at speed. The Pink Cows’ center backs tend to lock onto players in retreat, meaning good movement can create huge holes on the counter. Below, you can see the Union pass through an early press then attack the back line with angled runs.

[gfycat data_id=ThunderousPopularBuckeyebutterfly data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

There is also an opportunity to play through pressure by rotating central players out of the middle and dropping a striker into the resulting hole. This is often more effective than moving wingers inside because the Cows’ midfield will often follow or exchange midfield players well, but central defenders are more hesitant about stepping too high (though Aurelien Collin and Damien Perrinelle will certainly fly into midfield at times).

Importantly, dropping a striker into midfield does little unless there are vertical runners around him. Creating holes in a high-octane press is always a time-sensitive endeavor, and once the ball has moved into an area there will certainly be bodies around it quickly. This means the Union need to be active running off of CJ Sapong when he has the ball. It also means that if the Union go with two holding midfielders again, they will need to be coordinated enough to make runs forward when they are the free man. Below, you can see Altidore drop deep while wide players push high on the right to create space and an inside runner prevents the defense from collapsing on the man with the ball. 

[gfycat data_id=UnrealisticAustralianShelduck data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

Changes on the wings

Now that Dax McCarty is healthy again, the home midfield will be a fairly consistent McCarty, Felipe, Kljestan going forward, with Sean Davis filling in as needed. On the flanks, however, changes have been afoot. Long-time starters Lloyd Sam (now with DC) and Mike Grella have made way for academy product Alex Muyl and newcomer Daniel Royer.

Muyl is young and makes many of the same offensive mistakes as Fabian Herbers: Impatience going forward, forcing a few passes, and loose crosses.

But Muyl has an engine. And he uses it to shut down the right side defensively. Although Greg Vanney gets justifiable praise for spreading the field in the second half against New Jersey, a not-insignificant reason Toronto was finally able to create chances was Muyl subbing out for Sal Zizzo. The flawed but industrious Zizzo played far deeper than Muyl as Marsch’s men sought to hold their lead, and TFC went to work in the channel in front of Zizzo and Chris Duvall.

Below, you can see one chance created from that hole. Also, pay attention to Damien Perrinelle getting dragged behind the rest of his defensive line. New Jersey’s stud striker will have no trouble dispatching goals if the Union defense gets crooked.

[gfycat data_id=ElasticWetBeardeddragon data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

Muyl only has a single goal on the season, but he has accumulated five assists. Unlike Lloyd Sam, who had a dribbling element to his game, Muyl tends to draw attention off the wing to free space for Kemar Lawrence’s crosses. And on the wing opposite the rookie, by no coincidence, Daniel Royer is proving quite adept at getting on the end of crosses.

Though he may not have the technical ability of Grella, Royer has shown good awareness and a willingness to get deep into the box as a second runner. This not only takes pressure off Bradley Wright-Phillips, it also can suck a defensive line deep and open space near the top of the box for Sacha Kljestan.

Royer’s MLS career is in its infancy, though, and it will be interesting to see how often he tracks back to help with Fabian Herbers, who has been influential advancing the ball with his feet in recent weeks.

Bradley Wright-Phillips is having a pretty ridiculous season.

Bradley Wright-Phillips is having a pretty ridiculous season.

Union goals

As Jim Curtin said in his midweek presser (full transcript here at PSP), New Jersey has only given up a lot of leads because they’ve earned a lot of leads this season. Particularly at home, though, don’t expect Jesse Marsch to take his foot off the pedal and sit back after grabbing an early goal. The Union will need to absorb a lot of pressure, avoid getting caught on the ball (see below), and pick their places to counter with numbers.

The Pink Cows will tire. But if they are two goals ahead by that point and Jozy Altidore’s name isn’t on your teamsheet, your probability of a comeback is still low. So the keywords for Philly over the first hour of the match are: Composure, organization, and patience.

Next, the Union need to stick close to Sacha Kljestan. Toronto moved Michael Bradley deeper to get him space and time on the ball, but New Jersey has no such plans for Kljestan. Instead, they try to create triangles that move defenses out of shape so Kljestan can pop up in recently-emptied space and pick his head up. Countering the Drinks’ creator will probably involve some sort of shadowing by Warren Creavalle and Brian Carroll. The deeper duo are likely to start again with Tranquillo Barnetta’s knee a question mark and the playoffs fast approaching.

The last goal is improved communication. Bradley Wright-Phillips is as good as any striker in the league at creating separation before he makes his run, which often means both central defenders are uncertain who should go to the striker and who should be covering space. If Ken Tribbett retains his place (which seems likely given his strong performance last weekend), he and Richie Marquez will need to watch Wright-Phillips while also providing better support when the fullbacks push high.

Lineup questions

Curtin said in his presser than Barnetta will likely play a role Saturday, though whether that will be in the first eleven or off the bench is up in the air. The guess right now is that the same eleven will start this week that trotted out against Toronto. The ability to rest Barnetta but have a better defensive midfield option than Ilsinho is too tempting to pass up.

Although it is unlikely Maurice Edu will see the pitch, he could very well be in the team against this weekend. It will be interesting to consider how his inclusion in the first team could change Philly’s counterattack against New Jersey should these teams meet in the playoffs.

Prediction: Energy Drinks 2-2 Union

Why expect anything different? Even with personnel changes, these teams are largely consistent in their approach to the game. If Jersey scores early, the match will come down to how well Philly converts their transitions. If nobody gets a first half tally and the match gets stretched, a key factor will be how well the Union center backs hold a higher line to keep Wright-Phillips from becoming a presence in the Drinks’ build-up.

The Union’s big takeaway from last weekend is that they can hang with the best in the East (minus Giovinco). Now they must show that they can do the same against another side with MLS Cup ambitions. Jim Curtin wants Tranquillo Barnetta to play as many matches as possible in a Union jersey. There is a good chance that maximizing that number will mean defeating New Jersey in the playoffs. This weekend, Philly can prove they have what it takes.


  1. Adam, in their last 4 matches the Union have averaged 0.75GF and 1.75GA. Do you see that continuing? I feel like this is a tale of two half seasons. They sprinted out early and did well and are now clinging on. Since the start of July, they’re 21GF/23GA over their last 14 matches. 4-6-4, 16 points out of 42 on offer.
    Not to be negative, but what do you see in this team that makes you think they’ll get a road point? The TFC draw? I believe they’ll get a goal, but I don’t feel a second. I can see them getting in, mostly due to DC on the road and MTl/OC cannibalizing each other. But the gap between us and the top 3 will widen.

    • This team really doesn’t have anything resembling contender to it since Nogs left. It’s just been a grind. In their current form, I think they’ll be lucky to slip into the playoffs and I doubt very much they’d get very deep.

      The armchair football manager in me is curious about this team employing a 3-5-2 formation. Maybe something like:

      Tribbett – Yaro – Marquez
      Rosenberry – Bedoya – Barnetta – Carroll – Pontius
      Herbers – Sapong

      Edu replaces Carroll when fit. Fabinho can come in to rest Pontius and give you more defense when you need to hold a game. Alberg can sub for Herbers or Sapong…

      Anyway, if I had Fifa 17, that’s my Union lineup.

      • I would love to play a 3-5-2 although in my opinion Carroll is completely pointless in that formation. His lack of attacking ability becomes even more pronounced. He does a great job of protecting the 2 CBs behind him but become worthless when there is 3.
        I do believe we intended to play 2 distinct formation this year. 1 on attack and 1 on defense, which rounds into a nominal 4-2-3-1 on average. a 3-3-1-3 in attack (with out #6 dropping back an essentially becoming a CB, perfect for Edu…) and a 4-4-1-1 on defense with our outside attacking mids really dropping back. Injuries have prevented the attacking look we wanted unfortunately.

      • True on Carroll. Edu, though would be interesting. Maybe even Ilsinho. Definitely our new signee, Kratz.

        Still think Alberg is a striker with a striker’s mind. Would love to see him up high. Maybe even above Sapong in a 4-4-1-1

      • 4-4-2 diamond.

        Sapong / Davies-Herbers
        Pontius – Bedoya
        Edu or Carroll
        usual 4

      • I feel like that’s how we play anyway. It’s the exact same players on the field at least so I doubt there would honestly be much change.

      • Yeah, I feel like the 3-5-2 requires 2 really strong #8. Could actually work well with an Edu-Bedoya pairing honestly. I agree that Alberg is a striker. Although I’d be tempted to play him as the 10 in that 3-5-2 and see what happens.

      • They were a team on the ascendancy with Noguiera… a gut punch still sucking’ air in hopes of actually breathing soon.

    • @Scotty – If we go with a window that just includes matches with Alejandro Bedoya, Philly is 3-2-3 (this excludes the whomping in Chicago that he missed) and they have taken 7/12 points on the road, which isn’t too bad (though it disguises that they beat bad teams and dropped points to better teams, though tying TOR on the road was no small feat).

      My logic is far from airtight, and the Union have been nothing if not inconsistent this year. So when they lose 3-0 I won’t be fanning myself in surprise 😉

      But my logic is that over the course of the season – I think this is partly driven by Barnetta’s desire to go forward fast and partly by Rosenberry’s reduced role in the offense as teams adjust to him – Philly has become more of a transition attacking team. With a midfield of Bedoya-Carroll-Creavalle that stays compact they can disrupt NY’s buildup play and break quickly going the other way. All that said, I’m also quite certain that NY will create some chances, particularly if Creavalle/Carroll can’t find accurate first passes to break pressure off turnovers.

      Which is all a long-winded way to say I’d bet more money on the NY “2” in that scoreline than I would on the Union “2.” But I do think Philly has shown they can create chances in difficult environments.

      • Man…. I’d trade you for Tommy in a NYRB minute. I pretty much read and learn and keep my mouth shut as …
        …I appreciate your analysis and fully recognize you have the benefit of replay and review and deep thought—over in game commenting…but what ‘we’ most need is erudite in game tactical commentary… not ‘sacks of onions’ and ‘phenomenal’ overuse.
        A gaping hole still that remains unfilled since TT and AMoreno left.
        Alas I guess we receive what we are given and are the better for it regardless.

      • RBNY -$190
        Union +$500
        Draw +$310

        That my friend, is a prohibitive road dawg.

        But if you believe strongly enough, the draw looks a value.

      • Honestly, I’m feeling pretty good ahead of this game. Coach Curtin usually has some trouble making tactical changes and subs later in games to see them out for max points. But with NJ, they tire themselves out before subs and late game strategy matters. So we’ll get our 20-25 minutes of attack at the end, pretty much regardless of what the scoreline looks like. That’s great news for a team that’s been victimized by late goals in recent weeks themselves.

  2. Why does it seem that the tactical sophistication of Adam and the commenters on this site is greater than that of the Union coaching staff and sporting director?

    • Because Adam and everyone else here has the benefit of hindsight. Its pretty easy to second guess someone’s decision once you already know what happened.

  3. This content is really cool. I have bookmarked it.
    Do you allow guest post on your page ? I can write
    high quality articles for you. Let me know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *