Tactical Analysis

Post-match analysis: Union at Orlando City SC

The first loss of the season always hurts, but the way Orlando City SC neutralized many of the successful parts of Philadelphia Union’s early season performances may become the more lasting pain from Saturday.

In much the same way Philly forced Toronto to play away from their strengths a week ago, OCSC did the same to the Union this weekend.

Orlando City rolled out a 4-4-2 that gave Giles Barnes a free role off the left and challenged Oguchi Onyewu to aggressively step into midfield without harsh winds as a crutch. They spread out the Union defense and dared CJ Sapong to extend pressure too far. They pressed Keegan Rosenberry and Derrick Jones and reaped rewards for their efforts. Perhaps most importantly, they asked what would happen to the Union attack if Bedoya was cut off from the buildups, and the answer was a worrying “Not Much”.

But for all the trouble OCSC gave Jim Curtin’s men, a post was all that stood between the visitors and a share of the points.

Right to left to Rivas

Carlos Rivas is a player reborn. From a guy who played like a mutant that couldn’t control his athletic powers, Rivas has become a more controlled and intelligent mover up front. So many players with his skill-set never add intelligence to their games, but Jason Kreis seems to have pushed Rivas around the corner, and the Colombian has become a do-everything support for goal-scoring terror Cyle Larin.

Orlando City was able to exploit Rivas’ talents by attacking up the right then switching fields and opening the Union’s midfield. From Matias Perez Garcia, the ball moved across the pitch until a lane opened. Philly stretched itself out, and Rivas could step off of the center backs to receive balls behind the defense. This is almost the perfect way to attack Oguchi Onyewu, who was hesitant to follow into midfield without windy uncertainty as an aid.

OCSC could also attack directly up the left as they cycled the ball around. With Danny Toia pushing extremely high and Giles Barnes drifting infield, Rivas would move into the near half-space and overload the defense. Orlando struggled to create big chances from these overloads without the creative genius of Kaká, but they were able to control the flow of the match throughout the first half by working combinations deep in the Union half.

Minor issues add up to big ones

Orlando’s attack was facilitated by numerous small defensive errors from Philadelphia.

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Above, you can see that everybody backs off Carlos Rivas when he cuts the ball back. It’s easy for the attacker to pick his head up and loft the ball to Cyle Larin at the back post.

These seemingly minor defensive mix-ups were all too common on Saturday. Philly often seemed unsure who should press the ball and who should hold their position, and these uncertainties granted Orlando City time they simply should not have had. Below, you can see at the open of the clip that Jones isn’t close enough to the ball to add pressure when Perez Garcia turns away from Fabinho. Later, Bedoya doesn’t cleanly hand off Nocerino to Jones or Onyewu, and the Italian midfielder nearly beats Blake to the spot.

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Again, the clip below shows a Union side playing reactive instead of instinctive soccer. Jones is in position to help on Larin should a ball come over the top, but he doesn’t react to Rivas’ checking run. This allows Rivas to pull Marquez out of position as Orlando City builds their attack. To be clear, Jones likely can’t read the play quickly enough to step into the lane in front of Rivas, but he can apply pressure to a man who receives the ball with his back to goal, and that pressure can force Rivas into a mistake or at least speed up his thinking.

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This is actually something Orlando City did with aplomb on Saturday. Rosenberry, who has struggled the past two matches with the quick pressure teams are applying to him, fails to look up and rotate the ball because Giles Barnes pressing forces him to play into a tight area.

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Rosenberry (R) and Fabinho incomplete passes. The right back had a lot of giveaways in his own half.

Defensive holes

Beyond their issues with on-ball pressure, the Union’s defense also lacked the coordinated movement that characterized their previous two matches. Orlando City consistently pulled the visitors’ front six up the pitch and attacked the gigantic space left in front of a defense that was extremely hesitant to step high. Part of this was great tactical design from Jason Kreis, who replaced Kaká with, well, space. Instead of inserting an attacking midfielder into his lineup, Kreis used two wide creators and a pair of high-workrate players through the middle. This left the center empty, and when the Union allowed Larin and Rivas to push the back four deep, they provided the home side with a huge area into which the strikers could check to facilitate dangerous attacking moves.

Below, you can see the Union’s entire midfield bypassed by a single pass off Philly’s own throw-in. The back line is deep, worrying about Larin, and Medunjanin doesn’t rotate over to cover the center with Jones pushed high on Barnes.

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The same issue appears again as Philly’s defense reacts to a turnover by immediately dropping — and putting Larin onside — which leaves Rivas with an enormous gap to receive the ball. Medunjanin doesn’t recognize Rivas’ positioning and shadow the lane to him quickly enough, and the Union are immediately under threat. In these situations, a team that wants to counterpress needs to find ways to minimize space on the pitch, not create it. While it is normal for a back four to drop when the man on the ball has time to pick his head up, the Union need to be situationally aware and recognize that with Larin offside, they have the ability to step up to Rivas and close space. This coordination was lacking on Saturday.

Below, Philly faces a situation in which the ball carrier is under pressure, yet they again respect the strikers and leave a gap between the back four and the midfield. To be clear, these problems are not entirely on the back four, but they do highlight the absence of communication and organization that can quickly give opposing teams space to run at a back line.

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All of these small miscues came together in a single dazzlingly frustrating moment on Orlando City’s first goal.

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On this play, Orlando City has time to look upfield. Rosenberry steps up, Onyewu steps up, Marquez is late stepping up, and Fabinho is apparently acting like he stepped up but doesn’t actually do it. This results in a five-ish yard pocket of space behind the right side of the Union defense, and Rivas simply takes a great first touch, drives toward goal, and centers the ball to one of MLS’ best finishers. There are many questions on this play, but the organization and Onyewu’s positioning stand out the most.

Switching off: Sleepytime edition

Another persistent issue for Philly was a clear lack of focus. Numerous times, the team would turn off when the ball was in seemingly non-threatening positions only to discover moments later that they were suddenly in trouble.

Take the play below, in which the Union saunter around while the ball is high in the air. Onyewu returns to his position, assuming Rosenberry will pick up Larin. Rosenberry returns to his position, assuming he should cover Barnes. Larin hangs out in space he didn’t even have to create because the Union were busy creating it for him.

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Watch something similar happen below. Rosenberry has two players to cover while Onyewu is completely free but unwilling to step up. Meanwhile, Ilsinho casually hints at helping Rosenberry, but only after Larin has brought the ball out of the air and assessed his options. Moments later, Perez Garcia is easily switching fields and forcing the Union defense to re-align on the edge of their own box.

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Onyewu may have committed the most egregiously sleepy error when he didn’t track Larin after an aerial battle. First, here is the entire play:

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On the replay, you can see that this isn’t simply a speed issue — Onyewu takes a few steps then turns off the gas, while Larin reads the situation perfectly and puts himself in position to score.

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Switching off: Going away from what works edition

The Union also went away from a commitment to switching fields. This was partly due to Orlando City’s strong pressure on the ball, but it was also about impatience and C.J. Sapong’s dedication to staying tight to the OCSC back line.

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Above, Derrick Jones forces the ball into traffic when he could have moved it wide to force the defense to move. Additionally, Sapong fails to move any defenders after giving up on his check off the back four, meaning Jones has only a narrow gap to hit with his direct ball.

Below, the Union rotate the ball from the left to right and force Orlando to rotate across the pitch. Although Rosenberry plays a poor ball wide to Bedoya, there is a lot more to see here. Specifically, watch the lane to C.J. Sapong as Orlando’s defense moves. Two Orlando defenders move across the pitch with Herbers, creating a gap in between the center backs. Servando Carrasco moves off of Medunjanin, but not quickly enough to shadow the passing lane into Sapong. Instead of checking in or making a move wide then looking for the ball between the central defenders, Sapong does nothing. His reading of the play is too slow to take advantage of OCSC’s rotation. These small moments are similar to the ones that cost Philly defensively. While the Union have certainly been undone by clear individual errors in past seasons, this year has been marked by these slow reads and worrying lapses in concentration.

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In the interest of pointing out a positive, here is a play where switching fields provides the Union with what they want: The ball on Haris Medunjanin’s feet with time to look up.

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Fabinho drives at the defense but doesn’t loft in a low percentage cross, Pontius pushes the back line deep to create more space in the attacking half, and both Medunjanin and Bedoya recognize the space and move into it.

Minor fixes

All in all, Philly was far from their best but still had a chance to earn points on the road. They need to become a team that trusts and sticks to their gameplan. Whenever the Union lose focus, they fall back on bad habits. Here, for example, Fabinho ignores a wide open Bedoya in order to loft in a cross that even alternative facts can’t justify.

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In the same vein, here Sapong — often credited for his strength and willingness to battle —  is somehow beat to the key spot in the box. Contrast that movement with Larin’s in the clips above.

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And, unfortunately, Ilsinho’s defense makes another (dis)appearance:

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All of these things need to be ironed out. They show a lack of focus that was a feature of Philly’s mid-to-late season decline in 2016. Jim Curtin used to say that everybody had to play a strong match for the Union to compete. The roster may be stronger now, but that means nothing if the players are unfocused, uncoordinated, or unsure how to pressure the ball in key situations.

The Union need to take steps forward on these fronts immediately, because a huge match with DC United is just around the corner and going four games without a win to start the season is a big hole to dig for yourself.

Also, congrats to Jay Simpson on his third straight start…


  1. Great analysis as always. This to me points to a lack of leadership on the field. The team needs that leader that organizes the team properly during game play and yells at his team mates whenever it’s needed.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Fabinho played outrageous passes a couple times and finally got a WTF hands up from Bedoya deep in the game– maybe a more proper tongue lashing is necessary.
      If I can get my ass chewed out by an italian plumber on a sunday for not playing the RIGHT WAY…well a WTF to our captain for not demanding it in that game of his subordinates and lieutenants. Oh Captain my Captain.
      …Alejandro is a likely quality player and a ten(10) in France as I keep hearing over and over in a system and on a team that plays at the highest level with players capable of playing at the highest level-he simply cannot vaporize for enormous stretches in games on a team with youth and quite frankly middling players at this point….and I’ve seen it happen now a couple times, most notably when his team needs his poise on the road.
      This team lacked poise saturday… Panic at the Disco soccer.
      It is simply unacceptable and I hold the captain culpable… and the manager who just ….

  2. If the Union look that outcoached, outclassed and disorganized on April 1 against the dumpster fire currently raging in D.C., I might be hiring one of those banner planes for the next home match.

    • I fail to call any game a must win at this point, but they need to look MUCH better against DC. I still think having Simpson and Ilsinho in there will make a big difference.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Hope your right. I got a feeling though. Ilsinho ain’t gonna be the guy.
        Fafa gonna get his spot 4 minutes. Roland gonna sporadically place the world on his shoulders in a game that is ‘dire’ ‘disorganized’ and ‘disheveled’ in the last few minutes.
        I love this organization and the direction it is going… but you got to play well…
        …and if you can’t I’m going to skewer the first team until it is the mean and not the outlier.

  3. Watching the game with some friends….We kept saying that the midfield was not connected to the forward play or the defense…Your analysis explained how it was happening! My eyes are not up to seeing it yet but this kind of info helps tremendously!! Thanks!

  4. Adam Schorr says:

    The thing that jumped out to me, both when watching the game and when watching these clips, is that I have *no idea* what the Union’s plan is on either side of the ball. None.
    On offense, as best I can tell, the Union’s best offense comes from getting the ball on the right flank running at the defense and firing in a cross at Bedoya/Pontius/Striker and seeing what happens. If that’s the plan, then Fafa or Epps should be starting at RM so they can use their speed to generate crosses, or Ilsinho because at least he can beat his man to create danger. If the plan is to play through-balls up the middle, then Sapong is an awful fit and we should find a better and/or faster mover. If the plan is to high press and generate offense off turnovers, then Medunjanin and Onyewu need to be replaced by guys who can cover more ground faster. As of right now, the plan appears to be “aimlessly cycle the ball until we either turn it over or fire from far away not on goal”. That’s not much of a plan. And our 3 goals so far have been one where the ball took a Union bounce off a 50/50 challenge and two where the goalie was a step late off his line. They simply are not creating good chances (and even the PK given was a foul outside the box). And since I don’t know what the plan is, I don’t even know what lineup changes to suggest.
    It’s much the same story on defense. The Union’s defensive strategy appears to be something like “press high, then foul when beat”. This has led to two straight very chippy games, because when your defensive strategy is “foul”, you end up fouling a lot! It looks like the Union want to press, but they’re basically running a 4 man press, which is pointless. Jones runs around like a madman, which constantly puts him out of position, but if he doesn’t, opposing teams would basically have infinite space to work with running at the back 6. Which may actually be better than what they’re doing. Medunjanin legitimately just does not play defense most of the time, and if you watch those above clips, you’ll notice him out of position, unsure of responsibilities, and failing to step hard enough to cause problems. And the backline never seems to know whether they should be stepping or dropping, and so they never really do either. Marquez and Blake have been huge so far, but they’re being asked to do far too much.
    So, what are the fixes? Benching Medunjanin may be the place to start. He’s having minimal offensive impact and significantly negative impact. Dropping Bedoya back to his spot shores up the D and, quite frankly, puts Bedoya back where he belongs. Ilsinho or Herbers then slot in at CAM, Ilsinho is better off the dribble, while Herbers is a better creator. Fafa and Epps slot in at RM, where their speed can generate balls in to Pontius (coming in off the left), Sapong/Simpson, and the CAM coming in late. That would create a much more clear offensive (generate crosses to Pontius and Sapong/Simpson) and defensive (shield the back four with two high work rate players to force the opposing team outside, where Blake and Onyewu can deal with crosses) gameplan.
    So what will Curtin do? Probably nothing. Lol.

    • I agree with much of what was said here, but not necessarily the fixes. Medunjanin has been one of the only players with class out there. He’s not fast, no, but you need some creativity on the field. Jones will learn when to run and when to stay home, and then he is a good compliment to Medunjanin. Herbers is solid, but we are not getting enough from either wing, especially if Sapong is starting.
      The bigger problem you found, is that the plan is not there. Or, if it is, its a horrible plan. These are the types of games where Curtin is made more obvious that he is outclassed. Also, I understand the standard that in general you play a little more conservatively on the road, but we looked like a different team completely.
      Lastly, it’s time for Winjaldum to get a start, same with Fafa and Ilsinho. We have some depth now, roatate the squad, show that results matter.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        I watched it live at practice… the tactical game plan is cycle, hopeto get defense slightly out of shape and play a diagonal ‘long ball’ to either the OB or OM for a hopeful cross into a striker or back post weaksideOM
        IMO this is the offensive game plan as evidenced by every game Jim Curtin has managed. Which brings us back to the defenders not being able to do their job without support and the outside mids first being responsible to defend and the skill players sitting The bench in favor of having to chase games late which is when the manager plays his ‘trickster’ cards.
        IMO besides the younger panicky players in certain positions: KR, FH, RM who clearly are uncomfortable under pressure…there is zero chance to retain possession on the road. The book is out. High press. Union can’t nadle it AND can burn you for over committing… no speed of skill outside.
        Case closed.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        *can’t burn.

      • It’s tough to argue this. Bedoya (who isn’t perfect by any means) had his hands in the air on several occasions Saturday when players made mistakes. We’re going to finally find out is Curtin can adapt at all.

      • Crazy thought. Since Bedoya is having trouble creating and can shore up D, does it make any sense to flip him and Haris? Not sure if Haris can play that advanced but he is creative and excellent passer.

      • Thought about this same thing.
        Not sure Medunjanin is comfortable that high up the field and it would pretty much kill the high pressing game but would cover for him defensively better.

      • Jim Presti says:

        Medunjanin can’t run so you basically can’t press. Never gonna happen.

      • Adam Schorr says:

        That sounds like a terrible gameplan! In basketball, forcing the “diagonal long ball” is literally the goal of the defense. Why? The longer the pass, the more time there is to recover! Cross-court/field passes have to be perfect and perfectly handled to result in anything. If that’s their gameplan, it’s a shitty shitty gameplan and they need to go to something else.
        Using basketball principles, the goal should be to cycle them out of place, pass in to a cutter into the mistakenly open space, and then either fire off a shot or hit a second cutter. Watch those clips of Orlando attacking the Union – get the ball to the man in space, then make runs at the already moving defense. That’s how you play offense.
        Now watch the Union. Minimal movement. No attacking cuts. Just terrible offense. On that “How does Sapong get beat to spot” play, it’s hard to count how many things went wrong. Medunjanin’s ball is way too short, forcing Pontius to almost stop to retrieve it. Bedoya and Sapong both slow down initially. Pontius scuffs the shot. Sapong gets beat to it because he didn’t make the hard cut initially. Bedoya gets to the back post late after initially failing to run and then has the gall to throw his hands up even though if he had start cutting right from the outset he would have been in much better position and been there much sooner.
        Just bad all around. Bad bad bad.

      • Jim Presti says:

        So pull the defense slightly out if shape and then lump hopefully crosses into the box. Let me know when we finally hit 15 points on the season with this tactic.

  5. I really don’t get the way Curtin has Bedoya pressing so high up the field from the CAM position. Maybe someone can explain it to me?
    He is frequently as high if not higher then the forward. It takes numbers out of the midfield (which also helps to explain all the space that Orlando had there) and means that 2 Union players are often bypassed with a single forward pass. I can’t think of another team in the world that looks to high press from a single striker formation (notably 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3) while pushing a midfielder that high. The biggest advantage of those two formations is having a numerical advantage in the center of the field (3 vs the 2 in a classical 4-4-2) yet the Union look to throw that advantage away by design. The role of the striker is to push the ball to one side of the field and keep it there while the others press/trap and cut off simple passing lanes forcing either a turnover or a long ball. In pushing Bedoya high with the striker, the ball can simply be played into the space he vacates or, if Medunjanin and/or Jones step forward to cover, then it opens up the space between the midfield and defense Adam highlighted above.
    I just don’t get it.

    • Jim Presti says:

      You don’t get it because it’s counter intuitive to the formation and makes little sense given the formation. You essentially concede the middle of the pitch and hope to trap the ball on the flanks at the feet of your opponents outside back. I think the idea is that they will lump the ball forward or cycle possession the other direction. But once you by-pass the press, there is acres of space.

    • I think what happens is that Bedoya is supposed to follow cues of the player in front of him, so when Sapong gets pulled so far up Bedoya is supposed to keep the space between small so he gets pulled up too. I really hate the full time full press though. It has it’s uses but not all the time.

      • I get compressing space.
        Bedoya is not compressing space, he is completely abandoning the midfield and turning the team’s defensive shape into almost 4-4-2, which doesn’t really work well as a high press because you lose the numerical advance in the midfield allowing the press to easily be broken with a simple pass. He is as high as or beyond the striker so frequently that it has to be from instruction and not from him doing his own thing.

      • The thing is it stops happening in the second half. Every game it has happened. The pattern makes no sense. I honestly don’t know why.

  6. How many of our problems would be fixed by getting a better LB?

  7. OneManWolfpack says:

    From the excellent (as always) article: “They need to become a team that trusts and sticks to their gameplan. Whenever the Union lose focus, they fall back on bad habits.”
    This is on Curtin right? I mean, this is coaching. It’s his team, and has been for a long enough period of time, where “losing focus” should happen WAY LESS then it actually does.
    I will say it until I am proven wrong. Curtin is a problem… (but not THE ONLY problem) – that will have to be addressed as this season goes on.

    • I ask this, as I’ve asked it before…What is Curtin the answer too? What has he actually done? If willingness to play young players is his only quality, then that’s just not enough. Time for him to go.

  8. The players on the Union have absorbed the coaches persona, colorless in a deliberate way. You can not play this pressing system without high energy and total unity. Ilsinho can NEVER play this system. OO can NEVER play a high line. Sorry Adam , it is the speed and nothing else. The coach should not play what he wants, but set up according to what he has. I looked at my analysis of the clips and gave up the analysis as too long. Passing the ling diagonal is Phila. H.S. stuff. It will NEVER win games and should be forbidden.Did you notice how often the Union players were jogging in and out of position? Central defenders jogging back to cover nothing. When dealing with a press, the surrounding players must support with a vengence, not with a jog. If KP has the ball ,The wing must SPRINT back to him, the right central midfielder must SPRINT to support centrally , the central back must RUN to give an outlet as a back pass, and the other central midfielder must make himself available for a splitting pass. This is a complete indictment of the coach and his style. Sorry, he must go, like today.There is so much bad here, even Adam cannot hide it.

  9. Better soccer minds here can correct me but I’m struck in these clips by the frequency of two Union players doing the same thing: marking, pursuing, moving to space. Misunderstood roles? Miscommunication?

  10. Old Soccer Coach says:

    We are perhaps learning how much coordination and understanding there may have been last season between Rosenberry and Yaro.
    When Bedoya thrusts forward defensively against an opposition center back or flank back, he is trying to deny them both a back pass to the keeper and a square ball to a center back. The theory is that such pressure forces the ball to stay in that side channel and allows the defense to concentrate to receive it.

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