Tactical Analysis

Match analysis: D.C. United 2-1 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Mikey Reeves

Two points through four games is not good. Or, as Jim Curtin is fond of saying, the table doesn’t lie.

Worse still, giving up two goals in three straight matches — against three of the least potent offenses in MLS so far this season — is no way to make a playoff case.

And yet, as a commenter pointed out under the match report, at least one expected goals model made the case that the Union were unlucky to lose to D.C., particularly given the incidental nature of the handball in the box that handed the home side the winning penalty. Philly is not going to play exceptionally pretty soccer this year, but they are going to cause chaos in the box and knock home a fair number of follow-ups, scramble deflections, and headers in traffic. Thus, it is the defense, including Andre Blake, that will determine the future of the team — and Jim Curtin — over the next few months.


Let’s start with the biggie. It was, in all honesty, only a matter of time before Andre Blake’s distribution issues directly cost his team a goal. Blake appears far more confident in the air this season, but he is every bit as poor with his feet as he was in 2016. Though many of Blake’s rolling kicks cost possession or fail to clear the half line, Saturday’s mishit pass to Fabinho directly led to D.C. United’s opener. Fabinho made a bad decision to keep the ball in play, but he never should have been put in that position.

There’s no deep analysis to give here. The goalie is one of eleven players on the pitch, to the extent that he can be involved in and maintain possession, and adds an entirely new layer of depth to buildup play. Furthermore, modern tactics are leaning more and more on the goalie as a facilitator of deep buildups, since his participation often creates a free man. Blake may never be exceptionally technical with his feet, but he needs to be able to consistently clear the ball. Otherwise, the Union are like an American football team with an incredibly poor punter: They end up with terrible field position and occasionally give up a touchdown that everyone agrees was wholly preventable. Whatever it takes to improve Blake’s distribution and confidence with his feet, it must be done pronto.

First half blues

Two self-inflicted goals made the first half one to forget, but they also overshadow the extent to which Philadelphia Union failed to inflict anything on anybody other than themselves.

Of the Union’s 17 shots, only five came in the first half and — weird, but true — two of them came from behind the halfway line. Yup, 40% of Philly’s first half attempts on goal came from their own half. (The other three shots: Fabinho’s accidental shot/cross, Chris Pontius’ misplaced free header, Haris Medunjanin’s fine curler that Bill Hamid slapped aside.) Jay Simpson, with zero shots and nine passes — eight of them backward, was all but invisible.

Despite leaving their attack in Philadelphia, the Union had a reasonable chance of exiting the first half with an even scoreline. Aside from Jose Guillermo Ortiz’s deflected opener, D.C. United’s only other shot on target came from Luciano Acosta’s fine run up the Union center that led to a scramble and, most likely, Richie Marquez’s head injury. This is a not-so-subtle way of saying that even with Philly’s shape going to mush following Ortiz’s goal, and D.C. United driving, trucks, buses, and even Bobby Boswell up the center unimpeded, the match was far closer than it often appeared.

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The Union, however, were doomed by timidity, bad communication, and poor spacing on both sides of the ball.

Oguchi Onyewu is more than just a big body: He has enough experience and intelligence to understand when he can step up from behind to win the ball or intercept a pass. Yet, in a way, this can become a problem.

Against D.C., Philly let large gaps develop between midfield and defense. At times, this was due to poor communication in midfield, but it was often because the center backs were quick to backpedal, even when the ball carrier was under pressure and the defense should have been compact. When there is more than a few yards of space in front of him, Onyewu is extremely hesitant to follow his man out of defense, rightly understanding that his relative lack of mobility leaves him exposed in these situations. Unfortunately for the Union, that left Ortiz to provide a simple outlet that released pressure and fed Acosta’s late runs. 

Onyewu was also quite timid on Ortiz’s goal, giving the striker far too much space in the box:

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It’s also notable that as dangerous as United’s wingers can be, they were largely decoys in the final third. Ben Olsen’s side deployed fullbacks with strong attacking tendencies but mostly held them deep to keep defensive structure. The wings, then, were responsible for drawing out Philly’s fullbacks and opening space behind them, which they did with aplomb. Paired with the Union defense’s tendency to drop quickly after turnovers, this meant Keegan Rosenberry and Fabinho were making long sprints forward to close down United’s wide men, providing time for the home attack to pick apart Philly’s pressure.

Communication breakdowns

As much as Onyewu’s hesitancy to leave the back line helped Ortiz thrive in the first half, poor communication was a far bigger culprit for the Union’s woes overall. On Acosta’s 14th minute chance, the Union defense failed to organize following a partial clearance, leaving Derrick Jones, Rosenberry, Onyewu, and Marquez all unsure of each other’s intentions. Jones picks up Acosta and shapes to shepherd him wide, but he isn’t close enough to close down the vertical passing lane into Nyarko. Meanwhile, Rosenberry sets up as if he’s preparing to step wide to Taylor Kemp progressing up the outside, leaving Patrick Nyarko for Onyewu. Marquez is working over to help with Ortiz, allowing Onyewu to get tight to Nyarko, but the big man is either hesitant to get close to Nyarko near the box or doesn’t realize Marquez has rotated over. As a result, Nyarko is in space on the edge of the Union’s box and the visitors had to scramble to defend Acosta’s run.

United picked on the right side of Philly’s defense all night, rightly recognizing that Rosenberry was struggling to understand his spacing with Onyewu. This, once again, appears to be a communication issue, though in fairness it could have been a series of bad reads by the second year right back, who seemed a bit lost throughout the opening frame (see his incredibly slow read that let D.C. escape pressure through the middle in the 36th minute).

A good example of D.C. taking advantage of the Union’s bad communication and organization came in the 43rd minute. Following a Marquez half-clearance, the Union midfield does a fairly good job pressing the ball and forcing it back to Steve Birnbaum. Pontius reacts well to pressure Birnbaum from the far side, forcing the defender to play the ball early. The U.S. international’s pass goes across the field to Patrick Nyarko who, moments ago, had Rosenberry in his grill. Yet the fullback has dropped deep, even with Onyewu and apparently responding to Ortiz’s run across the formation. Nyarko has time to collect and D.C. alleviates pressure.

Simpson’s struggles

Communication was also an issue going forward, where Jay Simpson seemed to be playing in a different game than his teammates and Alejandro Bedoya was basically playing a different game — one in which people move off the ball.

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Simpson, a less imposing figure than CJ Sapong by some measure, was determined to hang in the center to poach and, ostensibly, provide an option through the midfield lines. As Ortiz showed on the other end, this is a key part of buildup play when midfields are matched. Throughout the first half, Ortiz checked away from the defensive line and found acres of space to work in. By contrast, Simpson rarely made the same runs, and instead stayed high against the defense to such an extent that it almost seemed like a strange tactical decision to keep him uninvolved in buildup play. Not only would this be an odd decision for a team that builds their attack around a player who is wholly capable of pinging low, long passes through the lines, but it is entirely at odds with how Bedoya plays underneath Simpson.

Bedoya is not a traditional trequartista who thrives with the ball at his feet and is continually scheming to find it. Instead, he is always working to create space by making runs that drag a defense out of shape. When it works, Bedoya’s movement pulls a defense deep and creates big holes that Medunjanin steps into as he looks to spray the ball around the final third. But unless Simpson or a winger is reacting and complementing Bedoya by moving into the space he leaves, the US international is simply taking himself out of plays and removing the link needed to create triangles in the center and advance the ball cleanly.

The Union have never had strikers that show great anticipation, but Simpson was supposed to change that. His oft-cited pedigree — coming from Arsenal’s academy — is code meant to signify that he should have an advanced reading of the game. He may, but it has yet to show in his movement.

Curtin gets credit

Jim Curtin is going to take a lot of heat for Philly’s slow start to the season, and some of it is deserved.

But at the midway point Saturday, Curtin tweaked his team’s formation with the aim of taking control of the match by moving to an inverted triangle that capitalized on Lucho Acosta and Ian Harkes being far better defenders with the game in front of them than behind them. With Jones or Medunjanin stepping forward early and Bedoya acting as a link rather than a space-creator, the Union were finally able to create numerical mismatches using their dangerous wingers. Philly’s midfielders did what United did to them in the first half: Hanging behind the advanced mids, pulling the holding mid — Marcelo Sarvas — out of his sweeping position.

It all came together when Sapong replaced Simpson and put in one of his best shifts since the spring of 2016. More than just collecting his third goal of the year, Sapong was surprisingly willing to drop off his defender and provide the outlet when Sarvas tracked runners through his zone. This (along with Jack Elliot’s greater willingness to follow strikers into midfield on the right) turned the tables on D.C. Once Philly could play through the midfield lines, Bedoya’s movement became facilitative rather than a hindrance. He pinned Sarvas deep, and Medunjanin found more opportunities to stride forward with time.

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At this point, the potential complexity of the Union’s attack began to appear. Medunjanin could switch play and help create isolations for Ilsinho, quickly find advancing fullbacks with angled long passes, or play into feet at the edge of the box. Again, this didn’t create many clear-cut opportunities — the Union simply do not have anyone in the final third that can play the incongruent passes that lead to big chances (except, we are continually assured, Ilsinho) — but it allowed Philly to cause chaos around United’s box. As much as Curtin has preached about getting men into the box in the past, the Union have done it consistently this season (though often at the expense of buildup play that could create something more than a cross).

Curtin gets blame, too

A consistent and frustrating issue this season has been the Union’s lack of concentration throughout a match. The most punishing consequence was Toronto’s goal off a restart, but Orlando also caught the Union sleeping more than once, most notably on a throw-in that saw Rosenberry and Ilsinho admire Cyle Larin as he brought down the ball.

The problem was still evident on Saturday, particularly with the fullbacks. Below you can see Fabinho throw the ball in, then… just sorta stand there, not participating in the play. Perhaps there isn’t much he could do, but he can certainly do less standing out of bounds than he can do anywhere else.

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Later, Rosenberry failed to rotate over to Ortiz, allowing the striker to act as an outlet and establish D.C. in the Union half.

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Looking ahead

This was a bad loss. But in terms of actual play, it was more of an unfortunate loss. After Acosta’s 14th minute chance, D.C. scored on their only other shot on frame from open play, and the winning goal came on a handball at the very top edge of the box that could easily have been called ball-to-hand.

Also, Sarvas got away with a pretty bad stamp on Derrick Jones and stayed on the pitch.

But even if we accept that this loss wasn’t as damning as it first appears, there are long-term issues appearing that clearly need to be addressed. On Ortiz’s goal, he is granted time to turn and shoot because Onyewu doesn’t get nearly close enough to him in the box. Throughout the first half, Alejandro Bedoya’s runs were met with static responses by his teammates, suggesting that either Bedoya or the rest of the squad needs to adjust how they play if this system is to work. And finally, Philly remains unable to maximize the use of their wing play because they are often caught with two player in the same vertical space and no support from the center.

Perhaps the most worrying problem, though, is that the Union’s offseason changes do not appear to have made them a better team. Oddly, they have made them a much different team: the club appears to have moved sideways rather than forward.

These issues, along with the remarkably poor communication in both attack and defense, must become less apparent if the Union want to heave themselves off the bottom of the standings.


  1. Stellar work as always. You’ve managed to make feel better and worse about the Union’s chances at respectability all at the same time.
    It sounds like the core problem is having players standing around while the playmaker tries to make plays. Isn’t this basically the same issue from last year with Noguiera? And if it’s so many new players having the same problem, does that then mean that the ‘stand and watch’ strategy is coached, rather than coincidental?

    • The movement on this team has always annoyed me. It’s very static except for the wings and outside backs bombing up the flanks. There are glimpses of supporting positioning but it never feels like a whole team effort.
      I think this last game 2 players changed this and they are Elliot and Sapong (although I’d argue that Bedoya always does it). I basically mean that Sapong basically demanded the ball and it finally started rubbing off on other people (especially Herbers). And Elliot didn’t drop back so damn easy. I was really hoping that Onyewu would fix this but he didn’t, I’m starting to think it may be a Marquez problem though.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    And I quote…
    “poor, terrible, culprit, bad, struggling, doomed, unfit, timidity, self inflicted, accidental, hesitant.”
    I feel like the players and manager are trying to put together a puzzle on the field that has a picture on the front of the box and different pieces inside it and I’m in a crisis center with ideations of mounting global anxiety…bugs wishing evil upon me.
    I keep waiting to see the outline take shape and therein find a footing going forward, something to bring a sense the puzzle is heading in the right direction, that the shop owner hasn’t played a trick on me- that I’m not crazy– but ultimately get anxious and paranoid, decide to skip group therapy in favor of Xanax and Clonopin, sit in a room all day rocking back and forth.
    self regulate.
    let go.
    channel mounting ‘phrenia.
    & heal thyself.

  3. Looking at these clips, it just looks even more like a team without a plan. It may be in part because it’s a lot of new players out there, particularly up the middle. They just don;t know what each other are doing. But that has to be on the coaching.

  4. I agree completely with what cszack4 said above, both about your stellar work, and about you making me feel both better and worse at the same time.

    I can’t escape the niggling feeling that we are just one element away from having the pieces fit together into a well-functioning squad. Maybe I’m wrong — I don’t have the soccer mind you have, Adam. Am I off base?

    Many people say we are missing the #10 that we need for this formation to function properly. Is it as simple as that? We were all so focused on getting a replacement for Nogueira — maybe it was equally important that we had a replacement for Barnetta. And Bedoya, with all his abilities, is not a like-for-like replacement. Or is it something else we need?

    It just seems like there is too much talent on the team to be playing this… aimlessly.

    • Atomic Spartan says:

      If we still had Nogs and The Calm, we would still lag behind Atl and others who have entered MLS 3.0. We’re still a midtable 2.0 side, even with them.
      Other missing pieces? How about a coach who can fit square pegs in square holes and doesn’t wait 65 minutes to do it?
      The U look more and more like a 5 year moneyball project. I’m along for the ride because that’s what Philly lifers do. But I fear for the development of a larger fan base in the interim. I’m not getting any younger and this is aging me even faster.

      • Who outside of ATL is MLS 3.0 in the East though? NYCFC? Toronto? Everyone else is either trying to play moneyball (NJ, DC, Columbus, NE) or have very MLS 2.0ish lineups (Montreal, Orlando, Chicago).

      • What makes a team MLS 3.0? An international coach? multi-million dollar transfer fees?Ambition? I don’t get the definitions. Not trying to be difficult. Just genuinely not sure what it is people are looking at when they talk MLS 2.0 vs 3.0.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Been waiting for a comment like this… it’s difficult always being the instigator and I’ve turned a new leaf thanks to an offseason coming to understand Citizen Insane.
        Once there was Weapons of Mass Destruction then there was Fake News now it’s MLS 3.0. What gives.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        Thank you, Pete. That’s a 4.0 question.

      • That made me laugh.

      • I consider 2.0 and 3.0 to be teams investing in multiple, high cost Designated Players. The 2.0 teams invest in big name, aging European stars while the 3.0 teams invest in players who are big money and in their prime.

      • That would make the Union an MLS 1.5 team?

      • Adam Cann says:

        Here’s one take: “That’s the essence of MLS 3.0. Building players is better than buying them, and the teams with the patience and structure to do the former are about to separate themselves in a big way.”

        From: https://www.mlssoccer.com/post/2014/07/21/armchair-analyst-first-days-mls-30-and-other-week-19-thoughts

    • @scottso – I don’t think you’re wrong, but I also think that’s generally the case with most struggling MLS sides. The difficult part really is figuring out which piece is needed for the Union. You look at Seattle last season – clearly needed a piece and got it. Same with DC United.

      The issue for the Union is that they don’t have a clear, single positional need. What they have is the need for a player that is a game-changer and draws the attention of the opposition. Be it a striker, an advanced midfielder, or even a goal scoring winger like Nacho Piatti, Philly does not have anybody that you can really point to and say, ‘That guy, when we need something special, will deliver.’

      Having that player bends a defense, because he acts as almost a gravitational center that pulls a defensive shape toward him, opening up space for your excellent supporting players like Medunjanin and Bedoya.

  5. Zizouisgod says:

    The clip of Fabi being frozen after the throw in was unbelievable. Perhaps he thought there was a mannequin challenge planned for both teams?

  6. Philthy-Dee says:

    I found it comical the announcers stated Curtin’s intent to keep the forwards and defenders within 35 yards. The D retreats to the 18 too quickly and leaves the midfield open like an open tarmac.

    • I agree. But Curtin has stated multiple times that this is what he wants. So the question is: Is the coach not communicating it, are the players not listening, or do the players not care? Now since I know what he wants them to do they clearly do too. I think now becomes the time where we have to start benching people who aren’t doing what the coach wants because no matter what you think of the coach, if the players won’t execute the system then they cannot be counted on.

  7. scottymac says:

    You can call it unlucky when teams are expected to score and don’t, even with a plethora of shots (though the majority threaten popcorn vendors more than keepers). But what does it really say when a team with a 2 goal lead sits back and gives away possession at home? DC bunkered, it wasn’t that CJ all of a sudden put it together, a middling side conceded half the pitch. Go on U, have a kickabout, check the scoreboard.
    Look, the reality is:
    – Set pieces have been abysmal, gimmicky garbage.
    – Bedoya runs around like it’s an U8 match w/o any regard for shape or system or anything
    – Whether you play Ilsinho at the 10 or my Aunt Susan, neither is a distributor (unless it’s great apple pie), so we need to stop the madness and find an ACTUAL CAM
    – Did you know that the hallmark of Jim Curtin coached teams is shoddy defending? From a career CB this shows an amazing lack of understanding how to play or coach the position. The U concede 1.55 goals a game under Jimmy. 1.61 in both 2016 AND 2015 (also sort of indicting how Edu’s play doesn’t really matter). The only worse season was 1.63 in the expansion year 2010. So when you apply that kind of statistic to a team like DCU who hadnt SCORED A GOAL IN 2017, can we really say it’s unlucky to give up a brace? I think not.
    You know what was unlucky? That the two schmucks who convinced Garber to start a club in Philly were Sugar and Sak. That’s like 13 years of broken mirrors and black cats unlucky. That’s Curse of the Bambino and Steve Bartman stuff.

    • The Truth says:

      A club in Chester*

    • el Pachyderm says:

      I said this in the post game write up when people were commenting about CJ’s game changing ability. I can’t agree more. 71st minute. 2-0 game. Its why the statistics are skewed data points often and cannot be used. A simple eye test showed DC slip into neutral and concede possession and cleanly see out a 2-1 game.
      No question.

      • I’d agree if we were just talking about us having aimless possession, but we took a ton of shots, many on goal.
        We didn’t get shots on goal because DC went into a defensive shell. If anything, a team going defensive should result in their opponents getting LESS shots on goal, not more.
        Feel free to cr@p all over the team for falling apart against Orlando’s pressure, but to complain because of a soft penalty and a deflection that they played awful is not justified.

  8. DC plays ugly and this group isn’t ready to dictate pace. If the U play like that half against TFC, they’ll get results. Garber just signalled support for the organization from the Academy up, so Jay has no heat from league. A playoff win is what most fans set as a goal and it’s too early to tell if it’s beyond reach.

  9. Tim Jones says:

    In reference to Rosenberry, we are learning how important his familiarity with Josh Yaro is.
    I hope someone at Jim Curtin’s new conference tomorrow asks for an update on Maurice Edu. There were supposed to be decisions made on the basis of an immediately pending evaluation two weeks ago at least, and nothing has been said.
    If Adam Najem does well at ACM in USL with the Steel, he might warrant a look at ACM. Maybe by June.
    Most insightful comment above was that it feels like a five year moneyball plan is in place. I have had that suspicion since the Simpson signing, for reasons I can not yet explain to myself.

    • Agreed on the 5yr moneyball plan but think it is also a stalling tactic based on Adams MLS 3.0, until the Academy and BSFC can start to regularly generate above average MLS talent with some elite talent thrown in. The thing is that they have to be good enough to keep the fan base tuned in until that happens. (if it does)

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