Tactical Analysis

Post-match analysis: DC United 0-4 Philadelphia Union

Photo by Mikey Reeves

After notching their first win, shutting out the visitors who had the second highest road Expected Goals of the MLS season, Philadelphia Union earned their second three pointer of the year with a rout at RFK Stadium. Unlike last week’s win over New York Red Bulls a week ago, Philly did far more than parry blows and exploit mistakes. A standout performance from potential MLS Player of the Week Haris Medunjanin was one highlight among many, but tactical cracks remain even as rising confidence smooths the rough edges that led to an early season slump.

Start it with a positive ‘jan…in

The question has never been whether Haris Medunjanin can make a pass, it has been whether that elite skill should be deemed — overall — a luxury or an asset.

The Bosnian has not done himself any favors either, with high profile defensive errors including losing the ball in his own end and backing off of shooters dominating the narrative about his ability to cover the back line. But in truth, Medunjanin has been steadily improving since Bedoya joined him in a deeper role. After the nightmare second half against Montreal and a bit of a turn on/turn off defensive show in LA, Medunjanin has improved his spacing with Bedoya and been far more aggressive and intelligent in his zone pressing, keeping defenders from turning and exposing his agility by attacking him on the dribble (additionally, he has continued to show quick feet in tight areas defensively, such as robbing Lucho Acosta on the edge of the box).

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The contrast between the Medunjanin-Bedoya pairing and the D.C. United midfield was striking.

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With Jared Jeffrey at the base of an inverted triangle including Ian Harkes and (nominally) Acosta, D.C. sent out three midfielders particularly susceptible to the gravity of the ball. Philly had multiple chances develop after D.C. left the middle abandoned like a Walking Dead settlement after the walkers break in.

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In fact, Medunjanin’s opener came about after Jeffrey failed to hand off his man and trailed into the back line, while Bedoya’s late run froze Harkes and provided time for the Bosnian’s blast (which Bill Hamid made a very Bill S. Preston, Esq. attempt to save).

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Last time the Union faced D.C., Acosta was ever-present. He nearly scored driving in off the left, and, along with José Ortiz, constantly snuck into spaces behind Philly’s midfield. Notably, Acosta was drifting out to the touchline long before he let his height dictate his emotional age and was sent to time out for the final 35 minutes of the match. With Patrick Mullins largely glued to the offsides line and D.C. unable to attack through the center, the Union had far more success tracking Acosta and leaving him space in low risk areas of the pitch.

Shots through the heart

Even as the Union have improved their pressing and generated more turnovers, they have remained unable to transition quickly into dangerous opportunities. The first half against New York City stands out, but even against Red Bulls there was a need to create more real chances off hard defensive work. Against D.C., the Union created enough good opportunities to put the match away early. There was Ilsinho’s 20th minute run at goal, C.J. Sapong’s left-footed bouncer wide, and Fafa Picault’s moving inside to threaten from the left. Finally, Philly made turnovers count, which helped stretch out D.C.’s shape. Jeffrey remained deep in the center, Harkes had acres of ground to cover, and the wingers that were supposed to provide service to Patrick Mullins were retreating or coming narrow to fill gaps through the middle.

As a result, Union fans finally got to see what it looks like when the opposition can’t put quick pressure on Medunjanin. The big midfielder’s passing range often overshadows his creativity, but on Saturday both deserved their own spotlight. Freed up to move vertically by D.C.’s inability to attack through the center, Medunjanin could advance the ball with his feet, move it wide, or play deep, needling makeshift right back Steve Birnbaum.

In fact, this may have been the key aspect of the match: The Union found an opponent’s weakness and attacked it. Birnbaum is an excellent central defender, but with the ball largely on the far side of the pitch, he became lost without the typical reference points in front of him. Lloyd Sam often disappeared from the right to slide into the center, Jeffrey see-sawed in and out of the middle, and Kofi Opare’s movements were near unpredictable at times. All this left Birnbaum on his heels against Picault, who had the freedom to slip inside or out to the wing.

Picault took six shots on the night, and produced one of the most dangerous performances off the wing Philly has seen this year.

Putting it away is problematic

Despite being the far superior team on the night (D.C. truly was a mess from start to finish, with Taylor Kemp’s crosses being the biggest threat), the Union were let off the hook at least three times before Oguchi Onyewu doubled the lead and broke the home side’s spirit. First, Ray Gaddis’ one man show re-envisioning of Lost In Space nearly allowed Acosta to set up Mullins on a very similar play to one that Blake snuffed out earlier this season. The little midfielder played the ball to his striker’s feet, zipped into the box and moved in on Blake, but his centering ball found Mullins asleep at the wheel.

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Next, Birnbaum was left entirely — and yes, ‘entirely’ is the right word — alone on a corner kick but failed to punish the Union. Third, Fabinho stunningly went to ground on Lloyd Sam in the box, and he was lucky that Tightly Coiled Disciplinarian Chris Penso was replaced at halftime with Slightly Indecisive Chris Penso.

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With the possible exception of the Fabi tackle, each of these was far more than a half-chance, and the industriousness that saw Philly first to many loose balls was nearly undone by a few lightswitch moments in back.

These incidents should be put in context though: Philly has minimized the narcoleptic tendencies that hurt them in early matches, and even though D.C. and Red Bulls each created good looks, it usually took a good cross under pressure or at least hard work through midfield to get near goal. This is a far cry from the Montreal goals that saw attackers grooving through mansion-sized spaces in the box.

One big question

As the Union’s midfield gains in coordination and defensive effectiveness, one question looms large: Can this team compete with minimal input from the 10 position? And not minimal input in terms of goals, since Roland Alberg certainly may contribute his share, but, instead, in terms of influence on the rest of the game. Alberg and Ilsinho have occupied the advanced midfield role for Philly’s two wins, and both players have been unconstant presences on the ball. Against NYRB, Alberg showed the quick thinking that makes it seem as though he’s growing into a more active role in the center, but he also struggled to open himself and help develop sustained attacks that could quell New York’s aggression.

Ilsinho appeared dangerous when he could pick up the ball and run at a defense (though there’s a worrying line of thought that focuses on the “appeared” in discussions of Ilsinho’s danger-making), but similarly failed to provide connections that could let the Union move forward as a group.

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This weekend, Sapong dropped into the middle to provide more linking play, but that is a band-aid that looks like a long-term fix only if Jared Jeffrey or an over-caffeinated child sits in the opposition holding midfield role. Going forward, Philly needs to establish more of a presence in that advanced central role because that will help the team move forward and possess the ball.

As effective as Medunjanin is from deep, the Union become far scarier when he is 30-35 yards from goal and picking out runners behind enemy lines. To create that space, the Union need an involved attacking midfielder; not every team will rely on Luciano Acosta as part of their midfield trio, and that means Philly’s midfield will have to continue to improve to exert similar control over future matches.

The season begins now

Seattle, KC, Toronto, Orlando, Dallas, Atlanta. And Philadelphia. Those seven clubs have put together four match unbeaten streaks this season. This is another way of saying that MLS usually gives slow starters a route back into the playoff mix. The Union are finally playing with a type of confidence that could see them challenge many of the Eastern Conference’s mercurial squads, such as Atlanta and New England. But the one thing all fans and coaches will be watching now is what happens when Philly’s luck turns again. Over the past two matches, the Union have finally had the ball bounce their way in key moments, but that won’t last forever. Can Philly sustain confidence in the face of a setback now that they have tasted victory?

It’s impossible to say until the moment arises. This week brings an interesting test in Houston Dynamo, who come to Chester in first place but without a single road point to their name. Philly’s defense — and, more importantly, Philly’s confidence — will surely be tested.


  1. How is the Ilson fig a bad decision? He is the 10 and was looking for a key pass that wasn’t that far away from finding a union player for a shot on goal.

    i feel like is that was barnetta making that pass it’d be a “nice try for a great pass” but for ilson we want him to make the safer pass that may not have led to a chance on gola?

  2. Rihie_the_Limey says:

    I kinda agree with James re. Ilsinho being slated for a bad decision. The blame is shared by the runners making their runs too late AND is compounded by the fact that they both run to the same area which makes it too easy to defend. Yes, we have no real No. 10 but the problem is amplified because nobody (apart from the rarely spotted Jay Simpson) actually makes any intelligent runs.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @james&the limey –
      I should have been clearer on this one – my bad. What I want to highlight there is that after Ilsinho takes the first big (and very pretty) touch into space, he has both Pontius and Medunjanin in space in the center. If he takes the early pass to Haris, Philly’s best passer now has the ball with a 4v4 in front of him and Marcelo trailing. He can go back to Ilsinho cutting behind the defense, across to Simpson, or anything else that left foot of his can imagine.

      Additionally, I’d argue that the pass to Haris is the pass Philly’s attack dictates Ilsinho make. Medunjanin is the hub of the offense, and finding him in space is how good things happen.

      So I guess I’m less critical of the pass itself as I’m critical of the decision that slows the break down, allows DC’s defense to get compact, and allows Marcelo to fill the lane to the middle.

  3. Correction: the day after tomorrow brings an interesting test in Houston Dynamo. It’s Colorado on the weekend.

  4. OneManWolfpack says:

    Next three games – 7 points. Keep the good times rolling. We aren’t fixed or perfect, but the tough schedule we had to start, is now relaxing… and we have a chance to make it all the way back from the awful March and April. If this team is 4-4-5 or better at the end of May, I will be quite content.

  5. Great analysis as always. A good reminder to not get too high or too low on this team. Props to Curtin on a number of fronts. I was really happy to see Fafa get the start, and he rewarded Curtin with again showing that he is a real attacking threat. After the RC, we did not see the typical Union resting on their laurels, but instead they continued to press high and move DC’s tired legs by attacking open space – fun to watch. I was also really impressed with Curtin putting Simpson in to get real minutes. We saw a creative side to Simpson we haven’t seen yet with two beautiful, crafty cutting balls that Herbers should have put away. Thankfully the kid got off the hook with that ridiculous finish he had no business trying. Simpson is quality and he’s in a tough position with CJ in top form. Smart of Curtin to play him.

  6. Jack Mahon says:

    Nice, Adam.
    We are still missing that consistent #10. Alberg? Ilsinho? I’d at least THINK about Pontius? He seems to have become an assist machine. And JC HAS shifted players around.
    Now Fabinho’s gotten a lot of crap [from me, too] but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, as did Penso, on that questionable tackle. He kicked the ball away from the striker, then the legs got tangled. Was there any saving the ball from going over the line? Dunno? I’d say a good ‘no call.’

    • HopkinsMD says:

      I watched the replay a couple of times and I think it was a great no call… if anything, maybe a dive.

  7. “Sapong dropped into the middle to provide more linking play, but that is a band-aid that looks like a long-term fix only if Jared Jeffrey or an over-caffeinated child sits in the opposition holding midfield role.”

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