Commentary

Halfway there: Gili starts, Haris’ defense, direct play, and other notes at the midseason mark

Photo: Earl Gardner

With another short turnaround following a 3-0 win versus New England Revolution on Sunday, Philadelphia Union are already preparing for Thursday’s road date with Sporting Kansas City. After a solid win over D.C., a painful loss in the U.S. Open Cup to New York Red Bulls where they were the better team, and the aforementioned beatdown on New England, the Union are surely trending upwards.

Even without captain Alejandro Bedoya and the irreplaceable Andre Blake for the next few weeks, Philadelphia appears to have settled into a distinct rhythm and style that should serve them well over the international schedule. As MLS’ Matt Doyle wrote on Monday, the Union have the fourth best record in the league since the end of April. Yes, seriously.

Now officially at the season’s halfway point, the Union’s improvement is a combination and culmination of consistency, trust and belief amongst players, and finding their true identity.

Gili ascends the XI

Sometimes new signings are assured starting roles, like Alejandro Bedoya or Haris Medunjanin. Other times, an injury offers a chance for playing time, such as C.J. Sapong filling in for Fernando Aristeguieta in 2015 and never looking back. For Giliano Wijnaldum, it’s been about proving himself on the training ground and at Bethlehem Steel before being ushered into the 18 and, finally, a starting left back role.

On Sunday, Gili absolutely proved that he is worthy of keeping that starting XI spot. While he may not offer the forays up and down the flank of Fabinho, Wijnaldum’s defensive positioning and decision-making are incredibly astute. Instead of long runs and benign crosses, he benefits the offense by simply stymying attacks and cleanly recycling the ball to the team’s playmakers. On Sunday, Wijnaldum had five tackles, five interceptions, and one clearance. In Fabinho’s last MLS match versus New York Red Bulls, he had zero tackles, one interception, and five clearances, meaning he was consistently emergency defending rather than calmly handling attacks before they became dangerous.

Based on both the stat sheet and the naked eye, there can be little argument that Wijnaldum should own the left back spot for the rest of the season.

Captain Medunjanin defendin’

Many of us here at PSP were skeptical before the season of playing a regista at the No. 6 without a true defensive midfielder by his side. And while the early returns weren’t promising defensively, Haris Medunjanin has surely figured out his role in the Union’s system to great aplomb.

Most surprisingly is Medunjanin’s recent defensive prowess. Against New England, the Bosnian led the team with six interceptions and added another two tackles – including one that led directly to Alberg’s golazo. It was a remarkable individual performance which showed that Haris, while not fleet of foot, understands his positioning incredibly well. This sort of defensive dexterity lends itself perfectly to the Union’s style (more on this below).

Lastly, and this can’t be said enough, Medunjanin has shown himself to be a tremendous leader on the field. With the captain’s armband the last three matches, he has led by example through play and temperament, exerting the sort of passion and character that will endear him to Philadelphians for years. His standing ovation Sunday was well-deserved.

In defense of direct play

Speaking of Medunjanin’s role as the source of the Union’s offense, his pinpoint long balls are a beautiful thing to behold. Yet, they often bypass the rest of the midfield and thus eliminate any Guardiola-esque build-up play that us soccer fans love. And that’s just fine.

Without a true No. 10, Medunjanin’s cross-field lasers are just what the Union need to feed their fleet of foot and/or workman wingers, aided by the outstanding hold-up play of C.J. Sapong. The second goal versus New England is a perfect example of the Union’s style: Jack Elliot earns possession of the ball and recycles it to Medunjanin, who places a brilliant fifty-yard ball to a streaking Fafa Picault at the top of the 18, giving the winger time and space to make a phenomenal pass to set up Ilsinho.

From center back, too, Jack Elliot has shown he can aid the Union’s direct style of play. On Wednesday in the U.S. Open Cup match against the Red Bulls, Elliot’s long ball found Roland Alberg one-on-one at the 18 to let the Dutchman do his thing and send the game to extra time.

It’s not tiki-taka, but it’s working for the Union.

Killing games

While direct play has its benefits, closing out games is not one of them. The inability to shut the door on opponents has plagued the Union for years. Yet, against New England, the Union, no doubt out of gas after 120 minutes in Harrison mid-week, easily controlled and killed off the game to the cheers of olé from the River End. It was a delight to not see any Andre Blake highlight saves late in the game to save points. Hopefully, the Union can learn and replicate this tactic, especially while Blake is at the Gold Cup with Jamaica.

Rotation?

The last question ahead of the Sporting Kansas City fixture is whether Jim Curtin tinkers with the lineup at all. With a short turnaround, a busy last two weeks, and abundant heat and humidity, it would make sense. But, as we all know, Curtin digs his consistency and this adaptation of the Union XI has been playing like a well-oiled machine. With a week-off looming, don’t expect many changes Thursday.

7 Comments

  1. A fun game, but one issue prevails: Gaddis. I saw him do nothing positive with several breakdowns. If he is truly better than Rosenberry, then it is time to ditch both and move on.They have an excess at CB move one over.

    • Rosenberry is better than Gaddis in every way. You can’t throw away what happens last year. It’s not like Rosenberry won the RB competition because Gaddis was injured all year.

      Instead what is happening is that Rosenberry is going through his struggles and we have a coach that doesn’t let him work it out on the field

      • When has Curtin letting a player work out his struggles on the field helped? CJ, Wenger, Pontius, Rosenberry at the end of last year…
        .
        I’ll add, I agree something needs to be done. I just don’t trust Curtin to do it.

  2. John Harris says:

    Earnie is building this team from the back. The defense is currently the best part. I am already curious to see who comes in to replace the mutts up front. Would have been interesting to see the Costa Rican but I can’t fault the organization … I can only assume that they didn’t get their deal. Fne by me that they didn’t take it. All that said, Sugarman is still cheap.

  3. scottymac says:

    “Curtin digs his consistency and this adaptation of the Union XI has been playing like a well-oiled machine”
    .
    Dude, come on.

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