Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: Philadelphia Union 3-1 FC Dallas

Unsurprisingly, Philadelphia Union were attacked once more through pressure on the flanks, with Ray Gaddis and Giliano Wijnaldum often overloaded. But with Kellyn Acosta on the bench and some last ditch defending (led by more strong play from John McCarthy), the Union were able to maintain a clean sheet into second half extra time and allow their playmakers to create in the way Jim Curtin has often claimed is possible. The combination of Ilsinho’s individual brilliance, and Haris Medunjanin’s ability to find the passes no one else sees provided flashes of what the Union can be when the pieces fall into place.

FC Dallas looked to control the shape of the game through Mauro Diaz in the center. The playmaker sprayed balls out to Michael Barrios and Roland Lamah to attack Philly’s outside backs, apeing the pressure so many have applied to the Union defense recently.

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Defensive movements on point

However it was clear that Jim Curtin’s side had made adjustments. The defense did a far better job of staying compact and keeping numbers in the box to deny FC Dallas the final pass.  Part of the defense’s success reflected better rotations in midfield and the sense that the squad had a coordinated response to Dallas’ attacks. The typically hard-working Bedoya maintained a huge defensive effort throughout the match, to the point where Diaz was all but taken out of the game (and at half-time, Diaz was, in fact, taken out).

Notably, Illsino putting in an atypically strong defensive shift leading the press turned what has recently been a stretched center into a more cohesive unit, preventing Matt Hedges from finding lanes to start Dallas’ dangerous counters. This meant that the visitors’ biggest threat, Maximilliano Urruti, was playing primarily with his back to goal and checking back into the midfield to receive the ball, severely limiting his ability to threaten McCarthy’s goal.  

Finally the other team’s 10 struggles

The absence of Kellyn Acosta, FC Dallas’ best box-to-box player, meant that in the first half Mauro Diaz had to take on more defensive responsibility than usual, and — in a tale Union fans know far too well — the number 10 fell short of the mark.  Philly played two up the middle with Medunjanin using his time on the ball to pick out Fafa Picault deep early, then send slicing balls through a dropping defense later on, bringing Ilsinho into the match more and more. As Dallas looked to close down the Brazilian, the granted more space to CJ Sapong, who duly took advantage of the rare freedom to attack the box. As mentioned in the PSP preview, FC Dallas featured their preferred back four for the first time in several games.  There is no doubting the talent there, but the rust marred its shine.  

The second half brought a change in formation for FC Dallas, withdrawing the creative yet defensively challenged Diaz for the goal-shy Cristian Colman and switching to a 4-4-2.  The change slowed the influence of Medunjanin, but also served to eliminate the width that had been the largest threat to the union in the first half.

The Union back line stayed more compact without threats from wide, and despite the need for several scrambled clearances. McCarthy’s continued strong play and the first overturned goal from VAR ensured the Union came out mostly unscathed.   

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The Goals

For all of the tactical improvements, the first goal was more down to a moment of individual brilliance from Philadelphia’s playmakers than any tactical adjustments. As was largely the case throughout the first half, the Union were able to use the lightly-marked Medunjanin to build out of the back and switch play to the right, where Ilsinho found space to do what he does: Take on anyone.  Some lackadaisical Dallas defending allowed the Union to break into attacking third, and after some scrambling, Medunjanin again found himself with time choose among good options. A brilliant flick from Ilsinho released the Bosnian through the right channel, and his smart cross allowed CJ Sapong to do what he does best…be in the right place at the right time. Philadelphia had an early — and much-needed — lead. 

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Minutes later, the Union grabbed a second off more sloppy defending from Dallas and a fine strike from Ilsinho. Off of a long throw, Carlos Cermeno got sucked too far into the box away from the Union dangerman, and Philly’s in-form Brazilian lashed a half-clearance into the bottom corner of Chris Seitz’s net.  

As we have seen time and again, the Union’s top two playmakers are not blessed with speed, but given time and space, they can find ways to punish you.

The Union added to their tally through lovely build up play in the second half.  With Sapong checking back for the ball and pulling big Matt Hedges away from the back line, some nifty 1-2 play put Ilsinho into the space.  Seitz managed a save, but spilled the rebound, and Hedges failed to track Sapong into the box, leaving an easy finish for the big striker once Ilsinho — perhaps remembering how upset he was when Picault was selfish in behind recently — cut back the loose ball.

Against a strong if stumbling Dallas team lacking their most important road player, the Union showed what they are capable of when they can create time and space for skill players. The Union can be a strong team playing with a lead when they build from deep and spread the defense out to allow Medunjanin and Ilsinho to split the lines.  In one of their best performances of the season, the Union looked like the team Earnie Stewart imagined when he chose two over-30 playmakers to be the driving forces of creativity.   


  1. Nice analysis. Bottom line, our midfield beat theirs man for man.

    I wish we could get a video of Ilsinho’s run through the midfield just prior to the flick sequence on that goal. It had a bit of a Maradonna build up to it as he blew past 3 or 4 guys.

  2. I just want a repeat performance. Or something close to it. They should be having these performances more often.

    • If we can convince the other team to leave their best midfielder on the bench every week, and then not bother marking Medunjanin, the Union will have these performances a lot more often.

  3. Mikey, thank you for the highlighting of Bedoya’s defensive effort against Diaz.

    • Along those lines, it seemed to me the medunjanin and bedoya switched roles. Isn’t that a tactical change?

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