Analysis / Union

Postgame analysis: Philadelphia Union 4-1 Real Salt Lake

Featured photo: Earl Gardner

Philadelphia Union played their best game of the season Saturday, and suddenly they’re on a two-game winning streak.

The Union’s 4-1 win over Real Salt Lake saw dominant attacking performances from Fafa Picault and Borek Dockal, with both putting in their finest shifts of the year. It also saw a continuance of some key divergences from season-long trends that began last week against Montreal.

Let’s take a closer look.

Speed kills, and so does Fafa Picault

Fafa Picault is on fire, and it set the tone for the whole match.

In the game’s first 21 minutes, Picault put three shots on goal and assisted on the game’s first goal, which changed the game state and gave the Union a sense of comfort the rest of the day.

In the first half alone, Picault got into the penalty area with the ball on his foot at least six times, and that doesn’t count his first shot on goal, which opened the floodgates in the 11th minute. The Union peppered RSL’s goal with 10 shots on goal. Only a solid performance from RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando kept the score from being worse.

Give the Union midfield credit for finding Picault and Marcus Epps, particularly Haris Medunjanin, whose long diagonal passes to both wings were very effective.

Picault owned RSL right back Adam Henley so completely that RSL head coach Mike Petke pulled Henley at halftime. Lest you say that Henley left due to injury, note that Petke had his subs warming up before the 40th minute. Picault’s inadvertent kick to Henley’s head was just a figurative statement of intent.

Dockal explores the left

For the second straight game, attacking midfielder Borek Dockal did most of his dangerous work on the left side, particularly in the channel between the right back and right center back.

Borek Dockal passing chart vs. RSL. (Green: complete. Red: incomplete. Blue: assist. Yellow: key pass.)

Consider these numbers on Dockal’s completion of open play passes either entering or beginning in the attacking third:

  • Left attacking third: 8 of 11, including all three of his key passes
  • Right attacking third: 2 of 9

His goal, of course, came down the right side on a perfectly chipped shot to close a solid passing sequence from Alejandro Bedoya and Marcus Epps. Dockal’s decision said volumes about his on-field smarts. He knew Nick Rimando’s only play was to fly off his line, as he had done earlier, so Dockal’s best option was a one-touch chip. It was a beauty, maybe the Union’s goal of the year.

This is the player Union fans have been waiting to see.

Union goals and assists vs. RSL.

Attacking balance

For the second straight game, the Union effectively used both sides of the field, in contrast with their frequently demonstrated of overwhelming right-footedness earlier this year. Thirty-nine percent of their attacks came down the right, 34 percent down the left, and 27 percent down the middle, according to

Three of the Union goals were created from the left side. The fourth was Dockal’s, in the open field.

But what’s most notable here is that these goals were created from two-sided play. What made the Union’s fourth goal so impressive wasn’t just the fact that it was a blistering blast from distance by Keegan Rosenberry, but rather the fact that it was his second distance shot of the day — his first hit the post — and both came on ground passes from the other side of the field.

Seven different Union players recorded key passes, or passes that led to shots, led by Bedoya and Dockal with three apiece. That’s the kind of balance every coach wants to see.

Union chance creation vs. RSL. These are key passes that led to Union shots. Assists are in blue.

Marcus Epps has bolstered that, providing width on the right, staying disciplined enough to not crowd the middle, but recognizing opportunities for runs toward goal when they emerge. Likewise, Keegan Rosenberry has pushed up more into attack, and Bedoya has been a factor with some good runs.

But it’s the advent of Dockal in the channel between the opposing right back and right center back, along with Picault’s devastating attacks down the left wing that are probably the most significant. Picault is getting a good amount of touches, and he’s doing something with them, whereas David Accam was forcing his play and being ineffective in the process.

Issues at striker

With Cory Burke suspended and C.J. Sapong injured, this had to be the game in which Jay Simpson got a run, right? Right?

Wrong. Simpson not only didn’t start, but he didn’t even make the 18. (Neither did Fabian Herbers, for that matter.) Simpson has fallen so far that Union head coach Jim Curtin chose not to name a striker among his substitutes. If that isn’t damning enough, consider that it was almost a given that Curtin would need a sub at striker.

Sapong started, but he was obviously hobbled and playing at less than 100 percent. He had just 21 touches through 63 minutes, though his positioning helped create space for teammates. His most telling stat — surprisingly, for a striker — may be that he had zero defensive actions on the day, a departure for one of the league’s best defensive forwards.

Cory Burke returns from suspension next week, and Burke should get the start if Sapong is still hobbled. It’s a long season, and the Union need a healthy Sapong for the breadth of it.

Awful defenses = slump busters

There’s no cure for a slumping attack like the league’s two worst defenses.

The only team to give up more goals this season than RSL’s 25 through 11 games is — you guessed it — Montreal, the Union’s opponent the week before.

With right back Tony Beltran injured, left back Danny Acosta in Petke’s doghouse, a slow pair of center midfielders, an uncoordinated back line, and an attacking midfield that doesn’t play much defense (outside Brooks Lennon), Nick Rimando remains the team’s saving grace, and that isn’t enough.

The Union don’t get a cupcake opponent next week like they have the last two. Instead, it’s the New York Red Bulls, statistically the best team in MLS right now, and one built around a frenetic high press that defines the team. Consider that game a measuring stick, and if that’s not enough, the Union get Toronto and Atlanta (and Chicago) in their next three games after that, meaning they play the league’s three best teams in their next four matches.

RSL: A cautionary tale of overvaluing European experience

RSL looks like a classic example of overvaluing experience in Europe’s top second divisions.

  • Henley spent most of his career in the English Championship.
  • Center back Marcelo Silva has been kicking around Spain’s second division for years and showed little sign of his quality.
  • Damir Kreilach had productive seasons in the Bundesliga’s second division, and while he finishes nicely, he has demonstrated all season that he lacks the engine required for a No. 8 center midfielder in MLS. RSL was better off with the perpetually underrated Luke Mulholland.
  • Striker Alfredo Ortuno has started just one game this year after coming over from Spain’s second division, and he didn’t play Saturday.

Ortuno and Kreilach are each making over $1 million per year, while Silva is one of the league’s highest paid defenders at $711,875. They are three of RSL’s four highest players.

RSL put together a very interesting season last year, but right now, they’re a team in major trouble because they thought it was still 2011.

Union sporting director Earnie Stewart should view them as a cautionary tale, much like Jay Simpson. You can still find affordable quality in Europe if you shop well, but you have to shop smart, scout thoroughly, and recognize that MLS is not the trash heap it once was.

Closing thoughts
  • Trusty is ready for his close-up: Auston Trusty has been playing like an all-star. Seriously. Don’t be surprised if he gets his first senior U.S. national team cap within the year. (Of course, this being Philadelphia, he’ll probably get benched next year.)
  • McKenzie steps up again, but…: Fellow teenager Mark McKenzie put in another solid shift. That said, as good as he has been, remember the competition. McKenzie was deservedly PSP’s Player of the Week last week, but how much of a factor was Ignacio Piatti’s fatigue? The Union need to remember Jack Elliott’s quality and not staple him to the bench when they could use some solid rotation during the three-games-in-eight days stretch they face after the Red Bulls game.
  • Rosenberry is back: He’s back. That’s all.
  • Curtin’s question: Check out the segment of the interview below. The relevant 45-second stretch closes with this from Curtin: “So I guess the question is, what if we’re a good team?” The next two weeks may answer that.


  1. Where did that supporting possession movement and 1 touch passing come from. A very welcome sight!

  2. McKenzie had some really impressive plays out of pressure in the back. Keeping the ball on the ground, dribbling out a pressure and finding a pass. It’s clear to see why he may be favored a bit more than Elliot right now.

  3. pragmatist says:

    The one thing I think this analysis is missing is a discussion of the improved play from Gaddis. His offensive forays bring him back into relevance with this team. If he can maintain that pressure while playing quality defense, that is a huge boost to this team.
    But as was pointed out, let’s not get too comfortable. The real tests are coming up over the next month.

    • Agreed! The knock on Gaddis historically is total lack of offense. If he can continue to get forward and make a decent contribution to the offense, Fabinho may be hanging up his cleats with this team.
      Dockal was also the Dockal we were all hoping for at signing too this game. Lets see if he can do it against a tougher opponent in the pink cows.

    • Saw on reddit that he mentioned in an interview that one of the new coaches has really helped him.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      I covered it last week a bit, when I wrote that he played his best attacking game in years. I thought he played well enough vs. RSL, but not as well as against Montreal.

      • pragmatist says:

        I’ve been a little less participatory lately, so I think I missed that. Sorry about that!

  4. Pray for Adam Henley

  5. Atomic Spartan says:

    All credit to the lads. Finally there’s been stuff on the field that we’ve been longing yearning burning to see. Kudos and best wishes for continued success.
    But Jim, memento mori. “What if we’re a good team?” Really? You have for all intents and purposes tried to tell us that you’re not. Knives to gun fights, punching above your weight, max effort required of every player every game just to get into the last slot of the playoffs. Frankly, we’ve been hearing more about “trust the process” from you than “we’re a good team.” Maybe you’re more inspirational in the locker room but you’ve been quite the downer away from it.
    Have you turned a corner and discovered after 2 early season OTJ tuneups that the lads are actually alright? Or is there a different question yet to be answered? Like, one about the coach?
    Let’s see if the crimson bovines provide an answer.

  6. el Pachyderm says:

    ….I give the manager a hard time and deservedly so at multiple spots but also feel I give congratulations when they are due and it is clear he’s salty about the tenor of ‘the room’ lately and I appreciate the sardonic nature…
    “What if we’re a good team.”
    Good on you skipper.

  7. hobosocks says:

    I really appreciate this analysis. I didn’t think any analysis would be worth reading after Adam Cann moved on, but I was wrong. I relied on him to explain all the things I cannot see myself to me. Nobody can be Mr. Cann, but this was well worth my reading time. I hadn’t noticed the move away from playing so right-sided.

  8. Andy Muenz says:

    For the first time since April 2, 2011 (when they lost to the Galaxy for the 3rd time), the Union have beaten every team in the league that they have played more than twice. Any chance of that stat continuing for more than 2 weeks?

  9. Yes yes yes on not forgetting about Jack Elliott! He’s a very fine player. Honestly didn’t agree with his benching in the first place, but I have to say that McKenzie has done a really fine job too. Now this franchise, incredibly, seems to have 3 talented young CBs on its hands. Given the fact that CBs get injured, get yellow card suspensions, and get red carded (and maybe get national team duty!), there should be enough playing time for all 3 of them.

    Also, ironic that you say Rosenberry is back, since I’m not sure he played his best soccer this past match. Yes his goal and his shot off the post were wicked, but RSL did spend a bunch of time torturing us on the flanks, and Saucedo schooled him on that goal. Having said that, he certainly looks like Rookie Year Keegan again overall, and it’s a welcome sight.

  10. As for Curtin’s, “What if we’re a good team?”… It is premature to ask that until we’ve seen several performances of that caliber ON THE ROAD. Not even VICTORIES… but, as our favorite pachyderm around these parts likes to say, JUST. PLAY. WELL.

    I mean, if the Union play like this in Atlanta and lose 2-1 on a Josef Martinez bicycle kick… fine. We’ll see the quality. But the caliber of road performances we have seen from this team over the past year has been so unbelievably woeful that it makes it very difficult to stand behind the “good team” moniker. Hey Jim: GOOD TEAMS PLAY WELL AWAY FROM HOME TOO. So how about you figure out how to motivate the boys when we aren’t there to scream their names???

  11. Loved the speed of Picault, Epps, and even Dockal flying forward. But if this is how the team’s offense needs to be successful, is Sapong the right fit for striker? Or do we need someone that has the speed to keep up with the wings?

  12. so why doesn’t the union just release simpson? at this point he’s nothing more than a name in a roster spot. how many strikers need to go down before he gets called up and does it even matter at that point? maybe they’re just trying to extract $500k in windsprints from him before letting him go?

  13. Nowadays folks print tshirt as they want.

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