Postgame analysis: Philadelphia Union at Atlanta United

This is an analysis column.

Focusing on the Philadelphia Union, the purpose of this column is to outline how the Boys in Blue attacked and defended, one match at a time. This week, playing with two fewer players than their opposition for more than 70 minutes, the Union employed a rarely-seen 4-3-1 that was gutsy, a bit lucky, and extremely effective.

Early on, the Union looked poised in possession and comfortable moving their press line back, allowing Atlanta more space in their own end and less as they attacked. As United’s playmakers tried to move themselves into their team’s possession, Union defenders were right behind them giving chase. Specfically, Alejandro Bedoya seemed to have a man-marking assignment on Miguel Almiron and Union fullbacks could be found in the back pockets of Darlington Nagbe and Josef Martinez.

When the Union had the ball, they attempted to eliminate Atlanta’s midfield numbers advantage by spreading their wings wide and getting their fullbacks more involved.

The strategy was common to the Union at home, but not often confidently employed on the road. It spoke to the team’s burgeoning confidence and would have been worth seeing through a 90 minute sample. Unfortunately, the game was too short to find out if it would have actually worked.

Therefore, because this is a tactics column, the tactical focus will be on how the Union reacted in real time and then what happens next.

It’s not about what happens to you, but your reaction to it that matters – Epictetus

A tale of two stories – Anger

When the Union’s official Twitter account updated fans on the goings on in the 19th minute of Saturday’s match, the replies were as expected. A double-red card after a dubious penalty will do that.

The anger is understandable and the basis for it comes from a narrative that goes something like this:

Major League Soccer is full of terrible officials. Sorin Stoica, the referee in question, is especially terrible. He was poor even beyond his own standards in this match, though not unexpectedly so. Why? This piece of brilliant depth from the PTFC Collective about Stoica’s idiosyncrasies might be required reading for Union fans today. Two important bullet points include:

  • Stoica calls a penalty in matches more than only 2 other officials in MLS
  • He’s as likely to hand out 2 red cards in a match where a sending-off happens as he is to issue 1

Stoica was wrong not to at least make a cursory review of the penalty using VAR. That momentary lapse was the catalyst for an avalanche that resulted in two players sent off, angry because they believed that yet another official decided to make the game about himself.

Then, worst of all, Stoica was poorly out of position to make the most important call of his night. Because he’s expecting the Union to advance when the turnover happens, he’s nowhere to be found as the play unfolds and can’t possibly have a good enough angle to make such a meaningful call.


For fans of any team feeling as though they’ve been hard done, this is the more compelling story. It is not the only one, though.

A tale of two stories – Accountability

In the early stages of 2018, the narrative around Philadelphia Union’s performance could be summarized thusly:

Young players are making their mark on the back line, playing well and gelling together. Meanwhile, a midfield full of veterans and national team players can’t seem to find enough chemistry to score a goal and its costing the team its season.

On Saturday, two young players who led the first half of that narrative made mistakes. Mark McKenzie took his eye off a clever square ball from Haris Medunjanin and saw the orb skip over his boot directly onto enemy feet. The quick counter that resulted left Austin Trusty having to chase arguably the league’s most dangerous player into the box, where he committed a foul and conceded a penalty.

Rookie mistakes, and unfortunate ones given the stage.

The veteran captain of the side, he of World Cup and European experience; and the team’s most level-headed player, he of equivalent pedigree, had an opportunity to speak their minds to the official, organize their teammates, and make a concession of their own: That no amount of complaining has ever, in the history of soccer, changed an official’s mind.

The veterans chose the first of those options and ignored the second and third. Thus, their sending off was a result of a hot-headed and selfish decision. Rather than rally and fight back, they fought with an official and it cost their team points.

This is the less appealing storyline, but might be equally valid.


Regardless of which narrative the reader adheres to, the important thing is not what has happened to the Union. The important thing is what they do with that experience.

This website asked whether there was any heart left in the local side. This author opined that it might be time for someone to lose their cool and see if that shook up the team’s lethargy. After the Union’s best four-game stretch in nearly a year, neither option seemed particularly necessary.

Then Saturday happened, the kind of match that can define a season.

The Union might have lost every inch of momentum they so admirably earned. Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin might miss more than just one game as they deal with the results of the Wheel of Unpredictability that is the Major League Soccer Disciplinary Committee. One bad match might have ripple effects that last more than a month and the season might go down in flames.

Or the Union might have just played the most important match in their recent history, a match so galvanizing and identity-defining that it propels them forward with the kind of momentum that no winning streak could ever provide. The Union might have finally coalesced into a real team, with adversity as the catalyst.

There is no way of knowing today which of these outcomes will be the actual one. The important thing is what happens next.


  1. KenZo Lo says:

    I’m going to say that the two go side by side. Given the unfairness of the penalty call, what should Bedoya and Medunjanin do? See if they can still win or draw the game.

    But it doesn’t negate the first one. The ref sucked.

  2. pragmatist says:

    I’m taking confidence from this match, simply based on the fact that they kept it close, and you have solid proof that the players definitely care about each other and the team. That’s something…
    But let’s see how it translates across the next 2-3 games.

  3. Atomic Spartan says:

    Good analysis.
    Stoica had 4 options open to him:
    1. Hold finger to ear to indicate he is listening for VAR. This is standard procedure and allows everyone, including himself, a cooling off period,regardless of what he eventually decides to do.
    2. Show a team captain some respect, blow whistle to delay the PK and order Bedoya to return beyond the arc.
    3. Allow PK to be taken regardless of Bedoya’s position. If it goes in, goal and no harm done. If it does not, retake PK, yellow card to Bedoya, and maybe Haris doesn’t lose his mind.
    4. Lose control of your emotions and start throwing cards around like it’s Valentines Day in kindergarten.
    I would argue that Sorin might not be much of a deep thinker, or lacks the cooI temperament we see in EPL and Bundesliga action. “Y’know, I was really far away when I made that call,” apparently never entered his mind. Neither did “Maybe my AR or VAR might be in better position, maybe they can help.”
    Four alternatives. Three chances to defuse and call a fair match. Given multiple choices, Stoica was at least predictable.

    • John Ling says:

      This is spot-on. The only thing I’ll add: The ref can always go with option #1 even if he’s not at all listening to what the VAR is saying. It’s not something a ref should do often, but it’s a tool he (or she) has available to defuse a tense situation.

  4. Andy Muenz says:

    I disagree with your analysis that Trusty made a rookie mistake. He defended cleanly and was penalized by a ref who got confused as to which league he was in (this is not the NBA) and whether the superstar automatically gets the call against the rookie.
    One other thing that’s been bugging me. Let’s say it was a legitimate foul on Trusty. Shouldn’t it have also resulted in a yellow card for denial of goal scoring opportunity inside the penalty box?

    • I haven’t seen an angle that gives me a definite answer either way on Trusty’s play. My belief is that a tackle like that ends in a penalty more often than not, and particularly for a star player at home (and the data back up those last two biases, as you alluded to).

      In that case, Trusty is probably due a card, yes. It’s a no-win situation for a defender.

    • Darth Harvey says:

      You are correct that by (somewhat) new DOGSO rules that Trusty should have been shown a yellow… if the call was correct…I’ll get to that later… The theory behind it only being a yellow when it was previously ruled a red in years’ and rule iterations’ past is that the team will be punished enough with a yellow and penalty kick…. makes pretty decent sense right??? Well decent sense is not a currency that Stoica deals in regularly…..Stoica disagreed with the whole “fair and just punishment” and decided to enact Marshall Stoica on the field… where decisions are made without reason and just because we want to…but to further illustrate how wrong he got the call in both making it and not utilizing VAR… go back and watch the ball’s rotation… this is what I do as a youth ref to determine deflections for throw ins and corner kicks… you’ll see Trusty’s leg swipe at the ball and you’ll see its rotation change. Admittedly, this is Near impossible to see at full speed and from the second row where Stoica was observing… but slow mo in VAR and a ref that didn’t have borst for brains would see that the call needed to be reversed and then none of this happens….The Union slog on to maybe a tie or a somewhat gutsy performance and we are all left to continue debating the gumption of this team. At least this stirred something in the boys and it provides an opportunity to educate the fans as to why poor officiating is poor officiating… it’s a nuance that the other sports don’t always possess… it’s just a shame that the Union are often the league’s blackboard.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    If Haris and Ale aren’t suspended further than the required 1 game each, thats MLS saying Stoica F’d up… let’s hope that’s the case and it washes itself out. Still sucks they’ll miss Friday at home vs a struggling Toronto

  6. Is it time to write an Open Letter to the Union players?
    Tell them that we like their fire. We want them to fight for each other and for the team. We want them to compete hard in every game. That they have shown us they can hang with any team in this league when they stand together. They’ve started showing they can play as a team, and we’re excited to see them continue to play as a team.
    Yes, last week’s game was ruined by bad officiating, undoubtedly, and we need them to rise above that. They were right to be frustrated by the bad calls but we need them to keep their heads and fight through obstacles like that. They are so very close to doing something their fans have been desiring, inspiring hope.
    Hope for good results. Hope for quality goal scoring chances. Hope for good movement on and off the ball. Hope for solid, gutsy defensive work.
    Hope for fun soccer to watch.
    They are so close to actually being “Philly tough.” Not some bad phrase that has been used as a punchline for years but rather to be the team their fans want. To get up if they get knocked down and take the fight to the other team. To take the hits and keep moving forward. To find inspiration among themselves to find ways to win when no one outside their fans thinks that they can, and to give us fans confidence thay they will.
    Thank you for the sparks so far this season. Thank you for giving us a glimmer of hope that these flashes could be for real. We want to believe the U can be the underdogs who win. We’ll be here to cheer you but we need you to keep moving forward.

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