Analysis / Union

Four things we learned from a home shutout

Photo: Earl Gardner

The Union faced a rare conundrum on Friday night.

Thanks to a trigger-happy referee and a Bosnian’s rush of blood to the head, the Union found themselves absent the services of both Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin for the first time since the start of the 2017 season.

Jim Curtin tried a few different tactics to pull out a result against the struggling visitors from America’s newest enemy, Canada. He broke out a brand-new midfield featuring Warren Creavalle and Borek Dockal behind Ilsinho at the No. 10, opting not to use out-of-favor youngster Derrick Jones. He also left the struggling C.J. Sapong in at striker, despite a season-long slump.

Looking back today, it’s tough to say either tactic worked. Let’s break it down.

A hole in the box

I can’t pretend to be objective about Ilsinho. He’s my favorite current Union player by a country mile, mostly because he has some magical qualities that no one else on the team can match. (That goal against Chicago… I mean, come on.) And he’s looked very sharp this season, tied for the team lead in goals.

But Ilsinho’s success this season is inextricably linked to his role. Ilsinho is essentially the Union’s super-sub, a guy you can throw on the wing with 30 minutes left to add some instant offensive punch. He can start a game here and there, and his fitness is much better than previous years.

What he can’t do, though, is play the No. 10. That’s where he spent most of last season, with no better option on the roster. I would say he was fine there, but he always looked like what he was — a player learning a brand-new position at a late stage in his career.

Not a lot of 25 visible in and around the box.

The Union theoretically have enough depth this season at both the No. 10 (Anthony Fontana and Adam Najem) and the No. 8 (Derrick Jones and Anthony Fontana) that there should be no need to turn to Ilsinho in the center of the park. Opting to move Borek Dockal out of his preferred spot only to put Ilsinho in his non-preferred spot isn’t putting your players in position to succeed.

Looking at the completed passes and key passes chart from Friday night, the absence of Ilsinho’s number in the box is noticeable. That’s the position where you want your No. 10 to be setting people up for a goal. Yet most of the Union’s key passes came either from Dockal corner kicks or from crossing passes.

Ilsinho brings a lot to the table when he’s played in the right role. When he’s not, though, you’re just asking for the offense to sputter.

Sitting C.J.?

Last season, C.J. Sapong scored a franchise-record 16 goals.

This season, he’s on pace for… four. He’s scored just twice.

When it’s a player he believes in, Jim Curtin prefers for players to try to play their way out of slumps. Sapong appears to be no exception. Even though reserve Cory Burke has scored in both of his starts this season, Sapong got the start again against Toronto.

To say Sapong put in a tough shift on Friday night is like saying the Cavaliers put up a tough fight in the NBA Finals — it’s a polite way of saying you were totally outclassed. In 60 minutes, the striker registered no shots — on or off goal — and barely touched the ball. only lists Sapong for 22 touches, or about one for every three minutes he was on the field. Sapong’s passing map isn’t much more impressive, completing only one pass in the final third of the field. And, of course, the Union didn’t score when he was out there.

Only four touches in the final third. Not good enough.

Curtin switched things up at 60 minutes, bringing Burke onto the pitch, looking for something slightly different. Unfortunately, it turned out to be more of the same. The Jamaican managed two shots — neither on goal — and pulled in only eleven touches of his own. Although Burke seemed to have more energy on the night, it didn’t lead to a goal for himself or his fellow attackers.

So, in sum, it’s tough to put all the blame on Sapong. Whether some combination of the players behind them (see above), the tactical setup, or Toronto’s defense, it wasn’t much of a night for either Union striker. But Sapong’s persistent inability to find or impact the game is notable,  and it may be the most pressing issue facing Philadelphia right now.

Finishing the job

All of the above being said… the Union certainly had golden chances to win this game.

Fafa Picault and David Accam found themselves one-on-one with Alex Bono at points during the match, but both wingers managed to fire their shots directly at the young U.S. international.

This is a recurring theme of this season’s Union. Coming into Friday’s match, the Union had underperformed their Expected Goals (xG) by about five goals on the season, or about 25 percent.

Friday night’s performance won’t help that number. Granted two one-on-one chances with the keeper, none found the back of the net. It hurts all the more when contrasted with Toronto’s clinical finishing, with Jonathan Osorio putting both of his team’s shots on goal right past Andre Blake.

Sure, some of Expected Goals is luck, and some of it is quality goalkeeping. But with nearly half of the season gone, the sample size is large enough that at least some of the problem lies with the Union’s players.

Maybe, for all of the tactical questions we can ask, the answer is really simple.

The Union are just plain bad at finishing.

Flank steak

TFC heatmap

It was a night to forget for Keegan Rosenberry.

Set aside, for the moment, the throw-in error that led directly to the second Toronto goal.

The Reds had been cooking down Rosenberry’s side all game long. You can see from the heatmap that Toronto found the bulk of their offensive possession along the Union’s right touchline, working from there into dangerous positions.

Separating cause and effect might be difficult here. Toronto do possess more offensive weapons than almost any team in the league, including their tiny talisman Sebastien Giovinco. Rosenberry spent most of the match checked closer to his side’s center back — Mark McKenzie — seemingly in order to cut off any direct assault from the middle of the field.

That, however, allowed for acres of space for Toronto’s wingers and fullbacks to play into on the Union’s right-hand side. Check out this frame from the first Toronto goal. Rosenberry is playing, what, 20 yards off his man, who’s hugging the right touchline, in order to bracket Osorio — a player who’s probably McKenzie’s responsibility in the first place.

Toronto ends up not needing Hasler (lower left corner) because the through-ball is so good. But that space was there all game.


  1. “That, however, allowed for acres of space for Toronto’s wingers and fullbacks to play into on the Union’s right-hand side. Check out this frame from the first Toronto goal. Rosenberry is playing, what, 20 yards off his man, who’s hugging the right touchline, in order to bracket Osorio — a player who’s probably McKenzie’s responsibility in the first place.”

    But how much of this is Rosenberry playing poorly versus simply Jim’s tactics?

    Maybe instead of Rosenberry playing bad it was Toronto coming in with a good game plan and Curtin not being able to counteract it?

    • I think that’s a fair question. Something I kept coming back to when writing the piece is the question of who’s responsible for a specific thing we see on the field – the player, or the manager? With Rosenberry, you could say that he was off on the night and not doing a good job of balancing his responsibilities, or you could say that Curtin’s tactics put him in a poor position. Personally, I think it’s likely more the latter, but I hesitate to come down strongly either way without more evidence.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    I don’t know how Najam has looked at Bethlehem, but one thing to also consider regarding who started is who had significant minutes Tuesday. Unfortunately Curtin took a gamble that Bedoya’s card would be overturned and it wasn’t. Had he known, he could have given Fontana or Jones the night off on Tuesday so they would have been ready for Friday.

    • Judging how the U played up the Graduation-Game Night for Fontana leading up to the game I would reckon he was more than ready to go Friday.

  3. Isn’t it the coach’s responsibility to be realistic about the chances of a red card being rescinded? For being such a nice guy Curtin doesn’t seem to have any sources in MLS or friends who can help him out in these situations. 2 different strikers get zero shots on goal? Seems like maybe Union’s tactics are inflexible, predictable, and easy for the opposing team to counteract. Happy Earnie’s leaving. Maybe his successor will hire an experienced knowledgeable coach.

  4. Zizouisgod says:

    FWIW – I prefer Milk Steak to Flank Steak

  5. Honestly the biggest damn disappointment in this game is that we had a chance to take that next step, and we didn’t.

    We also had a chance to showcase our YOUNG depth and we didn’t. Instead of making like for like subs (Fontana/Najem at the 10, Jones at the 8/6) we moved around two players into uncomfortable positions and it failed miserably.

    On top of that we continue to see CJ trotted out there.

    It was a complete failure by Curtin, made worse when it was a real chance to show that we are a “good team”.

  6. Honestly the biggest damn disappointment in this game is that we had a chance to take that next step, and we didn’t.

    We also had a chance to showcase our YOUNG depth and we didn’t. Instead of making like for like subs (Fontana/Najem at the 10, Jones at the 8/6) we moved around two players into uncomfortable positions and it failed miserably.

    On top of that we continue to see CJ trotted out there.

    It was a complete failure by Curtin, made worse when it was a real chance to show that we are a “good team”.

  7. Chad Boardman says:

    Re: CJ – is this his fault?
    He isn’t scoring this year. We come up with reasons (doesn’t create his own shot, odd movement at times, etc.). We all talked about how he would be better with someone providing service, and thought there were good things ahead with Dockal coming in. Its not working at the moment. But should we have seen this coming? (forgive me for simplifying the following for the sake of argument).

    Last year he scored a bunch of goals without a true number 10. From what I saw, the offense was, for the most part, get the ball to Haris, he plays a diagonal ball to Pontius, who knocks it down to CJ to bang in from approximately 7 yards.

    This year everything flows through Dockal. CJ isn’t scoring. Remember when they were looking for Dockal? They kept saying we want a Barnetta type, a “volume 10.” Remember when we had the archetype? In 2017, CJ made 31 appearances and scored 7 times. With a volume 10. Seems to me CJ doesn’t fit our offensive style, and we already knew that.

    • If you could watch that last game from a full field view, CJ had no one to blame but himself. He had excellent chances to flow to space in the box (and provide an obvious scoring option) on at least four different runs and blatantly failed to do so. He was constantly in the wrong place. Really awful to watch.

      • Chad Boardman says:

        No argument there. My general point is there is an issue with the manager / GM on this. He was singularly successful in one style last year, then we changed the style to one we had tried before – without success. People who get paid to notice these things should notice them.

        The same thing could be noted last year with KR. In his rookie year the team pressed alot. People were talking about his defense (in addition to what he brought going forward). But he wasn’t really playing defense (the way Ray does for example) – he was getting tight to players to prevent time on the ball to make sound decisions. Nothing wrong with that, but its not the same as consistently standing someone up one on one, or properly covering a passing lane. In 2017, Haris arrives and the press dies. The Gooch slides in next to KR and he has less cover (as compared to Yaro or McKenzie). They system changed and KR wasn’t as good. I’m not trying to say none of that was his fault last year, but at some point the manager or GM needs to understand that players have strengths and typically its best to put them in positions to use them.

  8. el Pachyderm says:

    Sapong’s inability to impact the game affects the wingers too. He limits their chances internally and forces them into flank movement and crossing (to CJ) almost exclusively.
    This is a broken record. This is a broken record.

    • Corey Burke is not a MLS starter. Corey Burke is better at everything than Sapong.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Unfortunately, this is 100% accurate.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        Excellent statement. Furthers the obvious point that this team desperately needs a striker at the window, who can bag 8-10 goals for the rest of the season.

      • Effort! Burke give the effort I don’t see from CJ. Burke pressures the defense and goalie consistently, CJ looks like he waiting for the perfect pass.

    • More damning, he’s the anti-creator. The pass chart above, forget how bad he is at it with he non completions. Only TWO passes even went forward in the first place. Even BC7 would occasionally play a few northbound for the heck of it. CJ squares or plays every ball back as if he’s going to turn and out run an opponent upfield and receive the give and go. But he’s painfully slow.
      Honestly, Jay Simpson is more dangerous.

  9. tom manning says:

    Although I agree with most of the aforementioned comments could somebody please tell me who has coached Corey Burke and Marcus Epps on how to play a high press defense.
    Again this may be part of Curtins battle plan but you see in the pic that Epps is almost playing a central midfielder but is not placing any pressure on Bradley. Rosenberry as stated is in no mans land getting pulled both way (curtins or Rosenberrys decision ??) Epps could have been 20 yards towards touch without really effecting whatever pressure he thought he was applying to Bradley and maybe freeing up rosenberrys thought process. This didn’t happen just this one time . It happened enough times for me to openly comment to my wife and others in the section 108 to affirm my thoughts.
    As far as Corey is concerned he doesn’t run like CJ when the press is on. You see a little jog and stopping 5 yds short with nothing being gained. What really set me off on this type of defensive attitude was approx. 70 minute mark we played a thru ball which Toronto keeper when over to pickup. Burke was 20 yds off keeper and keeper was not picking up ball (smart Timewasting) and Burke doesn’t apply any pressure at least 5-8 seconds tick off clock before anybody moves . This may seem inconsequential but when you are down 2 goals every second counts .

  10. John Harris says:

    I was certainly disappointed to see Ilson Jr in that role. His role seems clear to me – 30 minute sub on the wing. Enter Fontana or Najem as the 10 and give it a try. I don’t think anyone would fault the manager and in fact many would commend him.

  11. Toronto was finding plenty of room down BOTH Union flanks all night, not just on the right. The fact that they had more success on the right could have been due to a number of factors, several of which are not necessarily on Rosenberry:

    1. Keegan pushes up high on offense. Did he push up TOO aggressively? And if so, is this his doing, or Curtin’s game plan?
    2. Keegan blows his coverage. This would be on him, obviously.
    3. Keegan pushes up — or over to the middle, as in your example — but his winger doesn’t get back to provide sufficient defensive cover. Epps has trouble with that in this match, and has had trouble with this before. Then when he took Epps out he replaced him for the next 10 minutes with Ilsinho, who looked totally gassed, and that did not help matters.

    So I think it’s a bit complicated to say where the fault lies for the wing penetration. And it’s not the first time the Union have had a problem with this.

  12. Can we also discuss- where is everyone getting the idea Fontana is a 10?

  13. Hamburg went down to bundesliga 2. Maybe Bobby Woods is available as #9?

    • Two goals, zero assists in 24 Bundesliga appearances, one was a PK.

    • 12 goals, 39 appearances for the USMNT. Sometimes it really is the style of play or location – or even the locker room – that makes a difference. Exhibit A: 2017 CJ vs 2018 CJ, or 2017 David Accam vs 2018 David Accam.

  14. Here we go again…..The Union must pony up and get a better dp forward by the mid season trade period. If not CJ should not start another game unless Burke or the (new guy they get hopefully can not play). Accam was a mistake but he still has trade value even though he has had a an awful season here. Some team that is missing speed on the outside to complete their team may take him and free up some of the salary cap needed to acquire the dp striker. The Union should have learned their lesson by now. You cant depend on someone of CJs caliber to repeat the best year of his career. They needed to improve that position at the beginning of the season. It is always 1 step forward and 2 steps back with the Union. Dockal was a + 1. Accam ends up a -1. Sapong -1. You cant expect a rookie like Burke or aging skilled player like Ilsinio to carry the team. They needed a better forward at the start of the season.

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