A View from Afar / Union

How the Union overcame a unique defensive game plan

Photo: 215 pix

Brad Friedel introduced a game plan for stopping the new Philadelphia Union on Saturday, and if not for some highlight reel saves from Andre Blake, it might have earned his New England Revolution a win against a superior Union side.

It didn’t, however, and that may herald good things for the Union.

Let’s illustrate.

Modern Union soccer, at its best, is a fluid passing game that looks like this.

New England stopped that kind of flow Saturday by deploying three defense-minded center midfielders and, to varying degrees, setting them about man-marking the Union’s center midfield trio.

Friedel’s game plan changed the way the Union played.

The most noticeable and probably impactful of these man-marking efforts was Luis Caicedo’s marking of Haris Medunjanin.

Caicedo shadowed Medunjanin everywhere, going so far as tracking him back to the Union’s own 18. He pushed the limits of acceptable physical play, frustrated Medunjanin, and got away with the chippy play due to some laissez faire officiating.

Caicedo prevented Medunjanin from collecting the ball deep to start the Union attack.

Medunjanin became a non-factor in that first half and nearly lost his cool with indignance. His touches were few and far between, and he was not initiating the Union’s possession game, as he normally does.

Instead:

  1. Medunjanin directed teammates to pass elsewhere. They did.
  2. Center backs Jack Elliott and Auston Trusty began pushing up field with the ball at their feet into the vacant space left by New England’s center midfielders.
  3. Overall, the Union struggled in attack in the first half.

Medunjanin directed teammates to pass away from him due to Caicedo’s man-marking.

It was a fascinating tactical jumble.

The Union went into halftime having demonstrated no clear path through New England’s defense.

They came out of the break and soon hit one great play, a 56th minute through ball from Medunjanin that put Cory Burke in for the first goal.

Otherwise, they surrendered the possession game for much of the second half, stopped trying to pass through the middle, and focused on defending and seeking counterattacks to hold on for the win.

Union passing vs. New England, first half.

Union passing vs. New England, 2nd half. Notice the hole in the center of the field.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Medunjanin was held to just 49 touches on the day,

Compare that with the Union’s recent stretch, in which they’ve won four straight in all competitions and seven of nine, the only loss being a road game in Portland during which multiple starters (including Medunjanin) were rested.

Medunjanin's touches

(Note: Touch stats not available for the Union's two U.S. Open Cup matches in this stretch.)
OpponentResultMedunjanin touchesTeam rank, most touches
New England1-0 win497th
New York City FC2-0 win803rd
at New England3-2 win603rd
at Houston3-1 win851st
LA Galaxy3-1 loss562nd
at Chicago4-3 win582nd

A more talented team might have defeated Philadelphia. New England is not that team.

For all Friedel’s focus on physical, aggressive defensive play, he seemed allergic to playing good attacking players in their best roles on Saturday. Striker Juan Agudelo has long since been shuffled off to the right wing. Attacking midfielder Diego Fagundez played as a false nine striker in the absence of injured starter Teal Bunbury. The talented Kelyn Rowe never got off the bench — again. He’s on his way to setting career lows in minutes played and games started, despite a fair share of clubs trying to acquire him. It’s typical Revs stuff.

The Union did what was necessary to win. Andre Blake made two remarkable saves, Medunjanin cleared another shot off the goal line, and the Union killed the game with effective time-wasting. (A late Ilsinho would-be penalty went uncalled.)

It’s a game the Union probably would have lost a year ago.

This is a different Union team. It’s a team that has gone into halftime even during their last two games, made adjustments, and earned big wins. Over the last few years, that halftime break was often when they got outcoached and beaten due to opponents’ halftime adjustments. The fact that we now see the reverse happening shows just how much head coach Jim Curtin has improved as a coach. Pretty soon, the cynics may have to admit he’s become a good one.

It will be interesting to see if other teams replicate Friedel’s game plan, at least to some degree.

It will be equally interesting whether and how the Union meet the task.

The secret is out: The Union can play.

The Union are now 11-0-0 in all competitions when Cory Burke starts. He has 10 goals in those games.

The center midfield trio of Medunjanin, Borek Dockal and Alejandro Bedoya is as a good a group of passers as you’ll find in MLS, but, as Friedel said Saturday, “The midfield three are amongst the best in the league at passing but among the worst at recovering the ball.” Take the bad with the good, because the good weighs more. 

And then there’s Andre Blake’s brilliance and a back line that has held up well.

The book is written. Scouts have watched the film. Opponents are planning.

You’re watching a good team do what good teams do. They have to show they can keep it up now that they’re no longer a surprise.

Miscellaneous notes
  • .500: The Union reached the .500 mark for the first time since March.
  • First Union game at Audi Field: Wednesday will be the Union’s first game at United’s brand new stadium. I’ve seen my share of games at RFK Stadium, including that 2012 game, when I spent my birthday watching from the press box and loving every minute of it. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the new stadium Wednesday, particularly now that United are playing so well. The D.C. area soccer community has needed this stadium for a long time.
  • Rivalries: Much has been made about manufactured rivalries in MLS, but Union-D.C. United matches have historically been tense, physical, wild affairs predicated on mutual respect and, for a time, legitimate animosity. Anybody remember the wild 2012 match that saw two Union goals waved off and three players ejected? “It’s DC vs. Philly,” then-Union defender Sheanon Williams said after the game. “They don’t like us, and we don’t like them.”
  • Andre Blake: Have you ever seen a goalkeeper own a team like Blake owns New England? Wow.

10 Comments

  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    Great article.
    .
    It will be really interesting to watch Curtin continue (hopefully) adjust to what is now a blueprint, to at least slow down the Union. We know the U basically plays only one way, but they have been doing it very well lately. Continued adjustment by Curtin will shut me up for sure, about whether or not he’s the coach of the future. I will admit though… he has shown me something lately, and is starting to change my mind. But I need to see him navigate this team to a trophy and a playoff birth. At this point of this season and in the overall history of this mediocre to bad franchise – I don’t think this is too much to ask.

    • Agree. Curtin has learned a lot over the last few years and has shown that he can be a good coach. I hope that the next few months will confirm that.

  2. Chris M Gibbons says:

    The book is certainly written on how to slow down the Union. The problem, as Chicago and New England found out, is a team needs to be perfectly focused and committed for an entire match to make this work. As soon as one guy loses his man, the entire midfield becomes open territory and the whole thing breaks down.

    I also think these strategies are more akin to teams who know they can’t win proactively. If New England had a winning brand, Chicago too, they would be more likely to impose their brand rather than try and invent one to block the other squad. Atlanta isn’t going to do this, nor are Red Bulls, City, etc…

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Good point. Good teams play their game and don’t chase the other team around.

      • Yeah. And do you really want to focus 3 players in the middle of the field to be stuck man marking 3 guys the whole game? Seems like it would kill any o you would hope to generate. Also seems like the Union should be able to have those 3 players vacate their normal space to allow another player, say one of the CBs to step up or one of the wingers to check in and have all sorts of room to work with.

    • Excellent point.

      I think you’ll see some teams adapt certain principles of it to the way they play. The goal, one way or another, will be to stop Medunjanin from building play up from the back. They all will see the same issue at hand, but they’ll choose different ways to stop it.

  3. “The Union are now 11-0-0 in all competitions when Cory Burke starts. He has ten goals in those games.” He has 21 league appearances and four in the Open Cup
    .
    Cory Burke had a breakout year last year with Bethlehem when he scored a total of 9 in 25 matches. He had 4 in 20 in 2016 when he missed time early due to injury.
    .
    Cory deserves the lion’s share of the credit for improving himself. But he has not done it alone on a desert island. He’s had help.
    .
    I am reminded of the old stories about minor league baseball players who hit better in the majors back in the old days because the better lighting meant they saw the ball better.
    .
    Perhaps he is getting better quality feeds at the major league level.

  4. The key for the Union combatting this kind of defense going forward is… Jack Elliott and Keegan Rosenberry. These young bouls can hit long-range passes like few defenders in the league. If you man-mark our entire midfield, then they drag opposing midfielders out of the way, and you let Jack & Keegan play balls to the wingers to break the line.

    Now the problem is that our wing play has been… inconsistent. I think Picault can play this game, and maybe Sapong but I’m not too sure. Accam doesn’t seem to be able to do this. I wonder if either Herbers or Epps might…

    • The other thing that would help would be if the ref actually called a foul. But I agree we have enough talent in different spots to make the man marking our midfield tactic backfire.

  5. I think teams realize that CJ isn’t going to beat someone 1 v 1 on the wing so they can change up their defensive tactics to focus more on the midfield. CJ has been very good with his hold up play since moving to the wing but we then need Keegan/Ale/Dockal to constantly be making overlapping runs when the ball is played to CJ and open up that defense.

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