Analysis / Union

Postgame analysis: NYCFC 3-1 Union

Photo: Ryan Griffith

It’s not often in life that you have an immediate chance to fix your mistakes.

A do-over, if you will.

(If that sounds like the name of a dreadful Adam Sandler movie, that’s because… it is. Of course it is.)

The Philadelphia Union are fortunate enough to have their own opportunity for a do-over coming up tomorrow night. (The Do-Over 2: Do Harder.)

With a home playoff game on the line on Sunday, the Union wilted, allowing New York City FC to put three first-half goals past them en route to a disappointing defeat.

As a reward, they get the exact same matchup in the first round of the MLS playoffs, a spooky Halloween night trip to Yankee Stadium, attempting to exorcise nine years of postseason demons.

For this week’s post-match analysis, let’s take a look at the tape from Sunday night and see what the Union would do-over if they got another chance to tackle Domenec Torrent’s side.

Creating width

The Union have never won a match in their four trips to Yankee Stadium.

Their best result was a 1-1 draw in 2015, the first season of City’s existence. Since, they’ve lost three in a row.

It’s a dreadful stadium for soccer, whether you’re a player or a fan.

(And, aside from whether it’s a nice stadium for soccer, it’s an unpleasant stadium overall. Everything is covered with corporate gloss, a hot dog costs 48 American dollars, and the New York Yankees play there. Even the best press box spread in MLS can’t make a visit there worthwhile.)

However wide the pitch actually is, it creates a challenge for visiting teams not used to playing in a bandbox. The Union sure seemed to struggle with it on Sunday.

At their best, Philadephia like to pin their opponents into a tight box, letting their three-man midfield turn the screws on the opposition. Instead, City turned the match into a end-to-end roller derby, using the Union’s lack of team speed against them and finding goals in the chaos.

Without a ton of speed at either striker or right wing, the Union are at a disadvantage in a match like that. A field like Yankee Stadium favors technical players with good touch and close control. Thankfully, the Union have one of those players on their bench, just waiting for his shot… Kacper Pryzyblko!

No, I’m kidding, it’s obviously Ilsinho. The Union looked sharper as soon as he hit the pitch on Sunday. In the looming playoff match, the question for Jim Curtin will be whether to bring the Brazilian off the bench, where he’s been a weapon all year (including against NYC), or whether to give him the start and hope that he can influence the game for 60 minutes instead of 30.

Of course, that would mean benching C.J. Sapong. The striker-turned-winger has started 29 games this year and returned 4 goals, or about 1 goal every 580 minutes. It might be too late now to change course, but this matchup really doesn’t seem to favor Sapong’s skillset, especially as poor as his current form is.

There’s no point complaining about the pitch. The Union knew how wide it was before they traveled on Sunday. It’s not getting any wider before the playoff game, and it’ll be up to Curtin and the Union to adjust.

The trouble with Haris

The Union need Haris Medunjanin to play well — and to be a factor — in order to beat good teams.

He wasn’t that on Sunday.

Compare, for example, the Bosnian’s passing map on Sunday night with that from the Union’s sole win in October, their 5-1 drubbing of Minnesota United.

On the left is the Minnesota map. There’s barely any red to be found, indicating that Medunjanin completed passes at a high clip. He’s also taking advantage of the width of the pitch, getting in good spots for the backline in his own half while sliding in to the channels in the attacking third.

At Yankee Stadium, Medunjanin simply doesn’t have as much room to operate. You can see that in a few different ways on his passing chart. First, there’s a lot more red. And a lot of that red is coming on long balls — with City disrupting the easy passes in the midfield, Medunjanin resorted to trying to play more vertical, which isn’t necessarily a skill of this team. Finally, you can see how much more central he is, with a much greater percentage of his passes within the edges of the 18-yard box. For a Union side deeply reliant on Medunjanin, Bedoya, and Dockal controlling the midfield, City’s ability to throw Haris off his game really impeded the Union’s chances of getting a win.

Looking at passing doesn’t tell you everything about Medunjanin’s game, of course. But we have to start there, because it’s his most essential skill. Medunjanin is increasingly a defensive liability, with the faster Pigeons slicing past him like he was a traffic cone with a buzz cut.

What’s Curtin’s best move? In a vacuum, it might be inserting Derrick Jones (or Warren Creavalle, if you need to keep things veteran-y) in place of Medunjanin. Jones’s abilities as a defensive destroyer capable of operating in a crowded midfield could add some defensive stability without sacrificing too much offense. Such a move isn’t likely, though. Medunjanin has only missed four regular season games in his two-season Union career — three through a red card suspension and one when Curtin started a reserve lineup. With Medunjanin almost certain to start, look for Bedoya to drop a little bit deeper to give Medunjanin defensive cover and an easy passing outlet.

Defensive miscues

Not everything is the field, of course. NYCFC have some pretty good players, too.

The Union’s young centerbacks have largely been very good this year, but they’re prone to frightening collapses. Against attacking players as potent as David Villa, the risk of a catastrophic mistake is high.

Let’s take a look at that third goal.

It’s mistake after mistake, all in a ten-second span.

  • Ray Gaddis sells out to stop a cross, allowing Anton Tinnerholm to breeze past him to the end line.
  • Auston Trusty loses Jesus Medina in the box. With a better cross, that’s the goal right there.
  • After Villa nearly beats Andre Blake, Mark McKenzie stares at the ball, allowing Villa to get right past him and put in the crucial finish.
  • It didn’t end up mattering, but Keegan Rosenberry lets Ronald Matarrita have about ten yards of space to himself on the far side of the field.

It’s all too easy for New York City to get the Union defense scrambling, and it’s a lack of discipline across the pitch that lets it happen.

Most worrying of all is Auston Trusty, who’s been the Union’s best defender all year. But he’s put out his two worst performances of the year in crucial games, punctuating both with unfortunate but avoidable own goals.

What’s the solution? The issue here isn’t a tactical adjustment, but a mental one. The Union’s defenders need to regain the discipline and composure that have served them so well this season.

If they play like rookies on Wednesday night, it will be another short trip to the playoffs.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    Appreciate this point of view. I share it and argued for it late last week.
    no Haris.
    no CJ.
    I’d even add having seen how remarkably narrow they got trying to play through the middle against NYCFC… its wise to sit Gaddis in favor of a ‘true’ Left Back in Fabinho. I went back and rewatched parts of the game to confirm my bias. Ray was just not the right player and will not be the right player again on Wednesday.
    ….that field is about technical skill and speed of thought. Period…. without those things its like watching a team 61 games back hey you Baltimore Orioles–play against the New York Yankees in October… wait a minute.
    Its not even close.

    • While we have rightly criticized Trusty for his play in our 2 biggest games, Gaddis honestly has been just as bad. I’m sure there’s a correlation there but I’m sure which one is more to blame.

    • “….that field is about technical skill and speed of thought. Period…”
      And discomfited muscle memory.

  2. Sorry to say, I expect nothing more than a loss. Curtin can’t/won’t make the adjustments needed.

  3. I wish they had played at NYCFC much earlier in the year. I would’ve loved to see them try Creavalle at the 6, Jones at the 8 and Bedoya on the right wing or even Jones at the 6 with Bedoya at the 8 and Ilsinho (assuming he wasn’t injured) on the wing. Alas, we will probably see the same lineup as we saw on Sunday because Curtin isn’t going to bench anyone he’s rode all season. Hopefully they don’t sleepwalk through the beginning of the match and play with some more fire from the start.

  4. thanks to my new FiOS box, which recorded the match 22 minutes late, and in low-def not high-def
    looked like a high school soccer match
    at least I missed the own goal

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Quakertown Panthers under the klieg lights — circa 1988-89. I was there. I was there.

    • Just an FYI on Verizon, they routinely get start times wrong for matches. On Sunday they had the pregame show scheduled for an hour, and it was more like 45 mins. Though It being decision day had something to do with it this time. Besides that, if there’s a start time change for a match, and it wasn’t decided weeks before, they usually miss it.

      • this is very helpful information

      • thank you very much

      • Sure absolutely. I’ve been caught out more than a few times. Best thing I found to do was check here or anywhere but Verizon really, and record whatever they have scheduled for that time and beyond. I also usually extend the recording for at least 15 mins extra.

  5. From a tactical point, I think the Union have a major change to make which will hopefully stifle NYFC.

    They held an entirely too high line for most of the game on Sunday. NYFC would play out of the back suck the entire team up and then play in behind them. This is a tactical adjustment that must be made. Drop the pressing line back about 10 yards and the balls over the top go to Andre Blake in the penalty area or NYFC needs to play through our lines. We had good tight pressing lines, but they just waited and played the ball over us. There was enough space for the NYFC player to run onto the ball before it got to Blake.

    • Shrewd observation. Be interested to see what others think.

    • Hmmm… that’s a very interesting thought. You basically neutralize their speed that way, in part because the pitch is short. If you do this, Blake has to be very alert to come off his line and play Manuel Neuer sweeper-keeper style, though.

  6. I know it is not going to change anything, but that field/stadium should never see a match. Not only because of the size but because of how they need to quickly re-sod when switching back and forth between sports.
    In any case, my first reaction after the game was that this team can’t handle pressure (ie. Open Cup), perhaps a consequence of going with youth. But reflecting on the game, the Union missed an assignment on a corner for the first goal, the second was an own goal, and the third was mistakes-on-mistakes-on-mistakes as Peter highlights. Then there is the missed penalty. I guess it gives me some positivity for tomorrow that the Union beat themselves more than anything.
    If the Union can rebound like they did after the Open Cup loss (strong draw at Columbus and the beat down of Minnesota) then they will have a shot at that elusive, first pressure win.

    • It’s a combination of all those things.

      And let’s be honest: it’s a road game, and NYCFC was like the second best home team in the entire league this year. It is very difficult to adjust to their stupid little pitch.

      My expectation is that the Union will play a FAR better match tonight, make a real game of it… and still lose. (Maybe on PKs.)

  7. If I am likely to end up playing the same team in the same place back-to-back, and the statistics Pete Andrews cite reinforce the ones from Chris Sherman’s SEBA earlier, I save my tactical tweaks for the second game because it is the one that is survive and advance.
    Jim Curtin never plays to lose, far from it.
    But one of the harder things in a sport-not-baseball is to beat the same team twice in a row. Complacency amongst the victors. And as long as they weren’t mentally destroyed by the loss, motivation for the losers.
    I’d give my idea about a 30% chance of succeeding.

  8. Peter, I wholeheartedly agree with both suggestions. Personally I would give Jones the runout on the wing in place of Medunjanin, who has been a liability all year, and has been particularly poor for several recent matches.

    And an intriguing option on the wing would be to recall Marcus Epps from purgatory if we need speed. If nothing else, he could be our 60th minute sub when Ilsinho is gassed.

    If Curtin fails to make any substantial changes… and the Union play a lackluster, losing match… then he deserves to be fired. And this is coming from a guy who is not convinced that coaching changes make that much difference most of the time.

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