Analysis / Union

Postgame analysis: NYCFC 3 – 1 Philadelphia Union

Photo: 215pix

After Philadelphia Union ended their 2018 season Wednesday night against NYCFC in the first match of the MLS Cup Playoffs, Union head coach Jim Curtin put it succinctly and appropriately in his postgame press conference. “Full credit to New York City,” he said. “They deserved to win tonight.”

Curtin tried to switch things up before the match by starting Alejandro Bedoya on the right wing and playing Warren Creavalle at the number six position, but the coach’s statement still rang true in the end. NYC deserved to win. In fact, it’s difficult to examine the Union’s tactics in this match, as NYCFC dictated play for the majority of the match, even when they didn’t control the ball. By packing the Union’s right side NYC were able to snuff out the Union’s primary means of build up. Then on the counter, they relied on their speed and intelligent runs, coupled with some defensive inefficiencies from the Union, to secure the lead.

Let’s take a look at what the Union tried, and why it didn’t work.

Nothing on the right side

Philadelphia like to maintain possession, settling the ball when transition to offense and then building from the back. Typically, that entails a combination of connecting through the middle and up the right wing. Usually, with Bedoya at a defensive midfield position, this entails right back Keegan Rosenberry, Bedoya, Dockal, and whoever is at right wing passing the ball in triangles up the right side, with Haris Medunjanin stepping in for safety.

Clearly, the Union approached Wednesday’s match with much the same strategy, despite swapping C.J. Sapong for Bedoya on the wing and having the less attack-minded Creavalle in the middle. Unfortunately for the Union, it was unsuccessful. Part of that is due to Creavalle not having the passing chops that Medunjanin normally has in that position to bail the Union’s attack out of tight situations.

Primarily, it’s because NYCFC packed the right side, often putting two defenders in front of the man with the ball to block passing lanes as well as additional defenders marking the men behind them – a kind of defensive insurance. This does a few things. First, if the Union manage to get the ball up the right wing successfully, this stretches the defense, which is forced to come out to account for the multiple creative threats on the outside. NYC would much prefer that the Union switch the field and use Fafa Picault, who largely takes men on one-on-one. Second, if the Union don’t switch the field but rather continue to try to work the ball through a crowded right flank, they risk turnovers and dangerous counterattacks. This is exactly what happened. Take a look at NYC’s interceptions below. Keep in mind, their left side is the Union’s right.

That cluster at the top left is exactly what we’re talking about here. By packing the Union’s right side, NYC were able to force turnovers and start counter attacks already close to goal. That’s what happened on the first two goals.

Missing Medunjanin

Philadelphia Union need Haris Medunjanin to play his best game. He’s arguably their best player, and the way he plays often dictates the match. Haris Medunjanin did not play his best game Wednesday night.

Defensively, Medunjanin had a hand in the first two goals. On the first, after the Union turned the ball over on that right side mentioned above, Medunjanin was slow to transition defensively against a side that’s primary strength is its quick offensive transition. He jogged to Yangel Herrera from behind and failed to get into a good position in front of Maxi Moralez, showing Moralez the middle of the field, where his pass led to Ismael Tajouri-Shradi’s goal.

Medunjanin’s mistake on the second goal was positional. It was also more important because it was a problem throughout the match. NYC like to get one man on the wing with the ball, keep their opposite flank relatively wide, and hang their defense back. This creates space in the middle for Villa or Moralez – two of the best movers in the league – to find a good run. The way to prevent this is to get your defensive midfielders into that space, relieving a little pressure on the Union’s young center backs. Often, however, neither Creavalle nor Medunjanin occupied that vacancy.

Offensively, Medunjanin was unable to assist the team with his usual passing wonder. This was primarily circumstantial. NYC’s small pitch condenses the field far too much for Medunjanin’s game, and having to move over to occupy Bedoya’s spot and role through off his normally left-oriented game. Notice how much to the right the left-footed Medunjanin had to play.

A high line against quick feet

Finally, NYC were just able to transition to offense more quickly than Philadelphia were able to transition to defense. The repercussions of this fact were exacerbated by NYC’s small pitch.

Philadelphia like to keep their line high to help with their attack and to condense space when the opposing side gets the ball in their own half. This latter benefit, however, hardly makes a difference on the small pitch, where any player is capable of sending the ball to the other side’s penalty box from any point.

Couple this with the speed of Maximilliano Moralez and David Villa, and you get, well, NYC’s third goal of the match. Auston Trusty wasn’t necessarily marking Moralez poorly. Moralez is just too fast to be playing that high up the pitch.

It was a tough loss for a side that had played well tactically all year. Between Yankee Stadium’s awkward pitch and NYC’s smart game planning, the Union just couldn’t play the game they wanted to play.



  1. This is Phil says:

    tough loss, but NYCFC is a better team when they are healthy… and how the heck can play well on the fooseball table they call a pitch other than them? This team did a lot to win me back this season, mainly because

    I felt the youth they gave a chance to didn’t disappoint,(well, maybe wish Jones showed stronger to push out Creavalle), Dockal proved a worthy investment and Picault really rose above and beyond expectation–hopefully both will stick around. Hopefully we’ll see some more MF prospects come up from the Steel and perhaps a big money signing for another MLS proven striker. If a healthy Accam bounces back, Picualt stays consistent, and Bedoya stays healthy, even with an aging Medunjanin, there a lot to build on.

    • Medunjanin is absolute trash and needs to go ….the problem with this team is Curtin.. he does not allow the union to build any type of chemistry and has no idea where to place his players. You do not form a formation then place your players in that formation. You form a formation around your players talents and what the opposing team presents on game day. Secondly realize the talent you have. Creavalle is quicker more defensive and can recover much better than medunjanin, who is slow on the ball and creates more turnovers than creative passes. The fact that you think medunjanin is the most talented player in this team amazes me and helps me realize i think union fans go home and turn on college football after these matches. Whole fan base that knows nothing about the game.
      Fixes: run two up top and grab a solid striker to partner up with Burke

      Trusty needs to be replaced by Elliot who is a more sound center back to run along side Mackenzie who shows promise

      Creavalle’s pace, touch on the ball, and ability to anticipate and cut down angles for opposing teams puts him in position to replace medunjanin in the middle.

      ilsinho needs to be an earlier second half sub when even or playing from behind

      And lastly curtin, have a damn first team that can build and play with eachother each week. Build chemistry and do not make changes when the team is hot. If you can’t figure that out you need to leave this town.

  2. Finally, an real analysis of the effects of the small pitch on our defensive tactics. That is why we lost Sunday and Wednesday. You can’t keep a high line on a field where the goalie can pass to the forward for very little difficulty. Why our manager didn’t realize that after 20 minutes on Sunday???

  3. Is not the root cause of the Union’s right-handedness the difference between RaymGaddis on offense and Keegan Rosenberry?
    Ray has improved quite a bit from when he first arrived. But he and Picault do not create the same effects on the left that Rosenberry and “winger-of-the-week” on the right. Gaddis makes the safe dish to someone else. Rosenberry creates attack himself.
    It will be interesting to see if they think Matt Real is ready. Or whether he needs more seasoning in USL

  4. Who is arguing Haris is their best player? Best at yelling at refs? Not running? Shouting at teammates and pointing? What metric are we using?
    Making this about the field is tantamount for absolution for a coach bereft of any tactical nous (I got you el P) and frankly just lazy. 5 teams went in and got result there this year, the U got pumped in back to back outings and looked defeated before the half in both.
    Stop making excuses for a coach who can’t win important games.

    • Agree and agree.

      On point A, Haris has been a major liability all season with his “finger defense”. When he’s on his game, his ball-shuttling and deep-lying distribution make up for it. But too often this season that has not been the case. Personally I am frustrated that they chose to pick up the option on his contract, as he is one player whom I think the team most definitely needs to move on from.

      As for the pitch, it is very difficult to play on, and NYC was the best home team in the league for a reason. But we didn’t just lose twice; we gave up early goals twice and got basically humiliated twice. And it’s not like the size of the pitch is some kind of surprise that you can’t anticipate. I think Peter Andrews nailed it in his piece from earlier this week: when the coach is absolutely tactically inflexible, it makes it nearly impossible to change tactics when you truly need to do so.

  5. Mismatch in Munchkin Land

    NYC only lost 1 home game all season. They were also missing key players that game. The team was built to win on that field. smaller quick players with very good touch and the ability to make short accurate passes. It does not hurt to have Daved Villa and Mini Morales I mean Maxi Morales either. Philly had zero chance to win there when they faced a healthy NYC.

    The only Union team who could have any chance on that field against that team would be if you could clone 2 Doakals, 2 Ilsiniios (when he was 25) 2 Barnettas, 2 Vincent Nogueras and 2 Justin Mapps as field players then replace the CBs with Valdez and Califf in their prime. Rosenberry on the right and god knows who on the left.(we never had had a decent left back.

    NYC is basically an indoor soccer arena without side walls.

    The MLS should step in and force them to make it more of a standard size field.

  6. And yet, on that postage stamp field, our two “homegrown stars” at CB were beaten repeatedly with long balls. That is inconceivable.

    If they don’t know better, the Jolly Red Idiot needs to explain it.

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