Analysis / For Pete's Sake

Postgame analysis: LA Galaxy 2-0 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Things didn’t exactly go according to plan for Philadelphia Union on the West Coast on Saturday evening.

There are a few reasons why. The Galaxy are one of the hottest teams in the league right now, and they fully imposed their will on the Union. Zlatan is almost impossible to stop. The Union failed to exert any control in the midfield, and whatever plan they had went out the window with an early injury to Marco Fabian.

But I think it’s worth looking at the plan itself in a little bit of detail. Manager Jim Curtin has been more willing to experiment with tactical and personnel changes this season than ever before, and Saturday’s match featured an entirely new configuration of players — particularly, the use of Marco Fabian as a second striker playing in front of Brenden Aaronson.

Let’s dive, briefly, into the why of this move, before taking a look at the how it looked in the 17 minutes before Fabian picked up an injury.

Five starters for four spots

The arrival of loanee Jamiro Monteiro and the ascendance of youngster Brenden Aaronson have left the Union in one of the rarest positions in franchise history — with more talented players than there are spots.

(Remember, we’re only a few weeks past debating whether Warren Creavalle or Ilsinho — best in reserve roles only — should get the start in the shuttler slot opposite Alejandro Bedoya.)

Both Monteiro and Aaronson have staked a claim to see the field through their performances. The Union have three other midfielders in Alejandro Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin, and Marco Fabian who are automatic starters if they’re healthy. That leaves five starting-caliber players for four spots.

This weekend, Curtin faced the dilemma of how to get all five of them on the pitch. Now, this shouldn’t be a problem in every match — Aaronson, playing a grueling position in his first MLS season at age eighteen, should get regular rest — but playing against a strong Galaxy side on the road, Curtin correctly concluded that getting as much midfield talent on the field in an attempt to control the game was a smart strategy.

The solution? Fabian played as a withdrawn striker, playing alongside and slightly beneath Cory Burke and nominally in front of Aaronson at the 10. Moving Aaronson to the 10 created a spot for Monteiro on the side of the diamond. Notably, Curtin benched both speedsters David Accam and Fafa Picault, opting for Burke’s more physical presence alongside Fabian.

How’d it look?

Now, the obvious caveat is that we only saw this particular look for about 17 minutes before Fabian’s ankle injury forced him from the match.

That being said, this particular lineup looked… not great, from where I sit.

The biggest problem seemed to be the positioning of Fabian and Aaronson, who seemed to be in each other’s way a lot of the time. Fabian, in particular, dropped way into midfield to receive passes and combine with Medunjanin and Bedoya — nominally, Aaronson’s job. (Fabian also took a truly bonkers shot on goal from midfield that trickled right to the keeper. I mean, shoot your shot I guess, but that was always doomed to fail.)

This led to a bit of a clog, with Fabian’s free movement leaving Aaronson uncertain of where to move without the ball. Do I check to the space vacated by Fabian at the top of the line? Do I stay underneath Burke and try to combine with Fabian? Burke, too, found himself isolated.

What’s tough to conclude is whether this was “part of the plan” or whether it was a case of Fabian freelancing. If the former, the coaching staff will need to rethink how to deploy this five-midfielder lineup, so that Fabian and Aaronson each have a defined role. (Christmas tree 4-3-2-1, anyone?) If the latter, it’s on Fabian to either stick to his role or to communicate better with his teammates.

It’s far, far too early to call the experiment a failure, and Curtin should be commended for getting creative.

But it’s also far from a finished product.

Three more points
  • The overarching problem, which is probably too obvious to analyze in great detail, is that the Union’s strikers have been absolutely terrible this season. Of the nine goals the team has scored, only four have come from the strikers: three from Accam and one from Burke. Picault remains stuck on zero. While they’ve taken plenty of shots — 27 between Burke and Picault — the finishing just isn’t there. Picault managed another whiff on a perfect centering pass by Alejandro Bedoya in the second half that represented the Union’s best chance to tie the game. The finishing has to improve, because games where the Union dominate play can easily end in dropped points if chance after chance goes wanting.
  • Both goals came through crosses down Ray Gaddis’s flank of the pitch. His opposite number on the Galaxy — left back Jorgen Skjelvik — found himself in acres of space both times to run onto the ball and get dangerous crosses in towards Zlatan. Given that there is no more aerially dominant player in the league than Zlatan, you’d think the Union would have cutting out dangerous crosses as a point of emphasis. For me, it’s time to give Olivier Mbaizo a couple games at right back to see what he can do.
  • This weekend will be Jack Elliott and Mark McKenzie’s first game together as a centerback pairing, thanks to Auston Trusty’s late red card. Curtin has preferred to use the two players interchangeably alongside Trusty, so it’ll be worth watching how the two mesh in their one-game audition together. (Of course, we’ll probably find out in two weeks that Trusty has been suspended an additional seven games by the Disciplinary Committee, but for now it’s just one match out.)


  1. I thought I was seeing things several times when I saw a Union Jersey with the #10 collect the ball right in front of the center backs. I don’t necessarily have a problem with a forward dropping deep — see Liverpool’s Bobby Firmino — but Fabian doesn’t have the pace to play that way.

    One thing I was surprised by is that Accam didn’t get the start there. Or even the sub… I had to double check to see if he was in the 18. Accam is the only forward with a run of play goal, if we don’t count Burke’s rebound last weekend. Hope to see him up front to start against Montreal on Sat.

    • I believe Accam was up getting ready as the last sub but then Trusty got his red so Curtin brought on McKenzie. Since they had already moved to a back-3-ish (Bedoya playing sudo-RB) at the time, it was kind of a forced decision to bring on another defender.

  2. It is time for me to restate my reservations about Fafa.
    He always seemed to me as a player in the Danny Cruz role.
    He can run at teams knock in a few crosses but can’t really finish.
    He can be effective in a winger role but I can’t understand why anyone thought he was a striker.

    • Perhaps because of the other aspect of being strikers, both in this particular system and if you are playing for Jim Curtin.
      Fafa defends well as a striker.
      And he and Accam can put the fear of whatever divine force there maybe in a pair of slow center backs.

      • Peanut Gallery says:

        I get it based on the team’s current healthy options.
        But I sometimes let myself dream about what it would be like to have a forward (or forwards) who can consistently defend AND score goals.
        And with respect, Zlatan puts fear into center backs. Rooney, the same.
        Fafa and Accam are not at that level. Not even close, though if Accam continues in current form over the entire season, I’ll gladly change my perspective.
        Admittedly, it is easy for me to criticize from behind my thumbs tapping on a screen, but it certainly is fun to dream. Regardless, I’m still rooting for this team and will be there on Saturday with a bunch of friends.
        Let’s go, Union!

  3. I’m gonna stick my neck out — in Jim Curtin’s favor, no less — and say that I thought this lineup was a great idea. In fact, I was thinking that it would make sense to do exactly this, but he would never try it. And then, boom, he tried it!

    Of course it didn’t work in this match, but I don’t know that anything would’ve worked in this match. The whole team just looked out of sorts — passes were just plain OFF every where, Wagner had his worst match for us, etc etc. This is where you have to admit that the long travel aspect of MLS rears its ugly head.

    I would write off the result as an off-match, plus a big helping of “guys still learning each other in a new formation”. And I would not be afraid in the slightest to try it again — though possibly with a different striker, depending on the situation and who’s hot.

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