Analysis / Commentary

Postgame analysis: Philadelphia Union 1-3 Portland Timbers

Photo: Rob Simmons

On Saturday night, the Philadelphia Union found out the hard way that success is an evolving, and elusive, endeavor. Their 3-1 loss to the tenth-place Portland Timbers highlighted the need for the Union to adapt as the season progresses.

A week ago, the Seattle Sounders showed that parking the bus neutralized a Union offense that had a hard time breaking past lines of defenders. Portland took that strategy one step further by springing effective counters that were enough to net two goals before the Union could get a single shot on target.

Breaking down and learning from the loss that displaced Philadelphia from first place in the East will be crucial to getting back to the top.

What’s the game plan?

The Union looked like they just expected a win to end up in their lap at home on Saturday night, and it showed when they struggled to adapt when that didn’t happen.

When opposition teams give them openings, the Union have been excellent at exploiting those openings with fast buildups and slick crosses. But when teams stay back and have up to eight players playing defense, it’s a whole different story. Portland did a great job at closing down the Union offense and midfield, forcing them to play the ball back and rely on players like Ray Gaddis for offensive creativity — something that didn’t happen.

The Union will need to figure out how to break down bunkered defenses quickly if they hope to maintain a top of the table position going into the middle stretch of the season. It should be no surprise to see other teams play similarly to Seattle and Portland against Philadelphia going forward.

This issue is probably the first big question mark that the Union have had to answer since the adjustment to a new, transition-based system earlier this season. The Union figured out a system to get themselves to the top of the table, but now that MLS has been given a blueprint to stop them it will be up to Philadelphia to show that it can figure out success once more.

It ain’t too bad, but it ain’t too good

It’s a shame that the two matches that have drawn the most Union fans have been the two matches where they’ve fallen short of impressing.

At the same time, it’s important to look at the match against Portland within its appropriate context.

The Union are 4-1-2 over the past seven games, which is great form for the MLS. They are just one point from 1st in the East and have played one less game.

Portland isn’t your standard tenth-place side, either. The Timbers haven’t played a home match yet this season, thanks to renovations to Providence Park.

This current roadblock is a serious one that the Union have to figure out, but it’s far from the end of the days for a Philadelphia team that has been impressing for most of the season.

What is going on up top?

It’s quite the series of circumstances that has brought the Union offense to where it is now. Marquee signing Marco Fabian has been suspended and then injured for most of the season, last year’s starting striker Cory Burke has effectively been banished to Jamaica for the next couple of months,  and just as winger David Accam started to contribute to the team, he got cashed out to middleman Columbus Crew on his way to Nashville SC next year.  At the same time, an 18-year-old Brenden Aaronson has stepped up to fill big shoes at central attacking midfield, Kacper Przybylko has put in four goals in seven games up top, and Sergio Santos has looked good for his two goals in six games. It’s been a unique season to say the least.

Unfortunately, these past two games against Seattle and then Portland have looked like a different Union team up top. Fafa Picault still hasn’t figured out his role in the new system, bagging just one goal in 14 games, which is surprising now that he is one of the Union’s two strikers; last year, he scored a goal every three games, and that was as a winger.

Przybylko was also missing against Portland on Saturday. While he views his role as both a goal-scorer and as an opportunity-creator for the team, he squandered multiple goal-scoring opportunities by trying to head the ball to a teammate instead of into the back of the net. If he can recapture that killer instinct that saw him score in each of his first three starts for Philadelphia, the Union will be that much closer to being back on track.

Again, while the Union offense hasn’t looked good over the past couple of games, context is king: it’s normal for teams to play well, and then have a dry stretch. So it’s not the end of the world for the Union, especially since they could be considered rather unlucky to have hit the post on multiple close shots against Portland. It could have been a different game entirely if luck had fallen on the Union’s side. But it didn’t, so it will be important for the Union offense to regroup and figure out how to score goals against sides that are doing everything they can to prevent that from happening.

The big next steps

The Union have a robust schedule ahead of them, playing bottom, middle, and top-level teams over the course of the summer before they finish the season with a rather difficult string of fixtures against D.C. United, Atlanta United, LAFC, NY Red Bulls, and NYCFC. They will need all the points that they can get over the summer months, so time is of the essence as the Union try to regroup and set themselves up to win matches.

The big steps for the Union to recalibrate after their loss against Portland will be:

  1. Figuring out how to break down bunkered defenses
  2. Using the two-striker system more effectively
  3. Defending against counterattacks that leave them exposed, especially against teams that are parking the bus

If the Union can solve those problems, then they should be the Beast of the East once more.

Otherwise, it could be a long few months for a Union fanbase that has developed a new taste for success.


  1. Crtl F + Gaddis = 1 result? Not good enough.

    It’s clear his limitations are currently hurting us. Teams are giving him tons of space on the right and he can do nothing with it. Until we get a better RB there this will be the game plan teams use to beat us.

    Look at when Ilsinho came in and Portland could afford to TRIPLE team him. What a joke.

    A modern FB in todays game should FEAST on the attention Ilsinho gets when he comes in. But we have to take our RB out and replace him with a career 8. Not good, not good at all.

    • Gaddis unfortunately allows the teams to bunker even more which makes it that much more difficult to break down. Forwards still need to get their shots on frame though and Wagner needs to take more people on along the end line because his normal crosses honestly aren’t that great.

  2. Your focus is on the wrong end of the pitch. The problem wasn’t the strikers; the problem was the complete and utter defensive breakdowns that allowed the first two Portland goals.
    If teams are going to bunker 8 players behind the ball against the Union for the rest of the season, they really can’t allow people to get into their box unchecked.

    • I thought the second goal was particularly terrible. The first one was, honestly, a rare mistake by Jack Elliott, who’s had a terrific season. But the second was just terrible organization, failure to follow people appropriately, and the thing that worried me from the very beginning of the season: getting punished for Medunjanin’s defensive limitations.

      We’ve seen teams run up the center of the pitch a number of times this season, and in my view, playing a not-too-defensive regista-type player is part of the reason. Mostly the teams that have done that (e.g. New England) haven’t been good enough to finish their chances, but Portland was. They won’t be the last.

      If Jim really feels that Medunjanin’s contributions to distribution and offense make it worth covering for his defensive limitations, I wonder if it might make more sense to play him on the left side of the diamond and put Monteiro at the back point where he can be the destroyer we truly need to lock up the defense.

    • We will always always 100% have this problem as long as Medunjanin.

      Scottso basically said it perfectly so I will just say +1.

      I just was always a bit disappointed that we have such a young backline always hung out to dry by the team and the tactics. What you saw again Portland is going to continue happening until we get a 6 who can play defense or unless Elliot, Trusty and our new RB turn into All-Stars.

  3. Tim Jones says:

    Brendan Burke made an interesting comment after the tie with Louisville that they changed their shape three times during the match. Now going down to ten men in the 37th and 9 in the 90th necessitated at least one of the changes, but still.
    My own overall point would be that Diego Charra is very good. Some analyst on the MLS website calls him the best DCM in the league.
    he had a noticeable effect on the match.

    • Telling that an elite defense first #6 dominated and determined the match more than an elite offense first #6? And away, no less.

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