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Postgame analysis: Philadelphia Union 3-2 New York Red Bulls

Photo: Rob Simmons

Philadelphia Union’s cracking comeback against New York Red Bulls Saturday night earned perhaps the most crucial three points that the Union have earned so far this season, fortifying their first-place spot and fending off one of the East’s stronger contenders, all in front of a sellout crowd at home.

In addition to the electric atmosphere and enticing football that characterized the clash, the gameplay itself was immensely revealing in regards to the Union’s strengths and weaknesses. Just as scientists use heat, radiation, and pressure to test different substances and discover their inherent qualities, the Red Bulls played a phenomenal game that put the Union’s flaws on full display while also forcing them to showcase the strengths that brought them to the top of the East in the first place.

A night of New York Red Bulls vs. Ilsinho and Co. 

The star of the night was unquestionably Ilsinho, who rallied a probing Philadelphia team and spurred them into the goal three times in under thirty minutes. After the match, head coach Jim Curtin lauded him as being on a different level of play, and he truly did seem to bring another dimension to the Union attack once he came on. The night ended up looking like a Tale of Two Cities, where it was the worst of times and it was the best of times, and the difference between the two was Ilsinho.

While Ilsinho was able to create opportunities and beat defenders with his dissecting dribbles and fancy footwork, the strength that he brought to the Philadelphia side was not just a physical or skills-based one. More importantly, it was clear that he brought a different mentality to the team’s offensive approach altogether. While the first-half attacking machinery of Santos, Przybylko, Aaronson, and Monteiro looked like it expected deliberate passing and cautious buildup play to create opportunities, Ilsinho showed that the only way to get the ball into the goal was to pass and dribble the ball towards the goal itself. Rather than pass the ball back to Gaddis and surrender offensive responsibility to the defense, Ilsinho showed that a Union offense that is hungry to score and attacks directly is one of the best teams in Major League Soccer.

What to do with Kryptonite?

The Union’s struggles in the first half highlighted the vulnerabilities that have bit at the ankles of the team since matchday one. While the Philadelphia defense and midfield have come a long way in maturing their approach and adapting to a new system, those vulnerabilities still remain to some degree and were on full display within the Red Bulls’ two goals.

The Union’s major defensive weakness is that they are prone to losing marks at the edge of the box, particularly when the opposing team brings the ball down the flanks and slicks the ball into the middle. That ball usually finds an open player that is able to slam it into the back of the net. Kaku’s goal was an archetype of this kind of goal, and it was clear that the New York Red Bulls knew that this was a Union vulnerability and were specifically targeting it by playing the ball down the right side and trying to pass it into the center.

In the Union’s loss against Toronto at the beginning of the season, it was Medunjanin who failed to track back with Michael Bradley who scored, and on Saturday night against the New York Red Bulls, it was Monteiro who should have covered Kaku tightly before the Red Bulls’ first goal. At the end of the day, the Union players need to instill in their minds that when defending their third, they can never assume someone else is responsible for the opposing player running past them. If Curtin and the team can solidify this key tenet into their DNA, it will go a long way towards covering the Union’s Achilles heel and protect them going forward.

Winter is coming

While it’s important to acknowledge weaknesses and strengths, it should be repeated that the Union accomplished a great feat in their victory against the New York Red Bulls, securing first place and showing the rest of the MLS that they can win when it comes down to the wire. Fans that were at the match on Saturday can testify that the stadium was brimming with supporters, the stands were shaking under the weight of goal celebrations, and atmosphere was electrified beyond what its been in a long time. This is great for Philadelphia as a team and as an organization, and it should only grow if the Union can continue producing results on the field.

Looking forward to the next few fixtures after the Gold Cup break, the Union will have a key part of their schedule coming up. They have a series of matches throughout the summer that should serve to bolster their standing before they close out their season with the most challenging fixtures possible. Except for an important U.S. Open Cup match against rivals D.C. United and a difficult game against New York City FC, the Union will play teams like New England, Orlando, Salt Lake, Chicago, and Montreal throughout the rest of June and July. These matchups will be instrumental in showing that Philadelphia can regularly produce points when expected. Those points will be crucial to have in the bag when the Union face off against Atlanta United, Los Angelos FC, New York Red Bulls, and New York City FC at the end of the season.

Winter is coming, and the Union have to spend the summer preparing if they hope to be serious playoff contenders and seize their first ever playoff victory. If Saturday’s win against New York was any indication, the Philadelphia Union can certainly reach that goal this season, if they take their opportunities.

8 Comments

  1. I hardly usually comment on articles here and I’m in no way a soccer strategist, but it seems to me the last few games teams have started to attack in numbers and better-quality players down the right side at Kai. I thought would be based on the lack of concern of any offensive threat from Ray and Kai’s less of a defensive prowess. The secondary result is it requires Kai to stay back on defense more and he has less opportunity to get into the attack. Hence his drop off in offensive production lately.
    Also one thing I think was apparent when Ilsinho is he takes risk when he attacks an pulls the defense attention. This creates openings in the defense like the first goal. Both Przybylko and Monteiro have been more hesitant lately and have done less of this in the final 1/3 in trying to create something.

    • I agree. I noticed Red Bull players sprinting at Kai when he had the ball to close him down. It’s hard to play as well as he did early in the season when teams realize he is a good player and that they can totally ignore our RB.

      We need Mbazio to start getting minutes.

      • I recall being completely unimpressed with Mbazio, but my memory is not what it used to be

      • Well he had that one nice assist on the Pyrzblko header which is one more than Gaddis all season.

        But seriously I don’t want Mbaizo to end up like Jones. No, Mbaizo did not look like Kimmich, but he also did not give up 3 goals in a row or anything so I don’t see any reason why we should act like Mbazio is shit.

        At a certain point you need to give a player a chance to earn a spot, and I don’t think Gaddis so untouchable that Mbazio does not deserve that chance.

      • pragmatist says:

        The Open Cup is when you’ll see these guys get the minutes people have been clamoring for. If they can acquit themselves well in Cup Competition, then you can reasonably expect some more looks during the season.
        .
        But there’s a lot of pressure on guys like Mbaizo during the Cup game(s). If he lays an egg, we’re back to square one, unless Tanner has a summer transfer up his sleeve.

      • Would like to see Mbazio but not sure if he will be in the 18 or not. Apparently teams are limited to just 5 foreign players in Open Cup and not sure of his Mbazio’s status nor priority in that 5. Apparently Trusty and Aaronson will also be away for U-23 camp and Crevalle will be in Guyana. Also, Ben Ofeimu, Issa Rayyan, Zach Zandi and Shanyder Borgelin got short term 1st team contracts for the match. Anyone’s guess who we see out there.

  2. As much as this team has improved in passing, it gives the ball away too much. I think nearly everyone is guilty of it. One of the nice things about Ilsinho is you get him the ball and he can retain it for a moment and is the one player on the team that can really do two things — pass or drive on the dribble. Every other union player is more likely to knock the ball around in the final third. Ilsinho really unsettles defenders. The plan, I think, is for Fabian to serve that function. He’s had some flashes, but isn’t there yet.

  3. The defensive weakness you mention is the consequence of 2 things:

    1. The license that Curtin gives the midfielders to find space on the pitch; Bedoya and Monteiro especially roam a fair bit, allowing them to pressure the ball, choke off passing lanes, and get involved in the offense at key points, but it also means that sometimes, when a guy comes charging down the pike, they aren’t there to stop him.

    2. Medunjanin’s defensive weakness. There are times when he does stick himself in to win balls. But there are plenty of other times where he’s playing “finger defense” and trailing the play and leaving our young CBs under pressure.

    I can’t help wondering how the squad might look if Medunjanin went out to the left side and Monteiro went to the back of the diamond. Jim probably doesn’t want to do that because he focuses the entire possession offense around Haris, but I’m afraid that we will always be vulnerable to late runners in the box using this formation with him back there.

    Maybe the solution is to go back to the 4-2-3-1 more often, with Monteiro playing next to him. That would also be a way to get Miro, Haris, Ale, Fabiàn, and Aaronson all on the pitch at the same time.

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