Tactical Analysis

Postgame analysis: Real Salt Lake 4-0 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Earl Gardner

The Union left Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah on Saturday with no doubt about who the better side was on the day. It was Salt Lake, from the very first minute and all the way until the final whistle.

In what was unequivocally the Boys in Blue’s worst outing in 2019, Jim Curtin summed up the proceedings quite succinctly:

Andre Blake and the Back Four

Not the name of the latest boy band formed by a group of graduated Mouseketeers, but rather the place where the Union need the most work again in 2019. Jim Curtin continues to reiterate his desire for a side that plays great defense first but continues to be let down by an ever-growing list of mental mistakes. They were on full display on Saturday night.

On the first goal, the Union have two problems.

The most glaring is obviously Fabinho pointing instead of following the diagonal run of Jefferson Savarino. His responsibility is to make sure that Auston Trusty receives his man on a switch, which given Trusty’s high line was nearly impossible, or to follow said man through assuming Trusty can step to Albert Rusnak in cover. Neither happened quickly enough and Savarino made no mistake with his finish.

Fabinho had a bad night and shouldn’t see much of the field going forward. However, he wasn’t brought to this match to actually play per se, he was brought as emergency back up for Kai Wagner and to allow Matt Real to recover from his midweek match with Steel. In the end, that emergency situation came to pass and Fabi showed definitively why his value in the side can be found in the locker room and not on the pitch.

The less discussed but equally as impactful issue is the amount of space left back Aaron Herrera had to pick out this lofted ball. More about Salt Lake’s domination in possession on the night (56.5 to 43.5%) than necessarily about a single responsibility (as Salt Lake consistently unlocked Philadelphia’s pressure and spun Union midfielders and defenders alike), Herrera was genuinely untroubled here. As a unit, when a defender sees an opposition player with enough time to pick up his head, the defender must be looking over his shoulder or taking steps backward in anticipation of a runner coming and a ball to follow.

To reiterate, neither happened quickly enough and Savarino made no mistake with his finish.

The second goal was a comedy of errors. Unfortunately the source of the errors and the group upon whom the joke was made both happened to be the Union.

The visitors made it to the 71st minute in Utah without playing much attractive or attacking soccer. And yet, there they were with only 20 minutes left and well within the realm of a lucky bounce to tie the score. That bounce never came, and that the Union were disposed of possession without a touch on the ball from the frame above speaks to lack of quality on the night.

The goal was so unlikely and out of character that it seemed to test the team’s spirit. Andrew Wooten’s disallowed goal that followed shortly thereafter and the next tally allowed broke it for the night, and perhaps understandably so.

Ray Gaddis can stand for culpability on the third goal, alone and seemingly handling a slow rolling cross into his box. Because Andre Blake didn’t collect the turnover as the right back seemed to expect, Gaddis had to make a decision: try and clear the ball with his left foot (an unlikely scenario for such a one-sided player) or open his body one way or another in order to use his stronger foot to make a pass, either to Andre Blake or out of the back (Haris Medunjanin was available, though not without risk).

The latter was Gaddis’s choice, and turning his body upfield rather than backwards. The aforementioned Savarino was bearing down on the Union regular though, and Gaddis was unable to distribute the ball before having his pocket picked. A back heel to an unmarked Albert Rusnak created space for the Slovakian to smash a first shot into the back of the net. Alejandro Bedoya wasn’t marking his runner any longer because he, like all other observers, thought the danger was over and play would be heading back the other way.

It was, just from the center circle.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

The Union were probably not going to win a road match in Utah even on their best night, and Saturday was not their best night by any stretch. Moreover, the team have never won in Rio Tinto Stadium and, save for Fafa Picault’s last-minute winner in Seattle last season, have only a handful of points in the Mountain and Pacific time zones during the entirety of the franchise’s existence.

The first few paragraphs of this post are a good, if misery-inducing, primer on why staying up past 10 p.m. to watch a Union game is genuinely bad for one’s health.

Some other numbers jumped out on the night too, for worse and for better.

  • Since the Gold Cup break, the Union defense has shipped 2.4 goals per game to their opponents. For context, FC Cincinnati’s dive to the bottom of the table has featured 2.25 goals allowed per game, which is the league’s worst number.
  • Andre Blake completed only 60% of his passes on the night and fewer than half of his long balls. Compared with Nick Rimando’s 76% and 61% respectively, a picture begins to emerge of where the team’s trouble in possession began (this phenomenon has been covered on these pages before, here and here). The eye test proved that the Union’s keeper is still not comfortable with the ball at his feet, particularly in comparison with the poise that was exhibited across the field. When the lines in front of Blake can’t connect passes either, then (like the 1995 song by one-hit wonder, Dog’s Eye View) “Everything falls apart.”
  • Though the Jamaican made some saves on well-taken Salt Lake shots, the numbers still say he allowed half of the shots that made it to his goal inside. That’s simply not good enough, and since his Gold Cup error in national team colors gifting Christian Pulisic a goal, Blake has looked iffy.
  • The Union had 12 players score lower than the lowest scoring Salt Lake player on WhoScore.com’s match report. Brendan Aaronson was worst of the bunch with Ray Gaddis close behind. Saturday’s loss was unquestionably a team effort.
  • Not a single shot on goal was recorded by the Boys in Blue, tying a team record for worst in franchise history.

No team has successfully recorded negative shots on goal to this author’s knowledge, though an argument could be made such a feat might be achieved in a match where no shots were accurately placed on frame and an own goal was tallied at the other end of the field.

  • PRO Referees had a big hand in the outcome of a Union match once again, as the team went 0-3 on Video Assistant Referee reviews: Damir Kreilach getting a yellow and not a red for a studs up challenge from behind on Kacper Pryzbylko, Andrew Wooten having his first-touch-in-Blue goal disallowed for the ball going over the touch line, and Kreilach being ruled onside in the waning minutes on his way to the team’s 4th.

For what it’s worth, the author agrees with VAR on the final two decisions. Leaving the first challenge as a yellow goes against what was a league-wide crack down on dangerous play and is the kind of challenge that alters matches, seasons, and careers.

  • The Union remain in 1st place in the East in spite of this result, with a truly dreadful Chicago Fire team coming to town on the 20th as proverbial lambs to a hopefully reinvigorated Union’s slaughter.

On to the next one.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    If the coach says he’s “burning the tape,” IMO we burn the analysis.

  2. I agree with el Pachy. I’ll worry if this becomes a trend. One “sh*t the bed” game is pretty typical in this league.

  3. Kip Leitner says:

    The photo of the first goal prior to the long ball shows what separates winners from losers in playoff time in MLS. Union have 8v4 behind the ball, and so feel falsely secure. Because there is zero pressure on the ball, long ball over the top will turn this into 4v3. Further, at this point you can also easily see what will be the scoring move — long diagonal ball makes 2v2. Poor coaching is why the Union player in the kickoff circle wearing orange boots is watching the ball (MLS players always ball-watching, probably 1/2 of all goals in MLS are due to ball-watching instead of defending). He should be sprinting back to cover the 2nd attacker behind him. Fully 8 of the Union players are standing still and watching the ball, with 4 of them about to be bypassed.

    I’m not sure how this situation developed, but it’s sorta classic “we’re about to be scored on” field picture.

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