For Pete's Sake / Tactical Analysis

Postgame analysis: Philadelphia Union 3-1 D.C. United

Photo: Earl Gardner

There is no cure for what ails Philadelphia Union quite like a match against D.C. United.

Facing the Black and Red for the second time in four matches, the Union rebounded from dull performances against bottom-feeders Houston Dynamo and Chicago Fire by blowing the doors off their reeling neighbors from the nation’s capital.

A thoroughly dominant first half gave the Union a 3-0 halftime lead, and although D.C. grew into the game with a second-half performance that mostly served to make the statistics look even, Philadelphia never looked in real danger of coughing up the match.

What were the keys to a big home win? Manager Jim Curtin’s smart lineup changes and one of the most in-form strikers the Union have ever had.

An infusion of youth

After slogging to defeat in Chicago last weekend — thanks in part to some dubious lineup choices — Curtin realized that the Union needed “an injection of life.”

That life came thanks to two Homegrowns making triumphant returns to the lineup — and one wily veteran who plays with the spirit of a teenager.

Let’s start in the back, where Mark McKenzie has survived a season from hell. It’s hard to believe that Saturday was only his first start of the MLS season, but with Auston Trusty banished to the Phantom Zone and Aurelien Collin aging faster than someone who picked the wrong Holy Grail, McKenzie earned the nod from Curtin.

It wasn’t a perfect game from the young defender, but he didn’t make any boneheaded mistakes and wasn’t at fault on the visitors’ sole goal. McKenzie looked much like his old self at the back and made a compelling case to continue to start down the stretch.

Meanwhile, Brenden Aaronson got the start on the wing. After a hot start to the year, the teenaged midfielder faded over the brutally long MLS season — but after playing just ten minutes in the past three matches, getting a refreshed Aaronson to attack D.C.’s tired defense was an inspired move.

So, too, was switching to the 4-2-3-1 formation, which allowed the Union’s fullbacks to provide support to their wingers. Aaronson and Kai Wagner combined to generate Philly’s first goal (finished by Kacper Przybylko), while a rare Ray Gaddis overlap created the tiny window of space Ilsinho needed to notch the all-important third goal. Getting the Brazilian into the lineup was also crucial to the win, as he helped pin back United with his omnipresent dribbling threat on the right side.

And then there’s Przybylko. Has there ever been a Union striker in this rich a vein of form, save for (maybe) one of Sebastien Le Toux’s hot streaks? Przybylko has eight goals in the last 11 matches.

(Tangent: I absolutely refuse to use “Kacper the Friendly Striker” as Przybylko’s nickname. For one, it’s way too wordy. A nickname is supposed to be shorter than the player’s name — there’s a reason folks call Joel Embiid “JoJo” and not “Joel the Tall Dunking Man.” Second, I just think it’s sort of dopey. This seems like a crack job for Chris Gibbons, PSP’s resident guy who knows how to fix dopey things.)

Possibly more impressive on Saturday was Przybylko’s movement and ball control, with the Pole picking up a pair of assists to go on top of his goal. It seemed like he could do whatever he wanted with the ball, the sight of his impressive control somewhat incongruous with his six-foot-five frame.

In a year where the Union brought in multiple striker options from overseas — Sergio Santos and Andrew Wooten — to compete with two top scorers from last year in Cory Burke and Fafa Picault, to have Przybylko — an almost totally unheralded acquisition at the end of 2018 — be near the top of all of MLS in goals might be the single most remarkable story of what’s been a remarkable campaign.

How do you solve a problem like Bedoya?

Perhaps the only real blemish on the match was a needless yellow card picked up by captain Alejandro Bedoya in the 77th minute.

Bedoya, who’s played every minute for the Union so far this season, will now be suspended for yellow-card accumulation… just in time for a cataclysmic battle for first place in the Eastern Conference against defending champion Atlanta United.

This is the first time Curtin has faced a Bedoya-shaped hole in the lineup in 2019. How will he attempt to fill that hole?

There are two interrelated considerations: formation and personnel. Let’s start with the former. Although the 4-2-3-1 was extremely effective against D.C., the 4-4-2 diamond is likely to be a safer choice against Atlanta. Atlanta isn’t a team that you can smother with possession; under Frank de Boer, they aim for methodical buildups before ruthless finishing from Josef Martinez & co. To me, that’s a tactical matchup that calls for the diamond, which allows you to (1) absorb more pressure and (2) generate turnovers and counterattacking opportunities.

Assuming that the diamond’s the choice, which players will make the XI? One option — and perhaps the obvious one, would be to insert Warren Creavalle for Bedoya, play him alongside Jamiro Monteiro as one of the shuttlers, and slot in Marco Fabian in his comfortable No. 10 role.

That said, the last time the Union were in the diamond — at Chicago — Monteiro was used at the 10, with Fabian shoehorned into an ill-fitting second-striker role. Given Aaronson’s strong performance in this match, and that Fabian remains less than fully convincing, Curtin may be tempted to go with a Creavalle-Aaronson pairing in the midfield, with Monteiro ahead of him.

That also leaves a spot at striker next to the scorching-hot Przybylko. Don’t be surprised to see speedster Fafa Picault to get his first start in over a month there. Curtin loves his defensive work, his speed could help burn Atlanta on the counter, and none of the other strikers have really grabbed their opportunities.

Whatever lineup they go with, Saturday’s match is about as mouthwatering a regular-season clash as there has ever been at Talen Energy Stadium.


  1. I’m really curious about what Curtin will do tactically against Atlanta. I would not at all be surprised to see him stick with the 4-2-3-1. He may think overwhelming Atlanta in the midfield is a better option than playing two strikers.

    You drop Monteiro back with Medunjanin in the rear midfield. Aaronson, Fabian and Ilsinho(?) in the forward three mid positions. If you think you maxed out Ilsinho against DC, perhaps you could drop Creavalle in next to Medunjanin and play Monteiro in right mid. No idea if that’s something he’s comfortable with. Or perhaps you just start Picault on one of the wings.

    It’s going to be a battle either way.

  2. have the same line up except find a replacemnt for Bedoya which means inserting fava in a 4-3-3 formation. contain joe and we win. Use creavalle, wooten, and fontana as subs

  3. Peter, I think going with the 4-4-2 against Atlanta would be a mistake, for 2 reasons.

    First, one of our major, glaring weaknesses continues to be picking up late runners into the box, which mainly owes to Medunjanin’s approach to defense. Against the Five Stripes, with multiple offensive weapons, we are liable to get picked apart unless there is somebody next to Haris who can hold down that area.

    The second reason is amply shown by your own write-up: at this juncture, getting our best XI on the field is accomplished by using the 4-2-3-1. None of our other strikers besides Kacper has played terribly well this year; OTOH, for midfielders, even without The Captain, you have Haris, Miro, Marco, The Kid, Warren, and Skilsinho for 6 positions. Plus Fafa could play on the wing too (where he is arguably more well-suited than he is at striker). This is where our talent is right now. Granted we are hoping for great things from Wooten, but he hasn’t gotten untracked yet, and we cannot afford to let him play his way into it against Atlanta.

    I would play the first 5 of those guys, with Ilsinho on the bench. Creavalle is a strong choice to play next to Haris in what amounts to his natural position, with Marco as the 10 and the other 2 on the wings. Alternatively, I would LOOOOOVE to see Monteiro as midfield destroyer, but we’ve never done that before, and I don’t think this is the game to experiment too much.

    • Well-reasoned.

    • Agree with all of this. I think that #6 could possibly be Monteiro’s strongest position on the field, but this is not the game to do it.
      Let Creavalle, a natural #6 solidify Haris in holding mid and Monteiro play wing with Aaronson. Fabian at #10. Skillsinho as supersub.

  4. Vince Devine says:

    I think you go with the 4-2-3-1 with Jamiro in Bedoys’a spot, next to Haris. You need the extra defense on Gaddis’s side as team’s routinely attack down his flank and without Bedoya there Ray will need help. For the midfield, I’d go with Fabian in the center, Fafa on the left, and Wooten or Santos on the right. Kacper has to be up top.

  5. I’d like to nominate ‘Shiz’ as a potential nickname.

    “Shiz has been in great form lately!”

    “Shiz slots another one home!”

    “Another doop in the old onion bag for Shiz!”

  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Kacper’s surname is Polish, no question.
    Stalin moved the borders of Poland and Germany 200 miles westward in 1945. The Red Army was in physical possession and no one was in a position to dispute him meaningfully.
    Yes myriads of people were forcibly displaced. They all migrated west.
    These special factors augment the natural tendencies of border areas to reflect both sides of the border, particularly in this age of easy travel and bridged rivers.
    Would someone please speak definitively on Kacper’s nationality? From which country does he hold a passport?

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