Analysis / Featured / Union

Formations, and charters, and standings, no bye!

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Stand in the place where you work

Author’s note: the author seems to title each of his sections with song lyrics. Adjust your personal PSP-themed playlist accordingly.

Remember in the early stages of 2019 when Union Sporting Director Ernst Tanner suggested that possession wasn’t important, the Union were too predictable offensively, and that they would be playing a different formation in the coming season? Those ideas manifested themselves into Union success over the season, the Boys in Blue becoming a top 5 team in the league.

Recently, the team have begun to revert to old habits (lots of possession), old formations (ye olde 4-2-3-1), and old problems (not enough poise in the final third).

In the summer, when Ilsinho was solidifying his “Human Cheat Code” moniker, the Union were introducing the Brazilian and a formation change into matches at the same time. After wearing down the opposition with their relentless pressure from a 4-4-2, they would then bait the opposition with possession and a 4-2-3-1. This 60th minute alteration was made so by rotating Alejandro Bedoya wider as a de facto wing back, Ray Gaddis more centrally to cover Bedoya’s abandoned space, and Ilsinho up the pitch to attack from the flank.

In the famous match against Red Bulls, Ilsinho’s touches were nearly entirely in the final third, which made sense because New York was up 2 goals and parking the bus to keep it that way.

Contrast that with where the Jogo de Woao received the ball on Sunday against Columbus, when the Crew were up by 1 goal but not being nearly as defensive.

Ilsinho was less involved with respect to volume of touches, but also received the ball much farther from goal, negating much of his effectiveness.

Whether its breaking pressure or breaking a bunker, Ilsinho is most effective as an attacking player in isolation. The Union aren’t doing a good enough job of allowing either of those things to happen right now and its both a problem of formation and of change.

The Union’s press is less effective in the 4-2-3-1, Kacper Pryzbylko left chasing ghosts just like C.J. Sapong before him. Without a second striker, there’s simply too much to be done defensively by the striker and a midfield behind him, particularly with 2 players well out of position (Brendan Aaronson and Jamiro Monteiro offer more than their positioning in this formation allows).

In the end, the Union waste a lot of energy being stretched in their 4-2-3-1 than they did staying compact in their 4-4-2. By the time their super sub comes on, there isn’t much left to show their opponents something they haven’t already seen for most of the match.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

This was the Union’s week of poor first, second, and third touches, the week of Alejandro Bedoya’s non-contact thigh injury, a weekend to forget when every other result in the league was going the team’s way.

The Boys in Blue looked tired on Sunday, both physically and emotionally.

Had Jamiro Monteiro’s lunge at an Ilsinho cross gone in, tired might have been a rallying cry for the team rather than an excuse. The chance flew over the bar however, Kacper Pryzbylko channeled his rage into a yellow card and several more chippy-play scrums, and the Union Twitter-verse exploded with comments like these.

If the reader visited Philly Soccer Page last week, he or she knows the author made a rational case against spending money on a chartered flight to and from San Jose. Still standing by the math (though an error was caught by an astute reader) and the rationale, and further standing by the lack of any shred of counterfactual evidence, a similarly rational person might conclude that the team might have benefited from seats that recline, meals that taste good, and a glass of wine or two on the way back from the west coast.


Author’s note: No admission is being made here, simply that an easy correlation might be suggested between the way the team played on the field and the circumstances by which they arrived there. Elton John is, however, objectively great and is thus included here because of his topical relevance.

Love me two times, or Three the hard way

New York City FC lost their match over the weekend to New England Revolution, the latter solidifying its place in the playoff field with the result. As the Union circled the proverbial drain in rain-soaked Columbus, the Pigeons therefore solidified their own spot at the top of the standings, rendering next week’s match in Chester, PA moot from their perspective.

As a result, rather than having a chance to win the conference Sunday night, the Union now no longer control their playoff seeding destiny.

Here’s how the Eastern Conference looks heading into Sunday’s Decision Day matches.

City have clinched first place and the Union and Atlanta United are vying for 2nd.

The Union of course host City and won’t know until Sunday what kind of roster their guests will bring: one resting starters or one vying to get a final quality run in before several weeks off (City played without 6 of its regulars in the loss to New England on Sunday).

Atlanta hosts the very same plucky Revs, who themselves could catch Toronto FC should they slip up at home against the Crew. The Red Bulls go to Montreal with a small chance for a home game should they win, needing both that result and DC United to fall at home against Cincinnati.

Sunday will be high drama and is precisely why all the matches will be played in the same window.

What should the Union do?

  1. Win: After an up and down week, the Union need to be their best against City if for no other reason than they haven’t been their best in a while. Finish the season as you mean to go on into the playoffs.
  2. Don’t scoreboard watch: Atlanta ought to beat New England at home, which would give them the 2nd seed on account of total wins no matter what the Union does. That result is irrelevant if the Union don’t take care of business first. Beyond that, it’s tough to beat the same team twice in a row anyway, which is what The Five Stripes would have to do should they win Sunday (hosting New England again in the 1st round of the playoffs). The 3 seed might be the better spot anyway as New York and Toronto seem more beatable right now than New England. Either way, put your boots on and get to work.
  3. Get points for other reasons: A berth in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League is on the line Sunday too, in a way. Should the Union win MLS Cup or be the highest ranked team in the overall Major League Soccer standings in the case that one of City, LAFC, or Atlanta win the Cup (having all already qualified for the competition in other ways), the Boys in Blue would be playing Champions League soccer in 2020. Give your fans what they want: wins in big-time matches and more soccer.


  1. I agree 100% about the formation. Curtin is falling back in love with the 4-2-3-1 and it is messing us up.

    • Is it the 4-2-3-1 because Jim likes it or because it gets Fafa on the field in a position he is effective ? (And Fafa’s speed is better to have on the field then Marco’s …. skill ? )

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        There’s something to that I think. Fafa had some nice assists last month, if not nearly enough of the ball in the final third. He should be the ideal guy to play off of Kacper, but it just hasn’t quite materialized like that yet in the 4-4-2.

  2. excellent article. another reason to win on sunday- overcoming the memories of ending last season with back to back losses to NYC

  3. Re: Point 3 – Toronto hasn’t qualified for CCL, Montreal took that spot. The Union takes “next best record” if the following occurs: Union win (SEA/MIN cannot overtake us), Union lose and SEA/MIN tie (neither can overtake us), Union tie and either SEA/MIN tie OR Seattle beats Minnesota by less than 7 goals (we have the tiebreaker over Seattle, but not Minnesota).

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      You’re absolutely right.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      Toronto can’t qualify for CCL even if they win the MLS Cup. The spots are allocated by country and all 4 MLS spots are for US based teams. The only way Toronto could have qualified was to win the Canadian Cup.

      • Correct me if I’m mistaken, but If Toronto wins the MLS Cup and we finish ahead of MN/SEA then that is a further default pathway to the CCL because a Canadian team would win what would otherwise be one of the 4 US automatic berth pathways. That means if we win on Sunday or MN/SEA sadly do our own homework for us by drawing, then we get the CCL directly if we win the MLS Cup or by default if Atlanta, NYCFC, LAFC or Toronto win the MLS Cup because they have either already qualified for 1 of the US’s 4 slots by other means or are ineligible to win a US slot allotment.

      • Note: and if we draw on Sunday, we need Seattle to not outrageously win or draw it.

  4. I’d like to see the 4-4-2 again. It’s what got them to #1 I’m the standings earlier this season. And it keeps players compact enough to have some combination passes.
    Monteiro – Aaronson
    Przybylko – Santos

    • Yuck on that lineup. It’s not coincidental that we start to lose when Fabian plays.

      • O captain my captain crunch is gone says:

        Geez, how far down has Fabian dropped in the pecking order…. I’d like to say that midfield looks strong but between Harris and Marco you have two D liabilities. Fontana maybe…. warren C? I think Marco is gone next year but who else? Harris, Aaronson (transfer) Blake, I hope not montiero but it seems to be the case. For what it’s worth…. GO U!!!!

      • Fabian goes back to Mexico to play? Probably. He ain’t finished but his injuries slowed him more than he expected this season, I’m sure, .and probably precludes re-entry into Europe.
        But he scores more than I expected back in February so hat is off to him.
        Aaronson trade? Really? Unlikely but you may know more than me. Who wants him that would qualify as moving on up the ladder for him?
        Any news on Monteiro? He, Kaspcer, Wagner, and Elliott should be automatic for next year’s roster.
        Blake. Hate to see him go, would love for him and Bedoya to retire as Union blue and gold. But could be Sugarman won’t pay to keep Ale, plus Europe calling for Blake.
        Speaking of which—brexit might have HUGE positive impact on mls—any one consider that, yet?

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