Match analysis: NYC FC 0 – 1 Philadelphia Union

Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Union

The Philadelphia Union opened their account in Group A of the MLS is Back Tournament last Thursday morning with a 1-0 win over “hosts” New York City FC.

It was a match filled with rust and poor touches, but it rose to a boil in the way a conference clash ought to, and became the kind of nail-biting, down-to-the-wire competition that Major League Soccer is known for.

Two things stood out as opportunities for improvement for the winning side.

Ilsinho, the Super Sub

Ilsinho is the most talented on-ball player in Union history.

His most significant contributions to the team have come as a substitute, when tired defenders have had to deal with the mesmerizing legs of the magical Brazilian. Specifically, his impact is most felt on the wing of the Union’s formerly unchanging 4-2-3-1 formation. Poor left backs and their central defensive help often ended up on the wrong end of his highlight reel, and for that he earned the nickname “The Human Cheat Code.”

Unfortunately, as a starter, Ilsinho is almost always a non-factor.

Forced into action because of minor injuries to his 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strikers, Head Coach Jim Curtin slotted Ilsinho into the top of his narrow diamond-shaped 4-4-2. Hoping he’d add width because of his tendency drift, or that he’d capitalize on the game’s aforementioned rusty looseness, the Brazilian’s experience was likely the most important factor in the decision to start him.

At the final whistle, he was the lowest-rated starter on either team according to, with no statistical contributions of note.

More significantly, the Union pressed City in their normal style for much of the match. This press is not a match for the Magic Man and Ilsinho was missing in several defensive moments. None of them was more potentially significant as the one below.

Frankly, few Union players in this clip deserve praise, but Ilsinho’s quarter-hearted attempt to narrow the space between the lines isn’t good enough. His decision not to chase the ball carrier from behind is worse (because this specific pressure is what helped the Union get a point in the City of Angels earlier in the year) simply helped give the hosts their best chance of the game to that point.

If the team are going to maintain their pressing identity, both starting forwards have to share in the burden that is the high press.

“A Red Bull team”

“If you try to dribble out or try to beat one guy, you’re going to get your pocket picked by the next guy. They have a good way of squeezing you on one side… [but the easiest way out of that pressure sometimes is] blind, where you just clip it to the other side because there’s literally no one there.”

Some postgame thoughts from new City manager Ronny Deila on how to neutralize the Boys in Blue? Nope.

This is a quote from Jim Curtin in 2016. about how the Union broke-down Jesse Marsch’s Red Bulls in the U.S. Open Cup (credit to Kevin Kinkead for the A+ analysis).

From Kinkead’s piece: “You can see Chris Pontius first play a pass for Yaro that doesn’t come off, and forces the rookie to chase. But when Pontius gets the ball back, he senses pressure on his back and plays a really nice, “blind” left footed pass to pick out Fabinho and break the pressure by going side-to-side instead of vertically.”

This simple decision unlocks the Red Bulls completely, earning the Union a corner kick just seconds later.

In 2020, and now that the Union have adopted a similar style to those successful Red Bull sides, it’s also exactly how New York City FC broke down the Union so many times on Thursday morning.

Here’s the same clip as above.

As the Union try to pin City against the left touchline, with Jamiro Monteiro acting as the team’s farthest defender from the ball while still being on the same side of the field as the play, the Philadelphians can accept two outcomes: a pass back or the ball going out. A pass across the formation is bad news, as Kincaid showed in his piece above, and two passes from the Pigeons brought that dark cloud and forced all 11 Union players chasing across the field. A good first touch and another horizontal switch meant the Union were unzipped and sprinting toward their own goal.

Looking ahead

Whether as a pejorative or simply an adjective, famed American coach Bob Bradley called the Union “A Red Bull team” following his side’s 3-3 draw against the Union in March.

What did he mean?

Bradley saw in the Union a team that played narrowly, pressed high, and, in the case the opposition did make it past the midfield stripe, had strong forwards who could hold up play via lofted balls into space so that a fast counter-attack could be mounted. The opportunities to beat the Union were the same ones Jim Curtin saw in beating the Red Bulls in years past, Bradley’s side simply weren’t quite efficient enough in taking them.

That said, the book is written on this strategy and how its veil can be penetrated. That two of the most talented teams in the league knew this and still let the Union take four points from six says something about the good guys’ execution.

Still room to get better, but points are points.


  1. I’ve watched a good bit of this event in bits and pieces… and aside from Darlington Nagbe being the best player I’ve seen (which presents other questions about why he never left for Europe or why this guy isn’t featured in the NT midfield), I thought the Union NYCFC game as been one of the better matches.

  2. Tim Jones says:

    Like Fritz I have been watching as much as I can, which is a lot since I am not work-place tied.
    The lack of 90-minute match fitness has been pervasive. This tournament so far teaches you not to trust the impressions of the first half an hour. After the 70th minute they will be gone.
    Ful credit to the Union and Andre Blake for being one of the few that has managed to hold onto the lead. Chris Armas’ Red Bulls are another.

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