For Pete's Sake

Five thoughts from three games in the bubble

Photo courtesy Jared Martinez / Major League Soccer

Philadelphia Union wrapped up Group A of the MLS is Back Tournament with a fairly blah 1-1 draw on Monday evening against Orlando City.

With two wins and a draw, Philly picked up seven of a possible nine points and advanced with ease to the knockout stage of the unprecedented bubble tournament.

Here are the big takeaways from what we’ve seen so far in Orlando.

No one saves more than Andre Blake

The longtime Union keeper was in poor form for much of 2019, culminating in a disastrous playoff match against New York Red Bulls. The data — highlighted by PSP’s Chris Gibbons — suggests that Blake was an average-to-below-average keeper last campaign.

Three matches into the Orlando tournament, it’s fair to say the Jamaican has rediscovered his form.

Blake has been active throughout all three matches, uncorking a full highlight reel of saves. While his reflexes are as strong as they’ve always been, perhaps a better sign is how confident he looks coming off his line. His double save early in the second half against Orlando was a highlight en route to Man of the Match honors.

After the match, Jim Curtin talked about how what an advantage an in-form keeper can be in a knockout-style tournament.

Union fans will be happy to see that Andre Blake fits that description right now.

El Brujo, indispensable

After just three starts in a Union shirt, it’s clear how invaluable Jose “El Brujo” Martinez is to what this squad wants to do.

Martinez plays with a fearlessness — bordering on recklessness, sure — that sets the tone. More than that, though, he covers an enormous amount of ground, is seemingly tireless, and uses his soccer intelligence to always  stay near the play. That presence keeps the team’s shape solid.

With El Brujo serving an inevitable suspension against Orlando, Warren Creavalle couldn’t match that intensity. The result? Big gaps between the Union midfield and backline, and not a lot of counterattacking opportunities.

No question Martinez still has a ways to go in adjusting to Major League Soccer, and he’s not ready to play every minute for the Union. But Curtin will be glad to have him available for selection in the knockout rounds, because it seems clear that the Venezuelan gives Philadelphia their best chance to win.

Give chances a chance

The Union’s attack needs work.

No doubt that some of the issues here have been due to injury. Sergio Santos, Andrew Wooten, and Michee Ngalina have all missed time in Orlando, and none are anywhere close to 90 minutes fit. That’s left Kacper Przybylko a little bit isolated at times through the first three games.

Nevertheless, the Union aren’t generating many shots on target from inside the box — none at all in the game against Miami, in fact. And while a few good balls came in from the flanks against Orlando, time and again the Union had no runners waiting to meet them.

A few factors are at play: mixing and matching personnel, adjusting to a new system, and heavy legs in the Florida heat. Four goals in three matches isn’t the end of the world either. But Curtin and co. will be looking for a bit more in the way of consistent pressure in the games to come.

Top heavy

Going into the tournament, it seemed likely that the Union would need to dip deep into their squad to get through the group stage. Curtin said as much before the tournament, pointing to the weather conditions and the pace of games during the tournament as factors that would come into play.

That turned out not to be the case. Even with the opportunity to make five substitutes per match, the Union used a fairly tight section of their squad.

Minutes played in the group stage

Eight players started every match and soaked up the bulk of the minutes: Blake, Ray Gaddis, Mark McKenzie, Kai Wagner, Brendan Aaronson, Jamiro Monteiro, Alejandro Bedoya, and Przybylko. Another group of six players started at least one match and appeared in at least two games: Ilsinho, Jack Elliott, Jakob Glesnes, Santos, Martinez, and Creavalle. Left over were a scant 48 minutes split between Anthony Fontana (41), Jack de Vries (6), and Matt Real (1). Six field players didn’t see the field at all (plus the two backup goalkeepers).

Perhaps the most disappointing name in the latter group is Matej Oravec, one of the Union’s offseason acquisitions from overseas. He’s behind Martinez, Creavalle, and Elliott in the CDM role right now. Olivier Mbaizo, the reserve right back, is another player who must be wondering what he needs to do to get a game in this squad. Curtin compared him to Ambroise Oyongo during preseason last year. Since then, Gaddis has made 41 starts to Mbaizo’s two.

Looking ahead

The Union know when (Saturday at 10:30 p.m.) and where (the bubble, obviously) they’ll play their next match.

What they don’t know is their opponent, who’ll be the second-place finisher in Group C: Toronto FC, New England Revolution, and DC United are all possibilities depending on the results of today’s matches. Any of those opponents should be a winnable matchup for the Union — none of the teams in Group C have set the world aflame so far.

Can they get deeper than that? I still think the Union are in a good position to make a deep run. They’re getting results without yet playing their best soccer, and they have an X-factor in Blake that can be an equalizer against almost any opponent.

We’ll see whether they can take their first step on Saturday night.

7 Comments

  1. I like Fontana, I wish we used him more.

    • A random aside I notice from seeing Fontana and Real on Unions soical media lot, but damn they really are hitting the weight room. They seem to take being a pro seriously and that’s a good sign. When people say Aaronsen need to bulk up, he really should be asking Real and Fontana what their routines are.

      • I think when we sell Aaronson off to Europe, Monterio should be pushed up to the 10 and Fontana slide in where Miro plays now.

      • Soccer Dad says:

        That being said, I have to say I was pleased so see Aaronson run over/ knock over an Orlando player on a shoulder to shoulder. Something I don’t think we saw much of last season.

  2. Great One says:

    This really highlights not getting some guys a break during these games. Let’s hope there aren’t dead legs Saturday.

  3. Agree with all these points. But on the Union attack, I hate to say it, but the problem is… Aaronson. I mean I love the kid, and it feels strange to say this about the player who has been involved in most of the team’s goals this season. But so far, he plays kinda like a creative, crafty winger — running at people, getting to the endline, hitting on the counter. What he doesn’t do is run the offense. And that’s fine, except that we don’t really have anyone else to do that either. Monteiro is not a 10. So I think our offense is gonna be catch as catch can this year unless there’s some dramatic adjustment.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      His tireless work rate makes me think he is more of a winger. Watching Pulisic play and watching how much he runs, that reminds me Aaronson isn’t an actual 10. But I agree that Montiero is not either. This team needs a Dockal/Barnetta type who can run this offense.

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