Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 0 – 0 New England Revolution

Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Union

“That was boring and ugly.”

Such was the text that pinged this author’s phone shortly after the Boys in Blue took a point from the soulless cavern that is Gillette Stadium. A brief scroll through Union Twitterverse on the night or through the comment sections of this site’s own Match Report confirmed the friend’s sentiments: few fans were happy with what they saw, on multiple dimensions, from the team’s return to play after the MLS is Back Tournament.

From this seat, the draw looked like some old school defensive pragmatism and the net effect of trying to have control of a soccer ball on the worst turf in professional sports.

Either way, points are points. For those rubbed raw, perhaps this piece will be a balm.

“When everyone’s super… no one will be”

This statement by Disney villain Syndrome is about knocking the great ones down a peg. It also applies in the case of MLS, where salary caps, weird schedules, and general “That’s so MLS”-iness levels the proverbial playing field just as evenly.

So the Union weren’t great, but two things were true from this round of matches.

THING ONE: The third season of 2020’s Major League Soccer campaign started off with a “meh” everywhere

That probably doesn’t make the reader feel any better, but here’s the point: scoring a goal is hard, requiring its own minor miracle in almost every instance.

Specifically, the aforementioned third restart plays a role, the miserable Massachusetts turf is a non-zero factor in that miraculous recipe, and good defensive organization becomes significantly more valuable when the offense can’t reliably be sure of any part of the “pass-settle-shoot” equation.

Want proof?

Just have a look at what the Revolution resorted to strategically, knowing the player on their team who conjures mid-channel miracles was off injured (Carles Gil has several months left of recovery ahead of him after surgery on his Achilles surgery) and that the Union were committed to allowing the Revs to operate anywhere that wasn’t directly in front of their own goal.

That’s a lot of crosses.

After the Union’s last match against Portland Timbers, this author wrote the following about the stymied Boys in Blue:

…crosses are already among the worst ways to find a goal on the soccer field (a recent study found that “the net effect of crossing is negative for all the teams in all studied competitions“), that the team kept settling for this subpar option is where fan frustration likely set in.

Bruce Arena certainly knows this (as do his assistants, considering his absence on the bench due to a red card in the team’s prior match). Knowing that a strategy is ineffective and having no choice but to try anyway means your opposition has the upper hand.

A game of inches

THING TWO: The Union conjured enough goal-scoring opportunities to win this match, putting at least three great chances on frame. Unfortunately, 2019’s best goalkeeper (sorry, Vito Mannone), the Revolution’s Matt Turner, was nobly up to the task.

That happens sometimes (and Union fans should know as well as anyone).

The 2020 iteration of this Philadelphia side score two kinds of goals: there’s the fast break goal, or as it is referred to in modern soccer parlance, “a goal in transition.” Then, there’s the “everyone is looking at Ilsinho and not tracking the diagonal run” goal, made famous by every goal Ilsinho has assisted on since 2018.

In Foxborough, the Union were inches away from scoring each kind.

Exhibit A: the chance in transition

Exhibit B: the one with Ilsinho and somebody else

Obviously they’ve found the net other ways, but the Union are a very self-aware team that believes in what they do. They were close to having that confidence pay off Friday night.

A game of inches.

Final thought

The Union have a hard time breaking down a compact defense.

This is true of most professional soccer teams in the history of the sport and true about the Boys in Blue. This is particularly true now that defensive midfielders and their counterparts have keyed on the two Union offensive engines, Brenden Aaronson and Jamiro Monteiro, and are bullying them with the verve of a remake of “The Damned United.”

That the Union also have a formational option that addresses this counter-punch is of note, as many other sides do not.’s Matt Doyle seems to think the alternative is the better of the team’s two gears, and after the match had this to say.

“I basically have nothing new to add on the Union, who I think continue to be better in a 4-2-3-1.”

The fact is, the team can score goals in both scenarios and it’s unclear which is actually more complete in matching the team’s skill with its ability to win, or which is better suited to the various stages of a match, space available, etc… That they haven’t put it together in a string of games is certainly frustrating, but in the moments when they have done so, they’ve obliterated teams.

Just ask the team at the top of Western Conference.

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