Match analysis: New York Red Bulls 0-3 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Paul Rudderow

“It’s not easy to break us down,” Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin said after Sunday night’s shutout victory over New York Red Bulls.

He’s not wrong. Consider this: through six games in the MLS is Back Tournament, plus five since the resumption of the regular season, the Union have allowed more than one goal in a game… once.

In Orlando, much of that came down to the otherworldly heroics of Andre Blake. In these past five games, though, the Union’s measly two goals allowed has had more to do with the quality of the men in front of their keeper.

Defending like “maniacs”

Sunday night was a shining example. New York, desperate for a spark after firing manager Chris Armas, piled on the pressure and managed exactly… zero shots on target. The Red Bulls’ offense was reduced to pumping in low-value cross after low-value cross — 30 of them on the night. Any time the ball came near the box, the Union were there, either with timely blocks or tackle after tackle from the do-everything duo of Mark McKenzie and Jakob Glesnes.

There’s a real commitment to defending the box right now, as Curtin explained post match. “Our defensive philosophy is to defend from the inside to the out. So, always protect the middle, if things go wide you make teams make more passes.”

That commitment originates in training, where the Union focus on defending the “red zone” — the area between the top of the six-yard box and the top of the 18. “You see our players defend like maniacs when the ball gets into that area,” Curtin said.

Cutting down on chances in those high-danger areas have made the Union very tough to score against, even before meeting Blake’s brick wall. Credit, too, is due to the defensive corps, which has seen contributions from seven different starters in this five-game stretch.

If the Union are able to make a deep playoff run this year, it will be this maniacal defense — allowing over half a goal per game fewer than last year’s side — that will be their backbone.

Achieving their goals

Of course, it wasn’t just a night for the Union’s defense, as the squad scored three really nice goals. One bullet point on each goal:

  • Brendan Aaronson 36′ (Bedoya, Wooten): What’s made Brendan Aaronson’s season satisfying so far is that his growth is visible. Last year, the flashes of potential were there, but too often the idea of Aaronson was better than the actual product. This year, Aaronson is adding pieces to his game — whether that’s field vision leading to some remarkable assists or quicker decision-making in the box. His long-distance strike against Red Bulls wasn’t something we would have seen from him last year. Aaronson still has a long way to go to become what he hopes to be — an impact player on a team in a top European league — but that distance grows shorter with every big stride he takes.
  • Kacper Przybylko 68′ (Wooten, Bedoya): One of the Union’s best team goals on the season, it’s the driving run out of midfield by Alejandro Bedoya that really unlocks the New York defense. That run — which we saw from Bedoya during the MLS is Back Tournament, too — is a testament to Bedoya’s excellent soccer intelligence and ability to see the field. The storyline to watch down the stretch with the captain is his workload. Although he didn’t look it on Sunday, Bedoya’s looked beaten down in some recent matches, unsurprising for a 33-year-old central midfielder who is all over the park. He might need more careful management than usual to end the season at full sharpness.
  • Matt Real 78′ (Ilsinho): The substitute left back scored in his first minute on the pitch, and he made it clear after the match that he had something to prove after seeing Olivier Mbaizo start over him in the last two matches. “I’m not going to sit here and say I wasn’t disappointed to start the last two games,” Real said, “but the worst thing any player can do in this position is put his head down.” It was a good sign that he didn’t put his head down, unleashing a striker’s finish for the club’s third goal on the night. Channeling Union Hulk, Real offered this explanation: “When I’m angry, I play my best.”
Striker situation

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for Philadelphia on Sunday night, as Union fans saw the now-familiar sight of Sergio Santos exiting a match after suffering a muscle injury. Santos appeared to suffer the injury on a play where he created a dangerous two-on-one counterattack, sprinting in on the New York goal from midfield. While Santos has flashed potential in his year-and-a-half with the club, his inability to stay healthy raises major questions over whether the Union can ever really count on him as a regular starter.

Assuming Santos misses time, who fills the gap? Andrew Wooten will get the first crack, even if he’s been relatively uninspiring as a Union player. He’ll look to build confidence off of Sunday’s match, where he looked comfortable and picked up two assists replacing Santos after half an hour. After him, though, options are thin, as Michee Ngalina and Jack de Vries are pretty much it as far as forward opportunities off the bench. We may also see Curtin opt for the 4-2-3-1 late in matches, with Ilsinho replacing Wooten. Don’t hold your breath waiting on Cory Burke, as his status in immigration purgatory is outside the Union’s control — and even if he made it to America tomorrow, quarantine and building up fitness would make him unlikely to contribute for several weeks.


  1. Steven Whisler says:

    would really like to see Michee get a run.

  2. Chris Gibbons says:

    One of Jim’s first matches as interim coach was against the Sounders. I remember seeing a midfield that had shape and compactness and thinking, “Well, that’s new.” It’s taken a few years to come together, but it might be coming together.

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