Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 2-1 Montreal Impact

Photo: Paul Rudderow

José “El Brujo” Martínez has been one of the surprises of the season in MLS.

A defensive midfielder who entered the league as a project and announced himself by racking up yellow cards like his life depended on it has, over the course of this unusual season, proved to be an integral part of a Philadelphia Union team that’s conceding less than a goal per game while challenging for the Eastern Conference’s top seed.

That stellar play led to a deserved call-up to the Venezuelan national team for World Cup qualifiers this month.

It was a controversial call-up, too, with the Union less than thrilled about how FIFA handled this international window amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Manager Jim Curtin made that frustration plain on Tuesday morning, grading FIFA’s approach to the window with “the same grade [for how] they handle racism — F.”

But the absence of the Union’s starting No. 6 has done little to slow down the side, with Philadelphia posting back-to-back wins at Subaru Park in the past week.

Old Faithful

Let’s compare the starting approaches in the Union’s wins over Cincinnati and Montreal.

Against the visitors from Ohio, Curtin opted for a 4-2-3-1, with Alejandro Bedoya and Jamiro Monteiro in the deeper-lying midfield roles, Anthony Fontana inserted at the 10, and Brendan Aaronson and Sergio Santos playing as wingers.

That match turned out to be a bit of a slog, and it wasn’t until Ilsinho replaced Fontana in the second half that the Union fully grabbed control of the game.

Three days later, Warren Creavalle — a more traditional defensive midfielder — replaced Fontana in the lineup. Once could imagine that this would mark a return to the 4-4-2 that Philly has relied on this year, with Aaronson returning to the 10 and Santos partnering Kacper Przybylko up top.

Instead, Curtin opted for Ilsinho, which kept the side lined up in a 4-2-3-1.

As with any tactical choice, you’re weighing the tradeoffs. Fundamentally, Creavalle is a limited player who shouldn’t be starting on a team with top-of-the-table aspirations, and I didn’t think he had a great game before a knock forced him off at halftime.

But putting him out there has positive knock-on effects up the field. With Creavalle in front of a strong back line and Bedoya and Monteiro buzzing around near him, the Union were in a good position to thwart any attacks launched by Montreal. It’s a sturdy enough shape that Aaronson — who seemed to be flying over the pitch for most of the march — and Ilsinho had space to work with going forward.

It took some time — the first 35 minutes or so weren’t much to write home about — but the plan worked. Ilsinho did what he does best, creating a solo moment to spring Monteiro for the opening goal late in the first half. Santos, taking on the role of “Brazilian super-sub,” came on at halftime and scored just four minutes later after a devastating counterattack. From there, the Union were well-positioned to see out the final 40 minutes, even if a late goal by Montreal made things interesting.

Always looking ahead

The compressed post-pandemic calendar has caused matches to come flying thick and fast at the Union (and every club in MLS).

Aside from the somewhat-unavoidable pileup of injuries, the Union have done well to keep rolling along even as players are coming in and out of the lineup. At his Tuesday press conference, Curtin detailed the challenge that such a hectic schedule causes in training — not just keeping the top-of-the-roster players fresh, but also keeping the back end of the roster sharp so they’re ready when called upon.

That challenge continues tonight with El Brujo, Creavalle, and Jakob Glesnes (concussion protocol) all unavailable. The Union manager mentioned that the coaching staff has been thinking through different approaches, both in terms of tactics and personnel. My prediction: Anthony Fontana gets the start as the 10, either as the tip of a diamond or three-man midfield (with Brenden Aaronson sliding to the wing in the latter scenario). I wouldn’t expect to see Matej Oravec see the field. Although he’s theoretically next in line on the defensive midfield depth chart, everything we’ve heard from Curtin — including a reference last week to “unfair expectations” placed on the Slovakian 22-year-old — suggests that he’s not someone the coaching staff trusts.

Man of the match

You could easily give this award to Mark McKenzie every week, for anchoring the backline as the other defensive personnel changes around him. “He just doesn’t seem to get beat,” said Curtin post-match. “He’s playing at a level that not many centerbacks can play at.”

But I’d give the nod to Ilsinho for his two-assist performance. The Brazilian magician doesn’t start much anymore — this was just his second of the season — but he still has defense-unlocking qualities like no other player on the club. The Union had managed just one shot on goal before his run and pass set up Jamiro Monteiro for the game-changing opening goal in the 39th minute.


  1. I know El Brujo is known for picking up yellow cards like there’s a closeout sale on them, but he’s only tied for 3rd in the league with 6. El Capitan (Bedoya) is tied for the league lead at 6 and if he picks up another prior to the last game of the season he’ll get that rest everyone’s been calling for. My biggest worry is that he’ll pick it up against New England and the team will have to face Toronto without Martinez or Ale.
    And no one’s mentioned this, but the Union will possibly be without Martinez through most of the playoffs given that there is another International window around the weekend of November 14 so I 10 day quarantine could make him completely unavailable for November 12 – 27.

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