Analysis / For Pete's Sake

Match analysis: Philadelphia Union vs. Miami and Atlanta

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Two games in 72 hours — and almost two mirror images. In both games, the team that controlled the match came away empty-handed.

Philadelphia Union will gladly trade three dropped points in MLS for a 3-0 lead in a Champions League quarterfinal, of course.

Let’s talk counterattacks

At their core, the Union are a counterattacking team.

When they’re at their best, they soak up pressure, waiting to find the killer ball to spring a devastating rush. Or, if the rush doesn’t come, they’re content killing 60 minutes or so before their system and conditioning allows them to overrun the other side.

This tendency, so prominent last year, is likely to be even stronger this year. The lineup no longer features a traditional creator in the No. 10 role, with Brenden Aaronson off to Austria. Instead, Jamiro Monteiro is currently filling that spot — and the other player who’s likely to see time there, Anthony Fontana, is less someone who can unlock the defense with a pass than he is someone who is lethal as a late runner into the box.

As a result, the Union are less able to unlock a team that’s prepared to defend them. Their offense is more reliant on low-percentage opportunities like crosses and corner kicks. That’s not necessarily an insurmountable problem, but it presents its challenges.

The Inter Miami game on Saturday night was, to my eyes, an example of how an inferior side could really frustrate the Union. Miami came prepared to out-Union the Union, getting everyone but the lackadaisical Gonzalo Higuain behind the ball and forcing Philly to try to break them down.

In the end, it was a Miami counterattack that did in the Union. Watch a clip of the goal and you can imagine the Union on the giving end rather than the receiving one.

With just a few passes, Miami bypasses the Union’s not-set midfield, gets the ball in a dangerous position, and overloads the box for the cross. Not ideal.

On a night where the Union largely controlled the run of play, it was a tough way to drop points.

Drop, flip it and reverse it

Atlanta United took a different approach from Miami in Tuesday night’s Champions League match.

Instead of sitting back, Atlanta were on the front foot, looking to control the ball, bypass the Union’s midfield, and put the game away early.

That strategy might not have worked… if not for Andre Blake’s amazing night in goal.

In the first half, Atlanta were aided by the Union’s strange striker tandem. Not to oversimplify things, but speedy players make it easier to counterattack. Pairing Kacper Przybylko and Cory Burke — two guys who aren’t exactly fleet of foot — made things challenging. The two had a two-on-one opportunity from midfield midway through the half, but their lack of pace and unfamiliar chemistry made it easy enough for Atlanta to snuff out.

Enter… Sergio Santos.

The Brazilian striker has been frustratingly inconsistent and often unavailable for the Union in his two-plus years in America, but the man’s got two killer skills for a good counter: strong hold-up play, and incredible speed.

That speed made it easier and easier for Philly to pressurize Atlanta’s defense, especially after the Union took a 1-0 lead off a corner kick. Then it was Santos’s hold-up play and vision that sprung two counters that looked just like last season’s squad.

That’s a tremendous turn from Santos to play Leon Flach into space, and an outstanding (Aaronson-esque?) run from the midfielder to fill the space and then find Przybylko all alone.

I mean, that’s just an unreal blind crossfield ball from Santos. (Shades of Moreno-to-Le Toux in the Union’s first-ever home game.) And it’s another tremendous run from a midfielder — here, Fontana — to be in perfect position for the finish. Credit to Striker Muffin, too, for being unselfish and making the smart play to his teammate.

It was a historic result for the Union — and it was made all the better because they won the game the way they want to play.

Odds and ends
  • One area I’m keeping an eye on is the centerback tandem of Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes. The two didn’t play much together last year, taking turns partnering Mark McKenzie instead, and they’ve looked shaky in the last two games. It may have been a clean sheet on Tuesday, but that’s down to Blake bailing out his backline, not anything particularly special by the CBs. I’m not saying it’s time to push the panic button — they’ve only allowed two goals in five games — but I wonder whether Stuart Findlay will make his debut against NYC FC.
  • On that topic, will we see any rotation on Saturday night? With Jim Curtin, “no” is always the safest bet, but I would guess that he’ll make one or two changes. Fontana has probably earned a start, and one of Bedoya or Monteiro probably should get a night off. Does Curtin trust anyone else to do a job in midfield? At striker, you probably start whichever striker you don’t want to start against Atlanta. For me, that would mean giving Burke another start. And then maybe Findlay comes in.
  • Jose Martinez continues to be an amazingly fun player to watch. (One of many beautiful things about soccer is that he somehow plays the same position as Brian Carroll.) Getting suspended for the second leg of the CCL tie wasn’t a great move, but the Union are in strong position to overcome it — and it won’t take too much reshuffling in the midfield.
  • Gonzalo Higuain plays soccer like the person you absolutely hate at your pickup game. The guy shows absolutely no interest in the ball (or running at all) until someone has a chance to pass it to him, at which point he demands it whether he’s the best option or not. I get that he’s on the older side, and he clearly still has some quality finishing in his locker, but he’d be a miserable player to cheer for.
  • Yellow shorts are a clear upgrade over the white shorts, for me.


  1. I echo the Yellow Shorts love.
    We had a Higuain-like player, and that type of play didn’t sit well with the fans, as I recall – Carlos “El Pescadito” Ruiz

  2. Chris Gibbons says:

    For all the praise heaped onto Santiago Sosa in this match, he dogged it “chasing” down the final two Union goals. Not to say had he hustled the outcome would have changed, but a guy doing that in Philly would be run out of town by the morning… you know, because “Philly Tough” and all that.

  3. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Judging from comments about readiness from Jim Curtin, and patterns of subbing later in preseason, I expect Jack Elliott to start at defensive central mid against Atlanta Tuesday, with Stuart Holden at left center back. An Englishman, a Scot, and a Viking. Alfred the Great is at prayer.

  4. George Dorshimer says:

    I don’t think Stu Holden is coming out of the booth any time soon, especially to play CB.

  5. Very interesting and well-written, Peter. You always have something to say worth reading. I wish I had some pithy and cogent comment to add, but this is just a straight up fan letter.

    Love the comments on Higuain. Glad he plays in our division, he’ll be so much fun to razz. My regular seats are just a few rows behind the visiting bench so I’m brushing up on my Spanish insults.

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