Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Speed

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

The Philadelphia Union, in the Ernst Tanner era, like to play fast. It’s a hallmark of the Red Bull system from which Tanner comes: blitz your opponents until they turn it over, then push it straight up their guts. But there’s a difference between playing fast, and rushing—between playing fast on purpose, and playing fast because you’re panicking under pressure.

In the first half—almost the first hour—against Atlanta on Tuesday night, the Union were rushing. They got smacked out of the gate by Atlanta’s aggressive press, and didn’t settle. They looked completely lost, like baby foals wobbling around more than professional soccer players. Anybody who’s played the game knows the feeling. You run into a team that is playing a level, or levels, above you (which is not the same as being objectively better than you, mind). They seem like they move too fast, like there are too many of them. No one on your team has any time to do anything that they want to do, or so it seems. There are turnovers, too many of them. And the whole team, without communicating about it, feels like the only answer is to match that tempo, to play at warp speed.

But that’s a false feeling. Speeding up isn’t going to work any better than dallying on the ball and getting it taken off your foot. You have to play at your speed, within the team structure, whatever speed that may be. In the second half, especially once the first goal went in, the Union found their speed. At times, that speed was devastating, resulting in two additional, blitzkrieg goals that left Atlanta staring at a standing ten-count. The speed was purposeful, in pursuit of a goal (literally and figuratively), rather than just racing because it seemed like what was necessary for survival.

Atlanta, conversely, showed no chill once they went behind. They seemed to forget that this is a two-legged affair. It was as if they were offended that the chumps from Philly would dare go ahead in their house. Rather than showing some composure of their own, they tried to ratchet the pressure up even further, but found their opponent suddenly unruffled. Now, the Union were playing at their own pace and Atlanta were panicking.

The Union had a chance to score a fourth goal, which would have transformed this performance from something stunning to something legendary. As it stands, Atlanta need to score three times in Chester just to have a chance. If the Union play at their own speed, Atlanta will never get close.


Let me say right here that I generally hate time wasting or playacting in soccer. Any time Sergio Santos goes down, I want him to get back up, so he can actually contribute with his play. And Atlanta fans are livid about how the Union used the dark arts of Concacaf to “disrespect” the game, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. So let me be clear—that’s a big load of equine fecal matter. It is really annoying when a team wastes time, I get it. But the only reason they get to do that is because the other guys screwed up. Atlanta didn’t need to kick the ball out when Santos went down for the fourth time, but they did. And they wanted to get on with things because they were down by three goals. At home. For the first time ever. So enough with the whining. You want to stop Philly time-wasting? Score a goal.

Further, I’ve got no time for the idea that “the better team lost.” If the better team lost, then the better team was also woefully naive in their approach after going behind, and allowed a team beneath them to tear them limb from limb on the counter. Atlanta battered the Union in the first half. And yeah, it was a heck of a turnaround. But get over yourselves a bit. You got smacked. It happens. And don’t blame the youth of your team, either. Last I checked, the Union won the Supporters Shield last season with one of the youngest teams ever fielded in MLS. Youth are fine, so long as the coaching is good.

Speaking of coaching, Jim Curtin, long derided by Union fans but now universally accepted as a damn good coach, pushed all the right buttons at halftime. Cory Burke should not have started, but it was the right call to make the sub, and in the last couple of years Curtin has turned the Union from a team that used to be absolutely terrible for my nerves in the last 20 minutes of a game to being one of the better second-half teams I’ve ever seen. I can’t say I predicted what would happen in the second half, but I knew the Union would get better after halftime. And that’s because of Jim Curtin. Now let’s cross our fingers that he’d rather stay in Philly than go to Austria.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    Reminds me of one of my favorite Wooden quotes as it relates to footy.
    “Be quick. But don’t hurry.”
    playing on turf, in my opinion is a distinct home field advantage.
    I don’t mind training on it as this is the way of the world now, but to feature your side on turf is a bummer as it fails the artistry of the game…. and it never fails –the incoming team from out of town struggles with the pace of the ball as it arrives to the foot.
    This leads to sloppy turnovers and a dulling of the beautiful game. The ball simply moves too fast. In this particular game, so many loose touches by the Union players caused chaos but were eventually setttled a bit- as ‘comfort’ was found.
    The game itself however always seems to be on the edges of safety and the edges of agility. Lots of reaching. Over extending. Attacking dribbles just a bit too far. Adept through balls are hit a bit too hard but really aren’t but really are and there goes the ball again… like in Quidditch.
    Jack Elliot trying to reach for that one ball over the end line comes to mind. 100% of the time his distance to close is acceptable and he simply gets his foot around the ball but on turf… its just outside his reach and its loose and ugly.
    As for the Union. I am not really a fan of the style of play. I’ve surrendered to it. I used the Scorched Earth moniker after the game and it seems to my mind exactly eloquent to the way they play…. otherwise, pumping the outside channels and corner top of the 18 to whip 31 balls in throughout the game is….. tough. Yeah. Tough.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      The turf is a good point. It’s tough for a visiting team to get up to speed on turf before the actual game. This exacerbated the difference between the two teams at the start, for sure.

  2. Atomic Spartan says:

    Best example of footy “Rope-a-Dope” I have ever seen, whether intentional or contingent. Wear them out. Frustrate. Infuriate. Survive. Then smash em in the mouth.
    Intentional or not, JC comes away looking like an evil genius. Corey needed a start just to shape him up. At the same time, given the way Atlanta dominated the first half, Sergio would have been wasted in the opening half. Putting him in at halftime was like releasing the hounds. Fresh, furious and maybe a little angry, he changed the game.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      I agree. Santos’s impact was probably doubled by it being a change. Had he been a part of what happened in the first half, he likely isn’t able to be so effective in the second.

    • Great point. If only Sergio did a little less diving. I was so angry when he stopped his sideline run because of the elbow to the face when he had a chance to do this I also want to point out that Burke played some strong defense in our box in the first half which was obviously overshadowed.

  3. Chris Gibbons says:

    This falls right in line with Bob Bradley’s comments after last year’s Union v. LAFC 3-3 spectacle, pre-COVID. When commenting post-game, he said essentially he worried about the result or surprised by the Union because they were “a Red Bull team,” which to him was a pejorative implying simplicity and inferiority.

    Well, if they’re so easy to beat, why didn’t you do it Bob? Same goes for you, Gabby.

    • That game might be my favorite Union match from a pure entertainment value perspective, except for the 5-0 drubbing of TFC.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      Yeah, agreed. I do understand people like El P above, and others, who would prefer a more possession oriented style. But I find a lot of beauty and interest in the way the Union play when they’re putting it together. Matt Doyle said on the ExtraTime podcast a couple weeks ago that he sees a real difference between what the Union do and what NYRB do, as the red bulls are kind of just frenetic without style and true structure, while the Union press and counter while still playing football. It also helps that many of these players were doing a much more ball-dominant style here, just a couple seasons ago, so have that in their locker.

      Also, I see a real difference between what the Union do and the anti-football bunkering made famous by Mourinho.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      its was like drinking Mad Dog or Boone’s as a kid…. butt ugly, wicked side-on drunk… but worked like a charm on a budget.
      totally effective…… for fucking shit up.

  4. Good article. The description of being overwhelmed by an opponent gave me flashbacks.

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