Analysis

Match analysis: DC United 0 – 1 Philadelphia Union

The Philadelphia Union are Muhammad Ali.

Unafraid of wading into social issues, outspoken and ready to stand for what is right, and equally as eager to “float like butterflies” as they are to “sting like bees,” they were last year’s Greatest.

This week they’re fresh off a “Rumble in the (District) Jungle” 1-0 victory over a ready, willing, but unable DC United side.

Author’s note: all quotes below come from this great piece on what made The Champ unique.

Style

“In boxing, you’re supposed to have your hands up, protecting yourself at all times. Ali did the opposite, he baited his opponents with calculated traps… He often held his hands low and pulled his head straight back, which trainers tell you never to do. But Ali was a master at making his opponents miss by a hair, before knocking them off balance with his sharp counters.”

Sound familiar?

In soccer, to dominate is to have possession, to keep one’s shape, to be disciplined. In short, to “have your hands up [to] protect yourself.” On Sunday, the Union didn’t do the first, were certainly not the third, and as for the second? The Delco Times’ Matt DeGeorge pointed this out:

Matt is right about the shape, but there’s a quibble to be had about what another opponent might do about it.

“[Ali] would lay on the ropes, goading Foreman to come forward and unload his best offense. Ali utilized all of his defensive skill, blocking and parrying most of Foreman’s punches, while content to simply pass the rounds… George Foreman later said: “I thought Ali was just one more knockout victim until, about the seventh round, I hit him hard to the jaw and he held me and whispered in my ear: ‘That all you got, George?’ I realized that this ain’t what I thought it was.”

United swung and they swung, each wind-up seemingly more dangerous than the one before. And yet, save for one “shot to the jaw” that elicited this response from a fan,…

…the Union weren’t really troubled at all.

This kind of flow is eerily similar to how the team beat Atlanta last month, goading the Fivers into swing after swing, then holding them close enough to whisper, “That’s all you got, Gabi?”

“Ali defeated his opponents mentally. Ali had tremendous willpower, which in some ways, remains unsurpassed. He broke down his opponents, and made them believe they couldn’t hurt him.”

Heinze and company certainly lost belief over one hundred and eighty minutes. What else explains the temper tantrums?

Oh, this.

Ali has readers covered on that too.

“Whether you like it or not, competitive sports brings about a lot of trash talking, and Ali understood that better than anyone. The sharp-tongued fighter was quick and witty, and psyched out his foes with debilitating insults. By the time they got in the ring with him, they were fuming and lost the ability to make rational decisions.”

Substance

So if your style as a boxer is to dodge instead of swing, or your style as a soccer team is to defend instead of attack, how does one win in the end? Goals win games, after all.

Speed. Raw, unexpected speed.

“In 1969, Sports Illustrated covered the speed of Ali’s jab, measuring it with an omegascope. His jab was found to have smashed a wooden board 16.5 inches away, in 4/100 of a second, as fast as the actual blink of an eye… [in addition,] he kept moving from start to finish in all of his fights. It was his trademark. Opponents simply had too much trouble trying to keep up with him.”

https://twitter.com/PhilaUnion/status/1387224327410655405?s=20

Atlanta United’s field is 115 yards long.

This sequence starts about 100 yards from the Atlanta goal with the Union out of possession. 15 seconds later, the ball is in the net and the aggressive home team, the one who had been throwing one hay-maker after another, was TKO’d on the Mercedes Benz carpet like some amateur Glass Joe.

The same story was true of DC United’s Soda Popinski.

The DCeagles won every meaningful statistical category, including possession, shots, shots on goal, and corner kicks (which is a ridiculous category to label “offensive” considering more goals come from counter attacks after corner kicks than the events themselves). And yet, just before halftime, Cory Burke hustled his way to a loose ball, only to have Jamiro Monteiro and Jose Martinez both nearly turn the ball back over immediately. The Union kept possession, the midfield settled, everyone on both sides relaxed their fast-twitch muscles for a brief moment, and in that lapse Kacper Pryzbylko slid behind the flat line and found the goal.

The goal wasn’t quite at the speed of light, but it was something from nothing in a moment’s time. Very on brand.

Summary

The Union obviously have a lot of work to do to become “The Greatest” in Major League Soccer. As a team, their style is often derided and dismissed as simple, chaotic, un-beautiful game-y, or frankly low class. All of those things may be true some of the time.

What is true all of the time is the Union keep winning games, they keep taking punches, letting the rounds pass, and delivering crushing knock-outs on the counter.

There’s something great about that.

6 Comments

  1. May be giving the Union a little too much credit for executing a master plan to perfection over two legs in the CCL against ATL. If Blake hadn’t channeled 2014 WC Tim Howard and allowed a goal on ATL’s many excellent first half scoring opportunities, that series could easily have gone very differently over 180 minutes. It worked out in the end, but only because the Union started the first leg with a GK in the zone until their defense could get organized, their previously-anemic offense finally poached a goal, and ATL started to become desperate. If ATL got an early goal, they wouldn’t have been playing so desperately and left themselves susceptible to the counter in the 2nd half, and the Union likely wouldn’t have come home for the 2nd leg defending a 3-goal lead.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      I get where you’re coming from. My argument is this: that was the plan all along (shoot all you want, you’ll need a miracle to beat our keeper (who, by the way, I also don’t think should be lumped into some “other” category: he’s one of the 11 starters. If he’s good and your team’s keeper is bad, that’s a you problem)), and teams keeps measuring themselves on what might’ve been when they play the Union (DC just did the same in postgame quotes) while the U keep measuring in what did happen.

      • A fair point. Still, the 10 outfield players for the Union were simply outplayed for the first 30 minutes of that game, spotting ATL alot of quality scoring chances, which Blake was thankfully able to bail them out of. I doubt that “let’s let our 10 outfield players act like they aren’t ready for the CCL spotlight for the first 30 minutes while out all-star GK does his thing, and then we’ll hit them when they least expect it” was the plan. The Union had luck on their side for the first part of that game, but were savy enough to seize the moment and not let go when it presented itself.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        I agree with your sentiment, but not the work “luck.”

  2. Good read Chris! I commented on Pete Andrews post yesterday that the Union were playing rope-a-dope! Then delivering the counter. I’m not a huge fight fan,but Ali made so many memorable moments and quotes it’s fun to apply them to everything!

  3. A wonderful piece of writing, Chris. Thanks as always for your insight!

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