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Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 3–0 Portland Timbers

Photo: Paul Rudderow

An undermanned Portland Timbers side came to Subaru Park on Sunday, and were summarily dispatched, 3-0.

That is not a sentence I was expecting to write before the game kicked off.

Never mind that the Timbers were missing so many people they couldn’t name a full bench, or that they had to do the cross-country travel thing, which is very difficult to manage—the Timbers have dominated the matchup from the beginning, and Diego Valeri started. A frustrating Union loss would not have been a surprise. Yes, a Union win was the most likely outcome, but to have it be so comfortable was a welcome confirmation of how much the Union have matured. They took care of business.

Looking at the statistics, which we’ll get to shortly, and that all three goals were scored on set pieces, a Portland supporter might be inclined to write this one off as bad luck, compounded by bad marking, but that would undersell the extent of the Union’s dominance. Let’s get into the details.

Being protagonists

While the Union have been winning, the nature of the game they play has relied on turning the other team over and counterattacking. The team hasn’t shown much ability to retain possession and break down a set defence. With Portland short-handed and sitting back, that is precisely what the Union needed to do.

While the goals were all from set pieces, the Union did a much better job of holding the ball and dictating play through possession. Compare the two network passing graphs below. (All graphics courtesy MLSsoccer.com.)

The first is Philadelphia’s, and you can see how much further upfield the Union were, compared to Portland. Only three of Portland’s players spent the majority of their time past half-field, while seven Union players did so. Further, there are many more thick lines on the Union chart, indicating more-used passing combinations for Philly. For once, the Union were holding the ball and manipulating the opposition through possession.

There is still a very heavy tilt to the right. It’s interesting to see that Andre Blake basically never kicks to the left side of the field, and Jamiro Monteiro passes laterally and back much more than forward. The ball gets to the strikers from the flanks, not through the middle, which hopefully Dániel Gazdag will help fix.

Hard to beat

Again, looking just at the statistics, one could get the sense this match was relatively even. After all, the Union only had one more shot on goal than Portland (five to four), but the four shots Portland had weren’t nearly as dangerous as Philly’s. Three of Portland’s shots on target came after 75 minutes, when the Union were already three–nil up.

In truth, Portland had two good chances. One came in the fourth minute, with a Valeri free kick. Blake made a good save, which was harder than he made it look, but that’s just who he is. Perhaps the game changes if that goes in, but it took until the 56th minute for Portland to truly threaten a second time, when Felipe Mora clipped a shot over the bar. Monteiro and Leon Flach had a miscommunication while marking a short corner, which allowed a dangerous cross to the six, but Mora clubbed it high. That miss was a let-off, but again, the Union were up two–nothing already.

The biggest reasons the Union are so hard to beat right now are Blake’s continued good form, and the play of Jacob Glesnes and Jack Elliott. Glesnes had a phenomenal outing versus DC, and it was Elliott’s time to shine against Portland. While Elliott scored the third goal, it’s his defensive play that stands out. His positioning is just top drawer. He’s a giant, which is great for defending set pieces, but could be a problem defending speed, except he’s never out of position. On multiple occasions, his long legs stabbed out and snuffed an opposing counter before it could start.

The defense was ably assisted by the excellent play in front of it. Both José Martínez and Flach are so good at blocking passing lanes and flying to the ball. Flach, in particular, has a real nose for the ball, and often comes racing from off-screen to grab a loose ball or make a tackle.

Set pieces

In the end, though, the game was won via set pieces. What stood out about the Union’s set piece play wasn’t the delivery, per se, though Kai Wagner and Monteiro have turned what used to be a problem area—dead ball delivery—into a strength. No, what was impressive was the disciplined but aggressive attacking of the ball by the rest of the team. It’s become a rarity to see the Union second-best to a high ball into the box on either end, and they fight for the second ball, too. The third goal came about because Cory Burke won a strong header, then was faster than three or four Portland defenders in chasing the rebound.

The positioning in the box was also good, as both Sergio Santos and Elliott, who scored the second and third goals, were well placed to attack the ball in the center of the goal, but onside. All of which means we should probably mention Frank Leicht. Formerly of the Bundesliga and elsewhere, Leicht joined the coaching staff in March, purportedly to focus on set pieces. It seems he’s had a positive effect.

Final thoughts

It’s kind of a bummer that league play stops for three weeks, as the Union are on a roll. Obviously, getting rested and having time to train is welcome, but it’s always tricky to restart after an international break. The Union’s first game back will be away to Atlanta, which should be testy. But with Kacper Przybyłko back amongst the goals (a goal and assist brings his league totals to 3g/2a), it’s hard not to feel good about the Union’s chances there and as the season continues.

The Union are proving to be one of the most consistent teams in all of MLS. They look likely to challenge for the Eastern Conference crown.

9 Comments

  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    That pass map comment about Monteiro is fascinating, and precisely why Gazdag was brought in. Will be interesting to see who the odd man out of the midfield might be… will it be Bedoya?

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      I had assumed Flach would move to the bench, but perhaps we’ll see some actual rotation and Bedoya will sit some games, too. I mean, he seems indefatigable, but we all know that Time is undefeated, so he will slow down eventually, right?

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      I think it might need to be… although I don’t see Curtin making that move too often, if at all. He loves Ale. On that thought, I am beyond impressed that with an aging Bedoya, the Union immediately have guys to step in. A testament to a phenomenal front office.

    • Bedoya needs to settle into the James Millner role for the Union. Not a knock on Bedoya. He’s phenomenal. But he’s going to be completely used up by mid-season at the rate he’s going. The Union’s system is so demanding. Let him come off the bench and rotate starts. He’ll be killer. Your midfield diamond will be Martinez, Montiero, Flach and Gazdag.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Three of those will be way on international duty at various points in time, together with Blake, Burke, nd possibly Powell.

      • I agree with Pete, but I’d probably go further. If you watch Bedoya, he’s doing more cruising, more diving and lunging into tackles, and the speed is going fast. His mental strength and intelligence are making up for it for now. I think the time has come for another to start.
        .
        Bedoya has been an amazing captain, player, representative and ambassador. When he got here, I was maybe expecting half of what he has given to this organization. I think he’s been over or misused in the past few seasons, to the point where I think it has shortened his career. But I don’t think he’d want it any other way. I love, respect, and feel sorry for him all at once. Captain fantastic he has been. Thank you Ale Bedoya.
        .
        P.S. As I’m finishing this, I feel it comes off as if I’m making it out as Bedoya is leaving or retiring, and that is not my intention. More that I wanted to express what I think of the man even though I think it best he gets less starts. I also feel maybe he doesn’t get as much praise as could be given to him (from me anyway).

      • Agree with all of that, All4U.

  2. Old Soccer coach says:

    Two basic facts loom after June 20th, the consequences of the season’s late start and the consequences of all the international play from 2020 being made up ASAP.
    .
    It will June 20th and 80% of the schedule will remain to be played.
    .
    HopefullyErnst Tanner, Tim Seidler ET al are finding some Union 2 matches for the reserves and the youngsters, because they will have to be ready. October is Wednesday Saturday Wednesday Saturday without let up.

  3. SoccerDad says:

    I’d like to see Findlay start to get a run out to get a 3 man rotation going at Center Back. (Which can also make Jack available in a pinch at the 6).

    I don’t want curse things here, but with a starting mid-field 4 of Gazdag, Miro, Ale and Jose we have Leon and Fontana as replacement / subs. Real who can fit into midfield or replace a FB. Ilsinho (once he is healthy) can sub in midfield / Striker. Jack who can be replaced by Findlay, and push up into mid-field.

    This looks like a squad that was built for this season, (with players leaving for International duty) and the compressed schedule with the added CCL games.

    As long as Jim is willing to rotate / use them.

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