USL - Philadelphia Union II

Match report: Philadelphia Union II 1-2 Ocean City Nor’easters

Photo courtesy Matt Ralph

Late Saturday afternoon, Philadelphia Union II hosted the Ocean City Nor’easters in an ad hoc unofficial “friendly” at the Power Training Complex in Chester, and lost 2-1.

The underlying pattern of the match fluctuated between the two sides. Ocean City pressured Union II for the first 10 to 15 minutes. Their athleticism, aggression, and speed set the boys in blue on their heels at the beginning.

After 15 minutes Union 2 had adjusted to the challenges and gained more control of the midfield. Their superior technical skill was the basis of the change, together with the coordinated play displayed by their two defensive central midfielders who played coach LeBlanc’s tactical system well during the span. They fell back quickly to shield their center backs and pushed up effectively in the central channel to sustain attacks.

And in the 26th minute a beautiful run of play service from right back Nate Harriel found striker Shanyder Borgelin’s head in front of the net from about eight yards for a Union II goal and the lead.

The pattern continued unchanged for the rest of the half. Union II played directly on the counter and service from their center backs Brandan Craig and Gino Portella would frequently initiate thrusts on goal, often from the flanks.

LeBlanc deployed his squad in a 4-2-2-2, with a flexible double pivot guarding the back line and the next midfield line split wide, leaving the central playmaker spot open. One of the defensive center mids, Cole Turner or Dante Huckaby, would charge forward to pressure Ocean City depending on the side of the pitch and who was closer, with the other covering behind. Advanced midfielders Ian Abbey on the left and Jack Jasinski on the right created possession triangles with the DCMs and the wingbacks, and for the last 25 minutes of the half Union 2’s midfield dominated.

The other implication of the 4-2-2-2 is that if strikers want service, they must check back into the center to receive their defenders’ line-breaking passes. It demands accurate reads and timing. Good teaching occurred.

While there are no official statistics, Ocean City seemed to have more first half shots, but none were on goal, while Union II’s were fewer but more frequently on target. Ocean City’s keeper did well by his side. Union II’s Matt Freese was tested only once, by a breakaway that he suppressed before it could become a chance.

The early portions of the second half saw Philadelphia continue on the offensive front foot. But Ocean City had changed their approach, subtly. They seemed more to be playing for the counterattack, letting their hosts move higher up the pitch in possession to then have more space behind the Union’s defense into which to counter.

As time passed Union II’s midfield began recovering to defend more slowly, leaving their center backs exposed. The extra running was exacting its toll. In the 55th minute Ocean City recorded its first shot on goal. In the 67th Borgelin earned the match’s first caution. Two more Union yellows followed, one each from Turner and Huckaby, both emergency tactical fouls to prevent breakaways.

A tiring Union II began losing its ability to control Nor’easter counterattacks. Ocean City’s front-line speed and the deeper endurance of its adults created more and more chances requiring heroic interventions all across Union II’s back. Their organizational shape began to break down as the hosts were caught upfield, and defenders were pulled out of position to put out fires.

In the 84th and 86th minutes Ocean City delivered two punches to their host’s mouth. An emergency Union tackle by a midfielder in the penalty area was late, leading to the game-tying penalty kick. And when Union II pressed forward to restore its lead, Ocean City hit the counter immediately, fast and hard, to take the lead for the win.

The next announced Union II match is away on June 30 to Richmond Kickers, at City Stadium in the former capital of the Confederacy.

Observations

First, undefeated USL2 side Ocean City (5-0-3) provided an excellent developmental opportunity for Union II. That LeBlanc used only two substitutes suggests he knew they were going to be tough. They are on a par with Blaise Santangelo’s West Chester United Predators, with whom they lead their USL2 division. Their coach is Alan McCann, who led Reading United to a national championship match a few years ago, and their USL2 roster includes four graduates of YSC Academy.

For the little that it’s worth, Union II seemed to this writer to become a bit complacent as they entered the last ten minutes. The discipline to recover in the midfield had lessened, only to revive once the lead was lost. The boys have handed LeBlanc an excellent teaching opportunity, since the adult amateurs used that complacency to beat the aspiring professionals.

The Union organization exploited the rare, precious “development-and-evaluation” opportunity. First-teamers Nate Harriel and Brandan Craig are not thought ready for first team minutes yet, so their presence was no surprise. But Cole Turner’s presence was. And especially so was number two keeper Matt Freese’s.

Second, Dante Huckaby was the only presence from the graduated Academy class of 2021. All the other seniors are probably gone. So, another influence on the match was the transition that occurs in mid-summer at the end of the Academy’s academic year. Richmond will provide an even greater challenge at the end of the month. LeBlanc has to create a new team on the fly in midseason, even more completely than former coach Brendan Burke ever did because LeBlanc has no core of USL professionals upon whom to rely.

Personnel

Shanyder Borgelin has improved his physique. He is leaner and perhaps more mobile. He visibly struggled at the end of the match to maintain his level of effort. He lost virtually all the 2020 season to injury. Clearly, he is still working towards 90-minute match fitness. Ocean City was perhaps the first time he had to endure for the full 90 in well more than a year.

Gino Portella started next to Brandan Craig at left center back. His long legs helped him match Ocean City’s speed, and he made several nice one v one tackles cleanly. They were very well timed against players of perhaps slightly greater foot speed. His number, 35, is in the range that usually divides the first-teamers from the aspirants, so symbolically he is expected to be a serious first-team prospect in the future.

Brandan Craig is the team’s free and corner kick server, and he was Matt Freese’s preferred choice to start the attack out of the back. His passing is a clear asset. He met the physical challenges posed by Ocean City successfully. This observer suspects that he remains more of a defensive central midfield candidate long term, but Dante Huckaby has earned the opportunity for further evaluation into the summer. And we know coach LeBlanc believes that playing an adjacent position improves a player’s undertnding of his primary one.

Anton Sorenson’s slight physical stature remains a concern. He reminds old Bethlehem fans of Prosper Chiluya in that regard. But Sorenson sacrificed his body to prevent an almost certain goal scoring situation when Ocean City had the ball on the end line and was numbers up in the box waiting for the pass. He earned a Matt Fresse 40-yard run of congratulations for the feat.

Box Score

Union II Lineup (4-2-2-2) L-R: Matt Freese; Anton Sorenson*, Gino Portella, Brandan Craig, Nate Harriel; Dante Huckaby*, Cole Turner; Ian Abbey* (Bajung Darboe* 71’), Jack Jasinski*; Jake Spadafora* (Nelson Pierre* 71’), Shanyder Borgelin. Unused subs on the bench are unidentified. “*” means academy amateur.

Union II Ages: Freese, 22.8; Sorenson, 18.4, Portella, 20.2, Craig, 17.2, Harriel, 20.2, Huckaby, 18.3, Turner, 20.2, Abbey, 17.2, Jasinski, 17.5, Spadafora, 17.0, Borgelin, 19.7, Pierre, 16.2, Darboe, 14.6.

Ocean City Nor’easters Lineup: Unavailable as of Sunday morning.

Goals

U2       26th minute       Borgelin (Harriel)
OC       84th minute       penalty kick
OC       86th minute       counterattack

Cards

U2       Yellow, 67th minute             Borgelin (foul)
U2       Yellow, 72nd minute             Turner (foul)
U2       Yellow, 90 + 3rd minute      Huckaby (foul)

Whistle

Unidentified, but local

Union front office man and former Bethlehem Steel FC CFO Tim Seidler deserves thanks for his role in organizing the match.

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