Analysis / Featured / Tactical Analysis / Union

Match analyses: Columbus and Chicago

Photo by Marjorie Elzey

It’s been a busy week in Unionland, with three games packed in. As a result, you get a two-fer today, with analysis of both the home win over Columbus and the road draw against Chicago. While the games were very different affairs, they shared a theme: rotation. Jim Curtin is not known for making changes to his starting 11, and there’s data to back up that approach, but sometimes needs must, and changes happen whether the coach likes it or not. Let’s look at the games.

Philadelphia 1–0 Columbus

This was a great win against a very good team. In the first half, the Union started with what has become their standard non-Martínez, non-Gazdag midfield of Leon Flach at the 6 and Jack McGlynn on the left, with Jamiro Monteiro at the 10. Cory Burke started alongside Kacper Przybyłko. The defense was as per usual. This 11 managed one of the most complete, hold-’em-at-bay halves of soccer that I have seen from the Union. Columbus barely threatened, and the Union looked consistently dangerous.

The Union’s goal came about from a good piece of skill in the center of the park by Monteiro, but also through what is a standard attacking action for the U. Monteiro gets a step on his man, and plays the ball out wide. Eventually, Mbaizo gets to the corner and fires in a cross, which is deflected out for Monteiro to shoot. His shot was a good one, but the sequence is something the Union do in their sleep, everyone knows that’s how they generate offense, but they did it anyway. It looks simple, and it kind of is, but when executed well, it’s very difficult to stop.

McGlynn, for his part, continued to quietly do his job without looking out of place, and the half ended with the Union comfortably on top, and probably disappointed not to have scored again.

The second half, though, brought changes for both sides, and those changes made the game much tighter. For Columbus, Kevin Molino was replaced by Lucas Zelarayan, and the Crew became much more dangerous. However, the Union, and Flach in particular, still did a good job of preventing big chances, or letting Zelarayan get on the ball.

On 58 minutes, though, Sergio Santos replaced Burke, and Matt Real replaced McGlynn, and the Union began to struggle to maintain the same defensive coherence. Columbus was able to build much more pressure. This eventually led to Real’s tackle that nearly got him ejected (a decision that was correctly overruled by VAR). And once ironman Ale Bedoya came out, at minute 79, replaced by Quinn Sullivan, things got even more ragged.

Nevertheless, the Union saw it out, and took three very valuable points.

Chicago 3–3 Philadelphia

After those second-half changes versus Columbus, the lineup that started against Chicago was very different from what Union watchers have become used to. Stuart Findlay came into the backline so Jack Elliott could move into midfield at the 6, and Alvas Powell got his first start at right back. Meanwhile, Sullivan earned his first start, manning the right side of the diamond, with Flach returned to the left. Up top, Santos and Burke were paired (for the first time?).

Against a side like Chicago, which is one of the worst in MLS right now, those changes all made sense. Elliott has played well at the six before, Bedoya and Mbaizo needed to rest and/or heal, and the second striker spot has been rotated liberally but Kacper’s never gotten a rest. All things being equal, one would still expect the Union to get the job done.

Unfortunately, all things were not equal. For one, and this was probably the biggest issue in the game for the Union, Chicago has been getting an absolute deluge of rain. There was some question as to whether the game would be played at all, but it went ahead, and the surface was a mess. While there was no standing water visible on the broadcast, the ball splashed every time it hit the ground. Passing was an adventure, to say the least. Furthermore, traction was at a premium, and making quick stops and starts was almost impossible. For a team that relies heavily on quick defensive pressures and even faster passing and moving in transition, this was not a recipe for success.

And then came the own goal in the second minute. Jakob Glesnes was terribly unlucky that his diving block attempt skipped up and over Andre Blake, but it’s the kind of thing that happens when the ball is wet. Chicago was playing very direct, and with a 3-5-2 wingback system that put the Union under a lot of pressure.

After they went ahead, Chicago played with a confidence they haven’t displayed all season, but the Union pegged them back through a spectacular overhead kick from Sullivan, then went ahead through a powerful, tight-angle shot from Burke just before halftime. Normal service resumed? Sadly, two cheaply allowed set piece goals put Chicago back in front, and only a Chicago own goal forced by good play from Przybyłko, on as a sub, gave Philly a share of the points.

This was a shoulda-coulda-woulda game. The Union should have won it, given the quality of the two teams. They certainly could have won it, considering the chances they generated, and the nature of the goals they conceded. And they probably would have won it under different circumstances, be it a better surface or having their first choice 11 start. Taking a point on the road is always a good result in MLS, but the Union know they could have had more.


The Union have usable depth, but there are limits. The concern for the Union this season was how well they would do when forced to rotate due to injuries or international callups. McGlynn and now Sullivan have shown that they can do good work, but starting a game with only one of the first choice midfield made the whole game against Chicago very difficult. Being without Martínez, Fontana, Bedoya, and Gazdag meant that the Union couldn’t cope with the difficult conditions. Elliott at the 6 didn’t work as well as it has in the past, as the Union have come to rely on Flach’s closing speed in that spot. If Flach starts there against CHI, there’s good reason to think that perhaps none of Chicago’s goals happen, due to Elliott remaining on the back line and the rest of the midfield moving better.

That said, the homegrowns are contributing. Let’s all take a moment to relive Sullivan’s goal, because it was pure. And McGlynn has been very solid, if never reaching that sort of height offensively. They are helping the Union through a difficult moment, and that’s great. This experience will do them a world of good in their development.

Giving up five goals in two games, regardless of the circumstances, is bad news. As much as I like to look on the bright side, giving up two to Atlanta and three to Chicago in the space of a week is very disappointing. Every one of those goals can be nitpicked and caveated, but I’m sure the Union are angry about it, and they should be.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    5 goals against isn’t great, but two of those were own goals, one of which really wasn’t a threatening situation and neither involving players losing their mark or being out of position. And Glesnes’ own goal wasn’t even the weirdest we’ve seen recently, given the own goal Spain gave up today.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      I agree, honestly. Each goal has something we could pick apart. The set piece goals are the ones that irk me, and them, I assume.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        The set piece goals came with Elliott playing the 6 during the run of play and one of them with Przybylko on the bench.
        Findlay is not quite yet a true like for like for Elliott. He may get there someday. In fairness those were his first minutes in MLS. He has to step it up from the Scottish League.

  2. McMohansky says:

    Good stuff here Jeremy.

    The Fire pitch changed everything and I was surprised the U didn’t really prepare for it and adjust, but then Curtin. Playing out from the back with all the personnel changes was puzzling. It took a while for the players to acclimate and then the subs came in and they all struggled to acclimate as well.

    Love MBaizo but that corner defending was very bad. Still, I don’t think he’s too worried about Powell taking many minutes. Granted not a fair platform to assess but the quality drop was significant.

    That Sullivan golazo. Wow what a peach.

    Kasper’s goal was clutch. What a move to cut inside. His poise in the box is remarkable.

    Love this team but man I miss el Brujo

  3. We obtained a win and a draw in a congested week. I’m okay with that. On a saturated pitch, anyone that cares to shoot can score and anyone who plays finesse won’t. Bad conditions can be a great equalizer for lesser teams. In rain, snow, wind and/or slop, just shoot and see how Mother Nature helps you.
    . . .
    Crazy things happen in bad conditions. Glesnes’s own goal reminded me of the wet ball own goal in Couva that put the final stake in the USMNT’s shameful 2018 WC qualifying run, and we aren’t playing anywhere near as half arsed as they did.
    . . .
    We’re still in good playoff qualifying position sitting at No.3 in the East. What stinks is how Orlando got a 2 point jump on us for the No. 2 spot with our draw and their win, but that’s manageable over the season or even for first place given time and scheduling.
    . . .
    We’ve been front loaded with MLS and CCL, and others will get their turn with that. Along those lines insofar as the Shield, the Revs, LA Galaxy and SKC will have USOC matches to handle, and Orlando, Seattle and NYCFC will have both USOC and Leagues Cup matches to handle.
    . . .
    The team just needs to focus on finishing and mechanics, keeping healthy, and other basics of any winner.
    . . .
    I’m glad Curtin is playing the youths when he can do so without sacrificing too much quality. Not only does playing time get them ready to be a meaningful part, but it also helps plug the hole of the U2 being in league limbo this year, a troubling problem for player development.

  4. Vince Devine says:

    I didn’t think any of the Chicago goal can be attributed to Elliot playing DM. One was a fluky own goal, and the other two were off set pieces, which is a man-marking issue, not a positional issue.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      That’s absolutely true. My thought isn’t so much that a slight shift in who played where would have prevented any individual goal (though that is possible), but that the Union would have dealt with the pressure they were under differently. On the opening OG, perhaps Flach would have rotated differently than Elliott did and prevented the cross (or Mbaizo might have covered the play differently to Powell). On the corners, marking assignments might have been different, or better midfield rotation might have prevented the corners ever happening.
      The main point being that the Union did not function as well as they are capable defensively, because lots of folks were different or in uncomfortable positions.

  5. I was pleased to see the new signings and some youth on the pitch…or mud puddle which parts of it were! The rain is definitely an equalizer!
    Glad to see our depth look pretty good in bad conditions. It’s going to be interesting to see how Curtin uses the kids. So I like what I’m seeing!

    As a side note… Higgenbothem is a great up grade!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


%d bloggers like this: