Analysis / Featured / Tactical Analysis / Union

Match analysis: Club América 2–0 Philadelphia Union

It’s good to get a little distance from a game like this one. International games against opponents as high caliber as Club América only come around once in a blue moon, so it’s normal that emotions run high afterward. Fans are, of course, disappointed by the result, and so look for explanations. We, so familiar with the Cliff of Union Despair, automatically point the finger at the Union, finding shortcomings. But what can we really put at the feet of the Union, of Jim Curtin and the players, and what is just the result of coming up against a team that is genuinely better than the Union?

Club América are really, really good

Because América truly are a much better team than the Union, and it showed. Just for some context, their current roster is worth about 79 million dollars, according to Transfermarkt. The same site values the Union’s roster at just under $30 million. Looking at the last two seasons pre-pandemic (which really screwed up the market), in 2018–19 América sold players to Europe and elsewhere for almost $23 million, and in 2019–20 sold players for $40.65 million (again, all numbers from Transfermarkt). The Union had its best-selling off season last year, selling two players for $12 million, and we’re still throwing a party over it.

The quality, top-to-bottom, on the América roster far outstrips what the Union were able to put on the field on Thursday night, and that would have been true with Jamiro Monteiro, too. Heck, it would have been true if every player the Union has ever had was available for selection.

None of which would excuse poor performances by Union players, but it lets us have perspective on what we saw. The Union weren’t very effective with their press, for instance, but that’s because every single América player was exceedingly comfortable with the ball at their feet, and could play through or around Union pressure. It’s not that the Union pressed badly, it’s that pressing isn’t an effective tactic when the disparity in talent is so great. (In fairness, the Union didn’t actually try to press very much, because they understood this.)

So, what can we actually take away from the match? Assuming América weren’t simply toying with the Union, it definitely felt like there were goals available with better execution, and that América could have been held to one or even no goals with better decision making.

Things to work on: Defense

Eliminate unnecessary fouls. Let’s start here. Especially early on, the Union were guilty of committing unnecessary, ticky-tacky fouls. I imagine much of that was due to nerves and being a little too amped up, but the ref called the Union tight, and it was such a foul that led to the first goal. One can argue that Jack Elliott didn’t actually commit a foul, but he was very aggressive in pressuring the ball, and probably didn’t need to be. He certainly wasn’t alone, and you’d expect fewer whistles back in Chester, but cutting down on fouls that give América dead ball opportunities is priority number one.

Be smart defending the flanks. América’s strategy was pretty clear. They avoided playing through the Union’s diamond midfield, and instead played around it and tried to attack the Union’s fullbacks. And before his unfortunate, injury-enforced substitution, Olivier Mbaizo was getting worked over a bit, defensively. Mauro Laínez got around him, and his replacement Alvas Powell, in the corner on multiple occasions. To Powell’s credit, he adjusted and that became less of a weapon for América as the game wore on. On the other side, Kai Wagner did a very good job, and América mostly didn’t try to attack down his flank. Elliott did give up an opportunity there late, when Roger Martínez was able to isolate on and turn him. The key again is that overly aggressive play can really bite you if the opposition has enough quality, so deny goal and wait for help, rather than attempt a tackle in high-leverage situations. And if you tackle, make damn sure you win it.

Avoid aimless clearances. In the bright lights and thin air of Estadio Azteca, it made sense for the Union to clear danger rather than try and play through pressure, but those clearances still need to have some direction to them. Otherwise, it’s barely giving any respite. Make sure clearances are long and to the sideline.

Avoid turnovers. It seems to be the in thing these days to treat Jakob Glesnes as error-prone. I haven’t run the numbers, but my own impression is that this is basically confirmation bias. He has had a few bad errors, but has mostly been excellent. That said, he had one very errant pass against América that was picked off, and it led to the moment where he headed the ball toward his own net. The header was scary, but ultimately not a big deal—he probably didn’t need to make the header at all, but you can’t blame him for doing so, and that it went close to the goal is just one of those things. But the pass can’t happen.

Things to work on: Offense

Be clinical. The Union were second-best, obviously, but grew into the game and did manage to generate some chances and half chances. In order to beat a team as good as América, the Union need to outperform their expected goals. In other words, they need to be clinical—not just take but convert difficult shots. Had the Union’s early backheel chance gone in, the entire complexion of the game might have changed. Similarly, Sergio Santos’s shot late in the game could have put a wholly different spin on things if it had gone it. The Union aren’t going to expose América’s weaknesses in the way they do MLS teams, so they need to take the chances—low-percentage, unlikely chances—they get.

Make good decisions. José Martínez is a very good player. It’s revisionist history to say he hasn’t proved his value to the Union time and time again. However, it was a very bad decision on his part to try and dribble through pressure just outside his own penalty area. Whether his foul to give away the penalty was deserved is immaterial—he never should have had to make the tackle at all.

Play faster. The Union had very little of the ball, which is actually fine. When they had it, they were able to put América under pressure when they played quickly. The odds of successfully breaking América down via possession are low, so transitions and fast play are the answer. But don’t get reckless and commit too many bodies forward, either.

Leverage set pieces. Set pieces are an area where the playing field is leveled. The Union have big bodies and players that can deliver good service. Make them count because if Thursday’s game is anything to go on, there won’t be too many of them.

Things to work on: Coaching

There’s really only one thing that I think Jim Curtin got “wrong” on Thursday, and that was bringing on Ilsinho. Whether or not Ilsinho still has the capacity to do damaging things with the ball at his feet, the Union were getting so little of the ball that it seemed wrong to bring on a possession-oriented player. Ilsinho is certainly capable of playing in transition or linking play with passing, but his strength is holding the ball to win 1v1 duels or playing quick triangles to create breakdowns, and there were few opportunities for those kinds of plays. When you add in his limitations in the physical fitness battle, he’s an odd choice to bring on. At the same time, it’s understandable. Curtin clearly felt he needed to change something, and Ilsinho was the obvious roll of the dice, considering Cory Burke had already entered the game. (I’d listen to an argument that Dániel Gazdag and/or Kacper Przybyłko should have stayed on the field, though.)

But what’s that I hear you say? Play your kids? Perhaps Quinn Sullivan was the difference maker the Union needed?

Ummmm, maybe? But I seriously doubt it. Jack McGlynn might have been useful to help shore things up a bit in midfield, but the idea that one of the homegrowns was going to be the person to get the Union in a position to score a goal is wishful thinking.

Things to work on: Home field advantage, refs

The story of Thursday’s game could easily be titled, “A Tale of Two Penalties.” There’s a good argument to be made that, having not called a foul on Martínez during the run of play, there wasn’t enough contact to overturn the call on video review. Similar contact is often called a foul, however, so I don’t think complaining about the call is worthwhile.

I do think it’s worthwhile to ask why the incident where Burke was shoulder charged in the box was not reviewed. Whether or not you think the contact was “shoulder to shoulder,” the América defender didn’t play the ball and didn’t even attempt to do so, because Burke had position. His only goal was to play Burke’s body, and that’s called a foul most of the time. That the VAR referee didn’t deem it worthy of review is baffling. Back home, you would assume it gets checked. Similarly, if an América player knocks another Union player’s tooth out, it’s probably going to get reviewed in Chester.

And everything that we’ve talked about above must be understood in the context of playing at altitude. I thought the Union’s fitness levels seemed remarkably good considering the thin air, so their superior closing fitness may be a factor in the return leg.

Final thoughts

It’s hard not to come out of a game like this one without some regrets. The Union were the lesser team, but they did have opportunities to get a goal or keep it closer than they did. And the fact that we can point to the moments where it got away from them makes it that much harder to take. América were superior, but the Union weren’t swept aside. They were in the game. If only x, y, and z had gone differently. . .

Alas, things didn’t go differently, and Club América did what they had to do. Now it’s up to the Union to pull off the second half comeback at which they’ve proven so adept. Can they do it? There’s certainly more than one timeline in the multiverse where they do. Will it happen in this timeline? We can only hope.

12 Comments

  1. A great word I heard used to describe how América played was mature. They were a class above not just in talent but in coaching and execution. They were calm and followed their game plan. Even when we lose against MLS teams, it doesn’t look like that.

    While grading him against América is harsh, Bedoya was blown by on several occasions. For as much as he is slowing down in MLS, players still don’t straight up run past him like América players did multiple times this game.

    One thing that happened in this game that is ALSO happening against better MLS teams is that Martinez was not a factor. We are so used to seeing him boss the midfield, that is is weird to not notice him at all. I think teams are literally just playing around him – as you mention, going down our flanks and dragging Martinez out wide where he is not effective. This is another thing Curtin needs to coach the team out of.

    As they say, it’s hard to win but harder to keep winning. We surprised the league and won a trophy with our 4-4-2 diamond. But now that coaches have been able to get a years worth of tape on us and gameplay for it and our specific players, there are really going after any possible weak point.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      …thoughtful commentary.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      Your last point is true, and harks back to something you say earlier. As teams learn what works against the Union, it’s up to the Union to find new ways to be effective, or to ensure their play simply can’t be effectively countered

    • Agree with both these points, and the legs are going to be even heavier for our Captain come September.
      To the eye, America was both much quicker and more technical.
      Ironically, some of the U’s more technical players are our homegrowns – who have benefited from YSC technical training since their friends were watching Blues Clues. They are also much quicker.
      I think you have to get at least one of the homegrowns at the corners of the diamond, if not both corners.
      Also, I love Flach’s motor, but he offers nothing going forward – play either him or Martinez, but not both.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    Good stuff Jeremy. I watch CA and CA a lot. America and Azul are happiest employing the style of play Union are trying to employ. They’d rather counter vertically then play a ‘possession’ style.
    .
    Tell you how good they are to then be totally comfortable playing around what you’re trying to do. Union bunkered a bit and America where fine with it. It is a level of expertise to aspire towards and totally clear when Union are better than other teams- they are unable to do it. That’s my biggest gripe with the style. They used to be able to control a possession style… but no longer can and don’t even try.
    .
    Lastly, if you are going to play counter styles you simply have to be able to do it effectively and too often we see fundamental breakdowns that just make them appear so amateurish… which was highlighted again Thursday night.
    .
    I’m on the record for arguing I don’t even think America got out of third gear in that game. Totally dominant despite our perceived successes.
    .
    The return leg will be very interesting.

  3. Overmatched and Midfield No Threat Offensively to Club America or Top MLS Teams

    Lets all be real our starting midfield is weak on the attack.. Flach has no offensive skills. Bedoya is a shell of himself and has lost his quickness and stamina. Martinez best skill is clogging up the middle. Gazdag is new and desperately needs better wingmates to be effective. The hand writing is on the wall.

    Change the system and get the young mids on the field to work with Gazdag until you can get at least 1 more hopefully 2 quality attacking mids next year. If not the Union will be lucky to squeak out 1 – 0 wins and 2-2 ties against the mediocre worst teams in the MLS.

    • On the topic of our midfield, I don’t think we can continue to play Flach and Bedoya together. They are basically the same style of player – endless motor, will contribute at both ends, absolutely cannot be expected to drive the offense forward or initiate attacks.

      That’s what made Montiero so special. He had the grit and motor and engine AND the sweet feet to dribble past a player and lob a ball over the defense for our strikers to run onto. He was defense AND offense.

      At this point I would seriously consider sitting one of Flach or Bedoya (honestly I would pick Bedoya but Jim would pick Flach) and starting Sullivan at the other 8.

      Alternatively, sit one of Flach/Bedoya and play McGlynn as a sort of deeper lying 8 who will spray passes around – quickly – and help us move the ball faster. Because we need that too.

  4. Scott of Nazareth says:

    I apologize if this is stating the obvious, but am I correct in assuming the Union need the following results for the home leg…

    3-0, 4-1, 5-2… Basically any combo involving a 3 goal win.
    2-0 Win and a PK shootout win.

  5. Great appraisal of the Union and intelligent comments!!!

Leave a Reply

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

*

%d bloggers like this: