Analysis / Union

Match analyses: Union vs. NYC FC and CF Montreal

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Back at home for a long stretch after being gone for what seemed like months, the Union took all three points from visiting New York City FC and earned a late draw against the nomadic CF Montreal.

The team aren’t quite performing the way they did in 2020 however, and blame falls on both of the proverbial sides of the ball.

For just a moment

Home games are important in Major League soccer, not just for the Union but for every team. Since 2015, home teams have won 52% of games in the league, with draws being the next most common result at 25% and away wins the least, at 23%.

Jim Curtin has said over and over again that most games turn on the outcome of one play – one moment in ninety-six (ish) minutes of chaos. He’s absolutely right, and right now the Union are a winning team who continue to lose too many moments, especially at home. That may sound confounding, but what it really means is the Union haven’t come close to tapping their true potential – and these moments include a common theme: a lapse in defensive concentration.

New York’s best chances of the night happened early, and only unlucky finishing kept the streaking visitors off the board. Both chances included Union players losing their marks in the box – which isn’t ideal, but is especially worrisome early in the match.

On Saturday, the Union’s luck ran out as another lapse – this one of ball-watching instead of man-marking – put their guests on the board at the worst possible moment: the stroke of halftime. Jakob Glesnes lost a runner who was in front of him and then over his back shoulder, in a situation where Montreal had counter attacked but was nearly trapped on the wing. A lovely turn and curling cross later though and the score was 1-0. Montreal had a precious lead to protect.

The other instances where the Union gave up home goals in non-winning efforts are as follows:

  • Inter Miami – two lost runners in the box, both of whom won headers against much taller Union marksmen.
  • NYCFC – slow rotation on an overlapping run and an inconceivable back pass.
  • New England – some lazy marking.
  • Chicago – more lazy marking.

These lapses don’t include Nashville SC’s early goal, or the Chicago Fire’s golazo of an own goal – just home matches. And yet, the Union’s defense is still really good: they’ve allowed the second fewest goals in the league this season.

The other side of that coin is this: should they clean up their routine but regular defensive mistakes, the Union will be elite. The team’s expected points is nearly four higher than where they are currently and that’s including the aforementioned lapses as well as the effects of part two of this analysis: a truly dreadful offense.

Offense wins championships

For as much blame as the defense deserves, the offense can no longer be given a pass. This morning, the team have scored the third-fewest goals of any current playoff team in MLS and have as their most prolific striker the 28th ranked Cory Burke in Goals per 90 minutes.

In 2020, the Union’s success was a cake built on defense but iced thoroughly by the attack. The team scored eight more goals than the expected models suggest they should have, and that led to eleven more points in the standings at year’s end – the league’s largest gap, and more than the measure that won them the Shield. What that means in layman’s terms is they had a killer instinct in front goal, getting tallies off of half chances as much as sitters.

This year, not so much.

In the week’s two matches, the team only found the frame three times on twenty shots. That two of those chances went in is useful, that so few of them found the goal’s mouth in the first place is not.

There are a litany of reasons why this is the case, but they might be boiled down to this:

  • A lack of midfield chemistry in the build up
  • An over-reliance on crossing to generate chances
  • A new #10 who hasn’t quite found the cadence of the team or the league
  • A bevy of strikers who, on their day, are a handful but have a hard time finding enough “days” in a row
  • An unwillingness to “try sh*t,” as Bruce Arena used to say

Many of the defensive lapses have come on the team’s right side, and the chorus of people calling for Olivier Mbaizo to take a few nights off is starting to be echoed by another group calling for Jakob Glesnes to be given the same treatment. Stuart Findlay is here for a reason, and one imagines he didn’t expect it to be to sit on the bench, even in the case that the team were as stout as they’ve been.

In the midfield and attack, few observers would say the team’s starters show more chemistry than its youngsters. It makes sense too – the kids have been playing together for many years more than their elders. That they continue to turn up, find space, and knock in audacious goals suggest they deserve a little more than the odd substitute minutes they’ve received.

There is still a lot of soccer left though, and the Union remain a difficult out. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of room for improvement, because there is.


  1. Mistakes lead to goals.
    That is a fact across all of soccer.
    But for all of the people calling for Glesnes’ or Mbaizo’s head, Union have allowed the 5th lowest goals (20) in MLS right now.
    Sure, a lot of that is Blake standing on his head and working towards an MLS KotY Award repeat. He was a huge part of our Supporters’ Shield success, but overall, I think our D is holding strong. That is not where our problems lie.
    Our press seems to be generating the same numbers (if not the final outcome) as last year – we press at the same rate, recoveries are similar, etc.
    So do we really just miss Aaronson that much? Yup. Flach is a defensive engine that doesn’t seem to stop, but his offensive production is fairly minimal – 2 assists, 9 shots, only two on goal. Gazdag similarly is not contributing enough towards goal. To his credit he has 3 assists and a PK in 700 min, and has one of the higher rate of shots per game. But, isn’t producing at BA rates, and isn’t fully in tune with the striker corps yet.
    We need our offense to start clicking.
    That said, we’re in the midst of a mid-summer swoon which we can recover from to start building towards playoffs. But we need to start seeing our offense hitting on all cylinders… and soon.

    • Agree strongly with your first point, as I’ve written before. The defense is doing what it needs to do.
      I think missing Aaronson is a part of the attacking issue, but only a part. The Union were a lethal counter-attacking team last year, and his absence is noticeable in transition. That’s the pressing piece you mention.
      But it also feels like the Union are getting fewer transition opportunities than they did last year, and that has more to do with the way opponents are playing them. More teams are inviting the Union to keep the ball, clogging the middle of the pitch, and allowing the Union to take low-danger options — long balls to no one or endless recirculating to the wings.
      The question, then, is how to re-open the center of the pitch? That’s where Flach has to do more, and where Gazdag has to be much, much more influential.

      • Agree with all you points.
        Wonder if there isn’t another element with Aaronson departure – one that we are missing this year.
        How many times last year was it BA that forced the turnover, so had the ball at his feet and the opportunity to tear apart the transitioning defense with a killer pass?
        Gazdag is not only not pressing as hard as BA, but when the turnover is forced, how often is it Gazag doing it with the ball now at his feet for a killer pass?
        Flach creating a turnover is great, but he is not then going to cut apart a D with his pass, so the D has time to reset.

  2. One other significant goal allowed at home this season was the one against Atlanta in first half stoppage time in the CCL quarterfinals. If the Union come back and beat Club America next month, that goal could easily be the difference between the Union hosting the finals and having to go to Mexico midweek for the game (and this time they probably won’t be able to reschedule any MLS fixtures to enable them to travel).

  3. soccerdad720 says:

    I don’t pretend to know anything about tactics and number 10s vs #8s, etc. The game has gotten beyond my desire to understand the technicalities…I just love soccer and have all my long life. That said….On Saturday night….the moment the kids starting coming on, I thought, here we go…just what we need…’the audacity of youth’. I started calling out, ‘give it to the kid’. Yeah. I Love our team, yeah, they struggle a little this year to put it in the net, heck even on frame..I say, play the kids and ‘Let them try shit’.

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