Match analysis: D.C. United 3-1 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

I’m not sure anything I write here can add to Union manager Jim Curtin’s immediate post-match summary of his side’s loss to D.C. United.

“We haven’t had our asses kicked like that in about three years.  We got what we deserved.”

Indeed, Saturday night’s game represented the nadir of the 2021 season so far for the Union, with a team that has been trending downward in MLS play getting comprehensively shellacked for the first time in a long time.  It’s tough to remember a game where the expected goals so clearly favored the Union’s opponents — 2.9 to 0.7.

Philadelphia now sit fifth in the Eastern Conference, five points clear of the red line for missing the playoffs but clearly behind the conference’s top four of New England, Orlando, Nashville, and NYC FC.  There’s work to be done if the club want to host a playoff game at Subaru Park this year.

And performances like Saturday night won’t cut it.

Coal under the Christmas tree

With his side in an attacking rut, Curtin unveiled a formation change for Saturday’s match, rolling out the 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree” shape for the first time this season.

Rather than a diamond midfield with two strikers ahead, Curtin opted for a pair of No. 10s — Jamiro Monteiro and Daniel Gazdag — and just one striker — Kacper Przybylko — ahead of a midfield trio of Jose Martinez, Alejandro Bedoya, and Leon Flach.

It didn’t work.  In Curtin’s post-match telling, the formation lasted about 17 minutes before the Union switched things up, with Gazdag operating more as a second striker.  D.C. spent those 17 minutes tearing the Union to shreds in the midfield and attacking third in a way that we haven’t seen in ages.  It was simply too easy for the hosts to find space on the ball, bypass the midfield, and create dangerous opportunities.

Some of that, it has to be said, is due to a really strong performance on the night from United, who have made huge strides this year under new manager Hernan Losada.  But it also has to be said that the Union did not offer too much resistance.  In particular, the choice to go with two 10s seemed to throw off the club’s defensive shape.  That position does a lot of defensive work in the Union’s standard 4-4-2 diamond, but both Gazdag and Monteiro seemed uncertain as to who should be where and when and doing what.

That’s a recipe for having your side cut open.

Were it not for a typically superlative performance from Andre Blake — and, I thought, a really solid outing from firefighting Jakob Glesnes — the scoreline could have been much more lopsided.

Offensive offense

Prematch, the Christmas tree formation seemed a curious choice for a different reason.

The Union have been in the offensive doldrums for some time now.  Just once in the seven matches preceding Saturday had Philly scored more than one goal in a match.  The production from the attackers dried up, and the offensive scheme looked increasingly bereft of ideas beyond cross after cross after cross.

If you’re trying to generate offense, it might make sense to send out a lineup that (1) is weighted more toward attack-minded players and (2) keeps players in their natural positions.

But the Christmas tree did neither of those things.  Rather than sacrifice Leon Flach — who is having a strong season but offers about as much as I do going forward — Curtin opted to scrap a striker and play with double 10s.  That setup asked Jamiro Monteiro — who is not a No. 10 — to play No. 10 instead of a deeper position, where he has been much more familiar in his Union career.

Is it really surprising that this lineup similarly failed to generate offense?  The sole goal on the night came on an own goal, and otherwise the attack looked much as it has for weeks now, cross after cross after cross, all sound and fury signifying nothing.  (If you’re counting, it was 24 crosses on the night for the Union vs. two total shots on goal.)  Przybylko looks as lost as he ever has up top, and you can feel frustration permeating all the way back through the lines every time one of the center backs chooses to play an aimless long ball with no other options.

And I’m not sure what even to make of Gazdag at this point, who has been much less influential than expected so far in his Union career.  Positionally, he looks discombobulated, not often enough finding the ball in areas of the pitch where he can do real danger.  His work rate is solid but it often appears that he’s a step or two off the pace.

Maybe that’s just part of MLS acclimation, and it’s also fair to say that he has been shuffled into a lot of different positions and roles in a very short period of time.

But the frustration is mounting — for player, club, and fans — as this signing is yet to bear real fruit.

What comes next?

The schedule is not ideal for the Union.

First up on Friday is — yet again — league leaders New England Revolution.  Philadelphia will be missing seven regulars to international duty, plus iron man Jack Elliott through yellow card accumulation.

After that, it’s nearly a two-week break to get right before the second leg of the Concacaf Champions League semifinal against Club America.

It’s going to be tough for the club to build any cohesiveness off this smashing defeat into the huge cup tie through a game where half the team is unavailable.  But it could be a chance for a few of the club’s depth options to stake a claim to a larger role, especially given how many veterans are underperforming.

Thinking the lineup through, it’ll be a chance for Stuart Findlay to partner Jakob Glesnes in the center of defense.  At right back, we might see Nathan Harriel make his MLS debut, but I would guess that Curtin will opt to play Matt Real out of position there instead.  Quinn Sullivan, Jack McGlynn, Paxten Aaronson, and Anthony Fontana are all in line for substantial minutes in the midfield, with Flach and Bedoya filling two of the roles.  And up top it will be interesting to see if Matheus Davo is involved at all, given Cory Burke’s absence, Przybylko’s poor form, and Sergio Santos’s injury issues.  If he isn’t, it’d be fair to write him off for the rest of this season.


  1. Monteiro got some rest today as he sat on the bench for Cape Verde’s 1-1 draw in the Central African Republic.

  2. Out of curiosity, I poked around the Internet to see where Gazdag typically lined up for Honved, his period club. Looks like he routinely played the left side of the midfield diamond (Honved seems to play the same 4-4-2 diamond), a position almost routinely occupied these days by Montiero. It would appear we really don’t have the #10 we need to make the system work. Gazdag certainly doesn’t seem to know what to do in that role. He has the quality, I think, but perhaps just hasn’t had the time to grow into the role.

    I don’t know what this means for the Union going forward. If no one on the squad fits that #10 role, we either continue to flounder in the same system or really look to build a shape that works for this team. I’d like to see a 4-3-3 with Martinez, Montiero and Gazdag in the midfield, Santos as a left wing, Przbylko as a 9 and a Fontana or Sullivan as the right wing. Give us more attacking options and get the #8 shuttles with skill where they belong.

    I know… I’m sure all the rest of us couch coaches have good plans, too. Something needs to change, though. Just play better is not going to do it right now for these guys. they need to play better, but I don’ think they have it in them.

  3. In their last match against NE they started Blake, Findlay, Elliott, Glesnes, Flach, McGlynn, Martinez, Mbaizo, Aaronson, Sullivan, and Santos, just in case anyone was wondering. I expect that of these players, most who are available for selection on Friday will be in the starting XI.

    • The more I think about it the more I expect the same shape, because it maximizes the Union’s presence in the midfield. But the three CBs will have to be Findlay, Wagner and Glesnes.

  4. Atomic Spartan says:

    Mentioned this in Player Ratings but I think it bears re-asking: Who coaches this Offense? JC may be able to lend insights about where opposing defensive weaknesses lie, but as a long-time defender himself, I don’t expect him to have great attacking ideas. So who is in charge of imparting those defense-busting ideas and getting the Boys to use them? Cuz the Christmas Tree sure wasn’t a great idea.
    Much is also made about JC’s steadfast opposition to giving the youngsters meaningful minutes. Fortunately, he does have a history of playing them when he has absolutely no other options, ergo this Friday. But there is a serious side-effect to JC’s infuriating aversion to squad rotation. That is, as long as this team places its bets on homegrowns as reserves, we’ll never really have any usable, experienced depth. So Jim will just ride the regulars into the ground, not developing the young’uns, which results in greater lack of depth, and on and on.
    BTW Pete: I was thinking the same thing. The Braintrust needs to watch Gazdag film and figure out a way to fit him into a system the Boys know how to use, or it’s going to be Misfit Toys all over again.

  5. With no other #10 a clear choice…
    (Gazdag neither knows the players nor position well)
    (Fontana doesn’t press well enough)
    (Montiero doesn’t pass well enough)
    …I would love to see Paxten get a chance at the top of the diamond with Gazdag and Montiero on either side.
    Know it cant happen this week with international duty.

    • I was thinking Paxten too, which can (and should) happen, albeit with others on his sides.

      • I would expect that will be examined heavily next season, with something worth watching happening the season after the investment in development in 2022.
        My interest in Paxten Aaronson at the #10 starts with the way he anticipates where he needs to be to start the press defensively.

  6. I would add a thought to Peter Andrews’ comment about Matheus Davo.
    Davo is on-loan for the rest of 2021 with an option to buy. One way to interpret that fact pattern is that he has to get game minutes between now and November so they have some basis on which to decide whether to exercise the option.
    If the Union’s own website is accurate about Davo’s salary cap roster sub category, i. e., Senior, then he is positioned to be an Under 22 initiative player, adding some urgency to his need for evaluation opportunities this fall.
    I would further add that adapting to the pace and physicality of MLS has slowed others when they were preparing for their debuts.
    He is necessarily the third striker on the bench this coming Friday against New England, whether the Union play with one or two up top.

  7. This season is over. Unless Tanner can pull off a mirical and acquire a skilled seasoned # 10 who is out of a contract. Even if he has to overpay for a half year contract. Aaronson is not ready to carry the team.

  8. Tanner please contact Max Myer and offer him a contract tommorow.

  9. Max Meyer

  10. The “Christmas tree” 4-3-2-1 does nothing but invite pressure and is kind of geared for a 1-0 win. With the Union’s whole RB philosophy……this formation is completely contradictory to that and it’s no wonder they got flamed. Lastly, and I haven’t heard this from anyone yet…….I’m throwing it out there……Kacper, who you all call “ striker muffin” ( good God, man) is wee bit overrated. While he had a great year last year….peel the onion. Conversion ratio is bad, for as big as he is….he has no vert or air game, and he thinks he’s hot s—t! Convince me otherwise………

  11. Assists…… with regards to the top 2 assist producers one plays left fullback. the second has lost his mojo and cant get his family in the states and is on his way out as soon as the u can make a deal. something is wrong with this picture.

Leave a Reply

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