Analysis

Match analysis: David 0 (0) – Goliath 2 (4)

Photo by Paul Rudderow

The biblical story of David and Goliath is among the most famous of the book’s myriad lessons.

The moral of course is that a small, seemingly overwhelmed actor has the ability to defeat a larger, better equipped one given the right amount of cunning, guile, and skill. It’s famous because it’s inspiring, making the reader feel like anything is possible.

In reality, this kind of thing almost never happens. Or, more statistically speaking, Davids sometimes beat Goliaths – but any given David rarely beats its Goliath.

Sports is a great place to search for proof: it took 135 games before a 16th seeded team beat a 1st seeded one in the NCAA Tournament; the chances of a second division college football team beating its first division brethren is less than 8%, despite the two playing multiple matches every year; and no American team has won the Concacaf Champion’s League competition in decades – having won only 9 of the 51 USA v. Mexico series in the competition all-time. When the David’s of the world win, it’s by exception not rule… but people remember the exceptions and seem to think they’re more common than they are.

The Union’s two-legged affair against a mighty southern adversary represented a bit of both – the potential for a miracle, and weight of reality.

The mighty giant – reality bites

The Union are at their best in close combat – in the faces of their opponents, pressing high up the pitch, and causing chaos amongst otherwise poised defenders. They thrive on the proverbial knife’s edge, and the risk of a strategy like this one is that sometimes the opponent is in fact poised enough to absorb the pressure and pass through it.

Club America is one of those teams.

They’re simply better, position by position, than are the Union. This isn’t because the Union are bad, but simply because Americas has better players at every position. This is not an opinion, mind you: the market bears this out.

Going deeper, not a single player in the home eleven is worth more than the average player on the visiting side, and the reader would have to go to the 12th most valuable America player – left back Miguel Layun – before finding someone worth what the Boys’ best player could claim. Sometimes talent just wins.

At home, this talent was apparent in America’s possession: 66.2% to the men in yellow. Away, it was apparent in both possession and defense: America’s back four weren’t just poised on the ball, they were absolutely smothering without it – blocking nearly half of the Union’s shots, making a mammoth 26 clearances, and completing passes along the back line with more than 75% accuracy.

The giant won, both parrying the peasant’s attacks and burying his own.

Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath

As is his style, noted author Malcolm Gladwell has another take on the David and Goliath story – one that, in his words, surmises, “everything I thought I knew about that story turned out to be wrong.”

It’s classic Gladwell, and perhaps suggests that teams like the Union are actually perfectly suited to slay their larger neighbors. Part of this narrative played out Wednesday: the Union were better with the ball (in short and long passing as well as crossing situations), better at creating chances, and nearly even in duels. For those deep in the cult, they even won the xG battle with the visitor’s only good chances coming after the kitchen sink had been torn out and thrown forward.

The problem of course is that, for all of the expected goals the Union might have earned, when it came time to score the actual ones they fell short.

  • Cory Burke’s settled turn was impressive, but simply too slow for what was needed
  • Jakob Glesnes’s header shortly thereafter was menacing, but always rising
  • Jamiro Monteiro’s penalty was hit hard, but not all that well-taken

The reason for these “almost-but-not-quite” outcomes is in equal measure about the Union and America: defenders unsettled or blocked the first two chances, and a world class goalkeeper parried the penalty. Not bad by the Union, just not good enough.

Author’s note: The Union heavily outperformed their xG numbers in 2020 en route to the league title. That, coupled with Andre Blake’s nearly +20 goal turnaround from his abysmal prior year in that metric was enough. In 2021, though Blake hasn’t budged from greatness, the offense is heavily underperforming these xG numbers and it shows.

Stuck in the valley

The Union were fairly dominant on Wednesday. The mountain they had to climb was large and the scoreboard said otherwise, but they pushed America to the brink for nearly ninety minutes. They were undermanned, rode tired horses for far, far too long, were quickly and completely undone psychologically by their “bigger” opponents, and never quite matched America’s poise or figured out a way to undo its black magic tactics.

Considering who the nascent Union are as well as the mighty Eagles, it’s fair to say this David and Goliath story turned out exactly the way one would have expected – with the giant on top.

11 Comments

  1. Excellent essay – balanced and honest. There’s no shame in losing to Club America, but the loss laid bare the Union’s weak spots. While there has been progress in the last five or so years, I think the Union are at least a decade away from truly threatening a team of Club America’s stature.

    I’m still all in on my team. This CCL run was a great experience.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Much appreciated, and you’re right. The whole league is probably 5-10 years away. MLS is winning a lot more since they started spending more money, but are only halfway to parity with Liga MX.

    • I think the Union are much further away than that considering their model that when they have a season like last year they are likely to sell off some of their top talent. So invariably they will be weaker the following year which happens to be when they are most likely to play a team like Club America.

  2. Stop making so much sense, Chris.

    I think it’s also useful to consider game state. Yes, the Union can look back at the bad luck or refereeing choices or missed chances and see a way that this two-legged match could have gone another way.

    But that assumes that CA would have played the same way after allowing a Union goal, which is about the most unrealistic thing I can imagine. I would have loved to see it, though: Club America needing a goal away from home. Could have been something electric to watch.

  3. The issue wasn’t the placement of the penalty but the fact Miro’s run up totally telegraphed where he was going. As a 47 year old member of the goalkeepers union, I may have had a chance to save that. David’s chance died with the missed pk and associated red card

    Great write up though.

    • Beg to differ.
      .
      David’s chance died in Mexico City. All Club America needed to do on Wednesday was not concede two goals. They could have put 10 defenders on the field and still won the series.
      .
      Also…Do we really think that if Miro scored that penalty that CA would have pressed the attack instead of hardening their bunker strategy?

      • Well with the pk they concede one and then playing vs ten puts us attacking into the River End the rest of the evening where anything can happen. To your point the late second goal in Aztecs hurt bad.

  4. The Union sold their best attacking midfielder and replaced him with Gazdag who could not fill Aaronsons shoes. Saw this disaster of a season coming. The rest of Tanners purchases did not fit our needs. Dumkoff or Lackey? We true Fans deserve and expect better.Just too many complacent fans.
    and corporate ticket season holders at Subaru Park. Sugarman is making league money win or lose. Sad state of Soccer here. Miscalcution on youth development. The JV is not ready and will not be ready for 2 Years. There are no more excuses Sugarman get a partner to fill our needs or sell the team to an owner willing to give us a top team that has a. Good chance win the MLS cup once every4 years. The Union caught lightning in a bottle with Brendan Aaronson s rapid development. Its not going to happen every year. You must restock quality with quality or drip in the table.

    • I think the problem is that other than Gazdag, their were no replacements other than homegrowns until a month ago, and we have not seen anything yet from Davo or Bueno to know whether they are good or not. But they we’re definitely signed to late to help with CCL, which falls on Tanner.

  5. Maybe the Union will get a nice particiation trophy this year. I Don’t even want to squeak into the playoffs. My enthisiasm for this team is gone and will not be back unless I see some bold moves to win it all. Its starts with Sugarman being. More concerned about winning more games every season. Not his grad,d business model whatever the f that is.

    Have a great day Union ticket season holders Enjoy your 12 beers 6.00 pretzels 40 parking etc.oh I forgot half of you wont be there anyway. Stadium is always half empty. On second thought have fun down the shore at your multi million dollar houses and condos. What a lame group of soccer fans. Soccer will never catch on In Philly unless the fans hold the team to higher expectations every year. Hockey caught on in Philly because the Flyers had success early in their history.Soccer will not get the cities love if they don’t win period. Constant mediocrity from this team with an occasional lucky year.

  6. ps what MLS genius decided to schedule MLS games on Sunday during football season. How about Tues night, No competition with NFL games. This league needs more exposure.

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