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Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 1–0 Atlanta United

Photo by Stephen Speer

After the letdown of the Concacaf Champions League semifinal, all eyes turned to MLS play, and how the Union would respond. A tense, but ultimately well deserved 3–1 win over Orlando offered hope that Philly would use their disappointment as fuel to rise back up the league table. A surging Atlanta United would provide another stern test.

In the end, Philadelphia dominated the Josef-less United, and took all three points, though the scoreline was only 1–nil. It could have, and probably should have, been more. Let’s take a look.

Captain’s absence provides balance

Alejandro Bedoya did not make the gameday roster due to a calf injury suffered against Orlando, which meant a return to the starting lineup for Dániel Gazdag at the No. 10, with Leon Flach as the left-hand No. 8 and Jamiro Monteiro as the right-hand No. 8.

While Gazdag is still finding his footing in MLS, this lineup brough offensive–defensive balance to the midfield. With both Flach and Bedoya on the field at the same time, too much of what they do is redundant. It’s not as simple as saying that neither contributes enough going forward, but that’s the gist. Flach is a work in progress offensively, and Bedoya is a linker rather than a line-splitter, though he does have some end product when in advanced positions.

Flach, meanwhile, is a defensive midfield dynamo perfectly suited to gegenpressing. More than simply a destroyer, he’s a pressure cooker, never letting the other team rest on the ball. It’s understandable that Jim Curtin feels like Flach can’t be dropped, because he’s a big reason the team is so difficult to break down. And, with Monteiro opposite him and Gazdag above, Flach had one of his better offensive outings, linking well and providing an outlet high on the left. He’s so young, and more will come from him in time, but the story was really that, with Bedoya out, Monteiro got on the ball and did damage from the 8, where he is best, while Flach and the back six made sure Atlanta never got close.

Chance creation versus finishing

What’s better to have, great finishing or great chance creation? Having both is best, but if you have to choose, chance creation is what you want. In this game, the Union made chances, but struggled to put them away. Sergio Santos had a good opportunity in the first ten minutes that Brad Guzan did well to save, and there were a series of other chances throughout the game that would have put a higher gloss on the scoreline, had they gone in.

That the Union’s strikers are not quite good enough is a widely-held belief at this point. I’m not here to argue that one way or the other, but what I will say is that in this game, the Union did a much better job of creating chances closer to goal, and did not rely on aimless crossing. Would better strikers have put more of those chances away? Maybe. But if the Union creates 18 shots of the same quality as they did Saturday, and puts nine of them on goal, then they should comfortably win most games, regardless of who plays up front.

Eight of the Union’s shots came from inside the box and most of the chances came from actual passing interplay rather than simply lumping it in from Kai Wagner and Olivier Mbaizo. There was some crossing, yes, but it was part of a varied attack.

Sometimes you need a matchwinner

All that said, sometimes you need somebody to step up. The Union were on top from the opening whistle, but as the game stretched on, one did begin to wonder if the game would end frustratingly scoreless, or even with an Atlanta sucker punch.

So José Martínez took it on himself to get it done.

Martínez beat two men in the corner, drove into the box, and pulled the ball back into a dangerous area for Kacper Przybyłko to finish first-time. It was, dare I say it, Ilsinho-esque. Would the goal have come without something that heroic? We’ll never know, but soccer is a cruel game that defies the numbers sometimes, and on those days, you need a player to do something a little extra.

The continuing youth movement

Curtin made four substitutions in the game, and all were Homegrown players. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, but I was not expecting Paxten Aaronson to be the first sub. The Davó watch continues (yes I realize he debuted already, but he’s barely played), but more than that, it is a testament to the trust Curtin has in Aaronson and the other young players to come into a game without a goal, or just a one-goal lead, and to finish it. Their poise, speed of play, and desire to make things happen all belie their ages.

Final thoughts

It was deeply satisfying to see the Union handle Atlanta, winners of three in a row and seven of eight, so handily. Now, the Union have a run of four games (@NYRB, Columbus, @Cincinnati, @Montreal) before they go away to Minnesota and then host Nashville, where they could conceivably take 12 points. That’s unlikely to happen, considering three are away from home, but looking at the remaining games, where only Nashville and NYC FC currently have more points than the Union, there is an opportunity for the Union to finish the season very strong.

On the evidence of the past two games, they seem intent on doing so.

13 Comments

  1. The question we will need to have answered over the remaining games is how well can they break down a bunkering defense? I expect we’ll see a lot of that over the next month.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      I think that’s true for their home matches, but I’d be very surprised if opponents bunker against the Union while hosting them.

      • Cincinnati is a possible exception there (although who knows with a new coach) and it will be up to the youth to break down the bunker.

  2. I 10000% agree on the “Flach and Bedoya” are redundant point and really want to highlight that further. The midfield was such a huge improvement, and the reason for that seem to be exactly what you pointed out, that I honestly don’t know how Bedoya can go back into the starting line up.

    He will, of course. By now we know Curtin does not have either the mental fortitude or the tactical understanding to drop his captain and soul of the team. But man, we sure looked better without him than we have looked for weeks with him, right?

    • I agree in principle, but dropping Bedoya would be hard, for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps Jim could be convinced to rotate him and Flach, though.

    • Wonder if Flach did a little more offensively because he was not worried about his fellow #8 Montiero getting back on D?
      Maybe they could use Flach the first half to stifle the other team and bring on Bedoya at half to improve offense?
      This would also allowing Monteiro to work the right in the first half and the left in the second half.
      A fresh Bedoya could also act as ballast for a young Sullivan & Aaronson when they came on around 65min.

      • While I agree there are many ways to tweak and tinker and fit the pieces together, we looked more than fine without Bedoya starting, and Sullivan and Aaronson sure seemed to do well enough on their own without needing a ballast.

        We may have reached the point where the results on the field are telling us that our best starting XI and maybe even subs do not include Bedoya.

        Of course, this is all moot as Curtin just said in his PC that Bedoya is available for selection. I just hope we continue to win so we can push this discussion back until next season at least. Because if we start to look bad again, we may need to make a call that I don’t think Curtin is capable of.

      • Let Bedoya play the midweek game to rotate the squad and put him on the bench Sunday.

      • Come Sunday we will be in an all-hands situation as the international folks likely will be departing. That’s the one wrinkle here — the depth is going to be sorely tested.

      • They’ll still be there for Sunday’s game. They get released until Monday and will only miss the Cincinnati game (which was originally scheduled for 2 days after the game in Mexico City).

  3. John O'Donnell says:

    Why oh why can’t we just start rotating players for the playoffs?
    Gazdag is starting to find his game with this team and he should be playing the ten for the rest of the season.
    .
    Although Montiero played well he has a bad habit of receiving the ball and stopping and turning. At 20:00 mark on the clock he intercepts a pass and instead of moving it quickly to Przybylko on the left he gives it to Santos on the right who gives it right back and does his customary stop and turn letting the defence recover as he takes a shot. He turned a four on two from when he steals the ball into a four on five when he takes the shot.
    How you don’t feed it to Przybylko who is heating up is why he isn’t a number ten. I counted at least three times in the first half where Przybylko throws his hands in the air in frustration.
    .
    At some point Bedoya, Leo, Martinez and Montiero should start rotating with Bedoya getting less starts. Also all four should start sitting just like yesterday for the kids to start playing meaningful minutes as the pressure increases during the playoff push for the remainder of the season.
    .
    This team can still have a shot at second in the division with a game in hand and one more meeting at home with Nashville…and of course a little luck.

    • Well said. I hope that DG is up to the task, and that JC will sub him out if he isn’t (or he tires). Ale is a much-loved and respected player, but his permanent starter days are over. I would love to see LF at 6, with JM and Brujo at the 8s.

    • Agree with this. Was only able to watch a 10-minute highlights edit and was shocked how many very poorly considered shots from outside the box were taken instead of another pass inside to Przbylko. Even in that 10-minute highlight reel, I counted plenty of Pryzbylko’s gesticulations, reminding his teammates that he’s in the box. (I was wondering if the team might have been given direction to take a crack often from outside the box to test Guzan…)

      But yeah, rotation. Been wondering aloud in these comment sections about how much of Bedoya’s sloth can be attributed to just being overplayed. The same can be said for others, but Bedoya, in particular, could use more time to recover and the rest might make him sharper when he is used.

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