Analysis / Union

Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 2 – 0 FC Cincinnati

Photo by Paul Rudderow

What’s old is new

 

In August of 2018, the Philadelphia Union were the toast of MLS.

They certainly weren’t the best team and there was no consideration they would win a trophy, but they were hands down the league’s most scintillating squad with the ball. MLS writer Bobby Warshaw said the team had “flow.” One midsummer night against league leaders New York City FC, the Boys in Blue put in that season’s best performance – not only beating the visiting and formerly high-flying Pigeons, but breaking their will to play in the process. The game ended with a flailing NYCFC defender earning a red card, simply out of anger and a moment to breathe and not chase the pinging ball.

The passing sequence above is just one of the more famous on the night.

In November of 2021, the Good Guys are simply a successful and known quantity in the league.

No longer tactical darlings nor plucky upstarts, the Boys in Blue have already moved the trophy monkey off their back and been the league’s best team in doing so – not only winning matches, but getting a series of opposing coaches fired in the process (***waves at Gabriel Heinze, who’s still man-marking someone somewhere for some reason and saying Josef is overrated***). One Halloween night against the league’s worst side, the Union again put in their best performance, echoing both the chaos that brought them their success and the beauty that laid the foundation for it in the first place.

Marrying the beauty of the 2018 squad with the successful chaos of the 2020 squad is something Union fans have clamored for the entirety of this season. Getting a glimpse of what’s possible when it all clicks just a game before the postseason, with the aforementioned Pigeons looming, has to be an amuse bouche for everyone in Blue.

 

Christmas on Halloween

These days, pumpkin spice lattes become available the day after Memorial Day most years, Valentine’s Cards are on the racks before New Year’s, and Memorial Day swag can be had well before Easter Sunday. Thus, it makes sense that Christmas trees be sold before the reader’s kids go out Trick or Treating.

Author’s note: If the reader wants to get his goat, mention pumpkin flavorings or seasonal IPAs to Union chop-stick analyzer Kevin Kinkead. He’ll be glad you did.

The Union’s formation has turned into a Christmas tree in early fall as well, from the 4-4-2 that won them their Shield to a 4-3-2-1 that has finally unlocked the potential of summer signing Daniel Gazdag. The change was initially made because of injuries and international duties, but seems here to stay for a few salient reasons.

  1. More midfielders: This may seem obvious – that five is greater than four – but the switch here serves an important purpose. By replacing a striker with a midfielder, the Union get the benefit of adding a player to their lineup more adept at two-way play, more skilled on the ball in tight spaces, and less likely to go running toward the goal in hopes of a ball over the top. The end result is a group of players who are near to each other more often and can match or overwhelm almost any other midfield in the league as a result, with or without the ball.
  2. Fewer requirements for outside backs: The Union’s outside backs are going to get forward, irrespective of the team’s formation. It’s in both of their DNAs and a crucial addition to the team’s attack – as well as attempts to overload or switch. However, since there is now real width in the team’s defensive shape, especially in the back of the midfield, the outside backs aren’t the only line of defense between the team and a counter attack down the wing. Thus, they can be more patient in what they do when they get into advanced positions.
  3. A lower chance of success in aerial crosses: There is only one forward in the team’s new formation, and barring an injury that player is Kacper Pryzbylko. While the Striker Muffin is good in the air, he’s unlikely to win many whipped in crosses against a trio or more of defenders. As a result, the Union aren’t swinging the ball in as much in this formation and are instead getting to the end line with the ball on the ground. This is a good thing because it means the team keeps possession and, going back to the midfield, have an extra player on the ball side in which to form triangles and unlock passing lanes.

The Union are better in this formation than in their former and, since Jim Curtin ate the same thing for breakfast this morning as he did every day for the last 25 years, expect Christmas to last for a long time in Philadelphia.

Getting wayyy ahead of things

MLS Cup is on December 11th this year, and the path getting there is going to go through Foxboro, MA.

The Revs are an inch away from an all-time points season and have found different ways to win against every team they’ve faced. However, one team they’ve faced quite a bit this year has played them evenly, even without most of their regular starters: the Philadelphia Union. When the Union have faced the Revs in 2021, they have yet to field their first choice lineup. There is an historical precedent here because in 2020, when it was the Union winning the league, the Revs had the same issue in facing the Boys in Blue.

Last year, the Union won 4 matches and drew a 5th against the Revs before the postseason. Then Carles Gil got healthy, the Union had a bye week and cooled off, and the Revs handily beat the Good Guys in the playoffs. This year, the results are more even but while the Revs have been mostly healthy, the Union have been missing key players at every step.

May 12 – Philadelphia Union 1 – 1 New England Revolution: Jose Martinez was suspended for this match after assaulting a NYCFC player in April.

August 8th – New England Revolution 2 – 1 Philadelphia Union: In anticipation of the team’s CCL Semifinal just a few days later, the Union made a handful of changes, giving starts to Stuart Findlay, Jack McGlynn, Quinn Sullivan, Paxton Aaronson, and Sergio Santos.

September 3rd – Philadelphia Union 0 – 1 New England Revolution: A month later, and the second leg of those CCL Semifinals looming, the Union again shuffled the deck with Joe Bendik and Nate Harriel joining the aforementioned substitutes who started the match in August.

It’s too soon to start playing “what-if,” but should the Union face the Revs in a knock-out game, it should be a lot closer than the table suggests. Heck, the Union hadn’t lost in Foxboro for many years before dropping points there in 2021. The playoffs would be a great time to start a new streak.

One Comment

  1. I’ve thought about the reverse parallels with last season and New England for a good part of the season and in some ways the 4 seed may have the best chance to knock off New England (but then the 4 seed likely has to go on the road for the conference finals).
    .
    A couple of small corrections to the above article. It was actually almost 20 hours into May when Martinez assaulted the NYCFC player. And the reason the Union rotated their squad for the September 3 game was because on international duty. The CCL game was still 12 days away.

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