Man in the mirror

Photo: Marjorie Elzy

There was a soccer game last Friday night between the United States and Mexico. In it, the game’s most visible player scored the opening goal. While celebrating, he revealed that under his jersey he was wearing a homemade shirt with words that read, “Man in the mirror.”

The gesture was, in the parlance of the times, a “clap back” at a senior player on the other team and his suggestion that the hosts aspired to be like the visitors when they were honest with themselves, when they looked into the mirror. The accuser was wrong of course, but that’s a topic for another time.

On Saturday afternoon, there will be a more local “mirror match” in Chester when the Union host the Red Bulls.

Pointin’ the fingers, pointin’ at youuuu

The Red Bulls are a Red Bull team: high press, little need for possession, lots of chaos.

The Union have also been accused of being a Red Bull team with the same characteristics. These days, that’s more of a suggestion than anything else.

The Union press their opponents, but they’re not a high pressure team. The Union don’t usually win the possession statistics in their matches, but they have proven more than capable of an in-game rondo. The Union thrive on chaos, but don’t cause nearly as much of it as they used to. So are the Union a Red Bull team anymore?

Not really.

There’s no mirror here, not metaphor of big or little brother, no pointin’ of the fingers.

In fact, now that the Union have changed formations and added a body in their crowded midfield, they’re more apt to create offense closer to their own goal than that of their opponents. Their tally against Columbus earlier this season is a good example of this: a better representation of where they engage defensively these days, one which is a wholly different approach than that of 2020 – when they were indeed a Red Bull team.

They’ll have to figure out how to draw the Red Bulls forward in possession like this in order to make that ensuing transition happen. When it comes to current Red Bull teams, trying to possess the ball through the center of the pitch is not really on the list of attacking options.

Left, right, left, right

Before the Union were a Red Bull team, Jim Curtin did an interview on one of the tactics he would use in order to beat a Red Bull team. Generally speaking, doing so requires being disciplined in tight spaces (or, dealing with the press in the first place) and finding open spaces to attack (or, breaking the press).

If only it were so simple…

One of the tactics he discussed more than once was something called a “blind switch.” The blind switch involves hitting a ball across the field without necessarily looking, knowing that the Red Bull’s press would be compressed on the ball-side of the field, trying to squeeze the Union – but ultimately leaving the entire other side open.

Hit it where they ain’t, as it were.

As it turns out, switching the ball with pinpoint accuracy is something Union center and full backs have been excelling at this season, with or without pressure. In fact, this author already wrote about a similar iteration of this tactic and how it might help the team break down an odd-numbered backline earlier in the year.

It turns out, the Red Bulls might employ that formation too – all the more reason to keep an eye out for the strategy.

Expecting better

There’s a great book about pregnancy that was written by now-famous economist Emily Oster called, “Expecting Better: Why the conventional pregnancy wisdom is wrong.” It examines the source material for a whole host of now-dogmatic pregnancy dos and don’ts, lays out the research behind why those rules were created in the first place, and helps expectant mothers parse through whether or not the standard recommendations are actually based on good science.

In many cases, being good at researching something isn’t the same as being good at practicing it. A good example of this rift comes in the form of this quote:

At some point I came across a well-cited study that indicated that light drinking in pregnancy—perhaps a drink a day—causes aggressive behavior in children. The study wasn’t randomized; they just compared women who drank to women who did not. When I looked a little closer, I found that the woman who drank were also much, much more likely to use cocaine.

This is what’s called a confounding variable – but how does it relate to soccer?

On the surface, this Union season is an unbridled success and any standard measure would conclude as such: few other teams in league history have had the kind of domestic and international success the Union have had in 2021, particularly after a trophy-winning campaign the year before with one of the league’s lowest payrolls. In fact, there are a bunch of teams sitting at home right now and a whole host of others getting on planes and trains for road playoff games that would trade places with the Boys in Blue in a heartbeat.

And yet, this 2021 study of regional soccer success isn’t randomized at all – being a Union fan is its own confounding variable.

Union fans know that the team has been successful. They also know that there could have been more, that for every silver lining – there is a cloud.

The 2021 group can’t score, absolutely could have advanced to the Champion’s League final had they been able to do so, can’t keep leads on the road, and will need to figure out both of those issues should they need to go and play the highest point-earning team in Major League Soccer history, New England. They’re in great position to succeed, and an absolutely perfect position to fail miserably, and since this is Philadelphia we’re talking about…

These latter narratives weigh heavier on the hearts of fans than any of the former that might lift them up. Perhaps that’s fair, given how far Union fans have had to come.

Objectively, the season is already a success. A win on Saturday means it continues to have a chance to be historic.


  1. Wut?
    My man, the season is not a success unless they win something. All other caveats and equivocations are indications of inferiority and small mindedness.

    I don’t get the entire premise here. USA v Mexico has little to nothing to do with Union v RedBull.
    Ochoa was indeed correct, and Pulisic was brilliant for showing the past is increasingly irrelevant to the present for that rivalry. The Union are not in Redbull shadow, nor any other MLS side. There’s simply not enough history and intensity there.

    Now looking at this seasons Union vis a vis last season, an argument can be made we will struggle to score Saturday. Their defense is well disciplined and we may need more chaos to have openings. Winning the ball higher up the pitch does this.

    Also strange to discuss the Union’s reliance on left/right switch of play and not mention Martinez, the best distance passer on the team and the most important in dictating pace and tempo.

    My 2cents anyway. Looking forward to a tight affair that will likely come down to individual mistakes.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      I love Martinez’s long ball, that’s a good point. If his passing and dribbling are on, they’re an entirely different team. That said, I agree they’ll likely have a hard time scoring Saturday and fully expect it to be a knock down, drag out, 1-0 affair.

      The premise of the article is, of course, that the teams have been mirror images of each other in style recently – there’s a reason Bob Bradley called them “a Red Bull team” and obviously the Union’s Sporting Director is partially famous for his time as Academy Manager with… Red Bull Salzburg.

      As for results, no small-mindedness here, quite the opposite in fact. I can observe that success over 34 games is a much more reliable measure of a good team than that over 4. There’s a reason why few Shield winners also win the Cup, and it’s the logic behind few leagues in the world employ a playoff structure at all – it just doesn’t represent a large enough sample size to infer quality.

      • Andy, ultimately no one cares how many extra cup games a team plays in a season or how many key players have moved on.
        These are excuses.
        Every team can make excuses for their struggles throughout the season and no one seriously considers them when judging the season. The only criterium is points. Union were 19 behind the league winner. You say finishing with more points wasn’t happening but why? That sounds like more excuses. They dropped a lot of points from winning positions due to experienced players making individual and collective mistakes. Certainly not some fait accompli.
        If you want to judge success based on your expectations thats reasonable and fine. It is also slippery and subjective.
        Union won the league last year and earned silverware. Over 2pts/game. There’s no subjective equivocation about it despite the bastardized season. MLS has a bastardized schedule every season but one team still wins the league.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Jack Elliot has as good if not better range than Martinez.

      • I don’t understand how anyone considers the regular season a success. Union were the 6th/7th best team in the league.
        Last year they were 1st.
        They won less than half their games this season. Not great. Above average.

        Finishing 2nd* in the Eastern is not something to look back on pridefully in years to come either. Sure it gives the team another home game but that’s overrated.

        For me the Supporters Shield is more important than the MLS cup but I know I’m in the minority. Like you say Chris, 4 game playoffs is not a great measure of a season. Still, we’re in it to win it. I had the feeling Curtain and co. we’re prioritizing the playoffs this year ever since the CCL run. We’ll see.

      • I’m completely confused by what you are saying here. Yes, last year they were 1st in the league, but there was no realistic way for them to do that this year. They lost 3 key players during the offseason and had to play 6 more games than New England, several of which effected them in the regular season, especially head to head with New England (resting players before CCL semis and missing 7 players due to rescheduling during the international break). Given the lack of interconference play, comparisons with how they did against teams in the west aren’t really relevant beyond home field in MLS Cup. So yes, it would have been nice to get more points, but finishing higher wasn’t happening.
        Can you explain further how you think they we’re prioritizing the playoffs rather than finishing as high as possible in the regular season? 6-1-4 since their exit from CCL seems like prioritizing the regular season to me.

  2. The key point Chris Gibbons makes is that the Union have not been a high pressure team this year.
    That assertion tells Union fans how much we miss Brenden Aaronson.
    The combination of Gazdag and Monteiro in the Christmas tree may be capable of producing pressure higher up the field. We shall see.
    Only very recently has the Hungarian begun to read and react with the speed of recognition and reaction that Aaronson the Elder always displayed.

  3. I agree that this has been a successful season, even if the Union don’t win a trophy. Finishing in 2nd place in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year is nothing to sneeze at. I know I’ve been critical about their inability to hold the lead on the road, but that’s mainly so they’ll have more confidence if they play in New England (and because I would have preferred MLS Cup to be in Chester rather than elsewhere if the Union make it).
    People have to remember that with leagues growing in size to 28-30 franchises, your team is only going to with the championship an average of once every 30 years or so. So if your only measure of success is winning a championship, you’re going to be disappointed a LOT. To me, the combination of the regular season along with a semifinal appearance in CCL (plus the Golden Boot there) make it successful.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    “Before the Union were a Red Bull team”… I about aspirated my chicken salad. So true. So true.

  5. In Tanner We Trust says:

    Given how last year ended, and the capability this team has, I think a playoff win would qualify as a success. I know we did well in Champions League, but that was against a Costa Rica team and Atlanta under Heinze the Terrible. We’re looking at the 4th straight successful regular season, and thus far we have one playoff win to show for it. I’m very excited to see what happens short and long term, but if Red Bull knocks us out first round at home, it’s going to leave a nasty taste in all of our mouths for at least a few months. We must win this next game.

  6. Very much looking forward to seeing this game live! I have my ” I hate NY ” t shirt all washed up and ready!

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