Analysis

Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 1–0 New York Red Bull (AET)

Photo: Stephen Speer

With tickets from a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, I was able to attend this match in person, my first since 2019. It was an incredible experience, shared with many of you, I’m sure. Complicating my role as match analyzer, the seats were field level. While I highly recommend going to a game at field level if you ever get the chance—it’s such a fun experience to be so close to the players, with nothing between you and the action—it made observing the shapes of the teams difficult, as well as understanding how off-ball movement was developing. I intended to watch the match again, but because it was carried on Univision, I haven’t been able to figure out how to do that. Luckily for me (though apparently not so much for viewers at home—the official highlights skip from Alvas Powell’s chance in the 7th minute to Kacper Przybyłko’s miss in the 82nd), the match was not very complicated from a tactical point of view, and the way it played out can be easily understood.

Stalemate

Much of regular time played out in the equivalent of a staring contest, with neither team blinking. The opposing presses kept the ball away from either goal, with the Union having less of the ball, but looking more dangerous when they did have it. The Red Bull defense came into the game as one of the few units arguably better than the Union’s, having given up fewer goals. But if the defense was better, the offense was objectively worse, and rarely looked threatening.

The problem for the Union going forward was a lack of pace to get in behind after breaking the press. But as the game approached the hour mark, the Union began to find pockets between the three-man backline, and it became clear that pace could get at New York. Enter Sergio Santos. It felt harsh for Paxten Aaronson to be substituted, after a good showing from the young man, but the decision made sense. Santos proceeded to repeatedly unsettle the Red Bull defense, and only a series of misses by the Union’s striker corps prevented the game from ending in a regular-time victory.

Extra time changes

Gerhard Struber brought on John Tolkin for the extra period, and whether because of him, specifically, or a tactical tweak, the Red Bulls came alive in a way they had not during normal time. The Union, pushing to find a goal and showing signs of fatigue, were pulled apart around the outside, with Tolkin the prime mover and shaker. The Union needed to change something, but with Jamiro Monteiro not available, Santos and Burke already in the game, and only Ilsinho or Quinn Sullivan attacking options from the bench, the choices were few.

Sitting in the cold, the sun having set behind the stadium, and the cold air off the Delaware putting a chill in me, I admit to feeling a sense of creeping dread. The first 90 minutes of the game had me feeling good, like the Union were definitely the better team, and were going to make the break through. In extra time, I couldn’t help but think back to the first ten years, of blown cup finals and late season failures. This was a game that the team from those earlier days would have found a way to lose. That they didn’t is a credit to their resilience, and the skill of two very bad men.

Andre Blake, and Andre Blake’s reputation

The previous team didn’t have the God of Thunder, of course, but it also didn’t have two-time Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake playing at the peak of his powers. Blake was only required to make one official save in the game, on a breakaway in the 95th minute. Blake got down low to his left to palm away a dangerous shot from Patryk Klimala. That was a great stop, but there were two other chances, one a minute earlier, also from Klimala, and another from Kyle Duncan in the 112th that hit the post, where Blake’s reputation basically made the save for him.

In both cases, the shots came from Blake’s left, at relatively acute angles. Shots from that area are not the highest quality, but are often scored, because if the ball is on target to the back post and struck well, even a properly positioned goalkeeper will struggle to get a hand down fast enough to block it. While the Union defense did a good job closing the shooters down, forcing them to shoot quickly, both Klimala and Duncan knew that in order to beat Blake, putting the ball on frame wasn’t enough. The shot had to be in the absolute corner of the goal, in the hand’s-breadth that Blake couldn’t possibly touch.

In short, Blake’s shadow took two difficult shots and made them almost impossible. Had Klimala and Duncan simply put the ball on frame, there’s a good chance they would have scored, but because they were so aware of Blake’s shot stopping abilities, they shrank their own targets too small, and couldn’t hit.

Finishing

Okay, so we can’t get out of this piece without talking about the strikers. First, I want to say straight out that I spent much of the game feeling like Przybyłko was doing quite well, trying to link up through difficult circumstances, and getting frustrated with himself for failing. I’ve been on Team Kacper, and think he does a lot of things well that get overshadowed because he’s basically the only guy scoring goals for the Union. When no one is scoring, it’s easy to blame the striker, because scoring is his job. But in truth, the Union have done a poor job of making and converting chances, and it’s not simply on Przybyłko to get the ball in the net. He’s scored a good number, considering the chances he’s been given. Getting more goals needs to be addressed holistically, not simply with upgrading at striker.

And yet.

There were two moments in the game that encapsulated the Przybyłko problem. The most obvious one is the miss in the 81st. Santos had done so, so well to create the chance, and all Przybyłko had to do was get his feet right, get his knee over the ball, and poke it into the net. He didn’t or couldn’t do any of those things, and it is maddening.

However, the moment that really got my goat came somewhat earlier. Santos had been subbed on and Red Bull were completely unbalanced, unable to deal with the Union’s formation shift and speed at the top. The Union turned Red Bull over in midfield, and Przybyłko had the ball in the center circle, with Powell streaking up the right side, Santos streaking up the left. The Red Bull defense wasn’t anywhere. But instead of picking one of his teammates, releasing the ball, and starting a 2v1 or 3v2 break, Przybyłko took a touch. And another touch. And then got tackled from behind and turned the ball over.

I cannot imagine what he was thinking. Literally, what was the calculus in Przybyłko’s mind that would lead him to keep the ball, rather than give it up to one of two teammates in much-higher-leverage positions? My mind is still boggled.

Strikers miss chances. Even the very best sky shots that seem easier to score. Santos himself missed a chance nearly as badly as Przybyłko, not to mention the possibly-deflected Cory Burke shot. But breaking the team concept in ways that hurt your chances of winning is simply unacceptable. If you’re going to call your own number at times when it seems like the wrong choice, you have to be clinical. You can’t be selfish and also miss. I think Przybyłko is better than what we saw in those two moments, but he needs to show his best self if the Union are to persist with him and be successful.

Tor

In the end, though, came Jakob Glesnes, to purify his team of its sins. Never before have I felt such an incredible, intense, electric catharsis. That goal will stay with me for the rest of my days. I have never seen anything like it in person. It still seems unimaginable, and I watched it with my own eyes.

Savor it, Union fans. Moments like that don’t come along every day.

8 Comments

  1. Can’t believe you have not been to a game since 2019! I only got there just before half-time but was glad I made it. What an atmosphere! So special that the stadium was full again (hasn’t been since circa 2019…). The misses from Kasper and Burke were so frustrating! At least we did not lose the game. Need to finish these relative easy chances so make it to the final!

    • I live in Rochester, New York, now, so between the pandemic and the distance, it has been a while! What a way to be welcomed back.

      • I guess that explains why you couldn’t have gone back and watched the match on PHL17 (with JP and Danny calling it).

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    Good stuff here.
    .
    Man is Andre Blake… just so good. I’ve always wanted him to imropve his distribution and in fairness he has… when given the chance or the choice to distribute. The style does not lend to him QB’ing the team. That’s not his fault per say. Both FC Delco and Union Acadmey up to first team play the same way…. this strange ‘German Eschewing’ of the ball.

    But his ability to be the guy is unquestioned.
    .
    He’s literally the goalie the Flyers have been trying (and maybe finally have) for the length of my life.
    .
    That sprawling left handed glove save was phenomenal and the best part — in truth I wasn’t particularly anxious as it was unfolding -because I knew AB had the advantage and we have seen him stone that play way more then get stoned.
    .
    SUPERMAN.
    .
    Kacper is and will always be a bit of an enigma. He does yoeman work, has ‘good’ feet but always seems to have that one or two moments in a game which shows you why he’s not quite top of class. I really have no issue with the guy. He put the team on his back in CCL. If he scores two goals in the next two or three games and they make it to MLS Cup (maybe win) people will recommend him for Ring of Honor…. and it would be a fair argument.
    .
    Kacper needs to be a difference maker against Nashville and then potentially New England. I am pulling for him.
    .
    With a stingy stingy defense… all is possible.
    .
    I look forward to wathcing it unfold… and in truth hope for a better, cleaner and more sophisticated game this week versus the back alley brawl we saw against NYRB.
    .
    Nashville is willing to play and Union better be willing too. I do like the rest advantage Union have this week.
    .

    • +1 to all of that. And Blake really is good for the nerves. I, too, wasn’t really nervous about any of the chances as they were happening. Only after the fact when it was obvious they could have been worse if not for him!

      And yes, I’m looking forward to Nashville. The rest advantage is very helpful, and home field has been very important so far in these playoffs, so hopefully the park will be rocking for the boys in blue and they can get a second win. It would really be anybody’s game, at that point.

  3. Great stuff Jeremy! Blake makes the hard save look easy. He has been the brick wall. The defense has confidence in his abilities and plays to keep a clean sheet! I think his shadow works both sides of the ball. Have to agree that the strikers,Kasper in particular, need to be better. But in the playoffs anything can happen! Actually at the 122nd minute mark of a slugfest a guy who isn’t really supposed to, and at the urging of 18000 crazy Union faithful, can score an amazing and improbable goal. This is the MLS way. Now we just hold on for the ride!

  4. Just realized over the last 3 seasons the union have the best average finishing position in the east. 3rd, 1st, and 2nd. And that’s with significant foster changes over that time frame. Kudos.

  5. I think Ive always been so hype about the glesnes goal that I never noticed coronel just sulking.

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