Analysis / Union

Match analysis: LAFC 2–2 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

The Union went to LA on Saturday night and earned a 2–2 draw against the top team in Major League Soccer. It’s both a creditable point and two points dropped, as the Union once again had the lead (more than one time) and couldn’t hold on to it.

Should Union fans feel good that LA were forced to accept another multiple-goal draw in their own house? Or should Union fans feel bad that two points slipped away—again?

Under pressure

In most games, it is the Union applying the pressure.

The Union’s defense is one of if not the best in MLS, and a lot of that is because of the relentless pressure the entire team exerts on opposition players. However, LAFC is another team that uses an extensive press. They may not be anti-possession in the same way the Union or Red Bulls are, but LA uses the press to accomplish the same thing: to own field position. When the other team has the ball, LA presses to force turnovers and create advantageous numerical situations.

On Saturday, according to fbref.com, LA pressured the Union 126 times. The Union pressured LA 198 times, but had the ball about half the time that LA did, meaning that the Union were actually pressed more than LA was (some back-of-the-napkin math: if the Union had the ball for 30 minutes and LA had it 60—126/30 vs 198/60—then the Union were pressed 4.2 times per minute of possession and LA were pressed 3.3 times per minute of possession). Combine that pressure with LA’s ability on the ball, and it’s a recipe for dominance by the Southern Californians.

That’s to be expected, as LA has been a dominant team so far in league play and much of the game on Saturday continued to show what appeared to be dominance by the home team.

That doesn’t tell the whole story.

The Union are uniquely comfortable playing a defensive game. To the uninitiated, it might appear like waves of LA attacks being broken only by desperate Union defense. What’s really happening is the Union are selling out to prevent high-value shooting chances, which they do exceptionally well.

Prevent high-value shots, then go extremely vertical once possession is gained in order to create high-value scoring opportunities.

That’s the plan, and it basically worked.

The problem with playing LA is that if they get enough chances, even low-value ones, they will either break through with high-level play that even good defense can’t prevent or they will punish a mistake. The math of the Union’s plan is sound, but the law of averages cannot be denied forever, especially against a team as good as LA.

LA’s first goal was created because of a turnover by the Union near midfield.

LA gets the ball quite far from goal, but because the Union are not in a set defensive shape, the hosts are able to attack between the lines, with players like Nathan Harriel and Leon Flach trailing the play. Nevertheless, it still required excellent movement, a one-touch pass through the defense, and a powerful shot that beat Andre Blake at his near post. In most games, that goal gets broken up by the Union somewhere along the way, but LA are good from front to back, and good teams will eventually score against you if given enough opportunities.

For LA’s second, Julían Carranza lost his man on a corner kick.

Blake made the initial save, but Carranza’s man stole in and poked home the rebound. The problem isn’t so much that Carranza fell asleep—he more than played his part for the Union throughout the game, and worked incredibly hard—the problem is that it was LA’s 11th corner of the night—11th! LA even managed one more after that, for 12 in total. Corners are a low-probability scoring play, but that’s the thing about probability—if you have enough low-probability scoring opportunities, you may eventually score one.

Take your chances

And yet, for all that LA achieved, the sense after the game is that the Union could have, perhaps should have, won.

The reason for that comes down, yet again, to the strikers. The Union had two shots on goal, and scored them both. Dániel Gazdag had a goal and an assist, and Carranza’s finish for the Union’s second was top-drawer. Mikael Uhre was held out of the game for reasons of quad soreness, and neither Cory Burke nor Sergio Santos were able to replace him adequately.

Burke had a golden opportunity in the 51st minute when a seeing-eye cross from Kai Wagner found his head eight yards out from goal. Burke not only missed, but ballooned his header well over.

Bad, but it was Santos who truly disappointed.

With the Union leading 2–1, Santos was put through on the left side. He had one man to beat and got a step in front. Carranza was charging free down the right side. A centering pass would have put Carranza in on goal, with no defender near him. But rather than pass, Santos took a touch, allowed his defender to reconnect, and fell over in the box, hoping for a penalty that never came.

Both Burke and Santos have excellent qualities. But no more evidence is needed that they are not at the level required to power the Union to trophies. They can play a part, but to rely on them as primary scorers is not going to work.

Takeaways

The Union don’t need to change anything to keep winning.

Their recipe works and they know it, but there are ways they can improve. They continue to be very difficult to break down in open play, but if they can find a way to avoid giving up as many set pieces, they may be almost impenetrable. Giving up corners is better than giving up shots or free kicks, but turn three or four of those corners into throw-ins, and maybe the Union win that game, even without scoring a third goal.

None of the above mentions how wonderfully Jakob Glesnes played. He was immense, and had a handful of moments that stole goals from LA, including blocking a shot from an overhead kick in the 91st minute that would have won it for the Angelenos. Harriel also headed a ball off the line, not to mention there was another red-card-worthy challenge against the Union that went unpunished.

The biggest takeaway from the game, though, is this: LAFC were the Union’s most difficult opponent of the season, and the U probably should have beaten them in their own house. The Union have yet to get beaten by an opponent who was better than they are (Toronto got them, of course, but not even Bob Bradley could argue his team is better than the Union’s).

So while the dropped points and lost leads are disappointing, it bears keeping in mind that the only team that seems able to beat the Union right now … is the Union.

5 Comments

  1. I am all for recognizing that the Union did a great job on Saturday/Sunday but I certainly expect that Tanner and Curtin are continuing to look for better players for the team and how get more out of the players we have. I am grateful
    to hear that Uhre’s injury is quad tightness and hope that means he’ll be able to get back into games soon. The difference between Uhre and Burke/Santos is huge. Fortunately the chemistry between Gazdag and Carranza is growing and I hope they work in Uhre and McGlynn and others into that group. It should scare the heck out of opposing defenses.
    .
    In the game against LAFC, there isn’t much to complain except that I always want the Union to play for the win and I wish Curtin would get Sullivan and Aaronson into these games. Getting McGlynn into the game and shifting Flach to the CDM was a smart substitution. I would have loved to see Sullivan or Aaronson come on for Bedoya on the right to put the LAFC defense under pressure. Plus they could have started building more game chemistry with Gazdag and Carranza.

    • With the short turnaround time to tonight’s Open Cup game, I’m sure Curtin would have rather not had to sub in McGlynn. Having to travel to Orlando to play on a Tuesday after a late game in LA definitely played into Curtin’s substitution plan. He’s already said that Sullivan, Aaronson, McGlynn, Freeze and Real are going to start the Open Cup game.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    If this was a one off, I would say that I’m happy with the point on the road against the best team the Union will play this season. The problem is that it is 4 straight games and 5 straight leads the Union have given up the tying goal and that feels like a trend. Combining that with the struggles at the end of last season where they picked up the habit of blowing leads on the road it becomes worrisome.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Lots of good teams on that list though. LA, Nashville, Montreal, Columbus, and a fluky Toronto.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        Columbus was the last time they didn’t blow the lead. And the sign of a good team is that they can hold the lead against other good teams more often than not.

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