Analysis / Union

Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 1–1 FC Cincinnati

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Those hoping the international break would magically solve all the Union’s problems were disappointed on Saturday evening. FC Cincinnati—halfway to being a Union alumni team—came to town and earned a road point. The Union went ahead and then, predictably, gave up an equalizer. Union fans are blessed with one of the most consistent teams in MLS. Unfortunately, right now that means a lot of draws and blown leads.

The Union are so consistent, in fact, that one hardly needs more than the final score to know how the game played out: Union pressure leads to a transition opportunity; the Union skill players combine to create a goal; the Union cedes possession at a somewhat alarming rate; through brute force repetition and/or skill and/or luck, the opposition get a goal back; the Union up their game but run out of time/miss their chances and the points slip away. At full-time, the Union have had less of the ball but generated better scoring chances, and left feeling frustrated.

How Cincinnati found success

The goal the Union gave up can be dissected, but it wasn’t the result of an egregious error. Someone lost a header. Someone lost their man. It wasn’t the result of some flaw in the way the Union play and no individual player needs to be paddled for screwing up.

More useful is understanding why Cincinnati was able to put the Union under pressure, and there are two primary reasons.

Three at the back

This isn’t novel, but Pat Noonan, former Union assistant, knows that using three in the back and five in midfield is the best way to attack the Union’s diamond. It allows opponents to outnumber and outflank (have more width) than the Union, and thus more easily beat the Union’s press. With Haris Medunjanin at the base of midfield and wingbacks spreading the field, Cincinnati were well structured to attack the Union’s shape.

Brandon Vazquez

However, as has been discussed in these pages before, simply having the correct shape isn’t enough to actually break down the Union’s defense. A team also needs press-resistant midfielders that can pass through pressure (and Medunjanin is a pretty good option for that), and an outlet player that can hold the ball and bring teammates into the play. In Brandon Vazquez, Cincinnati—seemingly out of nowhere—have one of the best target forwards in MLS.

Time and again, Cincinnati escaped Union pressure with a lofted ball forward to Vazquez, and his touch to control or lay off to a teammate was impeccable. His movement is also excellent, which is what allowed him to find the space to score the equalizer. That he is a good player does not absolve the Union for allowing Cincinnati into the game, but it gives context for why the Ohioans could do it.

What the Union need to do

This part is also pretty well understood—Jim Curtin pointed it out at halftime. The Union don’t link well from defense/midfield to attack. They need to find the feet of Dániel Gazdag. When they do, he consistently does useful and dangerous things with the ball. When they don’t, the ball bounces around a lot and the offense depends too heavily on chance. Gazdag gives order to a chaotic system and makes the incisive runs of the forwards meaningful rather than wasteful. But finding his feet means fewer long balls with no name on them and more passes on the floor with intention.

Secondly, because the Union system by its nature produces relatively few chances—they tend to be decent chances, but not too many of them—it is imperative that they get finished. On Saturday, Gazdag had a trio of chances to score a second goal, but he put two of them too close to the keeper and the third was blocked. (Nathan Harriel also had a chance very late on that he duffed, but it’s not his job to score.) None of them were total gimmes, but in order for the team to be successful, it depends on him scoring one of them, at least. This isn’t meant to call out Gazdag, who’s been the Union’s best player this season, but rather to point out that the Union can’t be successful without its attackers finishing chances like the ones he got Saturday. In fairness to him, this season he has absolutely done that.

So … what?

The Union are what they are. No amount of complaint will change that. It’s incumbent on Curtin to find a solution that gives his team the best chance to win. Whether that means switching up the midfield personnel or ensuring the players already on the field make the right choices, the Union are only a few percentage points from changing the chance equation heavily in their favor. With a defense as good as theirs is, a little more control and intention offensively will go a long way.

But then, that’s been true for a long time, and the Union haven’t found that control and intention. Perhaps the transfer window will provide a solution for the midfield. If not, the Union will hope they can put in another second half surge with the players they have.

16 Comments

  1. We sell Wagner. Flach moves to LB and McGlynn in at the 8.

    We lose Wagner’s LB abilities but keep Flach and his defense on the field, letting him clean up behind McGlynn. Meanwhile McGlynn and his golden left foot is able to patrol more of the midfield and actually show the team how to complete a pass.

  2. I wonder just how much better this team would be had Montiero stayed and played that left-hand #8 position. Perhaps that would be an embarrassment of riches by MLS standards (certainly is by Union roster standards), but just getting a quality of pass and attack in that shuttler role would be huge. I don’t want to pile on Flach, because I think he’s a good player, but he lacks that attacking instinct you need there.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      I’m not sure the frustrations everyone has with Flach offensively are entirely warranted but, leaving that aside, I think the thing to keep in mind is that losing Monteiro has allowed Gazdag to flourish. Maybe his second season would have been an improvement regardless, but getting the keys at the top of the diamond clearly helped him. Perhaps we really need a happy medium. If McGlynn were quicker/more athletic, that would be kind of perfect.

      • I’d like to see McGlynn get more of a run, too. And also, I agree that it’s not entirely fair to put the whole problem on Flach’s shoulders. I just think when you’re looking at that midfield diamond, he’s the first guy you’re going to replace to try and mix things up.

  3. So I think most of the people on this page acknowledge that Curtin has grown and improved as a coach. That said, the best coaches in the game at the highest level switch tactical formations mid-game when the game demands it. If the Union are getting overrun by the 3-5-2, why not adjust – particularly after you score the first goal?
    We all understand the Union are not trying to win the possession battle, but Jeremy makes a great point that too often they give up a goal, “through brute force repetition and/or skill and/or luck.” You can’t necessarily win through possession, but when you give up too much of it, the ball is going to bounce the wrong way once or twice.
    I know I keep beating this drum, but it seems to me time to start McGlynn ahead of Flach to improve passing. It gets you out of your own end better and helps to get the skill guys on the ball in your opponents end.
    The defense is strong enough with our back 5.
    It is the offense that needs a tweak.

    • I agree. I hate that Curtin is one of those “I have tried nothing and I am all out of ideas!” type of coach. It’s pretty clear that Flach is elite defensively but perhaps we have tipped the scale TOO far into defense and need to rebalance things. Yeah obviously we lose a lot on defense to put in McGlynn at the 8 – but perhaps the trade off of more consistent offense and better chances created makes it a worthwhile trade?

      But hey, we never tried it, may never try it, so we will never know.

      • The devil’s advocate answer to this statement is if the guys they have here whose job it is to score goals would actually do their job, none of the other underlying issues would matter – they’d be decimating teams before those issues could surface. Of

      • …replying to Chris because there is not an option under his comment…
        I hear you and agree 100%. That was the point of bringing in 2 striker DPs and an elite #10. You are absolutely correct.
        That said, my understanding of the “Red Bulls style” is to try to force opponents to turn the ball over in their own half for the opportunity for quick transition goals while they are out of shape. In order for that to happen though, the ball has to actually be in their own half. The ball is spending too much time in the Union’s half.
        IMO, I still think that if your left mid is McGlynn you will spend more time in your opponents half of the field, giving you more of those transition opportunities, even though he is not as athletic as Flach.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        You hit the nail on the head, wbev. That’s exactly what Union 2 did on Sunday. (Unfortunately, they could still only score one goal…and gave one up on a bad giveaway… but they had a LOT more chances than the first team did on Saturday.)

  4. Not to pile on what has already been said, but… If you start McGlynn and you get the lead, you have a fresh Flach to bring on to help defend the lead. Currently the three best defensive mids are all on the field for most every minute of the season. Fresh legs are a wonderful thing. There is no creativity other than Gazdag to help connect the back line to the front three right now. And let’s be sure we have a fresh Bedoya at the end of the season. He’s got to have a little rest occasionally. As much as I (and Curtin) love him on the field

  5. Ron Mahlab says:

    One problem is Gazdag’s positioning.
    He shifts forward within 10-15 feet of the strikers leaving about 60-70 feet of distance from Brujo. As a result brujo and the d are left with only one option which is to try to Chuck it upfield or play a long low pass into traffic.
    Gazdag needs to shift back about 25-30 feet so he can fill the space and get more touches.
    The second problem is highlighted in the 44:30 mark when he has the ball just outside of the 18 and the defenders stepped back giving him room for a touch and shot…. Gazdag needs to take more shots…..

    • Deez Nuggs says:

      Spacing was a problem all game. But it is not a one player problem. Sometimes Martinez is coming too see to pick up the ball, meaning the entire opposition is in front of him rather than letting Eliot or Glesnes break the first line. Sometimes the middle is too close to the front line making the passing to each other of little value, but the pass from the back infinitely harder.

  6. Deez Nuggs says:

    Spot on analysis. It’s simple calculus. Noonan knows the goal danger comes from the front three and rarely anywhere else. So he puts 3 defenders on our 2 strikers, and double-teams Gazdag. Then he dares us to score with anyone else. To our credit, Bedoya does, but he got the chess match right enough to leave with points.

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