Analysis / For Pete's Sake

Cory Burke’s goal a moment of the season for Philadelphia Union

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

It wasn’t the prettiest goal Cory Burke will ever score.

Hell, there’s a pretty good chance he didn’t have any plan when Jose Martinez lined up and thwacked a hopeful shot from well outside the box.

The dying moments of an intense match are like that. Points for style are out the window. All that matters are the points in the standings.

For a striker who’s been out of form all season — for a team that has found every possible way to turn three points into one — for a fan base growing frustrated that their side’s dominance wasn’t ending games with wins…

.. Burke’s last-gasp goal could be a turning point.

A fantastic first half

What’s been frustrating about Philadelphia Union’s penchant for draws is that the side spends so much of its time looking unbeatable.

When the Union are clicking, other teams can barely get half-chances, such is the ferocity and organization of Philly’s defensive shape. (And what half-chances are allowed are usually smothered by the best goalkeeper in MLS, Andre Blake.)

That’s the formula that has the Union leading the league in goals allowed, with just 12 through 16 games.

Nowhere has that formula been more on display than the first half against NYC FC. The Pigeons boast one of the best offenses in the league and one of its most dangerous attackers in Taty Castellanos. But the Union made City look ordinary, helpless even, as every buildup fizzled out before getting within 25 yards of goal.

There’s plenty of credit to go around for that performance, but it all revolved around the three men in the center — defenders Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott, who marked Castellanos out of the match, and Martinez, who destroyed everything in front of them.

That first half could have gone on for days, it felt like, and City wouldn’t have been able to break down the door.

Second-goal struggles

If stalwart defense has been the Union’s strength this year, the inability to score a second goal has been their Achilles heel.

In an ideal world, the Union scoring the first goal — as they’ve done in 11 out of 16 matches — should open the opposition up for the sort of devastating counterattack envisioned by Philly’s tactics.

In practice, that second goal has been elusive, and it’s allowed opponents to crawl back into matches and snatch draws from the jaws of defeat.

Sunday evening was a familiar story. New York changed their approach at halftime, with two new fullbacks helping to spread out the Union defense and create space for the attackers. There were opportunities for the Union to spring the counter, but every attempt collapsed — a misplaced pass here, a poor touch there, slow decision-making all around.

It felt like City’s equalizer was inevitable, and when an attempted cross whapped into Kai Wagner’s left hand, Castellanos’s penalty finish felt even more certain.

Fight, not flight

While maybe the finishing hasn’t been there all season, few would say the Union aren’t a fierce bunch.

Led by captain Alejandro Bedoya and following the (borderline reckless) example set by Martinez, these Union are always up for a challenge, a snap at a referee, a scuffle with an opposing player.

That mentality extends even so far as the training staff, apparently. For the second time this season, athletic trainer Paul Rushing traded words with an opposing player crowding his attempts to provide treatment. This time, it led to some pushing and shoving and a sight you’ve never seen before — the trainer getting a red card from the referee.

Maybe it was that moment of toughness, or maybe it was the crowd lusting for a win, or maybe it was the knowledge that no substitutes were forthcoming off the club’s shorthanded bench.

(Maybe, too, in the back of everyone’s mind, there was the chance for revenge after City won the Eastern Conference championship last year on the Subaru Park turf.)

Whatever the reason, the Union responded, getting forward and getting in position for Burke’s fluky finish.

Now, the task for the Union will be to kick on from this result and start stacking wins. The opportunity is there, with the next three games against the three worst teams in the conference. This week includes road trips to last-place Chicago Fire (one win in their last 12 matches) and twelfth-place Columbus Crew (two wins in 12) before next Friday’s home game against thirteenth-place D.C. United (six straight without a win).

Those matches should allow the Union to pile up points and position themselves for a favorable seed in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

If that comes to pass, maybe we’ll look back at Burke’s goal as a turning point in the season.

7 Comments

  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    A to the Men.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    Good article except you’re undervaluing the Union’s ability to score first (and then blow the lead). Sunday was the 12th time they’ve scored first. The only games they haven’t done so were the first two games of the season, the 0-0 draw against Miami, and the game in New England. Unfortunately, Sunday was also the 8th time the Union have blown the lead (including twice in Los Angeles).
    .
    Hopefully, the Union can take advantage of this upcoming stretch, although the schedule makers have not been kind making them play Sunday rather than Saturday this past weekend and then making them go on Friday at the end of the stretch. At least by then the U-20’s will be over so there will be some reinforcements.

    • Tim Jones says:

      If the U-20s make the final, that match is July 3rd so if all goes well with Covid and international travel they should be able to sit the bench for the DC match.

  3. pragmatist says:

    They had enough chances to finish it off by halftime. Sean Johnson didn’t even have to move to make 3 saves – any of which, had they gone in, would have turned the game.
    Something. Find something that turns those golden chances into goals.

  4. Consistently blowing leads late is a sign that either the opponent can figure them out, or much more likely the players are getting tired and the coach doesn’t sub midfielders enough.

    • Ron Mahlab says:

      In fairness to Curtin, there was no bench player available that would have benefited the team.
      His decision to ride it out resulted in a win for the Union and his being named MLS coach of the week.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        He was actually about to sub in Mbaizo when the PK was called and a defensive sub was no longer called for. Not a midfielder, but at least a sub.

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