For Pete's Sake

Three wins in three have the Union back on track

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

What a difference nine days makes.

Going into last Friday’s matchup with D.C. United, Philadelphia Union were a frustrating force. Sure, they were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. But a penchant for draws and an inability to score goals had left many fans and observers feeling cold.

That’s all changed in the last three matches — three wins on the trot, each impressive in a different way.

First came a seven-goal explosion against hapless D.C., a moment of catharsis after so many one-goal outings.

Then a gutsy midweek win away at Miami, the club finding a necessary second goal before the hosts could get an equalizer.

And finally a come-from-behind win over New England, with two goals in five minutes erasing the Revs’ lead and sending the crowd home happy.

(The Union are still yet to lose at Subaru Park this year, with both of their losses coming away from home.)

Let’s examine a few things about this streak, which has seen the Union vault back into first place in the Eastern Conference.

Gorgeous gorgeous goals

Heading into this stretch, Philly had scored 22 goals on the season in 18 games, or a bit more than 1.2 goals per game.

They increased their tally by 50% in just three games.

Now, it’s not every week (or season) that you get to destroy a team like D.C. United, and it’s not fair to expect that to be a regular occurrence.

But the performance has seemed to unlock something in the attack, which looked more lethal in the two games since. Although the D.C. game is still the only time this season the Union have produced more than two goals, they hit that elusive two-goal number against both Miami and New England. And, by scoring two goals in each game instead of just one, they left with six points — instead of the two they might have secured earlier this season.

Perhaps even more encouragingly, the goals are coming from… well, the people who should be scoring. Save for an Alejandro Bedoya brace, all of the scoring has come from the club’s attackers. Mikael Uhre and Julian Carranza each have three, Daniel Gazdag added two penalties, and Cory Burke has one. The attacking group had struggled to get into a rhythm earlier this season, with Uhre in and out of the lineup, Carranza going through a lengthy cold stretch, and Gazdag working on chemistry with both players.

If that core stays hot — or even just simmering — through the summer, the Union will be in great shape.

The shape of things

The win streak is also notable for the flexibility shown by manager Jim Curtin in both tactics and personnel.

For much of the season, the Union ran out every match in their rigid 4-4-2 diamond approach, choosing starters from a small group of 12 to 14 players. That approach has its values, but it left the Union struggling to play against teams who didn’t want the ball or when needing a goal late in the match.

Curtin recognized these issues and has begun to adjust. He’s moved Alejandro Bedoya into a slightly different role in the midfield, where the captain is able to get on the ball more. As one of the most intelligent players on the team, this tweak has allowed Bedoya to exert greater influence on matches — a necessity, given some of the deficiencies in other members of the midfield.

The manager also started Saturday’s match in a different formation, breaking out the Christmas tree to get Jack McGlynn and Paxten Aaronson starts in the midfield. While the Union’s breakthrough didn’t come until Curtin changed back to the diamond and brought on Mikael Uhre as a sub, the first 60 minutes showcased a new way the Union could play — and how McGlynn in particular brought something new to the party, with his elegant passing from deep in midfield.

Incomings and outgoings

Ernst Tanner has been at it again in recent weeks, doing very well to ship off third striker Sergio Santos to Cincinnati and (essentially) use that money to buy Carranza on a permanent basis. There have also been no rumblings of key players departing, with Stuart Findlay’s farewell being the only notable outgoing.

So it seems like the answers to any new questions are already on the roster. After this stretch, that seems plausible. McGlynn, Aaronson, and Quinn Sullivan have come back from international duty with a ton of confidence, and Curtin has been looking for ways to get them more involved in the lineup.

That’s not to say there aren’t concerns. The fourth Homegrown, Brandan Craig, is being asked to step into a big role in Findlay’s absence (especially if Jack Elliott’s knee injury lingers). The Union generally have been extremely lucky with injuries over the last few years, and a serious injury to a key player or two could knock them off their stride entirely. And maybe it’s the case that these matches are a bit of a fluke, and a consistent end-of-game approach just isn’t in the cards this year.

But it’s tough to be too upset right now in Unionland. The Union have been nearly impossible to beat. They have the best defense in the league, and they’ve started adding goals to the mix.

Put it all together, and this could be a run-in to remember.

4 Comments

  1. Until Saturday, I was resigned to the thought that Jack McGlynn was going to be a wasted talent for this team — a great player whose style simply didn’t fit our system. Now, I’m cautiously optimistic that Jim is going to tailor the system to the players rather than the other way around. This is no small thing, I think. I think the players we have make for some compelling 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 lineups. I like seeing it. I’m hoping Sat. wasn’t a one-off.

    • Reminds me of 2012-2013 Inter, when it was said that Wesley Sneijder did not fit into the system of new coach Andrea Stramaccioni. I thought to myself, if that guy doesn’t fit into your system, you need a new system. It was probably a lie (Inter were too cheap to pay him what he was worth), but at any rate he didn’t play much, got sold to Galatasaray, Inter had their worst season in ten years, and Stramaccioni got canned. The point of my ramble is with his vision, McGlynn simply must play. Make it happen.

  2. I feel like the Union scoring more goals now is regression back to the mean after going so long without more than 1 goal. Their offensive players are too talented to be a 1 goal per game team. If the defense can remain at a high level (no reason to believe they can’t, barring catastrophic injuries), this team should consistently be able to win games scoring 2 goals per game. When Taty leaves NYC, I don’t think the Union have a peer in the East.

  3. FCdelcofella says:

    Ugh… why did you have to mention the injury thing?

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