Analysis / Union

Match analysis: Orlando City SC 0-1 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

It’s now four wins on the trot for Philadelphia Union, and the feelings are good.

Saturday’s win against Orlando City was probably the worst pure soccer game of the four wins — a turgid, violent match played in the Florida swamps.

The two sides combined for a whopping two shots on goal, totaling 1.6 xG. Two Union players — Jose Martinez and Cory Burke — left with injuries. (Martinez already earned this week off for yet another yellow-card accumulation suspension, so he’ll have time to heal.)

It was not an advertisement for the beautiful game.

But there are no style points in the MLS standings, which right now show the Union atop the Eastern Conference (even if second-place New York City still has a game in hand).

Nobody puts baby in a corner

Philly’s sole goal came from dead ball, an increasingly common sight for the Boys in Blue.

In the three wins since destroying D.C. United, the Union don’t have a single goal from the run of play — but they’ve scored three from set pieces and two from penalties.

The Union love their set-piece routines, especially if it involves a near-post flick-on — a specialty of captain Alejandro Bedoya. That kind of second ball is very different for the opposing CBs to defend.

(And, for some reason, it seems like no teams in MLS watch any tape of the Union, and are flabbergasted when they see the near-post play live. See: Portland Timbers.)

As much as I’d like to do my own detailed breakdown of the Union’s set-play success, I couldn’t possibly do a better job than friend of PSP Kevin Kinkead, who wrote up a detailed analysis over at Crossing Broad. As he explains, Philly is doing an excellent job of not just executing good set plays, but also drawing up creative plays that make it difficult for the defense to cover the key player.

Go check that out, and then report back here.

Helm’s Deep

Once the Union had their goal, they became perfectly content to sit back and absorb pressure for the entire second half.

You could debate the merits of that strategy on a macro level. Especially for a team that is built around counterattacking football, it would make sense that inviting the opposition forward would open up opportunities to find the second goal on the break. But that’s not really what the Union did here — after the 51st minute, they didn’t register a single positive-xG event for the rest of the game. Adding that kind of threat consistently would really take this club into the stratosphere.

In the micro, though? The strategy worked perfectly. It’s simply too tough for clubs without a real plan and real quality to break the Union down when they’re determined to keep a clean sheet. Orlando essentially hit a brick wall anytime they got the ball into the area above Philly’s box, which forced the attack out wide. From there, the Union managed to deal with the danger relatively comfortably — again, Andre Blake only had to make one save all night, despite Orlando going all out in the second half to find an equalizer.

There’s lots of credit to go around. And while it all starts with Jakob Glesnes — who is (in my view) the Union’s player of the season — and Jack Elliott, what’s really impressive is the team’s wholesale commitment to pressure defense. Rarely did Orlando’s players have a moment of peace with which to set up their next pass, increasing the difficulty level for any attacking move.

That commitment continued even in the dying minutes of the game, when the hosts were trying to pump one more ball into the box. The Union’s attackers and midfielders chased down the ball, forcing Orlando to keep playing backwards into their own half, at which point the referee blew the final whistle.

That sort of play, especially in the intense summer weather, is something to be commended.

VAR you kidding me

Of course, the Union were helped by two VAR decisions going their way. To me, it was an example of everything wrong with the way VAR has been implemented worldwide, and if I cared at all about Orlando City — which I do not, given that their fans once called me a “gasbag” on Twitter — I’d be peeved about how the night went down.

As I understand it, VAR is supposed to correct “clear and obvious errors” by the referees on the field. That means there should be some deference to the call on the field, and it also shouldn’t take an eternity for the VAR to intervene — a clear and obvious error should be, well, clear and obvious right away.

Was there a clear and obvious error on the offsides call against Daniel Gazdag? Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve seen the same angles you have. Maybe his foot is just barely onside. Maybe it isn’t. But I struggle to see how it meets the standard, which is — again — a clear and obvious error by the referee on the field.

On the other hand, I think the decision not to award a penalty against Gazdag at the end of the match was the right one. If the referee had made the call in the moment, I think it’s a penalty. But it wasn’t “clear and obvious” given the handfighting visible by both players on the replay.

What bugs me is the inconsistency. It’s one thing to have referees that are generally too lenient or too strict, but it’s not as big a problem if they’re at least consistent. Too often, MLS referees fall short of that standard. And it’s particularly frustrating with VAR, which is already a time-consuming and tedious part of the game.

  • Jose Martinez is addicted to getting yellow cards. I’ve never seen anything like it. He simply cannot leave the pitch until he sees the referee come up to him and wave one in his face. Hard to fathom how such a senior professional — he turns 28 early next month! — is still having these issues.
  • On the whole, Nathan Harriel has been the Union’s best right back this season, but Olivier Mbaizo put in a good shift on Saturday. Usually known for his offense, Mbaizo did well defensively for most of the evening. That’s the only real position battle on the team right now, except for reserve minutes.
  • Hope Cory Burke is okay. He looked really shaken up after suffering what seemed to be a concussion.
  • Another game where Curtin got tactically creative to close out the game. Starting with the Burke for Mikael Uhre substitution in the 59th minute, the Union shifted into a 4-2-3-1. When Paxten Aaronson replaced Martinez ten minutes later, it looked more like a box midfield, Leon Flach and Jack McGlynn behind Aaronson and Gazdag.


  1. Agree 100% on Glesnes. My favorite player from game to game. He’s so dominant, does everything, is everywhere… He’s been immense this season.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    If the Union were in Helm’s Deep Saturday, shouldn’t their opponent have been Orclando?
    While I would like to see VAR go faster, offsides calls sometimes take multiple angles to find the correct call. In this case the problem was made more difficult because Gazdag blocked the view of the camera being able to pick up the Orlando player. I’d much rather the review take a minute longer than hearing on Instant Replay on Monday that VAR was wrong and the Union should have had a goal which was disallowed in real life.

    • Orclando made me laugh, well done.
      I see what you’re saying, but I would much rather just say, “if you can’t see it in 30 seconds, move on,” than stop the game for these momentum-killing replays. How much of Saturday’s game was devoted to two VAR reviews — six minutes, seven? Fundamentally, I’m just not a fan.

      • Deez Nuggs says:

        In fairness, this game momentum was killed more by Orlando’s sheer propensity to foul more than by the two var calls. It was stop and start from the off.

      • not to mention the frequency with which they passed the ball right into touch

      • Vince Devine says:

        Wasn’t the real problem the AR raising the flag to begin with? Aren’t they told to keep it down if it’s close and let VAR review? If that had happened, the game would have continued, VAR would have looked at it and determined good goal, and there would be no need to interrupt the game. Also on the second call, since the review confirmed the ref on the field called it correctly, why go to VAR to begin with?

      • Andy Muenz says:

        On close calls, the AR keeps the flag down until the play is complete but once it is over they raise it if they think the play is offsides. So when it goes in the goal, they raise (or don’t raise) it as appropriate which becomes the original basis for the VAR.
        On the second call, the VAR official felt it should be a penalty and therefore told the ref on the field to review. The ref on the field overruled the VAR but needed to look at the monitor in order to do that.

  3. soccerdad720 says:

    “If the Union were in Helm’s Deep Saturday, shouldn’t their opponent have been Orclando?”

    Niiiice….I see what ya did there…

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