Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Trending upward

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

My last column (as opposed to match analysis) was posted July 7, and opened: “I’m not going to lie: it feels like the Union may never win again.”

That was a joke, but it was a fair representation of the mood in the fanbase at the time. A series of dull draws, lowlighted by a listless offense, had us all feeling down, even as the Union remained near the top of the Eastern Conference, with the best defense in the league. The team was disconnected, lacking a repeatable way to link defense to attack, and offering no credible Plan B.

I closed the column with optimism, though, confident that the team had what it needed to succeed, especially with the return of the Homegrowns.

Never have I been proven so immediately and completely right.

In the four games since, the Union have gone 4-0-0, scored 12 and allowed two. The strikers have scored, as have Dániel Gazdag and Alejandro Bedoya. The defense weathered the absence of Jack Elliott for two games, giving up only 15 goals through 22 games, tying a league record.

Not too shabby.

Goals, finally

So, what’s changed? How did the Union go from drawing to winning?

In truth, the changes are subtle. Jim Curtin adjusted Bedoya’s positioning slightly, getting him more involved with the offense. And that has led to the Union generating more scoring chances. In the 12 games prior to this winning streak (a record of 2-2-8 starting with the loss to Toronto), the Union generated an average of 1.3 xG per game (according to fbref.com). In these four wins, the Union generated 2.125 xG per game.

The DC demolition obviously distorts things. We could adjust the numbers we look at to paint the picture in a more positive way or less so. But the team feels like it’s clicking in a way it hasn’t. (That’s why you come to PSP, right? For clear-eyed, scientific analysis. And also feelings.) They’ve scored the second goal when they’ve needed to, rather than allowing equalizers. They’ve also shown a tactical flexibility they’d missed before.

Our Plan B’s name is Jack McGlynn

Paxten Aaronson may have won the Golden Ball at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship, but it is Jack McGlynn who has most quickly reintegrated into the team since returning stateside.

No one has ever doubted McGlynn’s ability, but using him as a shuttler on the side of a midfield diamond is an imperfect utilization of his skills. Given his athletic profile, it asks him to do things he is not best suited to do, but that the team structure demands.

But the passing ability and vision McGlynn possesses means he has to have a place on the field. Rather than force the issue, Curtin created that elusive Plan B by using McGlynn in a double pivot 4-2-3-1.

Plan B wasn’t necessary against DC or Miami, but the Union opened the game against New England in the changed formation. With José Martínez beside him and Leon Flach as an unorthodox winger outside him, there was plenty of defensive cover, and McGlynn was able to showcase his skills.

Plan B stalled a bit, and it took a reversion to Plan A for the Union to crack the Revs. Yet, when Bedoya came into the game after an hour, he replaced Flach, not McGlynn, and it was McGlynn’s pass to Bedoya that created the Union’s second goal.

McGlynn isn’t a panacea. Playing on the right of the diamond against Orlando, in place of the suspended Bedoya, was not a rousing success. But the signs are clear. He brings an extra dimension to the Union.

Removing the scales from our eyes

It’s easy to feel good right now. The Union are in a great spot. Gazdag scored his tenth goal of the season, for Pete’s sake! But we survivors of the Cliff of Union Despair know that feeling good is just fate’s way of buttering you up so it feels worse when bad things happen. So, let’s needlessly seek out reasons to be concerned:

— Friend of PSP Kevin Kinkead pointed out that the Union haven’t scored an open-play goal in the three games since the DC win. While they have been dominant on set pieces (an invaluable skill), it’s still frustrating not to see chances get put away outside of dead-ball situations.

— I wouldn’t say he’s struggling, but Mikael Uhre has been a peripheral figure for much of the last three games. It would not be a surprise to see him blossom in season two, but we all know he’s capable of more, right now.

— Playing without Elliott was a reminder that it only takes one injury for the best defense in the league to come back down to earth. Glesnes, Elliott, and Wagner have been iron men. If that changed, it would be a big deal.

A thought experiment

But in the end the Union are winning, and that’s awesome. So I wanted to end with a thought experiment. Well, not a thought experiment so much as a question: What teams in MLS are definitively better than the Union?

The answer is: none of them.

Only LAFC and NYC FC could claim to be better teams. And with New York losing Taty Castellanos this week to a loan to La Liga’s Girona, they need to prove they can win consistently without him.

Seattle is scuffling. Portland is winning but the Union have beaten them recently. Austin is reverting to the mean a bit.

LAFC are the only other squad that has remained consistently at the top of the standings. And they have Bale and Chiellini now, along with Vela and Arango. The Union won’t get to play them again this year unless they meet in the MLS Cup Final.

Anything can happen in the playoffs, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

8 Comments

  1. sure I’d like to see the team score from open play but on Saturday I didn’t even get to watch the whole match and I saw them execute four consecutive top-notch corner kicks, it was awesome, keep it up, DOOP

  2. When people talk about Bedoya, they often start with intangible things like dirty running on offense or hard work on defense. These things are true, but cover up something he’s extremely good and too at which is pinning opposition defenses on their (usually) weakest player: their left back. When he pushes high or makes his trademark overlapping run (where he puts his head down, shakes it to remove any doubt that might exist in his burning muscles, and starts sprinting), the left side of the opponent’s formation is suddenly in recovery mode. With a right back around him and Martinez or Gazdag making the triangle, so much of the team’s offense in the last few years has come from this spot. When he finishes that run on the end line, he’s either hitting a cross back to the six (which he does as well as anyone in the league) or opening the space into which another player like Carranza can make a run. In any case, he makes it happen.

    • Don’t forget he’s exceptional in front of goal. He’s like a striker when in-front of the goal.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      And the drop off without him on the field is very noticeable. It’s enough to make me wonder what happens if he ever slows down for real…

  3. The DC game is the difference between Union being in the top 1/3 in goals scored and being in the bottom 1/3. The fact that we are still not getting goals from open play is pretty concerning.
    .
    At the same time, we are definitely hitting next level stats in a lot of other categories, so maybe that’s just who we are this year. Strangling teams and stabbing back on set pieces (one benefit of having Harriel on the field for throw-ins).

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      Yeah, exactly. For now, we’re scoring enough. And being good at set pieces might be enough in the postseason. But getting more from the run of play puts this team at the very top end of the distribution.

  4. Great look at what the Captain means to this team Chris. He gets credit for so much,we kinda forget that he is very savvy and a just a damn smart player! I’m hopeful that run of play goals start happening more as the team gets more familiar with Uhre and Caranzza.

  5. I’m hoping Uhre can find his footing in the league by the time the playoffs come around. If he finds good form, I think we’ll have a lot more open play goals coming our way.

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