Analysis / Union

Match analysis: FC Cincinnati 3–1 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

On a night where nothing went right for the Union, perhaps the best place to start is here:

FC Cincinnati is not the broken toy it once was. With Pat Noonan and Chris Albright’s oversight, the team has turned things around in a big way, and Saturday night was likely the best they’ve ever been.

Knowing the Union as well as they do, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they know the best way to nullify Philadelphia’s strengths. In the reverse fixture, in June, they did many of the same things, and emerged from Chester with a very creditable point. Playing at home, and with their attacking players peaking, Cincy amped things up further, and executed the gameplan to attack the Union’s diamond to perfection.

None of which excuses the Union. Several key players had off nights, including the stalwart, newly christened All Star Jakob Glesnes. Coach Jim Curtin also failed to set his team up for success in ways that are familiar to longtime Union watchers.

How do you solve a problem like Brandon Vázquez?

Vázquez is having a fantastic season. And, versus the Union, he showed all the ways in which he is excelling this year. He’s a reliable outlet, taking balls out of the air and holding the ball up, then bringing his teammates into play effectively. He runs well, both with and without the ball. He passes well, too, and he’s goal dangerous. He also works hard defensively, applying pressure all across the field. In another timeline, he’d be a great Union forward, which goes some way to explaining why he’s thrived in Cincy.

Renowned Vázquez booster Matthew Doyle helpfully compiled a thread of Vázquez doing good things against the Union here. It’s definitely worth a watch.

It is the hold up play that makes him particularly difficult to play against. Short of Glesnes or Jack Elliot fronting him, which would invite massive risk from balls over the top or runs in behind, it requires the rest of the team to collapse back defensively and rotate perfectly, perhaps a dozen times in a game. To the Union’s credit, they are often able to do just that. But not Saturday.

Instead, Vázquez regularly took the ball down and switched the field to stretch the diamond, or carried the ball forward before finding a teammate joining the attack.

Underperformers

As mentioned above, Glesnes had a rare off night. There were no errors that led directly to goals, but Glesnes didn’t put out fires the same way he often does, and lit some of his own. A sampling:

  • In minute 14, he steps out to challenge Brenner, but makes no tackle, then fails to track Luciano Acosta running across him, ball-watching, which results in a chance that is only foiled by a last-ditch tackle from Olivier Mbaizo.
  • In minute 29, with Mbaizo high up the field, Glesnes gets beat with a simple ball over the top, Vázquez muscling him out of the way.
  • Minute 50, FCC score their first goal when Glesnes guards space rather than following Vázquez, who stunted toward Glesnes then bent his run around him.
  • Minute 55, FCC score their second, with Brenner finishing past Glesnes. In this case, the biggest problem was José Martínez’s poor half-challenge on Acosta, but Glesnes failed to stay tight to Brenner, and couldn’t make the tackle.
  • Minute 71, Alejandro Bedoya forces Glesnes to have to worry about two men by not following Álvaro Barreal’s run, and Glesnes misses the tackle.
  • In minute 84, Glesnes badly misplays an easy ball that puts Cincy through on goal.

Again, none of this is criminal behavior, but many of them are the kinds of plays that Glesnes has made successfully all season long. He had chances on all three goals to make a difference and wasn’t able to do so. And Glesnes was certainly not the only player left wanting: Martínez really did not control Acosta all night—his challenge mentioned above was not up to the level the Union have set in 2022, and it was not the only subpar defensive play from him. Andre Blake probably wants goal number one back, having gotten beat at his near post. And would Nathan Harriel have managed Cincy’s wide threat better than Mbaizo? Recent history suggests he would have.

Turning back the clock, in a bad way

Jim Curtin has shown a lot of tactical flexibility during the Union’s second five-game winning streak. He’s changed up the formation and the personnel to good effect. However, he’s still a creature of habit, and when he’s got a good thing going, he doesn’t like to change it up. That was a mistake against Cincinnati.

Against the team and organization that knows best how to attack the Union’s style and players, perhaps Saturday was a game to do something surprising. While dropping Leon Flach might have been harsh, finding a way to get Jack McGlynn on the field from the start would have helped the Union be more coherent going forward. Mikael Uhre had just 15(!) touches in his 73 minutes, while Paxten Aaronson managed nine in just 17. A lot of that has to do with McGlynn’s ability to interchange passes with Dániel Gazdag and the rest of the offense.

Curtin said it himself in his post-game news conference:

If you want to play the ball on the floor better, put your ball-players in the game.

Changing the shape may also have been helpful. Considering how uninvolved Uhre was, a single-striker shape might have made sense, and stopped Cincinnati from attacking the diamond through switches.

Also, even if FCC didn’t score, the pattern of the game was written by halftime. Curtin waited until the hour mark, with his team down two and struggling offensively, to make changes, and one of those was Cory Burke. Perhaps half an hour of Aaronson would have been a better choice.

Burn the tape

Peter’s got it right, on some level. This performance was uncharacteristically poor from the Union, against a team playing the best it ever has, and led by a coach that knows the Union and Jim Curtin better than anyone in MLS.

Cincy is Philly’s bogey team this season, the season is long, and sometimes you just have an off night and get beat.

The problem is, there’s a good chance the Union could face their bogey team in the playoffs. So Philadelphia can’t just write this game off. Lessons must be learned.

Luckily, there’s much more evidence that the Union will do just that than there is that they will play this poorly again.

Fingers crossed.

6 Comments

  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    Agree on the lessons must be learned part. Cincy’s obvious familiarity with the Union is clearly causing us trouble. Not a team I want to see in the playoffs right now. Union need a strong comeback performance Saturday night, versus another team they laid an egg against last time out – Chicago.

  2. If the players want to burn their tape on this one, fine.
    But the coaching staff better not! What Noonan has done is give the rest of the league the script for how to be successful against the union. The Union staff need to have an answer to it.
    The Unions midfield does tend to get overrun by teams playing a back three and as Jeremy correctly pointed out – by halftime the script was clearly set.
    The U needed to sacrifice a striker and go 4-5-1 at the half.

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    For a team that hasn’t had a stinker in what seems foreve3r, I’ll give them a pass last week. The other team tries to win too and for whatever reason nothing was right.
    .
    In truth the team played like the team I and many others I am sure have tried desperately to forget.
    .
    I tend to agree and will go so far as to say this… I believe his team can win a one off against any team. I believe they can win MLS Cup. I am inclined to believe, more and more, the way to do that is by playing Jack McGlynn. They are a different team when he is on the field. The problem and it is a big one … is who sits then.
    .
    .
    Just Play Well. Let’s get back to that this week, please.

  4. Agreed. McGlynn is proactive, as well as creative. You lose a little defensively, but I think it’s worth it. Now – who sits? Probably Flach or Martinez but maybe Bedoya doesn’t need to start every game. There are ways to do it.
    Also, Paxten should be the first forward off the bench. Burke offers very little

  5. I feel like this is more of a Noonan knowing the team and players thing. Sure they didn’t play well on top of it but as a general rule the U play their system ,other team be damned. So they will most likely be just fine. They can play different formations but player tendency is not to be ignored! Noonan had his guys ready for the U.Shake it off! On to the next.

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