Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 6-0 Colorado Rapids

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

The guile

It’s hard to be perfect.

To be fair, perfect is impossible – but it’s hard to be good, to be on point, to be fully focused for any long period of time. Especially under duress.

Colorado came to Subaru Park with a strategy that, when executed perfectly over ninety minutes, has proven to be a bit of kryptonite for the Union’s diamond formation: a five-man backline or midfield. Chicago has used it to beat the Union, as have Nashville and several others.

The reason why this formation is so successful against the Union is two-fold.

  1. It forces the Union to build out of the back without room for their fullbacks to receive the ball and get forward. How many times did Jakob Glesnes have the ball on Saturday, look to his right for Olivier Mbaizo, and be forced to change his mind instead? How many times did Jack Elliott look for Kai Wagner, only to get the ball back quickly, with a single touch from the outside back, and forced to come up with another option forward? Many.
  2. Because they can’t build out wide, should the Union choose to build up some other way, they must go through the midfield. In doing so, the Union’s opponents will more often than not have a numbers advantage in the middle of the pitch, in addition to width (a 5-4-1 v. a 4-4-2, addition and geometry).

Of course, it was only a few weeks ago where entropy was the focus of this column – how the Union are forcing chaos upon their opponents early and often, whatever their plans might have been. On Saturday, the Union acknowledged Colorado’s tactics and responded with some of their own.

As Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

The game

There isn’t much to say about what the Union did on the night that hasn’t already been said.

They were relentless in their situational press, adept at winning the long balls Colorado forced them to play (see above), and wildly above average in forcing the visitors into damning decisions: to grab a shoulder a stop a scything run, to do the same to end a breakaway before it begins, to recover and make a hero tackle – knowing the worst is possible.

The Union were also fairly lucky:

  • On the first goal, Kai Wagner’s initial switch was destined for Alejandro Bedoya before being deflected to the chest of Mikeal Uhre. The deflection created the gap in which Uhre was already operating.
  • Gustavo Vallecilla’s first yellow card was certainly a foolish one – for tossing the ball away on a free kick. That he was given a yellow, even though it’s the letter of the law, is the exception in those circumstances not the rule.
  • Olivier Mbaizo may have drawn a foul-like motion in the box from the aforementioned Vallecilla, but it’s hard to objectively argue the defender forced the Union’s right back to the ground.

Perhaps lucky isn’t the right word.

Instead, perhaps it’s just a case of a good team on a good run making a bit of fortune for themselves out of the nature of how they play their game: each instance comes from the Union’s aggressive and direct ethos, after all.

The glory, or the grind

How long has Matt Real been next in line?

At a high level, it’s been long enough that many would say it’s time to question the left-footed homegrown’s place in the side. And to be fair, no one expected Kai Wagner to come into the Union’s lineup and become the player he is today – a perennial All-Star with Premier League suitors – completely blocking the path for Real.

However long it’s been for fans or pundits, it’s certainly been longer for Real himself – and the friends he has on the team.

When the team’s Number 2 made a full-field run in stoppage time on Saturday, chasing the counter attack like a midfielder is supposed to (and Real isn’t a natural midfielder at all), his likely aspiration was to find the game’s last goal. Then, when Kai Wagner found himself pinned in a corner and looped the ball over the trailing leg of his encroaching mark, it was Real who was where he was supposed to be to receive it, alone at the top of the box.

Settling with a single touch and blasting a daisy-cutter to the far post was all to-script, at least for those who believe in happy endings.

But that’s not fair, is it?

The story certainly isn’t over for Real – he’s a good player who will find a soccer home should things in Chester come to an end. But for him, this was clearly a sunny moment in what has been a turbulent trip thus far. And for his friends, his fellow homegrown who’ve toiled for 10,000 hours together over their young lives, it clearly meant something in an otherwise meaningless moment on Saturday.

The television cameras captured the instant those friends realized Real had scored – their friend who has seen the field less than them in 2022, who has a less defined path than theirs going forward, who has more to lose every time the player in front of him thrives, a friend who they certainly care for deeply.

Real accepted an offer from the Union this offseason, and who knows where that will take him when the contract ends.

On Saturday, he was a Union player putting icing on the team’s well-baked cake – and all his friends were there to celebrate with him.


  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    I also noticed and thought it was cool that Paxten, Sullivan, and McGlynn were the first three to run to Real. As you said, who knows what the future holds, but Real has certainly been a professional while here and with Kai most likely leaving after the season, maybe he finally gets his shot.

  2. Good stuff on the Real goal and celebration! That moment with the other homegrowns, plus when Gazdag made a beeline for Curtin to celebrate his hat trick (just before the 85th minute deadline he was given) were two really cool interpersonal moments tucked into what was already an incredible game. It really does seem like this team has great chemistry – a credit to Curtin, Bedoya,and likely a few other leaders in the clubhouse.

  3. Was so great for Real. I know many who played with him while growing up and they were all so happy for him! Hope things will turn out great for him next year.

  4. Real has also started putting corner kicks in the back of the net for Union II. If the Union are going to move Kai (and don’t do it in the next couple of days), they should look to move him over the winter and make Real the starting left back.

  5. In 2019 during the height of #SxyPreSZN (let’s be honest, that was the extent of it right?) I talked with Real at the Meet The Team event.
    Matt talked about how they were working him out at LH to try and get him more field time since he was always behind someone else.
    I think a combination of that, and the Union actively working on his attack more recently, is starting to pay dividends. He’s already put a few goals in with UII, and Saturday felt like a natural extension of what he’s been doing with the Deuxpers.

  6. Zizouisgod says:

    It was noticeable to me that when the Union started to have success vs this type of formation from an opponent was when Curtin started to have Flach drop centrally during the build-up. It gave them another central option to choose from during buildup and also helped free up Martinez. A very smart adjustment by Curtin and the coaching staff.

  7. With the Union U15s beating the Bayern U15s, 6-0, can we start calling a 6-0 victory a Unioning?
    Shutouts are wonderful. Dos-a-Cera is great. Unioning your opponent is a wonderfully rare treat for your fans.

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