Analysis / Union

A perfect Union of tactics and recruitment

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Philadelphia Union’s games against New York Red Bulls can offer a good indication of where the team are currently at. Last weekend’s fixture served to reinforce their position at the top of the Eastern Conference and backed up the idea they are now the best team in Major League Soccer.

Part of the challenge offered by the Red Bulls lies in the fact that they and the Union share a similar brand of pressing football that is also concerned with what they do when they have possession of the ball than how much possession they have.

Similar Style

Only Vancouver Whitecaps (42%) average less possession across the season than Union (43.5%) and the Red Bulls (42.9%), and there are signs that the side from Canada’s west coast are following a similar blueprint.

Earlier in the season, the question was whether the Union’s style of play could produce enough in attack to go alongside their solid defensive structure. The underlying numbers suggested it could, but underlying numbers do not always convert into the reality of balls in the back of the net and points on the board.

This question has been answered emphatically in recent weeks. Union have racked up 41 goals in 13 games since the start of July while also retaining that defensive solidity with just eight conceded. A goal difference of +33 during that period shows their dominance in MLS. To put this into perspective, the next-best goal difference during those few months belongs to Los Angeles FC with +10.

It’s fair to say some of the tests faced have been easier than others, although a game that on the face of it seems reasonably straightforward, can soon go the other way in MLS — just ask New York City. But games against the Red Bulls offer a stern test regardless of form.

Red Bulls fans may not be too impressed with their own team at the moment, but they remain an opposition side that will always offer a certain type of challenge, especially under head coach Gerhard Struber.

Prior to their most recent meeting, Union had played New York Red Bulls five times since the New Jersey club’s appointment of Struber in October 2020. On each occasion, neither club scored more than one goal in the fixture.

The Red Bull’s 56% possession in their 2-0 loss to the Union last week was their second-highest of the season so far. Union won the battle to play their style as the team from New Jersey ended up with more of the ball than they’re used to.

New Signings Settle

A play style is only as effective as the players in it. One of the important elements of squad building to get right in MLS is deciding which players to sign as designated players, and few teams have done this better than the Union this season. Though they are known for bringing through young players, they have also gotten their senior recruitment right.

Two new attacking signings arrived as designated players in 2022. Mikael Uhre was an unknown quantity in terms of MLS play, but the Union knew what he would add to their tactical setup and his potential to be a difference-maker should those DP qualities kick in, which they have.

Julián Carranza was with Inter Miami, who needed to offload some players after some hotchpotch recruitment, and the Union saw something that would be useful for their attack, on and off the ball, eventually making the loan deal permanent.

Carranza is one of the most active final-third pressers in the league which is partly due to the system but mostly due to his suitability to the off-the-ball side of it. Uhre doesn’t press as much, for example, and instead will be the player to take advantage of pressing situations once the ball is won back.

They are joined by another relatively new signing, Daniel Gazdag, who arrived last season but has really kicked on this, and has completed this attacking trident which is the best of its kind in the league.

The trio combined against the Red Bulls to great effect for a goal that epitomised the team in a game that was one of the biggest tests of whether these tactics work against similar teams.

When you add other elements such as the defensive structure, the introduction of the unique talent of Jack McGlynn, plus an increased threat from set pieces, you have a team that can put up the kind of numbers — real numbers, not underlying ones — the Union have put up in recent games.

At this moment in time Philadelphia Union under head coach Jim Curtin are not just the best team in MLS, but one of the best teams anywhere. This is the result of clearly defined tactics combined with very good recruitment. The perfect union.


  1. Best thing the Union ever did as an organization is hire Ernst Tanner. The man has taken the whole organization next level.

    • Agreed. He is the one person in the organization I most fear losing.

    • Just think, they were trying for Tanner when they got Stewart. Imagine if we had picked up Ernst then.
      Derrick Jones gets transferred to Besiktas, Borek Doscal gets a striker partner that is NOT Jay Simpson…
      We might have an MLS Cup by now.

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