Analysis / Union

Match analysis: Charlotte FC 4-0 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Well, that sucked.

With a chance to win the Eastern Conference and push the Supporters’ Shield race into the last day, Philadelphia Union fell flat on their faces, allowing four goals to Daniel Rios and falling to Charlotte FC on the road.

(For some context, Rios had managed a grand total of seven goals in his 54 previous MLS appearances.)

The loss allowed LAFC to clinch the Shield in dramatic fashion on Sunday afternoon, and means that the East race will come down to Decision Day. The Union still control their own destiny, but there’s no question they’ve made it a lot harder on themselves.

Let’s look at what went wrong on Saturday and set the stage for the regular season finale.

Is Alejandro Bedoya irreplaceable?

The Union have had outstanding injury luck for a few seasons now. Setting aside one extremely unfortunate COVID outbreak last season, Philly has generally been able to call on its starting unit in every game, with injuries either being one-week absences or confined to role players (hello, Sergio Santos!).

So we haven’t really had an occasion to figure out which Union player is the most irreplaceable.

But the last two weeks suggest it may be captain Alejandro Bedoya.

With Bedoya nursing a hip flexor injury, the Union’s attack has stagnated, managing no goals in their two games in his absence (at Atlanta and at Charlotte).

In a sense, that’s surprising. Bedoya’s replacement has been Homegrown Jack McGlynn, an offensive-minded prospect who has had real moments of excellence this season.

But McGlynn can’t quite do what Bedoya does in this team — at least, not consistently, not at this stage in his career. Bedoya’s expert positioning, intelligence, and two-way skill are key to balancing the Union’s midfield and setting the team up for goals. It’s not a coincidence that Philly’s offensive explosion, which began in July, coincided with a tweak in the captain’s positioning that got him on the ball more. Without him, the Union couldn’t find McGlynn in advantageous positions or use the wings effectively, settling on a dump-and-chase strategy familiar to hockey fans from the early 2000s.

Bedoya’s health is the single most important question facing the Union right now. Hopefully, he is able to return against Toronto, and holding him out this weekend (especially on turf) was just an understandably conservative decision. But if the injury lingers or is reaggravated, Philly will face the playoff gauntlet without their most essential player.

Defensive miscues

If there is one defining quality of the 2022 Union, it is their defensive solidity.  Jim Curtin’s backline is both organized as a unit and capable of winning just about every one-on-one battle.

We saw basically none of that quality on Saturday night. Each goal was a breakdown of both team and individual defending.

On the first goal, a bad turnover in midfield leaves the defense shattered, with the fullbacks caught well upfield. There’s way too much space for Kamil Jozwiak to get on the ball and pick out the pass. And everybody — but especially Kai Wagner and Jack Elliott — decides to leave Daniel Rios unmarked. It’s static defending at its worst.

Scratch that — maybe the second goal is static defending at its worst. How many Union players have a chance to win the ball in the box here? I count at least five — but every challenge is half-hearted or ill-timed, and Blake ultimately has no chance.

And the fourth goal — we’ll get to the third in a second — is perhaps the laziest defending from Philly all year. Admittedly, we’re in stoppage time and the game is basically over. But no one bothers to keep an eye on substitute McKinze Gaines, and no one bothers to pick up Rios’s run into the box, and it’s just all too easy.

Look, one game is an aberration. After 33 games, we know the Union are defensively stingy, and I’m inclined to say this was just a night to forget. But it’s not what you want to see with just one game left before the playoffs.

Keep your cool

Kai Wagner is the best two-way defender in MLS, a Best XI-caliber player who fully deserves the offseason move to Europe that increasingly seems likely.

He does, however, have a tendency to be emotional. Rarely does a game go by where you don’t see Wagner barking at a referee, an opposing player… sometimes, his own teammates. That emotion fuels so much of what’s good about his game, but occasionally it tips over the line into self-destruction.

That’s what I saw on Saturday night. As Danny Higginbotham pointed out on the broadcast, Wagner was wide open in space for most of the first half, but simply couldn’t get the ball his way. He grew increasingly frustrated, picking up an unnecessary yellow card late in the half. Then, Wagner threw up an arm to block a shot midway through the second half, and his night was over.

It’s easy for me to say, sitting at home on the couch, that Wagner (or any player) needs to show more composure. But… I mean, he does need to show more composure! To win the title, as the Union want to do, they need to ride the line between aggression and intelligence. When they do, they’re at their best. When they don’t, we get guys like Wagner and Jose Martinez self-destructing. It’s something to monitor as the stakes get higher in the playoffs.

As for this coming weekend, Wagner will be a big loss for the Union, though not an insurmountable one. Matt Real has MLS experience and will be anxious to showcase his skills to the league, while Toronto FC are likely to be just going through the motions at the end of a lost season.

The Union still control the East. Win a very winnable game, and they’re two home games away from their first-ever MLS Cup appearance.

They just can’t play like they did on Saturday.

2 Comments

  1. This Sunday’s game will kick off at 2:55.

  2. Peter, rough game to watch. Rough one to read about. Takes nothing away from your writing. Excellent as always. Thank you.

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