Analysis / Union

Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 4–0 Toronto FC

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

It’s hard not to take a wider view of a season just ended, but this analysis will try to focus on just this match. While no new trends emerged, there were some interesting wrinkles due to player availability issues, namely the absence of captain Alejandro Bedoya and left back Kai Wagner from the starting lineup. Missing both men could have set off alarm bells, but in the end neither were needed on the day.

Why weren’t they needed? One man: Dániel Gazdag.

The Dániel Gazdag show

What a way to finish—a play, a shot, a regular season. Gazdag had only ever finished a professional season with more than 10 goals once: 2020–21, when he scored 13 for Honvéd and won the Hungarian league’s player of the season award. On Sunday, Gazdag scored a hat trick, bringing his total this season to 22, with 10 assists to go with it.

That total is incredible but, as stated, let’s focus on just this game. The Union came out aggressively, wanting to put the ghosts of Charlottes past behind them, and Gazdag scored a full volley after four minutes to personally present Toronto with the Union’s statement of intent. The play showed one of the ways that Gazdag has been special this season: being in the right place to make the telling contribution. The ball was bouncing, Toronto perhaps thinking the danger had been cleared, but there was Dániel, ready to shoot a laser beam into the far corner, no defender within two yards. Finding that space consistently is a skill, and a big reason why Gazdag has been so successful.

Of course, there was more. Gazdag had the assist on Philly’s second goal, finding Mikael Uhre on a run in behind the Toronto defense. This action, of balls over the top for Uhre and Julián Carranza to chase, was a theme of the day. Toronto’s three-man backline played high—too high—and the Union looked to exploit it over and over and over again. On a day when Wagner, the team’s best crosser, wasn’t available, Toronto played straight into what might be the Union’s preferred Plan B: siccing the forwards on the space between the defense and the keeper.

Gazdag went on to score a penalty in the second half, and quickly followed it with another instance of his ability to wriggle through space, latching on to a ball in traffic, using one touch to exit said traffic, and finishing coolly past the keeper for the Union’s fourth.

While Toronto had moments of danger throughout the match, playing through Bernardeschi, Gazdag’s performance ensured there would be only one outcome.

Bedoya’s absence not a problem

In the previous two games, on turf surfaces, the Union seemed unable to settle and control the game. Much of that discomfort can be put down to the Union both missing their captain and his experience, and also the disruption his absence creates for the diamond midfield. Playing with a left-footer like Jack McGlynn on the right side, no matter how talented he is, affects the shapes the players make and subtly changes the defensive spaces they need to track.

Back in the comfy confines of Subaru Park—and, most importantly, back on grass—the Union managed just fine. Part of that must be put at the feet of a Toronto FC side that has no coherent plan except “Get the ball to the Italian guy.” And, to be fair, he’s a great player and there are worse plans. But, if you want to unsettle a team as defensively sound as the Union—even as out of sorts as they may be—you’ll need to do more than that.

Matt Real fills in ably

With Wagner suspended for receiving two yellow cards in the previous game, Matt Real had another chance to show his stuff in a season of few opportunities. Union fans haven’t seen Real play fullback very much since Wagner arrived, and he’s matured a great deal. Bernardeschi often floated out to Real’s side of the field, but Real, with eager assistance from Leon Flach, managed to keep the Italian almost entirely quiet. Toronto’s big chance, late in the first half, did eventually come from his side (the final shot was the result of a play from the Union’s left), but he was occupied with defending Bernardeschi and not the one responsible for tracking the players who got the shots away.

Real was also heavily involved in scoring the first goal. He combined with Flach, underlapping the German-American to pick up Flach’s backheel pass and fire in a dangerous cross. His cross, of course, was blocked, but then duly finished by Gazdag.

That was, however, the only cross Real attempted on the night, the fill-in fullback rarely if ever getting that high up the pitch again. Contrast that to Wagner, who crosses more and better than anyone else in MLS, and it’s a significant change in the shape of Union attacks. With Toronto playing the way they did, however, there were no shortage of attacking moments for the home team, even with one of the Union’s main weapons in street clothes.

It’s a useful data point to know that Real can deputize for Wagner, or even replace him, should the German leave. It is unknown whether Real can imitate Wagner’s offensive contributions, or even come close, but defensively, the team looks fine with him in it.

Defense wins championships

The goal-line clearance by Olivier Mbaizo certainly gets the headline, but the bigger takeaway is that the shot he cleared was the only one that required significant intervention. Andre Blake, future three-time MLS Keeper of the Year, had no saves to make.

Even as Toronto pushed 10 of their 11 players into the Union’s half, with a $5-million-a-year attacker trying every trick he knew to get at them, the Union were barely ruffled. As the cliché goes, goals change games, and had Toronto scored that singular effort, perhaps the Union’s confidence takes a hit and things turn out differently. But presenting counterfactuals doesn’t score any points. The facts are that the Union have the best defense in MLS—one of the best in MLS history, rather—and they haven’t dropped a point at home in months.

Good luck to the rest of the Eastern Conference.

9 Comments

  1. McGlynn looked better on the right because Mbaizo was there instead of Harriel and is much better at overlapping and providing an outside and verical threat.

    • That’s plausible, but we’ve seen McGlynn with Mbaizo before, too, and it hasn’t always been smooth. It may be a better pairing than with Harriel, but it’s still an imperfect use of him, in my opinion.

      • Agreed. He’s better on the left where he can really help with possession and press-resistance.

      • Vince Devine says:

        Going into the game I had hoped Sullivan would get the start in place of McGlynn as McGlynn did not seem to be a good fit on the right with either Harriel or Mbaizo. I’d still prefer to see them line up that way if Bedoya ever has to miss a match, However McGlynn looked good on Sunday. His passing was incredible. Although it could have been the quality of the opponent.

    • I thought McGlynn looked better because they moved him around more. Seemed like he popped up in the middle or even to the left a time or two. I’ll have to go back and watch the recording but seemed that way live.

  2. One small reflection on the first goal is that Flach’s runs off the ball have gotten way better over the course of the season. He’s still very safe with the ball, but you see him overlapping and getting crosses in somewhat consistently now in a way I don’t think we saw last season or even the first half this year.

  3. The last home game (excluding the friendly a couple of weeks ago) that Gazdag did not score a goal was the 7-0 win against DC United at the beginning of July.

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