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Narrow margins: The Union’s tactics and success in 2022

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

From the team’s style of play to their missing out on the Supporters’ Shield on a tiebreaker, narrow margins have played a big part in Philadelphia Union’s 2022 season.

If they were in almost any other league in the world, Jim Curtin’s side would be lifting their second Shield in three years. In the end, they lost out to Los Angeles FC due to Major League Soccer’s first tiebreaker being wins rather than goal difference.

Even with other common soccer tiebreakers such as head-to-head record (Union drew 2-2 at LAFC in their only regular season meeting) or goals scored, Union would have come out on top. Curtin’s side scored the most goals and conceded the fewest in MLS in 2022.

But it didn’t always look like this would be the case.

Returning to those narrow margins, the team itself is built on a narrowness (or perhaps more accurately compactness) tactically, and a mental togetherness which, when combined, makes them a difficult unit for opposition sides to break down. Their spirit is as strong as their defensive structure.

Narrow focus

Here’s a quick visual overview of that narrow defensive line. It is a feature of the Union’s back four and defensive shape, even if not unique to them. The three images attempt to show the narrowness using vertical lines along the field as well as horizontal lines along the defensive line.

At the beginning of the season, there were questions as to whether this defensive solidity could facilitate the type of attacking play required to take the team to the next level.

Attack unleashed

It wasn’t until round 19 of the 2022 MLS campaign, and a 7-0 thrashing of D.C. United at Subaru Park in July, that the Union managed to score more than two goals in a game.

Eight draws in 11 games preceded that single-game scoring spree, and though there had been encouraging signs, there was still a sense they were playing within themselves.

At that point in July, with more than half of the season gone and 18 games played, they had the best defense in the league — something which would remain a feature until the end of the season — with just 13 goals conceded, but they hadn’t quite found their goalscoring groove. Even struggling teams like DC United and Toronto FC had scored more than the Union’s 22 goals at that stage of the season.

What came after that D.C. United game in July was something that turned the Union from a solid defensive outfit into an attacking force and a championship contender.

The old adage is that “defense wins championships,” only it doesn’t really. In soccer, it can provide a platform for a tilt at a championship, but defense alone will not win one.

After the 0-0 draw with Columbus Crew in round 18, prior to that 7-0 DC United game a round later, the Union would not draw another match until round 32 against Atlanta. They went on to score 50 goals in their last 16 games — an average of just over three per game.

The gradual integration of new signings, and the always-improving Daniel Gazdag, eventually saw the Union go from a primarily defensive side to an attacking one that also boasted a good defense.

Hungarian attacking midfielder Gazdag, now fully settled in his second season at the club, finished just one goal behind the 2022 Golden Boot winner, Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar, and Kai Wagner was one of the most creative players in the league, finishing joint-second in the MLS assists charts with 15.

Mikael Uhre turned into the player the Union hoped they’d signed, and there were also important contributions from Cory Burke and Alejandro Bedoya.

Coach of the Year?

If Curtin was a newer face on the MLS head coaching scene, he may have had more shouts for Coach of the Year for the way he’s tied all this together, especially after some key players departed in recent years.

His Union rebuild has been carried out with a combination of homegrown talent, the incorporation of shrewd signings into the system, and good roster management aided by sporting director Ernst Tanner.

Yes, Designated Players have been signed in attack, but they aren’t always guaranteed to be a success. Julian Carranza, for example, has slotted in at Philadelphia in a way he didn’t at Inter Miami, and that is down to the coaching and the clear overall identity of the team.

It’s not often the head coach of arguably the best team in the league will be completely overlooked for this award, even though, with that said, Montreal head coach Wilfried Nancy will be a deserving winner of the award.

One of the things Curtin’s longevity does provide is familiarity with his methods and a good look at the evolution of the team’s tactics. The best part of nine seasons as a head coach is a lot of games and a lot of pre- and post-match press conferences. It gives us plenty of archive footage and interviews to go off.

Compact snap

Here are a few examples of Curtin speaking about his team’s compact shape:

“…it’s our whole team being bought-in to the style and the way we want to play, and all pressing together so our forwards and midfielders and defenders being on the same page, being nice and compact and not giving talented players time and space.”March 2016.

“I believe we are starting to form an identity as a team that is very tough to break down defensively and is very good at home,”May 2016

“We emphasized all week the importance of being compact defensively, from front to back. The guys executed that well. I thought [we] gave their key attacking players a tough day and, collectively, we were all comfortable on the ball.”August 2016.

“We’re focused on keeping our team compact, and not let ourselves get stretched. Yes, we want to high press, but we want to do it all together, where everyone’s attacking and everyone defends. In that sense, we’re a true team because everyone has to be good, not great, and we can play with anybody.”February 2017.

“If you want to be successful in modern soccer, you need to build a good team. The way I stand for and the philosophy is absolutely ‘team play’. The whole team is working together in every phase of the game.”Ernst Tanner – 2018.


Can defense win championships? We might be about to find out.

After all, in MLS the championship isn’t the league title — the Supporters’ Shield —  it’s the cup competition that follows it, and in a cup competition you don’t always need to score goals. Luckily, Philadelphia Union now score loads of them anyway.

If they can maintain an edge, coming out on top in tight playoff games where small percentages, the narrow margins, can make all the difference, they have a chance of winning their first MLS Cup.


  1. An incredibly well balanced team now, who will be a tough out for anyone coming into Subaru Park. Curtin very likely is still the best coach in MLS, but i do feel like that coach award goes to someone who’s team more substantially exceeded expectations. Everyone knew philly would be at or near the top of the table. Teams like Montreal or Austin simply weren’t.

  2. Interestingly enough, even though the Union scored more goals than any other team, none of the Goal of the Year candidates was scored by a Union player. (None were scored against them either, but that’s not so surprising.)

  3. If the supporter’s shield is given by the organization of supporter’s groups, why do they use MLS’s wonky tie-breaker instead of doing what most other leagues do?

    • Now that is a good question

    • As far as I’m concerned, SoccerDad wins question of the day on the entire internet.

    • Tiebreaker goes to most wins to try and incentivize wins over ties. Go back to the records of the teams that won it before MLS made the switch. Not that I think they should be doing it still… but I see why they made the change.

      • Making a win worth 3 times as much as a draw already provides that incentive. Dropping goal differential lower on the list increases the incentive to sit on leads rather than go for more goals.

  4. Tiebreaker goes to most wins to try and incentivize wins over ties. Go back to the records of the teams that won it before MLS made the switch. Not that I think they should be doing it still… but I see why they made the change.

  5. PaulContinuum22 says:

    The U made 5 MLS awards finalist categories!
    Landon Donovan MVP: Arango, Blake, Driussi, Chicharito, Mukhtar
    GK; Blake, Drake Callender (Inter Miami), Petrovic (NE)
    Defender: Alex Callens (NYCFC), Glesnes, Wagner
    MLS WORKS Humanitarian: Bedoya, Kei Kamara (CFM), Brad Stuver (Austin FC)
    Coach: Cherundolo, Curtin, Nancy

    • FCdelcofella says:

      There’s an award named after Landon Donovan….? Ugh. That’s like winning the “ELO” award for greatest rock song if the year.

  6. Attended the NYRB vs FCC match yesterday. Friends from Cincy in town, so we scored 4 tickets… maybe 12,000 (half) attended the game… including probably 300 FCC loyalists!

    The game was evenly matched… but Curtin and company better beware.

    This FCC squad is no joke… Acosta, despite age still a HUGE catalyst and PIA like when he was at DCU… and their defense (5 across) shut down NYRB completely. One great save by the FCC young goalie… but NYRB young scorers a non factor because of the FCC back line.

    IF we are not vigilant, FCC could steal the game. We cannot underestimate their knowledge of the Union (Albright, Noonan)… not to mention how many former players that would love to knock us out in their franchise first playoff run in MLS.

    Get a quick goal and put your proverbial feet on their throats.

    Prediction. 4-1, Union play Oct 30th, 3pm… hopefully against ORL, but more likely Montreal.

    BTW… RBA still sucks. TERRIBLE to get to and from. But have to say Food very good selection and pricing… and the canopy over the stands much appreciated as strong as the sun was yesterday.

    PS: Fun having no emotional attachment to either team. I wore my Union garb… welcomed everyone to Chester Thursday.

    • Really pathetic how many empty seats there were given that it was an afternoon playoff game on a beautiful day.
      Got a laugh out of my wife when I said something along the lines of “A Cincinnati player is down receiving medical attention. You’ll never believe this but it’s Sergio Santos.”

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