Is it time to worry about this Union attack?

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

The Philadelphia Union attack has looked fragmented. After trotting out the same starting lineup night after night that Jim Curtin used for the greater part of last season, the average viewer wouldn’t look at the on-field product and think that this is the same 11 that took them to new heights last season. An attack that looked so fluid and dangerous on the back half of last year now appears as though they haven’t played a single match together.

Though the stat lines may disagree with that sentiment.

Julián Carranza and Mikael Uhre have each contributed two goals in four MLS games. Dániel Gazdag, a 2022 MVP candidate who potted 22 tallies in 34 MLS games a season ago, also has two goals (both on penalty kicks) with four assists to boot. This equates to six goals in four MLS games from the front three — which is not unacceptable on paper.

Even so, this attack has only shown mere glimpses of the spark and fluidity that they exhibited last season. Why is it that this attack has gone from looking unstoppable to puzzlingly disjointed?

Positional play to a fault

The July 8, 7-0 thumping of DC United last season acted as a springboard for this group. They promptly became one of the most exhilarating and efficient attacking sides in MLS for the rest of the season.

The movement from the front three was fluid with and without the ball from that point forward — each cog moving off one another, no single player being overly selfish or not selfish enough, each pass in each break made at the exact right moment. The squad even defended stoutly as a unit and was off to the races.

There might be some exaggeration there, but it’s seemingly night and day compared to this year.

The flow and interplay up top hasn’t been quite as dynamic to the naked eye. Carranza is locked to the right side while Uhre is locked to the left, and it has been this way for much of the season’s start. There is some rotation of the two throughout a given game, but it is very limited in comparison to last season.

In general, this lack of horizontal movement or fluidity between the front three makes it much easier for the opposing center-backs to defend as they don’t need to worry about switching off their defensive responsibilities with one another. The stagnation makes the attack struggle to open up defenses with possession and in transition like they were able to do with ease last season.

Could more position-less play going forward between Gazdag, Uhre, and Carranza aid this attack in finding its footing once again?

Over-reliance on the home run

Uhre thrives in a system where he can use his speed into the wide channels of the pitch and latch onto balls over the top or through the defense to stretch the opposition — sometimes it becomes an over-reliance. Instead of checking back to the ball and providing an outlet or target for his midfielders or defenders in possession, he becomes infatuated with the idea of a line-splitting run.

While this works well with a strike partner who has the skill set of someone like Carranza and a 10 like Gazdag — who are both great at connecting play with their back to goal — anything done to the point of gluttony becomes extremely predictable. Couple this with the dependence on positional play discussed earlier and the Union attack down the left side becomes extremely easy to sniff out.

If Uhre were to hold up play with his back to goal more frequently, he would theoretically be able to pull a center back or a deeper lying midfielder off their spot — allowing play to open up for Gazdag and Carranza. This hold-up play could also invite others on the left side, specifically Kai Wagner (who was the Union’s leading assist-man a year ago) to join the attack.

This is not to say that Uhre should eliminate the back shoulder runs from his game entirely. Rather a little more symmetry up top could make things less predictable for an opposing defense. At the very least, a slight variation to his game in this department may open new doors for this attack.

An underlying issue?

Much has been made of Leon Flach’s defensive ability. He is someone who fits the mold of what Curtin seems to love in a player in that they cover their defensive responsibilities with enthusiasm and integrity. His playing time and role have been a depiction of that ideology.

Though he has shown some flashes on the offensive side, the opposite case could be made of Flach when the Union are in possession.

Flach often looks overwhelmed while his side is on the ball and he doesn’t always see the field well. His movement seems to be more on the free-roaming end of the spectrum than the methodical, always-in-the-right-place type of movement we see from Alejandro Bedoya on the opposite side of the diamond.

When Flach is caught out in possession — or out of position defensively — he has the speed and willingness to cover the ground to make up for it. However, the trade-off is that he lacks the intangibles of a more-skilled offensive mind.

Is it time that we see Jack McGlynn starting on the left side of the diamond on a more consistent basis? He lacks the speed and defensive prowess that Flach provides, but he has the offensive ability, vision, and intelligent movement off the ball that Flach has not shown consistently.

Not to mention McGlynn’s ability to ping a pass.

This was seen in games as recently as the CCL home leg against Alianza where he received the ball, picked his head up, and hit perfectly weighted, 40-yard diagonal passes that switched the point of attack with sheer grace. His ability as a playmaker from deeper lying positions adds a different dimension to this attack and would allow the Union to dictate the game more than they typically do.


At the end of the day, the Union are just four league games into a young season — a season which has seen the club play two more games than each of their four MLS opponents thus far. Missing an MVP-worthy GK for a stretch and playing more soccer than every MLS opponent they’ve faced thus far is challenging the makeup of this team. However, it isn’t time to worry, as these problems are corrigible with time.

In the words of Aaron Rodgers, a player of another sport also called football, R-E-L-A-X.


  1. As my imperfect memory recalls, it took us a while to get into a higher gear offensively last year, too, so it’s not time to panic. However, with all the hype that’s been imposed on the team, it may be weighing on them mentally.

    And yes, 100% about Flach. It’s almost like playing with 10.5 players. Somebody needs to coach some offense into him, like yesterday. But can McGlynn raise his defensive game enough?

  2. McGlynn should be starting for sure. I’m tired by the “but omg Flach plays defense” argument. Obviously it’s true, but it’s like we are so scared of sacrificing defense for offense than we are paralyzing ourselves. Yeah, I get it, playing good defense is good. You know what isn’t? Not scoring enough goals to win.

    It’s like we are a victimof our own success. We have played such historic defense with Flach in there that it’s like we have a “but omg what if we give up a goal”-phobia. It’s ok to put in an offensive player for a defensive one. It’s ok! The ball will not explode! We will be fine! It’s especially annoying because we have an elite backline with an elite 6, so you would think we have the team to be able to support someone like McGlynn.

    As far as the offense, we saw this last year. They all started slow. I have also seen the same flaws from most of them. Carranza – bad first touch and makes bad passing decisions. Gazdag – way too cute, tries too many flicks and ideas when a simpler pass would suffice, ruins a lot of chances. Uhre – with his speed and talent he should be getting multiple chances a game, but he is invisible far too often.

    The difference is that last year they all hit a new gear and put up historic offensive numbers. The question now is, do we bet on that happening again? Do we realistically think that will come again soon? Or perhaps last year was a combination of a career peak and lucky chances?

    The big problem Curtin has is how long is he going to keep doing the same things, hoping that we are one game away from “clicking” just like last year? Or, when will he make the call that last year was last year and perhaps we need to try something different?

    It’s a hard call, and I think too early to truly get upset, but it will be something to look out for.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    Not sure that this is the right time for this article given that Gazdag, Carranza, and McGlynn are all unavailable this weekend. It is probably worth remembering that last season after the 0-0 draw in Columbus (the second straight time the Union were shutout), PSP wrote an article asking if the Union would ever score again. Next game was fireworks night against DC.
    Speaking of players out for the international break, I did write my ticket rep to complain about MLS having games during the international break. He said he would pass it on to his supervisor. I would recommend that others do the same. (I also complained about the quality of the broadcast last weekend given that key moments were missed and the announcers didn’t seem to realize that the crossbar does not negate offsides.)

  4. McGlynn starts. Flach comes in to preserve lead. easy

    • The Union have consistently gotten the opponents deliberate best effort so far this season in MLS, and will likely continue to do so.
      There is a reason why the end of the first half and the beginning of the second are when we have begun to look better. The opponent has begun to come down off its emotional high.
      Absorbing that emotional outburst calls for the best defenders. McGlynn has not yet proven himself a better defender than Flach. Flach’s pressing stats are said to be exceptional. There is no question that McGlynn’s distribution is better. But for Jim Curtin, and many others, because it is so hard to score, defense trumps offense.

      • Deez Nuggs says:

        +1. But I will note that McGlynn so far this season has really upped his game on defense.

  5. Very much appreciate both Flach and McGlynn, but are we sure this is a binary conversation?
    Kai was at his best with Montiero tucking in and attacking off the left wing. Torres is left footed and has shown great positional awareness, the ability to thread a pass and the willingness to attack off the dribble. I am not sure of his defensive capabilities, but he would certainly add some firepower and might also give a boost to Wagner.

  6. Com’mon, of course it’s time to worry. We’re from Philly!

    Sat game should prove nothing about the squad. Too many starter not involved…

    But soon, that static 11 will again be pushed to get their act together… or suffer 1 pt short just like last year.

    And no one seems to want to speak about Curtin and his role in the disjointed offense. The recent debacle in Montreal proves yet again Jim’s inability to use our substitutes to either motivate or lock down…. so many opportunities to replace Carranza before the red card…. or use Torrez to run his former teammates ragged… or Perea, Bueno with fresh legs and something to prove?


    • I agree 1 million percent, I am so glad someone mentioned it. I think Montreal was on Curtin again, and his inability to be proactive. There are three pretty reasonable things that was happening in that game.

      1. Carranza likes to foul and get stuck in. 2. The ref was calling a pretty tight game. 3. The turf was bad and the ball was bouncing and that environment can lead to lots of 50/50s. (and 3.5, of course Carranza was on a yellow)

      You put those three together and I feel it is more than reasonable to get on Jim for not subbing right before the red card. I understand he does not seem to realize you are allowed to sub before the 75th minute, but I feel like there were some pretty reasonable and clear elements in that game that should have led to him being proactive.

      Like seriously, I know some people like to play the “How could Jim predict this!?” card – but I don’t think any of those 3 points above are crazy or unrealstic, and I don’t think it’s crazy for him to put in someone like Sullivan for Carranza to spend the last 25 minutes harassing the backline and protecting the lead.

      But again, Jim would rather go down swinging with his guys.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        I don’t think this is what Jim was thinking at all. He was thinking he had a lead on the road, needed another goal to lock it on, and his best players would handle themselves having a yellow. Carranza had a rush of blood – it happens, and this time it cost them. It happened last year in Montreal and didn’t cost them. His substitution philosophy notwithstanding, they had a second half lead on the road in MLS. That’s something worth going all in for.

      • To be accurate, Jim Curtin last season consistently substituted Mikael Uhre at 60 minutes or shortly thereafter.
        in the limited sample size of this season he still seems to be doing it.

    • DIdn’t this team set a league record for goal differential last year with the same squad? The offense will be just fine.

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