For Pete's Sake / Union

The 3-5-2 and other Union observations

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Philadelphia Union have recovered well from their Champions League disappointment, winning four of their last five and soaring into fourth in the Eastern Conference on points per game.

The convincing 3-0 win over New England Revolution on Saturday night may have been their best result of the season.

In no particular order, here are some miscellaneous observations about what’s going on in Unionland

The 3-5-2

Saturday night’s win was fueled in part by manager Jim Curtin’s choice to break out the 3-5-2 formation once again.

After spending almost all of 2022 as a 4-4-2 diamond team, Curtin has opted for more tactical flexibility this season. That appears to be the consequence of a deeper squad, a glut of games, and injuries impacting player ability.

The 3-5-2 has been the more successful of these experiments. With the addition of Damion Lowe, Curtin has three center backs who supplement their defensive acumen with passing ability. That allows cover for the forays up the wing by fullbacks Kai Wagner and Olivier Mbaizo, who are quality attackers.

Is this formation a tad defensive? Yes. (Jose Martinez, Leon Flach, plus three center backs is a lot of defense-first players on the pitch.) But that’s okay; the Union have yet to concede an open-play goal out of this formation, and it’s opened up space for the dangerous counter-attacks that sparked last season’s impressive run.

Oh, Christmas tree?

Wednesday night’s experiment with the 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree” formation was less successful.

You can see the theory behind it, with Mikael Uhre and Jose Martinez working their way back from injury. But it doesn’t really work without Jack McGlynn in one of the deeper midfield roles. This formation benefits him, as seen in the CCL home tie against Atlas — Daniel Gazdag can support McGlynn defensively, and McGlynn can find any of the attackers going forward with time on the ball.

That was much less evident with Matt Real starting in midfield. D.C. United choked off almost all service to Gazdag, who spent the game as a passenger. Joaquin Torres saw a lot of the ball, but didn’t do much with it. It was a fairly meek scoreless draw, and few will be clamoring for this formation’s return.

Andres Perea

Real’s start on Wednesday was notable because — once again — offseason acquisition Andres Perea was not selected.

The Union acquired Perea with big expectations. They sent Orlando City $750,000 in GAM to acquire the midfielder, and signed him to a new three-year deal in the process. The recently released salary information shows that Perea is making just under $600,000 in guaranteed compensation this year. That’s almost double Jose Martinez, who’s on $301K. (Martinez may be the best deal in the whole league; he may also need to find a new agent.)

But that’s yet to translate on the field. Perea has just one start in the Union’s 13 games, and his six appearances total just 133 minutes. That’s 20th most on the team.

My sense is that the Union brought in Perea to be the long-term replacement for Alejandro Bedoya, and he’s primarily backing up Bedoya at that right-sided No. 8 position. His lack of playing time has something to do with Bedoya continuing to log major minutes (11 starts, 973 minutes), as well as the manager’s increasing trust in players like Jesus Bueno and Matt Real.

But it also reflects a concern about Perea’s defensive work. In his one start, Perea scored a goal, but the Union were also cut open repeatedly by Orlando City. Curtin remains a defense-first coach above all else, and until Perea convinces him that he isn’t a defensive liability, playing time will be hard to come by.

There’s plenty of time for this signing to work out, but the early returns aren’t promising.

The big picture

The early part of this season has felt like a slog. The Union have played a ton of games — Saturday was their 20th in all competitions. With the Champions League ending in crushing fashion, performances in MLS play being erratic, and the stakes over a long MLS season being fairly low, it’s been hard to get too excited about the Boys in Blue.

This recent run, though, has put them in good position. The fear was that the Champions League could have put them in a hole, both in the table and on the pitch. But four wins in the last five have them in very good position, trailing just Cincinnati, Nashville, and New England in points per game in the East. They’ve done that despite missing key players for key matches and carrying the heaviest workload of any team in the conference.

Assuming that the Union aren’t decimated by injuries or sales over the summer, they’re in good shape for another MLS Cup challenge.

Checking in on penalties

Another win, another penalty for the Union. As I mentioned a few weeks back, the Union lead MLS in penalties awarded since the start of 2022 with 15. They have five in league play this season (second only to LAFC’s six) plus three in the Champions League; Daniel Gazdag has converted every one.

Even when there are frustrations about the Union’s attack (they’re now seventh in goals scored, a drop from first last year), a look at the league table is a reminder of how much worse it could be. Houston Dynamo have scored just 11 goals in their 12 matches, and four of those — 36 percent! — have come from the spot.

King Julian?

I love nicknames for athletes. At their best, a nickname is fun, memorable, and organic; it helps elevate a player from a person into a legend. The Union have a few such nicknames — El Brujo is the one that comes most strongly to mind.

Recently the Union’s Twitter account has started referring to striker Julian Carranza by a new nickname: “King Julian.”

I have to confess that I don’t understand this nickname. Is it a reference to something? Google “King Julian” and all you find is a character from the Madagascar film franchise, King Julien XIII, who is (per Wikipedia) “a very strict and cowardly ring-tailed lemur.” That seems like an awfully deep cut to reference… or maybe I’m just getting old.

Checking in on some Union alumni

Did anyone have Mark McKenzie outscoring Brenden Aaronson in Europe this year?

The 24-year-old defender notched his fourth goal for Genk in the Belgian league this past weekend. After a slow start to life abroad, McKenzie has nailed down a role in the team (3,356 minutes in all competitions this season), although Genk has fallen out of first place. McKenzie might be ready for a bigger challenge, and is making an argument for greater involvement in the USMNT setup ahead of the next World Cup.

As for Aaronson, it’s been a hellish first season in the Premier League. With just one goal and three assists in 35 appearances (2,352 minutes), he’s failed to make an impact in a Leeds side that is almost certainly destined for relegation. Some of that is, of course, outside his control — Jesse Marsch’s firing saw his biggest supporter leave the club. But it’s also fair to say he still has a lot to prove. Will he do it in the Championship next season, or is another move (loan or permanent) coming this summer?


  1. Everyone loves Brenden, but he’s not a Premier League player…too lightweight. Big mistake going to Leeds.

  2. I like the 3-5-2. And although he is defensive-minded, Martinez’ slaloming run to and then along the touchline on Saturday was a thing of beauty. When Carranza swung and missed the terrific ball he’d placed in the box, I don’t think I yelled more at my TV the whole match. It was a waste of an extraordinary feat of footballing. The whole team just seemed more free to express themselves in that setup. I’d like to see it more often.

    In Aaronson’s defense, he’s still only 23 and playing for a team that is top to bottom woeful. They seem incapable of scoring a goal. They’re a lock to go down on Sunday. If Aaronson stays, I hope they get a good coach who will appreciate his particular talents. He’s got plenty of time to learn and grow.

    • In fairness….scoring goals hasn’t been Leeds issue this season, they’ve scored 47 which is 14 more than Everton. Their biggest issue has been their defense which has given up the most goals in the EPL this season at 74 and counting.

  3. SilverRey says:

    So which do you think came first? Jim deciding to do this version of the 3-5-2 for Saturday or Bedoya’s injury? If it’s the latter then Bueno might be truly in Jim’s doghouse.

  4. Chris Gibbons says:

    I’m confused by Torres. His touch on Wednesday was atrocious, but I know that has to be an outlier. His spacing and movement weren’t great either, but am hoping the same is true there too. Whatever he’s supposed to be for this team, he isn’t yet.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Funny you say. My challenge watching him is the ‘why’ and ‘what’.
      You love a guy fearless on the ball and willing to collapse the defense with progressive dribbles…but he reminds me of the ECNL kids I see each week who dribble sideways— into a teammate’s space dragging defenders to that space—-then finally passing the ball (responsibility) {or dispossessed} to the player he just screwed but not before quitting defensively or throwing up his hands in disgust. While the coach often yells at the kid who lost the now ‘hot potato’ because we all know, US Soccer is littered with ball watching players who are now —–ball watching coaches.
      In short, at this station of my own player’s development—I find much of what Torres does~ ~Cheshire Chagrinning.

  5. Andy Muenz says:

    The Union may only be 7th in goals scored, but they have actually scored 2 more through 13 games than they did last season. Saturday was the 3rd time they’ve scored at least 3. Last year they didn’t score 3 in a game until the deluge against DC.
    King Julian was the character in Madagascar who sang what was probably the most iconic song from the movie, I Like to Move It. It’s not really a deep cut (and I’m someone who is usually culturally illiterate).

  6. The Chopper says:

    It doesn’t always work, but I am enjoying the tactical flexibility that Curtin and company are attempting. It certainly makes the Union a far more difficult club to prepare for. The frustrating rigidity of this regime before Tanner was basically this is our formation and you must play it. That got old in a hurry and was certainly counterproductive.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Boy there was a nice stretch of aesthetically pleasing footy in that 4-2-3-1 back then. I could get behind it as maddening as the ‘plan’ appeared.
      Now this…. Red Bull model without Max Verstappen’s

      • Tim Jones says:

        Required a Dockal at the 10 to make it work.
        The 4-4-2 narrow diamond doesn’t require the same quality at the attacking mid to succeed.
        Tanner knows he’ll never be given the money to buy a high quality #10, so he plays a style that bypasses it, perhaps.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Fair point, Tim.

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