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The diamond midfield is the Union’s most effective shape

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Diamonds are forever.

Well, maybe not as applicable this season, but it is, at least, the shape that is closely associated with the identity of the Philadelphia Union. And on Saturday and Wednesday evenings, Jim Curtin chose to revert back to the midfield shape that has been at the forefront of the Union’s rise.

The Union’s midfield has seen a number of different faces, shapes, and personnel combinations this season. However, it is apparent that the diamond shape and a certain combination of faces have them playing their best brand of soccer in 2023.

The personnel and shape that have driven play the most effectively this season is, of course, the diamond midfield of Jose Martinez, Jack McGlynn, Jesús Bueno, and Daniel Gazdag.

Muy Bueno

Outside of the straight red card on Wednesday, Bueno has been muy bueno of late. So much so that he recently received his first call-up to the Venezuelan national team for the games against Colombia and Paraguay during the international break coming next week.

He has played significant minutes at the #6 and #8 respectively, making it so that the numbers may not speak to the full effect that Bueno has had on the team in 2023. Thus, his impact isn’t always apparent to the naked eye, but his game has very few blemishes right now.

He’s been a very effective box-to-box midfielder in Curtin’s system, filling in nicely for the injured Alejandro Bedoya and Martinez at times. Bueno’s true breakout came in the Leagues Cup competition where he appeared in every match, but has gradually been more impactful as his playing time has increased throughout the season in whole in all competitions.

His defensive game is just as productive as his offensive game, providing much-needed supplement to Martinez’s defensive prowess in the middle of the park. His 3.28 tackles per 90 minutes and 1.90 tackles won per 90 minutes in MLS play lead the team and display his ability to get “stuck-in” as the Brits say.

Coupling this with his team-leading +1.20 +/- per 90 minutes in MLS play, it is clear that Bueno’s contributions do not get lost in the shuffle and his presence is paramount to the success of the squad in 2023.

Bueno’s two goals in all competitions, along with the other stats above, prove that it is possible to be effective on both sides of the ball as a shuttler in the diamond and not be named Bedoya. Philly has one for the future in Bueno, as long as he can continue building on the success he has garnered in 2023.

Start McGlynn and we win

Missing a portion of the year to compete in the U20 World Cup with the USMNT U20s, McGlynn has shone brightly in his performances this year in all competitions.

Often criticized for his lack of defensive ability, McGlynn is the most competent deep-lying Union midfielder with the ball at his feet, completing a team-high 86.2% of his passes in MLS play. Not only this, but his movement off the ball is just as intelligent as his passing ability.

Johan Cruyff famously said, “When you play on possession, you don’t have to defend, because there is only one ball.” This is not to say the Union become Manchester City when McGlynn plays, but that his movement and ability on the ball allows the team to play in a more expansive fashion.

McGlynn’s impact on the team when he is on the field is significant. Heading into Wednesday’s matchup, the team’s 1.66 expected goals per 90 minutes when McGlynn is on the pitch is a team-high. The team’s +0.49 in xG+/- (team expected goals generated minus team expected goals allowed) per 90 minutes while McGlynn is on the field also leads the team.

The Union have only one loss in all competitions in games that McGlynn has started in 2023. The singular loss came at the hands of LAFC in the second leg of the CCL semi-final in LA.

These stats illustrate how important McGlynn is to the attacking nature and overall success of the team. At times, it seems as though the team plays an entirely different and more aesthetically pleasing brand of football when McGlynn is on the field, which speaks volumes about the twenty-year-old.

El Brujo

There is not much to say about Martinez that the reader doesn’t already know. He can be a roller coaster at times, but he is still one of, if not the most, impactful players to this Club when he is on the field.

His sharp edge is part of what makes him special, and it is part and parcel of what has earned him the praise he’s received across the league over the past couple of years. However, his much-improved discipline has not gone unnoticed.

He has yet to receive a red card in 2023. This may not be reflected in the number of yellow cards he’s received in MLS play in 2023, as he is averaging 0.44 per 90 (0.39 per 90 in 2022). Still, he has kept his cool in moments where he would have been a little more erratic in prior seasons.

Heading into the Toronto match, the team xG +/- per 90 minutes when Brujo plays is second to McGlynn’s (+0.49) at +0.47 and matches Andre Blake’s total. His progressive passes per 90 minutes are also second to McGlynn’s 7.66, with Brujo sitting at an even 6.00 per 90 in MLS play.

He may spray an awry or risky pass every now and then. Though, clearly these stats indicate that he’s important to the team going forward, maybe more so than supporters and pundits want to admit at times.

Hungarian Harden

Like Martinez, the reader already knows how important Daniel Gazdag is to the success of the Union. His game is much more aesthetically pleasing, and often directly connected to goals or assists, and therefore, it is easy to perceive his value.

As any prime #10 talent should, he leads the team in primary assists. Dani is also tied with Carranza for team-lead in goals with 10 in MLS play, 9 of which have come from the penalty spot, where he has been automatic.

After last Saturday’s match, he moved into second place in regular season goals in franchise history, tied with CJ Sapong with 36 goals. Fourteen more goals will see him tie Le Toux’s franchise-leading fifty — a real gem of an accomplishment.

Moving into advanced metrics territory, Gazdag does not disappoint. Prior to Wednesday’s match, his 3.89 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes in MLS play leads the team. His 0.66 goal-creating action per 90 minutes in MLS play also leads the team for players playing greater than 200 minutes. His 1.56 passes into the penalty area per 90 in MLS play is second to that of, surprisingly, Joaquin Torres.

Those stats are only confirmation of what the eye already tells us. Gazdag is pivotal to the attack and is one of the best attacking midfielders playing in MLS.


Injuries, the elongated season, the many competitions, and international duty forced added some pressure to the team.

Unironically, pressure creates diamonds.

And while the perception may have been that the pressure of the long season caused Union to lose course and identity over the past month, they have the opportunity to find themselves again in their preferred midfield shape.

As the Union have fallen back on old faithful, they’ve regained their identity. The Union’s scouting department and academy have found some diamonds in the rough that are continuing to push the team forward.

With this newly found midfield personnel combination in the diamond, and the focus being on the MLS Cup/Supporter’s shield, look for more of what has been the Union’s most effective diamond midfield.

All stats courtesy of


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    Martinez is not more disciplined. While he hasn’t gotten a red card, he has now been suspended twice for yellow card accumulation. And that is despite missing 4 games for reasons other than suspension. And once he returns, he’ll only be 3 yellows away from a third suspension with 7 games to pick those ups (since a yellow in the last game won’t lead to suspension).
    And the worst thing is that both times he’s been suspended, the card that put him over the threshold it was during a dead ball situation late in a game that had already been decided. Intensity is one thing. Being aware of the situation is what shows intelligence and maturity. Martinez is as mature and intelligent as a two year old. When he is being booed when the startling lineup is announced against Cincinnati, that will be me you hear booing him, especially if they lose to New Jersey Sunday like they lost to San Jose last time he was suspended.

    • Good point about dead balls in matches no longer in doubt.
      Perhaps at every late game dead ball, Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott should sprint to him wherever he is and physically carry him to Andre Blake’s net for a heart to heart with his goalkeeper, safely away from trouble.

  2. I do think if we want to continue with the diamond we really need a refresh. I think a big need is a real DP-level, high quality 8. Someone who can really come in and own that midfield. Because otherwise I am not impressed with the future there.

    Bedoya is 45 years old. McGlynn is going to Europe. Flach has leveled out to a good defending but awful attacking 8 (and he may be eyeing Europe too). Bueno has been a nice surprise but I don’t think his ceiling is much more than a nice MLS 8. That’s basically it.

    Imaging using being able to get the MLS DP version of Kante or Gundogan. That would really jolt some life back into that formation.

    • I think this is a good point. A couple of really strong 8s, as good in recovery runs without the ball as they are at line-breaking passes on attack would be nice and might provide the strikers we have with better service.

      To be honest, I don’t love the formation and don’t really like the style of play. I get it. It’s clearly worked and led to the Union’s most successful period, but when it goes wrong, it really goes wrong. It also seems to require other teams to play into your trap. It’s not great. I preferred the possession-favoring 4-2-3-1 days when we played some pretty superb, passing football. Would love a good 4-3-3.

    • Leon Flach has played this season with some kind of injury to his pelvis/general groin area.
      Philadelphia sports fans traditionally appreciate players who show “Philly tough” and try to play through it, whatever it may happen to be.
      HIPA and human respect for privacy mean Flach’s details are unclear and should remain so.
      To quote the carrier’s admiral (actor Fred Thompson) from Hunt for Red October, “Now, it’s up to you, Charlie, but you might want to cut the kid some slack.”

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