Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: Philadelphia Union 2-2 Chicago Fire

Photo: Ron Soliman

Editor’s note: Taylor Thames is the head coach of LaSalle’s men’s soccer team.

The opening match of the 2024 season for the Union ended in a 2-2 draw in front of home fans at Subaru Park. There were very positive moments, especially on the attacking side of the ball for Philadelphia. The Union outshot and out-possessed an improved Chicago Fire side, but it wasn’t quite enough to secure all three points. Although Union saw the ball hit the back of the net on four separate occasions, VAR managed to play its part and both Daniel Gazdag and Damian Lowe were judged to be offside.

A Key Injury

With the Fire’s left back, Andrew Gutman,  replaced after only five minutes with an apparent hamstring injury, the introduction of Chase Gaspar made for a clear target and Union dialed up the pressure. Quinn Sullivan operated in the half space just in front of Gaspar while Nathan Harriel split his focus by getting high and wide in attack. On the flip side, it was very difficult to create the same success down Kai Wagner’s left side. Jack McGlynn rotated centrally to assist the build and Wagner was preoccupied with a threatening Selassie looking to exploit the space – so in the first half the Boys in Blue lacked width and balance.

For shots on target it was clear that the Union’s success down the right side of the field was no fluke. Both moves that resulted in Union goals started with patience and ended with precision. Not only was the combination and timing of the movement critical – the two other constants being Gazdag and Sullivan – key passes before the assist were even more important than the assist itself. Gazdag’s combination with Sullivan in behind Gaspar led to the first goal and Sullivan’s outside of the foot pass to Bedoya produced the second. 

Double Transition

Although Chicago Fire is clearly better than last season, their biggest threat was their direct approach to finding their right winger Selassie in space in transition. Fire was very direct to release pressure and utilize what I call “Double Transition” moments to take advantage of Union being unbalanced and open. A great example is the opening goal in the 39th minute from Guitierrez. Earlier in the same move, Martinez breaks up play only to hastily provide the ball back to Chicago. It is uniquely dangerous because after a moment of defending, the Union regain the ball to break forward and as a result end up even more unprepared to defend the chance.

Well aware of Union’s attacking prowess, Chicago Fire was prepared and executed well when the ball did go in behind the midfield unit. Playing a 4-2-3-1 the two CB’s and the two CDM’s did a great job suffocating the space between the lines as the ball traveled into Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre. By killing the space after the entry, they were able to be aggressive winning the front space or double down from midfield to deny the ball from being released into a new area. They significantly limited Union’s front three from getting out in transition to run at them.

Same System, New Starters

It is clear from both preseason and the mid-week match vs Deportivo Saprissa that Sullivan and  McGlynn are to be two major pieces of Jim Curtin’s 2024 team – and for good reason. Union’s familiar 4-4-2 comes with some nuance due to the unique characteristics of the two homegrown players. McGlynn was much more involved in the initial build up to break lines and play forward. Sullivan occupied the opposition left back, as noted on earlier, to create overloads with Harriel and chance creations. Both played a pivotal role in the match and will be critical if the Union are going to make a run at the MLS Cup.

Growing Into the Game

Similar to the mid-week clash against Deportivo Saprissa, Union were slow to build into the match and really establish control. Having said that, once they found their stride there were multiple chances from combination play in and around the box. Less so from their lethal transition and pressure from the front three of Carranza, Uhre and Gazdag, although they certainly still made their presence felt, it was in a slightly different way. Only minutes after the second half kicked off the Union thought they had their equalizer. The incisive pass from McGlynn found Harriel streaking to the byline and an early ball saw Gazdag find the back of the net. Although it was ultimately recalled, it was a warning sign for what was to come. 

Ultimately, the Union will be disappointed in the final result, but encouraged as they find different ways to break down the opponent.


  1. Same system new starters, system seems to me has changed to a 4-3-3 formation.

    • I also felt in practice it was more like a 4-3-3.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Santo, they’ve been doing this for a few years, most notably when Houston came to town with Herrera for the first time.

      That game, they dropped their diamond flat in front of the back four so he couldn’t operate at the top of the box and leaned Bedoya forward as counter-attacking outlet, like they’re doing with Sullivan (and as Taylor points out). It ends up looking like a 4-3-something in defense.

      Then, when they’re in transition, they’re so right-sided in attack that the shape actually looks a bit more like a 3-5-2 because Wagner sits back toward the defensive middle and Mbaizo/Harriel overlap or push up beside the right-sided midfielder.

      It’s semantics, but the formation is still a 4-4-2 diamond at its core.

      • Agreed. The tactical formation numbers don’t mean as much as what each player’s role is during which phase of the game that the side is in (i.e. – build-up, attack, defending, transition, etc).

      • Chris does that mean that everyone at PSP is of the same mind?????

    • Taylor Thames says:

      I appreciate the feedback and can understand your viewpoint. They certainly do look like a 4-3-3 in possession when they develop movement to find space in front of the opposition left back and either side of Shaqiri (the lone 10).

      Team’s tend to be in different systems depending on their phase of play – I only used that as a reference to Union’s principles and starting point.

      • respect your reply coach, but you know a tactic is used to fit your player’s availability and abilities, tomorrow when things change it will be better to use a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 that is so exciting about sports.

  2. Welcome aboard, Taylor.
    I’m going to disagree with the idea that out-possessing Chicago the way they did was a positive. The Union had 58% possession in the first half, but not only did they find themselves down by a goal, they didn’t really have any good scoring opportunities (0 SOG at halftime).
    Possession was more even in the second half and the Union looked much stronger on offense.

    • Taylor Thames says:

      Certainly, out possessing Chicago might not even be a good thing for Union or even what they’re used to but it may be a byproduct of new cogs in the wheel. Quinn Sullivan and Jack McGlynn need the ball to play progressive passes and create chances. They are far less effective without it.

      I will say there was intent and a clear objective to dominate the right side. It manifested itself in the second half, as you said – first with the 46′ goal called back for offside and later in subsequent goals.

      • Of course it was in the second half…when their right side was on the far side of the field from me 🙂 🙂

  3. Thanks for the piece, Taylor. I hope everyone steps it up a notch this season, but in particular getting more from Uhre is essential.

  4. Nice piece, Taylor.

  5. Thanks for the good piece! I’m curious how different things will look will change when Bueno/Bedoya start. I’m guessing we might see this tonight, but imagine it’s especially likely we lose at least McGlynn (and probably Harriel, maybe Sullivan) to U-23 camps and the Olympics through the summer.

    • Hopefully the Olympics will only affect one regular season game. The Union play Nashville on July 20 with the first game in the Olympics on the 25th. Other than that, it should just be League’s Cup games that are affected.

    • Taylor Thames says:

      All great points and agree. Excited to see what adjustments they make!

  6. I do not want to debate the formation anymore…….when something is not called what it is, certainly a game of football is played fluidly and a team will be moving, but the message is three attackers pressing and attacking…..that is the purpose. thus a 4-3-3.

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