Tactical Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Philadelphia Union 2 – 3 Orlando City SC

Photo by: Paul Rudderow

The Philadelphia Union suffered their third straight home loss on Saturday vs. a middling and very beatable Orlando City SC side. The Union were in hopes of rebounding from some poor form in the last few matches that has seen them conceding goals at an uncharacteristic clip.

While Philly did generate a fair amount of good chances against Orlando, their defending was atypically leaky. This, though, has been a trend as of late.

The team that was the last undefeated team in the league less than a month ago is now grasping for answers.

The back-end

The Union not only dominated possession in this game 61:39, they outshot Orlando 29 to 13. The Union also dominated the field tilt battle, with 39% of action occurring in Orlando’s defensive third.

(Graphic from WhoScored.com)

Then how is it even feasible for the Union to concede three goals at home, you ask?

Simply put, the defending from front to back, the organization and positioning out of possession, and the goal-keeping have all been suspect of late.

The Union are dead-last in MLS in “post-shot xG differential per 90 minutes,” with -0.34. Since this may be a confusing stat, it is simply goals against above expected, but also factors in the likelihood of the goalkeeper to save the shot based on where the shot is placed on frame. It does not, however, factor in goalkeeper positioning, nor the positioning of the defenders ahead of him.

So basically, the Union are conceding 0.34 more goals than they are expected to concede per 90 minutes. To put this in perspective, in the 2023 season, the Union had 0.00 post-shot post-shot xG +/- per 90, good enough for middle of the table. In 2022, that number was +0.30 per 90 minutes – 2nd in the league.

This suggests three things:

  • The Union’s goalkeeping has been poor in 2024
  • The Union’s defense has allowed attackers time and space to get off some ridiculous shots
  • The Union have had really bad luck

“I am a big believer that you make your own luck,” Jim Curtin noted after the match. “We’ve kind of, for whatever reason, shot ourselves in the foot quite a bit in the recent games… Uncharacteristic goals going against us. But we have to stick together as a group and find a way to tighten things up. It’s not for a lack of chance creation or even goals scored, but it is inexcusable to concede 3 at home.”

As Jonathan Tannenwald alluded to in his article earlier this week, the Union and its supporters, have been spoiled with the excellent goalkeeping from Andre Blake throughout his tenure. That is not to throw shade at Oliver Semmle, as he has done his best filling in for the injured Jamaican, coming up with some stellar saves along the way.

The bigger issue at hand is the defending ahead of Semmle that has been uncharacteristically poor.

“I don’t point blame at any one person or one group or one line. It’s not the goalkeeper, it’s not the defenders, it’s not the midfielders, it’s not the strikers,” said Jim when asked. “It’s the whole team.”

The Union has historically relied heavily on its defensive identity first and foremost, and that has reaped rewards for them. They are at their best when they are compact defensively, closing down passing lanes, pressing as a unit and breaking the hell out with speed and intent.

A major difference this season has been the Union’s willingness to dominate possession. In all three of the Union’s losses in league play this year, the Philly side have had the edge in possession. When the team possess, they expand and flow in a somewhat “position-less” manner, as any good team does. It is just a byproduct of the flow of the game.

But the increased possession and flow has affected the Union’s rest defense significantly.

The problem this causes is that when the ball is given away, albeit by way of silly and unexpected mistakes, the midfield and forwards are so committed to their attacking shape that they cannot recover. Once possession is given away, their opponent can slice right through the middle of them in transition.

We saw it against Seattle, against DC, against RSL. One pass and the opponent has broken through the Union’s first few lines of press, and it is off to the races.

Then, you have Glesnes who has lost a step since his off-season hernia surgery. You have Damion Lowe who has a penchant for getting pulled out of position. You have Jack McGlynn who is not known for his speed. You have a 37 year old Ale Bedoya who isn’t running the same 40 time he did 10 years ago. You have Jose Martinez who has just simply lacked the focus of late that we’ve come to expect from him. You are missing your talisman who leads the press in Julian Carranza…

It truly is the whole team.

How do you fix this? Is there a way out? Has it just become a stale fragment of what it was?

Unambiguously, the team need to rid themselves of the silly mistakes and get back to the simplicity that saw them dominate the league in 2022.

They need to rediscover the identity that made this team successful. Remaining compact, allowing the game to come to them, while relying on the pressing cues that have smothered opponents off the pitch in recent years.

The chance creation

Even though the defensive woes have made it hard to be positive, there are encouraging signs with this team.

Firstly, Mikael Uhre had a strong outing on Saturday, and came away with a goal to show for it.

He was tasked with essentially playing up-top alone, as Sullivan and Gazdag appeared to play almost a “dual-10” role while in possession. This seemingly allowed Uhre to not have to worry about crowding a striking partner with poor movement, as he has been known to do in the past.

He featured a nice mixture of target-play along with trying to get in behind Orlando’s defense. His hold-up play was on display early – notably holding off an Orlando defender at the point of the six yard box – laying off a perfect first time pass to Gazdag who really should have finished it off.

His run in behind late in the match was met with a wonderfully weighted curling 40 yard pass from McGlynn placed on a platter for Uhre. He will want this opportunity back.

His improved play might have even won him the favor of his coach. More of this dynamic play will go a LONG way for the struggling Dane.

“If you look big picture, we are scoring enough – creating enough chances. But the way we concede right now, everything that is on goal goes in the net,” Jim noted.

Which leads to another reason that supporters should feel encouraged with this team. They are creating significantly more quality chances than they are conceding. They are scoring goals.

“The guys look at each other and we actually did some really good things, but we concede so easily it just gets thrown out the window and feels like a wasted performance,” Jim continued.

On the season, the Union have the second best expected goal differential per 90 minutes in MLS with +0.46. This number is behind LAFC (+0.96), but ahead of first-place in the east Inter Miami FC (+0.45).

Funny enough, not only are the chance creation metrics positive, the Union also have the third most goals scored across MLS with 21. This is tied with LAFC, but behind LA Galaxy (23) and Inter Miami who are red hot in front of net with 35 goals.

If you consider the amount of wasted opportunities in front of goal by the Union this season, along with the amount of goals called back for questionable offside calls – it is easy to imagine a universe where the team are still undefeated.

Points over positivity

Even though the sky may seem like it’s falling in Chester, even though the team have not played up to their standard, even though they continue to commit silly errors – it is still a very young season. Their issues are truly remediable.

The Club has proven talent. They have a coach and players that want to win just as much as those supporters that spend an ever-increasing fortune on season tickets.

“There’s some things that are positive happening. I know points matter a lot more than positivity, that’s for sure,” Jim let out with a bit of a chuckle. “We have to get it fixed”

“We have a bunch of really good individual performances, but we haven’t played a complete game yet.”

The team are at yet another inflection point where they are facing significant adversity. The last time they were on the ropes, the team ripped off five straight undefeated matches after their bombing out of the CONCACAF Champions Cup.

As far as complete games are concerned, it will take the entire locker room to band together and rebound from this – just as it did a month ago. No matter how you look at the glass, the more adversity the Union face, the more battle-tested they will be when it matters most.


  1. Thanks, Blake! I needed this little jolt of positivity.

  2. The overall xG statistic, putting us 2nd in the league, tells you that a bunch of what’s happened lately is due to bad luck. A few of these goals we’ve given up lately have just been wonder-strikes.

    In theory the discrepancy between xG and results could be due to failure to finish chances. But clearly that’s not the issue, because we are scoring lots of goals.

    It seems this is a combination of 1) the drop in goalkeeping with Semmle in for Blake (and Blake playing injured when he plays); 2) some decline in defensive performance; 3) some bad luck. The latter will turn around, and the former should hopefully turn around when Blake is in good shape. I am not sure how to fix #2, but my one thought is that we switch to playing a 4-2-3-1, with Martinez + Flach (or Bueno) in the DM spots, providing more cover for the back line, and allowing an attacking midfield line of McGlynn/Gazdag/Sullivan to continue to go after goals. The odd man out becomes Uhre, but he can be brought in during the second half, especially if we’re down and have to score.

  3. Yeah does a nice job of explaining the sentiment I’ve left in a few comments for the last few games. xG shows we are leaking goals we shouldn’t. Defense has shown some shakiness but there have also been wonder strikes. xG also shows we should be scoring more, which has been clear to all the frustrated fans watching sitters get sprayed high or wide. Feel like the balance could turn quickly if just a few things tweak just a little.

  4. Andre Blake over the years has been a great eraser of defensive lapses, and the Union are feeling his absence. My major complaint about Semmle compared with Andre Blake is that he does not command the 6 yard box–he tends to stay back. When Andre Blake was a rookie, he tended to be overly aggressive within (and without) the 6 yard box, but he now positions himself extremely well. Especially on set pieces, Semmle needs to be more aggressive about knocking the ball away. In each of the losses, I can remember at least one incident when a goal ultimately resulted from such a failed potential clearance.

  5. Deez Nuggs says:

    Your numbers soothe me.

  6. This article is one I wanted to write/read. Why are we leaking goals?
    I heard Curtin’s conference where he talked about focus. I wonder about the players. Flach and younger Bedoya, vs McGlynn and Sullivan at mid, yeah, Sullivan and McGlynn are much better possession players, but they are do not carry the defensive workload of the the first pair.
    If Martinez and Glesnes are not the players they were, we are in trouble. These two have been outstanding MLS players for us through our run as a top team. This year not so.

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