Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: Philadelphia Union 2-2 CF Montreal

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

The Union drew Montreal 2-2 over the weekend – securing the team a four game unbeaten streak conveyed by Jim Curtin as “the worst unbeaten streak I’ve ever had in the history of soccer.”

An apt characterization of what has been the reality of the team’s last two months.

This match featured some of the hallmarks that have cursed the team this season – giving up early leads, tough calls against them from the referee, and a lack of finishing that completely derail promising attacking moves.

Yet, the Union were still the better team across the full 90 minutes – dominating the chance creation and field tilt battles.

Three at the back

The team lined up on Saturday in a format many fans were calling for to combat the team’s defensive woes. Curtin opted to try a 3-5-2 formation, bringing on Damion Lowe to fill out the third CB role next to Elliott and Glesnes.

With this change in tactics, Curtin also gave Olivier Mbaizo the nod over Nathan Harriel at right-wing back, opposite left-wing back Kai Wagner. In theory, the formation would allow the Union to sustain width further up the field without compromising their defensive numbers in transition.

(Harriel and Wagner heat map 5/29 vs. Toronto from WhoScored.com)

(Mbaizo and Wagner heat map vs. 6/1 vs. Montreal from WhoScored.com)

And in reality, the change in tactics did just that. Wagner and Mbaizo were both able to sustain width and pressure further up the flanks. The added defensive support with the third CB allowed Wagner and Mbaizo to be more aggressive in the first half.

In total, the duo whipped in 31 crosses on Saturday – far and away the most on the season. Not surpisingly, 21 of these crosses came from the foot of Kai Wagner.

One issue, and maybe something that will improve with more time in this formation – only 4 out of the 31 crosses found a Union body in the penalty area.

Of course, the change in tactics came into question right off the bat when Montreal scored just 40 seconds into the game.

“I knew once we concede right away, it’s gonna be ‘the formation is the problem’,” Jim Curtin stated when prodded for his take on the formation after the match.

It is hard to blame the formation for this goal. Wagner steps up aggressively to try to press, and maybe both Flach and Martinez can do more to get goal-side of their marks?

Even so, the shot was placed nicely – curled low around Semmle into a spot that would make it tough for any keeper. Though, the shot wasn’t hit with pace, so questions can be asked as to whether a healthy Andre Blake would have been able to get to it.

The shot had a raw xG value of 0.06 with a post-shot xG value of 0.14 – indicating that the placement of the shot was better than the chance from where it was taken. But this also indicates that the shot goes in 14 times out of 100 instances and that it really should have been saved.

Yet again, the Union found themselves battling their own luck early in a match.

“But look, the goal aside, I thought the guys did a really good job out of the three [in the back],” Curtin continued. “We created and had some good width with Kai and Mbaizo and were aggressive.”

The new look and added width also allowed some other players to see the ball in more preferred positions.

Jack McGlynn was able to find the pockets he enjoys to operate in, while both Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott saw some additional space to step into and spray passes. The trio logged 31 progressive passes on the night with McGlynn punching 17 of them.

McGlynn now ranks 3rd in MLS this season in total progressive passes with 139. This puts him behind the likes of LA Galaxy’s Riqui Puig (215) and NE Rev’s Carles Gil (156).

It also puts him ahead of Luciano Acosta, Thiago Almada, Sergio Busquets, and Lionel Messi. Impressive for the 20 year old.

The Union’s first real opportunity came when McGlynn adeptly turned out of pressure and played a beautiful low cross into the feet of an offside Gazdag.

The team did well to create out of this formation, even without their leader of the lines in Julian Carranza. But just before half-time, a red card being handed out to Montreal’s Ariel Lassiter made the Union’s efforts to equalize slightly easier.


The Union entered the second frame in a much more familiar formation. Desperate for a win, Curtin subbed off Leon Flach and Jakob Glesnes, bringing on Quinn Sullivan and Alejandro Bedoya – reverting back to the diamond midfield in an effort to really go after 3 points.

With the man advantage and added comfortability from old faithful, the Union successfully forced the issue.

Early in the second, McGlynn received a horizontal pass from Wagner. One touch and a threaded pin-point zipped through ball into Uhre led to the striker getting a shot off. Gazdag astutely follows the rebound and is tripped up by Montreal’s keeper, earning himself a penalty.

It’s worth pointing out, this is really inspiring movement here from Uhre, who initially made a run into the wide channel, but paid attention and noticed Wagner wasn’t looking for him. His lateral movement the opposite way kept him alive, allowing him to find the pocket of space in behind Montreal’s right-back.


…. is the type of movement that simply should be expected from Mikael Uhre on a regular basis. Movement that is intentional, varied, and more dynamic than what he has provided in recent seasons.

Credit was due for that movement, but his goal that put his team up 2-1 just 3 minutes later is deserving of more praise.

More consistent play like this from Uhre will go a long way in life after Carranza.

2024’s thematic luck

Soon later, the team’s string of unfathomable bad luck got one leg longer.

Jack Elliott slid to win a loose ball, colliding with Montreal’s Raheem Edwards and unfortunately injuring Edwards badly.

Referee Ted Unkel initially showed Jack Elliott a yellow card for the challenge. However, after seeing the injury that Jack Elliott caused, Unkel immediately changed his mind to issue a straight red card to Elliott. For the hockey fans, it was almost akin to upgrading a 2 minute minor penalty for a high stick to a 4 minute double minor after the presence of blood on the victim.

The problem is this isn’t how the rules are written. The red card for Elliott’s challenge surely may have been upheld by VAR review, but Ted Unkel was never instructed to step over to the monitor to have a second look for a clear and obvious error.

Referees are surely allowed to change their mind. But this instance, the effect this call had on the match was monumental.

“Obviously the guy is injured and i understand that, but that can happen when two guys slide,” posited Curtin. “He does win the ball, I don’t know why it changed from a yellow to a red without anyone looking at anything. That was a little strange.”

Stunned after going from being in complete control of the game and up a man to now being even, the Union fell asleep off the restart. Montreal’s Samuel Piette finished off a headed set-piece chance that redirected off a post right into his path.

The Union fought for the last 25+ minutes of the match to try to regain the lead. Unfortunately, the team couldn’t find a way past Montreal’s keeper Breza.


A song by Modest Mouse called The View sums up the sentiment Jim Curtin shared in his opening statement of his presser.

Essentially, the song, as explained by frontman Isaac Brock, is about “for every positive thing we accomplish, something negative comes out of it.”

The lyrics, “If it takes shit to make bliss, well then I feel pretty blissfully” have been the motif so far this season. For every positive step the Union take, for every Mikael Uhre goal scored to put the team up 2-1, there is a Jack Elliott red card to let the opponent get back into the game.

They have been downtrodden by bad luck over the last two months. Yet, the luck they are dealt is often due to their own action or inaction.

Still though, there remain reasons to be hopeful. Given the circumstances this team has faced, they remain in a playoff “play-in game” position heading into an international break period without playing a complete 90 minutes of soccer in league play.

Still the team rank 2nd in xG differential and 5th in goals scored. Still the team are without their brick wall in Andre Blake and their key goal scorer in Julian Carranza. Still, the team aren’t meeting the lofty expectations set for them by PSP’s cracked and cloudy crystal ball.

With the amount of Union players away on international duty in the coming months, the team likely will not have its best XI on the field until sometime in August. The investment that the club have made in its academy will get its first prime-time showcase in these next few matches.

Next up, the team have an opportunity for revenge against Inter Miami FC.

But for the moment, we are fixed right where we stand.


  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    Your points about Mbaizo and Wagner are spot on. The diamond doesn’t allow both of them to get forward, usually one or the other so someone can cover the backline. As a result, and because the Union are so right-sided, Wagner often gets left out of the attack in all situations that aren’t set pieces. Wagner is OK at set pieces, but so much more dangerous when he’s pushed forward, creating overloads on the left with McGlynn and – as you mentioned – Uhre and Co making good runs in through.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      On the other hand, look how high up Wagner was when the ball was turned over and came down his side of the field in the leadup to the first Montreal goal? I believe he was ahead of all of his teammates, and no one was backing him up in this formation so Lowe was left to defend on his own.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    One big issue with this formation is that when the team falls behind and one of the defenders gets pulled at halftime, they are in big trouble if one of the remaining defenders gets hurt (or picks up a red card as happened Saturday night).

  3. Atomic Spartan says:

    One fruitless cross after another is so aggravating to watch. Why can’t this team generate the kind of combination play that creates better finishing chances? Is it lack of skill, lack of ideas, poor communication or what?

    • Tim Jones says:

      They really have not had that since Borek Dockal. Brendan Aaronson was borderline that only, at the MLS level. Whether Cavan Sullivan ever becomes that for the first team before he leaves is yet to be revealed.
      The first year of Uhre, Carranza and Gazdag they had that, all summer in 22 when they were scoring bunches and bunches of goals. But other teams have figured out how to shut that down.
      First, the beat the physical crap out of Gazdag, and also they triple team him whenever he is in Zone 14. And those tactics have been effective.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *