On verge of playoff berth, Union hitting stride at perfect time
The Union can seal the deal this weekend, but after Saturday night's thrilling 2-0 win in Seattle, a postseason berth appears to be imminent. Peter Nowak's side reclaimed first place in the Eastern Conference with just two games left to play.
Philadelphia played an effective, gritty brand of soccer against an understrength Seattle squad. The Sounders' leading goal scorer, Fredy Montero, and leading distributor, Mauro Rosales, both watched from the sidelines. Alvaro Fernandez was on the bench, but did not enter the game. The Union were without Faryd Mondragon yet again, but rookie goalkeeper Zac MacMath has exceeded expectations in his mentor's stead.
The Union struck first through a phenomenal piece of individual skill from Gabriel Farfan. The build-up was eerily similar to his brother Michael's assist to Sebastien Le Toux in the match at Kansas City.
The left back took on James Riley 1-on-1. As Riley ushered the ball to the endline, Farfan ghosted over the defender's left shoulder, and squeezed the ball into the path of Freddy Adu, who blasted top shelf over Kasey Keller.
“That goal was all Gabe," Adu reflected after the game. "It was just great work down the line. As a professional player, we were taught to always go to the near post when the ball is down the line, to try to get in front of the defender. Lo and behold, the ball popped up right were I was.”
The Union showed a hybrid 4-2-3-1 formation, a shape they've been successful with in recent weeks.
It features Michael Farfan in his more comfortable central midfield role. The rookie tends to roam throughout the middle, while Brian Carroll holds defensively and Veljko Paunovic pushes further forward. Justin Mapp and Adu played wide on Saturday night, while Le Toux once again found success operating as a lone striker.
In essence, you could call the shape a 4-5-1, or a 4-1-4-1, as all five midfielders (including Paunovic in this case) tend to cover space and eat up passing lanes. Keeping discipline in the midfield is a collective effort, a testament to the Union's defense-first, team mentality.
"They play a 4-5-1," Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid said after the match. "They play very conservative and they try to pack the midfield and they hope to spring Sebastien for an opportunity here or there. Even though they had possession on us in the first half, they really didn’t have any real clear quality chances in the second half, but obviously they converted on the chances that they got.”
The MLS Opta Chalkboard shows some interesting trends in the movement of the Union midfielders. While M. Farfan was deployed centrally, he tended to drift to the right side of the formation. His link-up play with fullback Sheanon Williams was excellent, as the pair combined to complete 84 of their 123 pass attempts. Williams, M. Farfan, and Paunovic had the most activity around the ball among the Union starters.
Adu tended to show more centrally, while Mapp floated inside several times, completing 80 percent of his passes on the night. Carroll put in his typical effort in the defensive half. He conceded just one foul, slowed down seven Seattle attacks, and broke up five other movements through tackles, interceptions, or blocks.
“We were consistent, and coming up with some big stops in the middle and through the first half," said Le Toux. "In the second half, we had a few occasions to score when we had our chances.”
Instead of protecting the lead, the Union continued to attack in the second half. Carroll doubled the Union advantage after finishing a clinical counterattack from Le Toux. Carroll started the counter after a rare mistake from Osvaldo Alonso. Le Toux pushed through the Sounders defense and returned the ball to Carroll, who took a touch and beat Keller at the far post. The midfielder's goal was just his second since joining Philadelphia. It was his first goal in league play (U.S. Open Cup qualifier vs. DC United being the other).
What the result against Seattle means is that the Union, and their fans, could very well have playoff qualificaton to celebrate come the weekend.