Albert Rusnak has 47 key passes — those that set up a shot for a teammate — in 2019. Sebastian Saucedo is second on Real Salt Lake with 19.
Haris Medunjanin has 41 KP for the Union in nearly 500 more minutes than Rusnak, and it’s impressive that the young playmaker has so many more creative passes than the intelligent Bosnian. But perhaps even more impressive is that Philly has three midfielders with 20-30 Key Passes each.
The extent to which Philadelphia has been able to sit on their competition this season has been overlooked. The Union haven’t taken every point from every match, but even in recent losses to New York City and Portland, they have been the aggressor. In NYC they showed a lack of tactical discipline and against Portland fell prey to brilliant counterattacking, but elsewhere the Union have found teams sitting deep and respectful of their transition attacks.
Saturday night’s match is likely to offer more of the same. Mike Petke is going to look at his squad and Jim Curtin’s roster and try to sit deep while protecting the center of the box. Rusnak, Jefferson Savarino, Sebastian Saucedo, and Sam Johnson will be allowed to push forward in transition — with Damir Kreilach likely to provide a late arriving body as well — but the rest of the team will do its best to stick close and prevent Philly from getting out on the break with numbers.
An underrated aspect of Kacper Przybylko’s game is how well he reads lanes to check into in transition. The big striker is a menace in the box, but he also opens himself up to passes between the lines with impressive intelligence as his team seeks to attack on the fly. RSL’s two centerbacks, Justen Glad and Nedum Onuoha, will get themselves in trouble if they follow Przybylko too deep, so expect protective midfielder Everton Luiz to handle a lot of the duties cutting out Philly’s transitions. If this is the case, a huge onus falls on Marco Fabián to find gaps around Przybylko so he can receive layoffs and play past Luiz. Jim Curtin often talks about getting numbers around the opposition No. 6 — this is always the plan when facing Michael Bradley, for example — and doing so to Luiz could be the key to unlocking RSL early.
But as last weekend’s Orlando City match showed, simply jumping on top isn’t enough: Philly needs to finish things off with a second and third goal.
To do this, they will need to focus on allowing Fabián to move into the box in the attacking third. Against Orlando City, Fabián showed his class by slipping into the box and finding gaps in the back line. As time went on, though, the Mexican sought the ball by dropping deeper. Without Ilsinho, however, the Union don’t have players that can dominate 1v1 battles and pull a defense out of shape easily when it has retreated. Instead, they need to use smart movement to ID and exploit pockets in that defense, as Fabián did for his goal against Orlando. Brenden Aaronson could provide that 1v1 magic for the Union but at 18 he has yet to fully trust his power to beat people on the turn. When he does, he’ll find that even MLS defenders struggle to keep up with his shimmies and change of pace.
With NYCFC and Red Bulls clashing, and Atlanta traveling to Seattle, this weekend marks a huge opportunity for the Union to put more ground between themselves and the clubs on their heels.
That opportunity arrives Saturday night on LiveWell Network and PhiladelphiaUnion.com at 10:00 p.m. ET when RSL and the Union meet for the only time this season.