All season long, Philadelphia Union has shrugged off the weight of expectation and proven that organized, hard-working, full-team defense can unleash a terrifying attack. One of the most impressive aspects of the Union’s success is that they prefer not to have the ball, yet still control games. This is not how Jim Curtin’s teams used to play, but the 2022 Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year candidate has done a masterful job bringing Ernst Tanner’s philosophy to life over the past 3+ seasons. Along the way, Curtin always emphasized that his coaching staff was ready to take the reins themselves when jobs opened, and in the offseason Pat Noonan was plucked by FC Cincinnati.
Curtin, to nobody’s surprise, was right.
In his first season at the helm, Noonan has taken Cincy from a disorganized team with Designated Players that failed to live up to their price tag and produced an attack so fearsome its Big Three attackers were the second most productive in MLS… behind the Union’s.
Along with General Manager Chris Albright, Noonan unlocked highly-skilled forwards Brandon Vazquez and Brenner, injected new life into Luciano Acosta, and added a desperately-needed defensive shield in Obinna Nwobodo.
Cincy ended the season with one loss in their final 12 contests. The haters might say that those 12 games included only four wins, and that Noonan’s side allowed at least two goals seven times in that span. But the haters don’t have to face Vazquez, Brenner, and Acosta. In the postseason, when teams are tighter and chances hard to come by, three matchwinners leading the line can overwhelm an opponent if they don’t bring their A-game. Just ask the Union, who fell 3-1 in Cincy in August in a performance that they do not look back on proudly.
The big moments in this contest will happen in the center of the pitch, as Vazequez and Brenner seek 1v1 matchups against Philly’s center backs around the box. But the source of those matchups will come from the wings, where Cincy will aim to create space for their fullbacks to advance the ball and find Acosta, who either playmakes or drags midfielders out of shape. The Union have two of the best defensive transition midfielders in Jose Martinez and Leon Flach, so expect Acosta to live on Martinez’s right, behind either Ale Bedoya or Jack McGlynn, and in front of Olivier Mbazo or Nate Harriel.
Meanwhile, the Union need those three midfielders to be ball-winners and play quickly forward. If there is any delay, Nwobodo and Junior Moreno will surely be instructed to cut down Daniel Gazdag before he can receive in the open field and pick out a striker.
Additionally, the strikers will need to be hyper-aware of where Cincy’s back five is giving them space. Earlier this season, the five-man back line sat back enough to prevent balls over the top, and the Union spent the second half of the match banging against the same locked door without ever searching for a new way in.
Mikael Uhre’s deep running should open space underneath for Julian Carranza, but the Argentine has struggled to find the next pass without Bedoy’s intelligence overlaps to the right. McGlynn prefers to keep the game in front of him, and that means Carranza needs to turn his man or sync up with Olivier Mbaizo, who can become a dangerous attacking piece if he releases on time.
The Union and Cincy will be as full of offense as any match in the MLS Cup playoffs, and Philly will need its home field advantage — the noise and boundless intensity of its fans — to help shift play in its favor.