An MLS season can be a strange and wonderful adventure. A high-spending club can bring in one of international soccer’s most recognizable names and suddenly lose their seemingly-unstoppable momentum, and an entire conference race can be decided by whether one team that is incredible at home can fend off two teams that are unbelievably good on the road.
As Philadelphia Union was dicing up Atlanta United Wednesday night, the second- and third-place teams in the Eastern Conference were proving they are who we all thought they were: Excellent, organized, efficient, and… better on the road than at home. Montreal hosted New York Red Bulls and put exactly one shot on target, dropping the match 1-0 to a Jersey squad that still has two chances to achieve what only two clubs have done since 2010: Ten away wins in a single season.
This stat won’t matter to the Union. If this team cared what anyone else did, they wouldn’t have the focus and mentality to produce what is already the greatest season in Union history and still could be one of the best MLS has ever seen.
No Robbie Keane, Carlos Vela, or Sebastian Giovinco necessary.
A matchup between the Union and Red Bulls has always brought a little extra voltage crackling through the ninety minutes. Both clubs now play a style that values transitions over possession, and they have thrived this season by capitalizing on turnovers and bullying opponents with their superior organization and fitness. Neither side sent an attacker to the MLS All-Star game (though in the Union’s case, that was a clear oversight), and both teams are happy to win ugly as long as they leave the pitch with all three points.
Red Bull has spent the full season grinding out points the way the Union did early in the year. Without a breakout attacker, they have leaned on Lewis Morgan to be a difference-maker (as he was against Montreal) and then they simply shut up shop. It can be frustrating, and the New Jersey side is not afraid to slow a game down with physical play to ensure they have the energy to pester an opponent until the final whistle.
The biggest key for the Union will be capitalizing on the few times Red Bulls maintains possession long enough to turn the ball over and put themselves in a bad defensive transition moment. Since the home side holds so little of the ball, these moments rarely pop up, and Red Bull often uses them to turn the tables and execute their own attacking transition when an opponent over-extends themselves pushing forward.
The second key for the Union will be finding an effective way to transition the ball from defense to attack. Philly’s fast, mobile attackers can turn long, looping balls upfield into dangerous moments, but Red Bull is designed to encourage these long balls and they will be prepared to defend against them. That means Jose Martinez and some combination of Ale Bedoya, Leon Flach, and Jack McGlynn will need to be extremely effective as a distributive base in midfield. Otherwise, Red Bulls will successfully pressure Philly’s back line and potentially create dangerous turnovers.
This won’t be a beautiful match, but it will be 90 minutes of two very well-organized teams executing their systems at a high level. Tune in to PHL17 at 7:00 p.m. ET on Saturday, September 3rd to see a match guaranteed to be a physical, emotional battle between rivals.