This was an entertaining game, and it really could have gone in any direction.
Perhaps the calls for a penalty kick (or two) hold merit, or after conceding a late goal, battling back to preserve a point is admirable.
At the end of the day, a 2-2 draw against the defending Western Conference champions and the only undefeated team in Major League Soccer is a positive result -- even if it doesn't feel like one to players, technical staff and fans alike. The Union debuted a new striker, moved Ray Gaddis back to left fullback, and saw the return of Austin Berry after a multi-week absence. Real Salt Lake, on the other hand, was returning both starting fullbacks and brought a strong team to PPL Park.
1. Midfield matchups
This game was billed as a matchup between U.S. international midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Maurice Edu. It figures that they both would score in the final 10 minutes of the game.
More interesting to me were the performances of Vincent Nogueira and Javier Morales against their defensive midfield counterparts.
With one team playing a three man midfield, and the other playing a four-man diamond, both attacking players had to find room to operate. Nogueira had a better second half, when he began to avoid Beckerman by asking for the ball closer to the touchline. You can see where he receives the ball in the buildup to Andrew Wenger's goal and how Beckerman wasn't involved in the play. Sheanon Williams' initial ball completely bypasses the RSL midfield and Nogueira has room on the right flank.
Figure 1: A look at Vincent Nogueira's heat map progression against Real Salt Lake
As for Morales, he had to find seams in between Edu and Brian Carroll, but he stayed slightly more central than Nogueira did. Morales' numbers were great, as he went 52-for-64 in passing, assisted on Beckerman's goal, and added a couple of key passes and successful dribbles.
Looking at the heat maps for each player, you can see that Nogueira had the tendency to split wide, while Morales operated mostly in the middle or on the right side of the attacking third.
2. Playing through the middle, or playing wide?
This was the second straight week that the Union had fewer shots on goal than the opponent.
That’s a changing trend, because Philadelphia was the better team in this category through the first four games.
A quick look:
- Shots: Union 13, Real Salt Lake 13
- Shots on goal: Union 2, Real Salt Lake 7
- Corner kicks: Union 6, Real Salt Lake 1
- Open play crosses: Union 21, Real Salt Lake 10
- Possession: Union (55 percent), Real Salt Lake (45 percent)
These numbers tell us a couple of things...
I. Salt Lake plays well through the middle of the field
They attempted fewer crosses and earned fewer corner kicks, which shows that they looked to play centrally and preferred short through balls. You saw examples of this in the 15th minute, when Luke Mulholland was able to pounce on a turnover and play-in Olmes Garcia. Another example was later in the second half, when Alvaro Saborio and Devon Sandoval had good looks from through balls inside the box.
If you can play the 4-4-2 diamond with a creative player like Morales, then it’s preferable to keep the ball on the ground and look for those passes that can split a defense.
II. The Union can be effective by crossing the ball and earning set pieces
You see the crossing and corner kick numbers; both Union goals were scored from these scenarios. The first was that beautiful wide ball from Nogueira, and the second was an out-swinging corner kick from Cristian Maidana.
Figure 2: Javier Morales' heat map progression during Saturday's Union-RSL match
It’s true that the Union midfield is much better at passing and keeping the ball on the ground this year, but the 2013 Union was actually pretty good with set pieces and crosses. Last year’s team scored 24 goals from lofted crosses, set pieces, or restarts. There were four goals scored on Sheanon Williams’ long throws. Conor Casey made a living gobbling up crosses into the box and Jack McInerney bagged a few long ball and set piece goals. Most of the 2013 goals that came through the middle of the field were on odd- number counterattacks.
There’s nothing wrong with playing “direct” if you’re good at it. San Jose played the style all the way to the 2012 Supporter’s Shield. The Union does have the personnel this year, especially with Andrew Wenger on the field, to bring that dimension back to the attack.
3. Defensive lapses again
Major League Soccer’s “Armchair Analyst” Matthew Doyle had a really good take on the Union game.
Take a look at section two of that article, when he talks about Beckerman’s goal. You see three Union players standing at the top of the box, after Sebastian Velasquez and Morales had worked really hard to keep alive a Salt Lake attack inside of the box.
That’s really just a lapse on the defensive end, and it’s similar to the first RSL goal, where Luke Mulholland simply reacted faster than the Union after Zac MacMath’s penalty save. Zac was excellent on the day, and eliminating just one of those lapses could have resulted in three points instead of one.
No doubt the Union will look to correct those issues in a trip to Red Bull Arena to take on New York. You can watch a simulcast presentation of that match beginning at 7 p.m. on The Comcast Network and WACP TV-4. Check the graphic below to see the channel guide for that matchup.
What do you think of the three points discussed? Leave a comment below.
Contact Union writer Kevin Kinkead at firstname.lastname@example.org