In two out of their first three road games this season, Philadelphia Union missed a nearly unmissable opportunity before the home team scored. Against Dallas, Jimmy Maurer's Jerzy Dudek impression kept CJ Sapong from celebrating, and Ale Bedoya hit woodwork with a wide open header from the center of the box in Toronto. In both cases, as the scorelines show, the home side did not miss their big chance when it came. On Saturday afternoon, the tables were finally turned. First, Kevin Stott waved off a penalty shout against Ale Bedoya in the 5th minute that could have been a gut punch to a team so dearly in need of points but struggling to score on the road. Montreal could have sat extremely deep and pushed everything wide as they did against Atlanta while releasing Nacho Piatti for transitions.
Union convert, Impact do not
Instead, no penalty, and Cory Burke was on hand to give the Union the confidence-boosting road goal they desperately needed.
The Union had been on the receiving end of the worst Finishing Rate Against in MLS overall (15.3%), and third worst on the road (17.8%), behind Houston and New York Red Bulls (NYRB, by the way, had allowed only 32 shots over their 3 road matches before giving up 15 to Colorado on Saturday). Those numbers had to come back to Earth at some point, and Saturday was a start. The Impact had chances, but they didn't finish -- most memorably Saphir Taider's back post header that slammed into the turf and over Andre Blake's goal.
It is notable that Taider's chance did not involve Piatti. The Argentine wizard has been the catalyst for so much of the Impact's offense that Remi Garde could not rest him for any of the week's three matches. And with his involvement limited on Saturday, Montreal was unable to get into space behind the Union's defense the way they did against New England. Piatti finished the game with two shots and one key pass. This lack of production was driven in large part by a Union defensive scheme that pushed the playmaker deep and to the wing to receive the ball, essentially moving him further from the goal to make him less of a threat.
Keegan Rosenberry put in a standout performance to lead the defensive effort against Piatti. Three tackles, two interceptions, all seven clearances successful, and he was quick to step out of the back line in order to close his man without leaving himself on an island as he has in past encounters with the Argentine. Mark McKenzie also put in a very mature shift and did not panic when defending deep in his own box.
That in-box defending came courtesy of the one area in which Rosenberry struggled: 1v1s in the corner. Piatti repeatedly danced past the Union right back took take on McKenzie. There are few in MLS that can credibly claim to be able to stop Montreal's talisman in isolation, though, and that is why it is so helpful to force him to receive the ball far from goal. Support from the middle of the pitch is more readily available near the middle third, and the defense has additional time to rotate as a unit rather than scrambling to cover.
Prior to Cory Burke's 58th minute red card, the Union's pressing made it difficult for Montreal to play out of the back and nearly impossible to build through the middle. The Impact prefer to control the wings, but they need to pop up in the center to keep the Union honest. Without that, Philly's central midfielders could effectively support the wide areas and, crucially, had time to collect their thoughts after receiving the ball following turnovers. If Haris Medunjanin was in the first, rather than the third, game of a long week, he may have picked apart the loose Montreal defense from the start, spraying balls behind their fullbacks with ease. But the Bosnian's long week dragged down his accuracy, which can serve as a warning sign to the Impact next time these teams face each other.
The pressure also meant the Impact were rushed when playing the ball downfield. As a fairly direct side, Montreal does not aimlessly punt the ball forward, but tries to time their long passes so the strikers can pull off their defender into space behind or in front, then find support from midfield and rotate to Piatti.
On Saturday, most of the Impact's completed long passes went sideways, and the Union did a good job containing knockdowns after the initial aerial challenge. That left Montreal to win 1v1s or emulate Columbus and look to pass behind the Union midfield to create chances. They tried both, and found success at times with each, but in the end the Union's defending in the box was alert and effective, and for Jim Curtin the Impact's shot chart prior to Burke's dismissal will be a thing of beauty.
Attacking a weak point
With Lauren Ciman in Los Angeles, there are no elite passers in the back five for Montreal. Additionally, Jukko Raitala is converting from a left back into a center back and is still learning how to quickly assess his depth of passing options. In other words, if you put him under pressure, he'll play fairly predictable short passes. Indeed, the Union keyed on Raitala when they could, and they got conservative distribution in return. Similarly, Samuel Piette's inability to play longer passes to an advanced Piatti.
Burke's big day
Finally, let's try to grasp just how good Cory Burke was before getting sent off. In 58 minutes, Burke had four shots -- two on frame and one a goal -- and a key pass. But wait, he's not done. Burke also completed two passes into the box, had a tackle and a recovery in the opponent's box and added another tackle and recovery in Montreal's half, and was a force to be reckoned with challenging for long passes from Andre Blake and others.
And Burke's goal was a wonderful example of attacking a cross. He had a yard of space to work with, and beat his defender to the spot to power the ball home. It finished off a move that the Union would like to see more of going forward: A vertical pass by Medunjanin into the feet of Borek Dockal, who, after pulling into a hole, turned and forced the defense to make decisions.
The Union will look to emulate that sequence this weekend against Real Salt Lake.