Cann's Corner: New shape, same team

When the match was over, Philadelphia Union Head Coach Jim Curtin gave credit to the crowd at Talen Energy Stadium for being riled up, entertaining, and loud throughout the match. It was just one more way the US Open Cup provides a strange and surprising spectacle like few others in American sports.

Also strange and surprising? The lineup and formation put out by Richmond Kickers Tuesday night. Head coach Leigh Cowlishaw said after the match, “We came out with a different lineup and I thought at moments it caused them problems and if we were a little bit smarter on our execution when we won the ball it might have been more of an interesting story.”

That lineup was a 5-3-2 with former Colorado Rapids fullback Mekeil Williams playing in the middle of the backline. Richmond also played with wide man Raul Gonzalez in a central role up top, working with Luiz Fernando as the transition points whenever the Kickers had a chance to get out of their own half.

New shape, same team

Even if the shape was different, Richmond’s style of play remained the same: Sit, try to keep the Union in front of you, and create a few chances on the break. The Kickers ran into two big problems. First, they could not keep Philly in front of them. In the early moments, it was David Accam and Matt Real up the left that got in behind, drawing both the wingback and right centerback over so Cory Burke could use his speed against Williams in 1v1s running through the channels. Then Marcus Epps heard his music and took center stage, unfurling a stunning array of quick-footed moves that made it seem as though Ilsinho was controlling his feet from the bench. Epps’ confidence in isolations has made him the Union’s most dynamic winger this season, and as his fitness begins to reach the level Curtin prefers, he will draw more attention and open space in the center for the dangerous Borek Dockal.

Second, Richmond’s shape meant players were often on different pages, and outlet passes were played out of bounds, square balls behind runners, and open backside runs missed. Philly’s cool dominance was the story of the day, but for opposing coaches, the gaps left as the Union retreated against counterattacks will be highlights for the film room.

Small, fixable flaws

The Union were undoubtedly the better team on the night. And even if Cowlishaw felt Cory Burke’s penalty, which effectively put the game out of reach, was a dive, his side can consider themselves lucky to sneak out of the match with only five goals conceded. As the match progressed, Philly’s hunger for goals got the better of them, and they began making more vertical passes rather than playing the ball around and then hitting angled throughballs. Beyond being easier to defend, vertical passes often involve playing toward the feet of the first man moving along the front line, and this means that space opened by that first runner is ignored. Particularly with Williams often playing tight to Burke and Anthony Fontana drawing a defender close to him as he moved through the center of the pitch, the Union missed opportunities to move the defense then play into newly opened gaps.

Individual talent triumphs

Missing those holes is forgivable when you can simply skip through the first defender, and the Union often could. Epps flicked men aside like so many mosquitos, Fontana’s quick, controlled turns left him with space to attack before he could be closed on, and Derrick Jones spent the better part of the second half doing his best impression of a bulldozer when anybody tried to take the ball off him. Even the Union’s short-term signing from Bethlehem Steel, Michee Ngalina, got in on the action, constantly drawing a second defender as he broke down the right in the second half.

Union soccer on display

The most important takeaway for Philly’s coaching staff may be that they were able to clearly recognize their brand of soccer even with a ton of changes to the first eleven. All five homegrown players saw the field, showcasing the first wave of talent that has come up through the academy playing the club’s style. The ability to produce players that are well-versed in the Union’s approach and can be plugged into the squad at a moment’s notice is a competitive advantage that the entire club takes seriously, so seeing that come to fruition on the pitch was a big positive.

“I think the system that we play, I thought was on display well tonight everyone passed and moved and wanted the ball,” Jim Curtin said following the game. “You go through and everyone has contributed who was on the field, so not much of a drop-off at all. That was good to see.”

The Union will be put to a more difficult test on Friday when they face a Toronto side struggling to rediscover their identity and form as they fight through a rash of key injuries. Toronto’s calling card over the past few seasons has been the ability to change shapes while retaining an understanding of where players should be and how the ball should move. With Michael Bradley in the back line, that understanding has gone missing at times, and the Union will look to use their own system to dominate play at home against the defending champs.

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