Cann's Corner: Union's aggressive lineup

Much like in their first meeting with Toronto FC this season, Philadelphia Union had a wonderful chance to take the lead before the Reds went ahead on Friday night. But after Alex Bono denied Fafa Picault on the break and Jonathan Osorio slipped through Philly’s lines to put the visitors up, the air slowly leaked out of the match’s tires until Toronto had play close to a standstill. Let’s focus on how the Union’s aggressive lineup sought to break down Toronto FC and where Greg Vanney’s team pressured Philly’s defense.

Move the ball to get space for wingers

Lacking their deep midfield duo, Philadelphia could not build from the back in the same manner they have all season. That is not to say they could not build, but that they needed to find new ways to create gaps in the opponent’s defense without the intelligence and flexibility provided by Haris Medunjanin.

The Bosnian’s unique skill among Philly’s midfielders is how he can drop deep to provide a third man in the deepest line, and this forces opponents to either commit an extra player forward to press or sit back and block lanes into the midfield. Medunjanin can also change the speed of play extremely well, slowing things down to draw in defenders or speeding things up when the Union have pulled the defense to one side.

The Union adjusted to Medunjanin’s absence by trying to play into Toronto’s midfield block early then spreading play out to the wings and looking to draw defenders forward and get in behind. With Ilsinho in the attacking midfield role, Philly had a player in the center who could beat his man and play to the club’s quick wingers running deep. But early on, the Union had difficulty getting behind Toronto’s wingbacks with consistency, and Ilsinho, while working extremely hard defensively, rarely found the ball in enough space to turn and drive at the defense.

When they did get behind, the Union were dangerous in theory but not in fact. In the sixth minute, Ilsinho chased down a loose ball and touched it into space for Marcus Epps up the right. The winger calmly looked inside but CJ Sapong could not create space for himself at the front post. Epps’ final ball was behind the late runner and Toronto was able to clear.

In the 11th minute,  Borek Dockal chased down a Picault cross that passed through the box untouched and drove at Toronto’s defense. His centering pass found Ray Gaddis alone but the left back’s shot went wide of goal. Once again, the Union were threatening the box from wide areas but failing to find the runs of their nominal goalscorers once they got into good positions.

In particular, Sapong’s runs continually left him without separation or a few steps behind the many good, low crosses Philly put through Toronto’s box. At his best, Sapong is a poacher in the box, but this season he has never found a rhythm that helps him read play quickly and get into good spots ahead of defenders.

The Union also missed Ale Bedoya’s vertical industry to pull Toronto’s midfielders out of the attacking channels and open lanes into the center. When Philly could find Dockal in the middle, he rotated play well, but with Sapong staying central and Ilsinho taking up positions meant to retain possession rather than create spaces for others, Philly found it difficult to progress the ball even when they held it for extended periods.

Attacking off turnovers

One big early positive for Philadelphia was Ilsinho’s advanced pressure, which twice led to turnovers from Michael Bradley.

Taking advantage of transition moments after turnovers was a big emphasis for the Union since they had such speed on the flanks. Philadelphia’s big early chance came from Warren Creavalle’s awareness after collecting a loose ball in the Union’s half. Creavalle played a vertical pass to Fafa Picault breaking behind the Toronto back line. The winger’s final touch let him down, though, and the chance came to naught.

Again, the key point for Philly was to attack quickly off turnovers, because otherwise Toronto did a very good job of trapping the Union along the wings. Below you can see that the Reds were often able to defend the Union’s wide players by using Bradley to support the two widest members of the back line and keeping Jay Chapman and Jonathan Osorio in the lanes to the center that the Union wanted to use to switch fields.

Toronto’s approach

In Jozy Altidore’s injury absence, Greg Vanney has turned to Victor Vazquez as a linking player to create wonderfully quick, dynamic transitions.

But during build-up play, Toronto set up to attack the right side of the Union defense, consistently putting extra men around Keegan Rosenberry to force the Union right back to make difficult decisions.

Above, you see Osorio drift wide and Nick Hasler push up against the Union back line. This forces Rosenberry to be aware of the lane from the center to Osorio, the link between Bradley’s long passes and Hasler, and Vazquez and Giovinco, who would rotate over to sit between Rosenberry and Mark McKenzie.

In the buildup to Toronto’s opener, you can see the effect this has on Philly’s right back. TFC is able to get Bradley on the ball with plenty of time to look around. Rosenberry initially reacts as if Bradley is going to play a long diagonal to Hasler, and this pulls him behind the Union line and more narrow than he wants to be.

At the same time, the Union fall prey to smart movement from Toronto in midfield. Warren Creavalle follows his man across the formation instead of remaining in his zone and handing off to Dockal. Dockal, meanwhile, is caught between switching onto Creavalle’s man or remaining in the lane to Chapman. Picault is not narrow enough to prevent a pass to Chapman, so Dockal remains where he is, Creavalle rotates, and Vazquez uses his intelligence to pop up in the space Creavalle abandons. McKenzie is reluctant to follow Vazquez that deep into midfield, particularly with Rosenberry still recovering and making the offsides line deeper than it should be. McKenzie then takes a big risk by trying to intercept Vazquez’s pass to Osorio, and Osorio punishes the Union with a sensational first touch to send him into a 1v1 showdown with Andre Blake.

From that point on, the Union simply don’t control play for enough stretches to break down a very solid Toronto FC defense. With five defenders and Michael Bradley in front of the back line, the Union needed to hold the ball and move Borek Dockal forward to put passes into deep spaces. No Haris Medunjanin made this type of match ownership difficult, and no Ale Bedoya made hassling Toronto in midfield to force turnovers harder and harder as the match wore on.

Jim Curtin will be criticized for his tactical choices with Bedoya and Medunjanin sidelined, but the fact remains that the match was quite even overall -- and the Union had by far the best two chances -- prior to a defensive breakdown that Osorio capitalized on with a superb bit of skill.

The Union have more depth than ever before, but as injury-riddled Toronto FC can attest this season, depth is a great asset when it supports high end talent; it is not a replacement for it. Philly was missing the heart of their team on Friday night, and it showed.

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