Cann's Corner: Big Play Breakdown | Union vs. Red Bulls

Haris Medunjanin's goal

After staying on the front foot for most of the opening half and spurning multiple gilt-edged opportunities, Philadelphia Union’s commitment to spreading the pitch and attacking Red Bulls’ first defender on the dribble finally paid off in the 51st minute.

Haris Medunjanin scored a belter from deep, but he also started the transition that led to the goal and did Ilsinho proud with a monkey-in-the-middle move to send Tyler Adams twirling off into the night.

Let’s take a closer look at how Philly created their opener Saturday night.

One of the more easily overlooked keys to creating this chance is the first pass from Ray Gaddis to Medunjanin in the Union’s own box. Gaddis may not be thought of as the most technical of players, but he understands that in this situation the game plan calls for finding Medunjanin, Ale Bedoya, or Borek Dockal if they are available. Medunjanin is already starting his forward movement in anticipation of the pass, and this allows him to prepare for the tackle that quickly arrives, even if he is lucky to come through it cleanly.

That initial commitment to possession from Gaddis, when he could have easily booted it high and long to relieve pressure, allows the Union to keep New York on the back foot so they cannot set up their stifling midfield defense.

Once Medunjanin gets the ball to Fafa Picault, you can see why the Union spent time working on finding space over the New York defense. Picault recognizes that the Red Bulls have many bodies on the near side, but since no defender has access to the ball -- meaning nobody is close enough to force Picault to put his head down -- the winger can pick out a long cross-field ball to Bedoya.

At this point, we need to rewind and focus on Dockal. The Czech midfielder starts off just inside Medunjanin and makes a loping run through the middle that is tracked by Marc Rzatkowski. New York was using a very unbalanced shape in midfield with Rzatkowski on one wing with license to drift inside and help Tyler Adams and Derrick Etienne on the other tasked with pushing forward when Carlos Rivas moved wide and occasionally creating width himself.

This means that there were opportunities for Philly to isolate Adams and deny him support if they could move Rzatkowski. And that is exactly what Dockal does in this situation.

By the time Bedoya collects the ball from Picault, Dockal is pulling Rzatkowski into the back line. When the Union captain moves toward the box on the dribble, he has Ilsinho pinning the wingback in place with his wide run and Dockal collapsing three defenders on the space at the top of the box. This means Medunjanin has only Adams to deal with in the center. Still no easy task as Adams is a creature of pure energy, but a situation that allows Medunjanin to take a chance with his dribble, knowing that New York will only have Adams and Etienne upfield following a turnover.

A little wiggle-waggle on Adams and that big left foot delivers the lead for the Union.

Cory Burke's goal

After Philadelphia Union took a 1-0 lead in their Round of 16 matchup with New York Red Bulls, Jesse Marsch threw on his big names to mount a comeback. Before Bradley Wright-Phillips and Daniel Royer could make a difference, though, the Union doubled their lead with a wonderful bit of play featuring Keegan Rosenberry, Haris Medunjanin and Ale Bedoya. But there is a secret star to this sequence; see if you can spot who it is in the buildup to the goal.

That’s right -- while the rest of the Union are playing the ball, Borek Dockal is playing the Red Bulls defense like a fiddle.

The passage of play begins with Rosenberry intercepting a pass from Kemar Lawrence up the wing. Lawrence does not have a central option at the time he plays the ball because New York is still reconstructing their shape following the addition of Royer and Wright-Phillips. You can see Rzatkowski rotating across to support, but only after the pass has been made.

Once Rosenberry has the ball, he plays a quick combination with Ilsinho, finds Rzatkowski rolling over so New York has equal bodies near the ball, and is lucky to get out of trouble and leave Bedoya with time to look up.

This is when Dockal begins his work. Sitting in space in the center, he checks over his shoulder and sees that with Ndom far over to the wing, any movement he makes will need to be tracked by Aurelien Collin, and this will, in turn, force a response from Tim Parker as well. Disrupting Collin and Parker will give Cory Burke a 1v1 with a central defender for a back post run. Having seen how Burke was treating Collin like a giant ragdoll throughout the match, Dockal is right to think that he should manufacture an individual matchup if he can.

After Bedoya scans the scene, he returns the ball to Rosenberry in hopes that the fullback can create a man-more situation -- in which the Union have an extra man on the flank -- against Ndom. At this moment, Dockal makes a diagonal run behind Lawrence, which moves the wingback and draws Collin as well. With this one run, Dockal controls two defenders. You can actually see that Lawrence was about to move toward the ball until Dockal makes his move, and instead he stays deep in the passing lane to the Czech midfielder.

Now Red Bull must commit Royer to defense on the edge, so when Rosenberry combines with Ilsinho again, Bedoya can shield off Wright-Phillips, use Ilsinho as a dummy pass to freeze Royer, and create time so he can scan the field. Note that at this same moment, Dockal shifts back to the center, and as does so, Collin and Parker need to decide how to handle him.

Collin drops off, so when Bedoya plays the ball to Medunjanin, Red Bulls have four (!) players on the flank, Rzatkowski attempting to shadow Bedoya, and Collin and Parker deep. Medunjanin realizes this and plays the ball into the channel for Bedoya, putting the Union captain inside Red Bulls’ left wingback and left center back.

Now, with Collin dropping off, Parker must make his decision -- and he chooses poorly. Dockal has moved back inside and the New York center back steps to Philly’s creator. Connor Lade, the right wingback, does not anticipate this, and he is not in position to cover Burke. Bedoya receives the ball back from Medunjanin and immediately recognizes the lane behind Parker. Bing, bam, boom. The Union are up two goals and without even touching the ball Borek Dockal has delivered a psychological roundhouse kick to the collective temples of the Red Bull back line.

Kemar Lawrence's chance

In the 50th minute, moments before Haris Medunjanin finally translated Philadelphia Union’s dominance into a lead, Kemar Lawrence nearly took the air out of Talen Energy Stadium. The wingback’s powerful left-footed strike was saved by the stellar Andre Blake, but only with the help of a friendly bounce off the underside of the crossbar.

Let’s take a look at how New York generated this chance and how the Union defense was beaten.

In order for Philly to play with wingers that stay high up the pitch, they need to make it difficult for centerbacks to find their fullbacks when they take up advanced positions that allow them to break the first line of Union pressure. In the video below, you can see Lawrence backpedaling to quickly stretch the field and force Ilsinho to take a wider angle. Additionally, this movement by Lawrence creates a wider lane in the channel for a checking midfielder, but you can see Ale Bedoya alert to this run.

As Ndom carries the ball to the left, Ilsinho does not curl his defensive run to get into the lane between the center back and fullback. Ndom breaks the Union’s front three with a simple wide pass, and Carlos Rivas is already cutting toward the corner for a long look up the wing. This is a good moment to highlight the subtleties of Bradley Wright-Phillips’ game. When these teams met in May, Wright-Phillips would wait until the last possible moment to make his cuts in front of defenders, creating a sense of security and then whisking it away.

Rivas’ movement is more raw, but his speed and physicality allow him to work around Mark McKenzie in much the same way Cory Burke bodied up Aurelien Collin most of the match. As Rivas breaks up the left, you can see how separated he has become from Auston Trusty. After the match, Jim Curtin noted at the young centerbacks did not slide or move well together, and here you can see one example of that issue. Additionally, Keegan Rosenberry fails to track Lawrence through midfield, who creates an extra man in the box. The Union fullback finds himself in a difficult position after he did not step to Lawrence because he expected Ilsinho to close the wide passing lane and is bypassed by the wingback’s long forward pass.

In short, the Union have been quickly undone by two passes, but their response to those passes is what leaves them open to danger. Instead of becoming compact in retreat, they leave a huge gap in the channel that allows Kemar Lawrence to take center stage in a huge opportunity.

The positives to take away from this situation is that it comes from a breakdown of the Union’s defensive structure, not from a flaw inherent in their system. Philly’s wingers have become far better at positioning that cuts out the fullback as the season has progressed, and you can see why that is so important to the team’s defense.


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