Before he could score his first brace in Major League Soccer, Borek Dockal needed to jink past the long legs of both Brek Shea and Jose Aja. Sharp cuts and strong balance allowed the Union playmaker to create space for his second powerful left-footed finish of the evening, but it was the fundamentals of Philly’s possession-based style of play coming together that put the Czech man in position to double his tally and send the Whitecaps packing.
Mark McKenzie rarely looks for the long, raking cross-field passes that Auston Trusty has sought to add to his game this season. But this should not lead one to believe McKenzie is a poor passer of the ball. The rookie center back plays simple, but that should not be interpreted euphemistically: McKenzie consistently finds passes that hit playmakers’ feet early so they have time to turn, and he looks to keep the ball in areas where the Union have an extra man. The pass that opens the move leading to Philly’s second goal is a perfect example.
Two things are key in the pass itself and one big thing is key strategically. First, the pass is played early and into space, leading Warren Creavalle and acting as an indicator of pressure. By playing into space, McKenzie forces Felipe to come further on his pressing sprint and gives Creavalle time to, if he so chose, spin away from pressure or take an extra touch. Second, the pass is played early enough to put the ball back into Vancouver’s lines before the Caps can reset their shape. The first thought for many young players would be to move the ball away from a crowded area when it is recycled, but McKenzie can see that the Union have an extra man on the right, so he needs to get the ball back into that zone before the Whitecaps have figured out how to match up.
This speaks to the strategic aspect of the pass. The Union -- and this is by no means a unique tactic within MLS or world soccer -- stress man-more situations. These are instances in which Philly has a numerical advantage in a particular space on the field. For Jim Curtin’s team, that is often the right half-space, a vertical zone that runs endline-to-endline between the wing and the center of the pitch, or the right wing. A man-more situation will either lead to a free man or force the defense to commit another defender to the area, potentially opening gaps that can be exploited further up the pitch. So by playing this seemingly simple pass, McKenzie has created the chance that will, a few steps down the line, create breathing room against the Whitecaps.
Above, you can see the results of McKenzie’s pass. Philly immediately creates two man-more situations up the right, and their staggered shape allows them to build triangles down that wing so Ilsinho can drive with space into the heart of Vancouver’s defense. Although the Brazilian’s decision-making around the box can be questioned, when the Union are putting themselves in these kinds of situations with regularity, good shots will follow. And sure enough, Dockal was about to score his second.
The remainder of the play features shocking defending from Vancouver, but once again it is Dockal’s subtle movements that put him in position to be dangerous. First, Creavalle plays the ball to Ilsinho at the top of the box with little pressure on him. Cory Burke drags Doneil Henry out of the center of the area, and when Ilsinho plays him the ball, both Felipe and Shea drop to help, though neither puts enough pressure on Burke to force the ball wide. Instead, the Union striker returns the ball to the top of the box, where Ale Bedoya is arriving to provide an extra body.
Once again, Vancouver’s defensive shape here cannot be overlooked. Nicolas Mezquida has not tracked Bedoya’s run, Jordon Mutch and Aly Ghazal are protecting the area atop the box (smart!) with all the intensity of a pair of cats sunning themselves in the afternoon sun, and nobody seems to remember that Ilsinho exists.
That last one is not entirely true, because Ilsinho’s presence becomes key when Felipe realizes he is the only one ready and willing to press Bedoya as the Union captain approaches the box. Felipe curls his pressing run to cut off the pass he expects to Ilsinho, but this has the effect of opening the lane to Dockal in the center. Unfortunately for Felipe, neither Ghazal nor Mutch has noticed that Dockal swiftly moves away from them into a passing lane.
Once the Union’s star man has the ball, he turns away from Shea’s leggy attempt at the ball, pushes the ball beyond Aja’s button-mashing stab of a tackle, and winds up for a big blast that Brian Rowe leaps toward in a face-saving but quite useless bit of athleticism.
Sometimes -- think Ilsinho vs Chicago -- individual brilliance and smart team play combine to create a great goal, but the individualism shines most brightly. Against Vancouver, the Union’s excellent buildup play stands out, but Dockal still must be crafty to round two defenders before he scores. In both cases, Philadelphia Union are scoring goals that point to a strong tactical foundation putting players in positions to succeed.