Los Angeles FC is undefeated at home and has an extremely in-form striker, and once they were able to get the ball into Philadelphia Union’s final third they used wonderful off-the-ball movement to run away from the visitors. Bob Bradley’s front six is stuffed with technical skill even without Diego Rossi and Carlos Vela, but it took well-executed buildups to get through Philly’s defense. Especially in the first half, the Union created many chances of their own, but in the middle of the first half and after their third goal gave breathing room, LAFC was able to dominate the game by dropping their striker deep and creating numbers in midfield.
A battle of the buildups
Both teams used patient buildups to tease apart openings through which to attack the opposition back line. A patient buildup is not synonymous with a slow buildup, though. It simply means waiting for the right lane to open before playing the ball forward. For the Union, this meant looking for ways to create a lane through LA’s midfield to either Ale Bedoya or Ilsinho. Warren Creavalle would drop deep — though not into the backline like Haris Medunjanin — and Bedoya would creep to the right to escape Mark-Anthony Kaye’s cover. Meanwhile, Philly kept their wingers high and wide to ensure the LA fullbacks couldn’t help in midfield when CJ Sapong dropped in to the lanes Bedoya created.
LAFC build right to left consistently
Going the other way, LAFC and Philly engaged in a fascinating, cagey battle for control of the middle of the field. Both teams knew that the Union were going to try and force LA away from Laurent Ciman since the Belgian’s distribution can be such a gamechanger. Thus, with Sapong sitting on Ciman, LA looked to create a 3v2 by dropping Eduard Atuesta into the back line as a third man while Benny Feilhaber moved into the area just below the center circle. This shape pulled Ilsinho forward and forced Warren Creavalle to move up the pitch as well. Additionally, right back Steven Beitashour stayed very wide to provide an option for Walker Zimmerman to dink a ball over Fafa Picault’s head, and with Latif Blessing holding Ray Gaddis deep, striker Adama Diomande could drop off the back line on Gaddis’ side to offer a pass that skipped the midfield altogether. This movement also pulled Philly’s center backs to Gaddis’ side of the pitch, leaving Keegan Rosenberry’s side mostly exposed. You can see it all play out below.
Zimmerman did a commendable job all match of creating a passing lane to the center so LAFC could switch fields. Watch as he shifts his hips to move the defender before playing the ball. Once LA gets the ball central, they quickly move to the left, and Rosenberry has to decide whether he can quickly step up or if he has to retreat.
And here it is once more, this time with Creavalle dragged deep upfield on the near side. Again, it’s not that LAFC necessarily needs more players in the center, they just need to create more spaces to play into. Ilsinho and Bedoya have two players and one key space to mark, and that’s too much to do.
By manipulating the Union defense this way, LA was able to get the ball to players like Lee Nguyen in the first half and Latif Blessing in the second and build triangles on the edge of the Union final third. Bradley’s team has too much talent in tight spaces to be contained if they can do that consistently, as their home record shows.
A real nine, but also false sometimes
It’s important to emphasize the role of the striker in these plays. Diomande is an out-and-out number nine, but he often pulls off into wide areas or drops deep to help during buildups. Matt Doyle noted this week that LA has been far better with true striker than with a false nine, but it’s clear that they don’t use their striker in the same way as Philly. Instead of occupying the center backs, Diomande leaves the center but returns there with intent once his team has progressed toward a dangerous area. This made him far more difficult to track than other lone strikers the Union’s center backs have faced this season.
Union possession tactics get creative
One of the more interesting aspects of Philly’s early strong play was how they pinned LAFC in their own third and used Ale Bedoya as the pivot man out front. Playing in the role normally occupied by Haris Medunjanin during these moments, Bedoya sprayed the ball around effectively while Creavalle looked for space inside of LAFC’s defensive block. Below you can see Bedoya’s passing chart prior to LAFC’s opener.
Without Borek Dockal, though, Philly failed to take advantage when they established numerical advantages in the LAFC final third. Below, you can see Bedoya play the ball then sprint forward to take up a position high and on the right. After a moment, this creates the 2v1 on the outside that Bedoya wanted, but Ilsinho, who has never excelled at receiving the ball in the center and turning, doesn’t notice the extra man wide.
Growth game for CBs
Although the Union’s young centerbacks each made an error that led to a goal, they also showed some of their qualities that Philly is hoping they develop and improve upon during their first seasons as pros.
Auston Trusty has been working on his long passing all year, and he has often vacillated between putting too much air under the ball and serving it too flat. On Saturday, he put some finely calibrated longer balls forward, mostly toward Fafa Picault. Unfortunately, Picault was offsides on the best of them.
McKenzie tends to play safer passes, so one area he has looked to improve is in holding possession and drawing defenses in. Multiple times on Saturday he showed patience when pressure approached and opened up the field as a result. In this early situation, he rides the pressure and finds Creavalle across the pitch.
Later, in the 33rd minute, McKenzie evaded pressure by dribbling around his man. It’s particularly notable that he’s still willing to take this chance given that his error against Atlanta United led to a goal. A consistent talking point for Jim Curtin and his staff is to trust your abilities even after an unforced error leads to a negative outcome. McKenzie has made two errors that resulted in goals this season but continues to show calmness on the ball under pressure, a key need for the Union’s possession-based system.