The mantra from the start of Jim Curtin’s tenure has Philadelphia Union head coach is that everybody must play well for the team to win. On Wednesday night, nobody had a monster game, but the entire team contributed to a big win against a dangerous opponent. Philly benefitted from a man advantage for the final half hour, and neither team created many clear cut chances. In these games, the Union need their best players to step up, and while, again, nobody was great, Philly’s midfield got the job done.
Breaking the press
Houston opened the match pressing with their front four and offering occasional support from the two holding midfielders. The primary goal was to force the Union to play long, after which Houston would draw Philly to one side and send the ball across the pitch to an isolated winger. Here’s that pressure:
And here is how the Dynamo sought to break out:
Once more, below, you can see that the aim is to create space on the left for Romell Quioto.
Like many teams this season, Houston targeted Keegan Rosenberry early. Quioto popped free a few times, but Rosenberry did well keeping the dangerous creator from becoming a constant menace. The cost, however, was fluidity in the buildup. The Union’s right back only touched the ball five times in the first 15 minutes of the match, and he had only one completed pass in the attacking half through the opening 25 minutes.
An additional driver of the press was a desire to keep Borek Dockal from collecting the ball facing forward in the attacking half. Here’s a look at the Czech playmaker’s first half passing chart:
Houston’s holding midfielders would push to compress space behind the press, but always with an eye toward making Dockal drop deeper.
The Czech man has a knack for backpedaling a few steps off the ball, manufacturing a moment of space behind the lines that he can exploit. He had exactly one opportunity like that in the first half, and he turned it into an assist.
The Union never developed an entirely effective response to this pressure, but the stoutness of the right side of Philly’s defense meant the home team rarely turned their good defensive work into genuinely scary chances.
Red card offers opportunity
A red card without clear malice always leads to conflicting views on what constitutes a sending off. Years back, in a rare start against FC Dallas, Zach Pfeffer was sent off for an inadvertent elbow as he went into a tackle with a bit too much verve. There was no intent, but the contact was clear. Similarly, Paul Pogba was sent off for stepping on Hector Bellerin’s calf last season in the English Premier League when Arsenal’s defender quite suddenly dropped to a knee as Pogba extended his leg. Again, no intent but dangerous contact and an ejection.
Tomas Martinez placed his studs above Auston Trusty’s ankle and they slid down onto the defender’s foot. Inadvertent? Yep. Fair ejection? Oh yeah. Will it always be called that way? Nope.
Welcome to soccer. At least Martinez wasn’t just tying his shoe when he got sent off…
The interesting thing is how each team responded to the ejection. Houston moved into a 4-4-1 that left a gap behind Mauro Manotas in the middle and pulled the dangerous wingers — Alberth Elis and Quioto — far deeper. These changes breathed life into Philly’s attack, and they were finally able to possess the way they wanted in the attacking half. Rosenberry pushed forward to create dangerous combinations up the right and Dockal found himself several yards closer to goal. Additionally, Haris Medunjanin moved up the pitch and provided accurate balls through the lines for Dockal, including the one that set up Philly’s gamewinner.
A quick look at the Dynamo goal
It would be nearly impossible for any Union player to top the list of Worst Defensive Plays in a match when Alfredo Machado does this:
And while both Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty made mistakes on the Dynamo goal, they were largely in control of the dangerous Manotas throughout the match. These little breakdowns are a feature of the learning experience when you’re thrown in the deep end and Union fans should see them as such.
On the play, Houston is able to expose the center backs using wonderful buildup combinations up the left. Quioto drops deep to open the wing for his fullback and Martinez shows off his smart movement to get into a good spot behind Philly’s midfield.
McKenzie steps with Manotas when the striker receives the ball, but once he doesn’t win the challenge, the center back needs to either have position in the center or concede a foul and he does neither.
However, that error could be covered up by Trusty if he stays deep and slides toward Manotas. Instead, Trusty steps forward and the path to goal is an easy one.
If Oguchi Onyewu and Steven Vitoria are involved in this play… yeah, you’re worried. But this is just another bump in the road for the teenagers, and the fact that they rebounded and continued to make progressive passes throughout the match points to signs of growth rather than regression.