The thread connecting the Union’s recent successes is not difficult to identify. Alejandro Bedoya scored the only goal in a US Open Cup quarterfinal against Orlando City. He notched the opener in a road win against Houston Dynamo, and then he set up two Cory Burke goals Wednesday night to send the Union to the club’s third US Open Cup final in five years. With Haris Medunjanin providing guidance to a young back line and distribution from deep and Borek Dockal excavating for space behind the opposition midfield, Bedoya’s role in the Philly midfield is to read the flow of the game and figure out how to both get on the ball in good spots and facilitate the overloads Philly likes to create in wide areas. Unlike Bastian Schweinsteiger, around whom the entire Chicago attack orbits and who has total freedom to wander in search of space, Bedoya must continually provide balance to a midfield that cannot afford to be out of shape when the team loses possession. Lacking a true destroyer in the middle, Philly relies instead of the intelligence of their central trio and the athleticism of their defense to force the ball out of central areas in defensive transitions. If Bedoya is caught high or on the far side, then, the Union become more vulnerable to counterattacks.
Early in Wednesday’s US Open Cup semifinal showdown, Schweinsteiger sought to take up positions high on the left side of the Fire’s shape. This both created an overload of Keegan Rosenberry, who still had to keep eyes on the fleet of foot Raheem Edwards and encouraged Bedoya to stay at home to provide support.
Notably, though, the Union captain did not oblige. Instead, he kept nudging his marker — and Chicago tended to get tight to the Union’s midfielders — into the Fire backline, hoping to create lanes into the center where Borek Dockal was lurking and seeking to escape from the watchful eyes of Brandt Bronico and Dax McCarty.
This push and pull defined the early stages of the match when neither team could impose their will on the flow of the game. The Union struggled to do so because they were likely physically and mentally fatigued after a long trip back from Portland, and Chicago could not because they had neither the shape nor the personnel to do so.
But the Fire did create a few early threats through Schweinsteiger’s positioning by releasing Edwards up the left. The recently acquired Edwards comes from the Latif Blessing School of Wing Play, which offers many excellent classes but has never hired anybody to teach “End Product.” Although the winger huffed and puffed, the closest he came to worrying the Union goal was a shot from a wide angle that rocketed over Andre Blake’s net.
Jack Elliott deserves a shout-out for his quick reads that often allowed him to halt Edwards’ progress before a dreaded confrontation in the box. On the heels of giving up two penalties in Portland at the very edge of the area, Philly would have been very disappointed to have allowed another to turn a home semifinal against them.
In order to break down the Fire, the Union needed to find ways to move the ball quickly enough to break lines and force the visitors’ midfielders to leave their assignments and help on the man with the ball. In the first half, this was difficult because Philly’s passes out of the back did not move them beyond Chicago’s line of confrontation. So when Rosenberry and Gaddis collected the ball, they remained easily accessible to a defender who could close them down before a pass to the center could open up.
As the game progressed, the Union slowly tired out Chicago’s central midfield not by controlling more of the ball but by playing more direct through Cory Burke. Burke’s ability to win knockdowns — which was complemented by CJ Sapong’s entry on the wing, where he quickly pulled a Pontius and began dominating in the air — meant the Union could push forward to hunt for second balls, which often helped create separation from the midfield markers.
Doing it on defense
The Union’s slow trudge through the Fire defense a sprint compared to Chicago’s own attempts to break down Philly. Veljko Paunovic relies heavily on his Big Three for offense, though he sneakily managed to get Dax McCarty into the lineup even though the midfielder remains listed as “out” on the official MLS injury report. Cool trick, my dude.
Of the big three, only Schweinsteiger seemed interested in participating in a game of soccer on Wednesday. Nemanja Nikolic will be dumped out in front of a TSA agent the next time Auston Trusty has to empty his pockets to pass through airport security, and Alexander Katai seemed to think the US Open Cup is a hybrid soccer/rugby tournament in which you can only pass backward.
In truth, the Fire had no access to their best attackers because their insistence on playing through Schweinsteiger meant they constantly pinned themselves in around the German. After an uncomfortable opening spell when Edwards was able to threaten (“threaten”) down the wing, Philly usually had equal numbers around the ball while the centerbacks and far-side fullback covered the space behind the defensive line extremely well. This meant no long balls that sent Nikolic in alone, and anything that Schweinsteiger played short was quickly attacked by Philly’s defense.
Despite outplaying the Fire for most of the match, the Union still took a while to find their feet going forward. One intriguing aspect of the game, though, was the effectiveness of CJ Sapong on the wing. Although Sapong would likely rather play as a striker, his size and defensive aggression were a lot for Chicago to handle, and if Ilsinho cannot recover in time for Saturday’s match against New England, Sapong could feature in some capacity on the wing once more.
The Union now have about a six-week wait until the Open Cup final on September 26th in Houston. They will need the same type of smothering defense to come out on top against a Dynamo side that can threaten in transition as well as any team in MLS. Philly will be fitting the match into a brutal stretch that includes a trip to Montreal, a midweek flight to Seattle, a home match against Sporting Kansas City on Sunday — then the USOC final — and a Saturday match in Columbus. Whew!