Tactical Preview: Union vs. New England Revolution

The Basics

Who. New England Revolution, two points above the Union in the Eastern Conference standings
When. 7:30PM EST on Saturday, August 11
Where. Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA
Watch. PHL17, ESPN+

Updates

Ilsinho and Mark McKenzie remain question marks for Saturday’s matchup. Jack Elliott looked good on Wednesday against Chicago, and Cristian Penilla’s speed and desire to cut inside should pose a big test for Elliott should he go on Saturday.

The Revs only injury is Chris Tierney’s long-term knee issue.

The Stakes

Two points separate the Union and the New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference standings. But more importantly for many, a red line also sits between the Revs, who occupy sixth place and the final playoff position, and Philadelphia.

That makes the next three weeks, in which these two sides face off twice, seem extremely important in the playoff race.

Rewind

Week one. CJ Sapong ripped apart the Revs defense, and the visitors finished the day short two center backs after both were dismissed. Philly ran Brad Friedel out of town in his first match as a head coach, but the former US Men’s National Team goalie has since righted the ship by getting buy-in on an aggressive pressing system centered around Wilfried Zahibo’s incredible field coverage in front of the back four. Recent form has dipped, however, and New England is in the midst of a five match winless streak in which they’ve collected only two points.

Last weekend, New England gave up a 2-0 lead and a 3-2 lead before drawing with Orlando City.

Big Picture

New England defense. New England’s season has been defined by the introduction, success, and subsequent stumbles involved in implementing an aggressive full-field pressing scheme that forces turnovers and allows the athleticism of Penilla, Teal Bunbury, and Juan Agudelo to threaten the opposition before they are set up.

The Revs push four or five men into the first wave of pressure and allow Luis Caicedo to monitor passing lanes to intercept or step onto a pass receiver in the center when his back is turned. When this works, it creates turnovers far up the pitch and leads to excellent counterattacking opportunities. When it fails, the Revs are left with Zahibo in space and a shaky back line backpedaling.

One thing to watch on Saturday is whether New England chooses to regularly press Andre Blake. At times, they will sit off the goalie and allow the first pass before beginning their pressure, but if the Union play a pass back to Blake under duress, the player closest to the Union goalie can also continue to press through his man and force Blake into a long ball.

Union attack. To combat the Revs pressure, Philly is likely to keep an extra man in the first phase of buildup. This often means Haris Medunjanin will drop between the center backs, with Ale Bedoya and Borek Dockal free to hide behind the first wave of pressure and seek to overload Zahibo in the center.

New England likes to trap teams on the wing in the middle third of the pitch, but to do so they release Zahibo into the channels. This opens the middle if Philly can beat the first pressing man or play a combination that opens a lane behind Zahibo. Finding that central space is particularly important because the Revs center backs are loathe to step into midfield, meaning anybody that collects the ball in the middle has to deal with Zahibo or no one.

Additionally, the New England back four collectively reacts poorly when there is no access to the ball — which just means there is nobody close enough to the ball carrier to force him to put his head down — so any time Dockal, Bedoya, or Medunjanin find themselves in space, they are likely to have open runners on the far side of the pitch.

Overall, Philly has the talent to pass through this press, but the Revs are built to capitalize on mistakes. The Union must be willing to boot the ball long if no better option presents itself.

Union defense. Diego Fagundez. Seven goals and seven assists on the season, mostly from a central role. When they have possession, this is the man New Englands wants to get on the ball, and they give him a lot of freedom to come find it.

Fagundez has mostly played as a central attacker lurking behind the striker, but last match he was used as the highest man on the pitch, dropping into midfield to confuse the Orlando City defenders in something close to a false nine role. The spritely attacker is not a top class passer, but he can beat the first man he confronts and play balls into space. The Revs have such an endless supply of speed at the other three offensive positions that they don’t need pinpoint balls to create chances. Watch below as Penilla proves the point.

Big battles

Borek Dockal vs Wilfried Zahibo. If Dockal can escape from Zahibo — or even if he can continually pull him out of the middle so Bedoya can occupy that space — the Union will be able to penetrate the Revs back four with regularity. Andrew Farrell can become lost positionally, meaning that with time to look up Dockal will be able to pick out Fafa Picault behind the Revs defense.

Keegan Rosenberry vs Cristian Penilla. Nine goals and five assists ain’t a bad way to start a MLS career. Penilla is a speed merchant, but he has quite a bit of control in the final third, looking to manipulate defenders and cut inside to shoot. The Revs are particularly good at penetrating down one side before quickly switching play into space, and that means Penilla can collect the ball and drive at a defense as it rotates the other way. Rosenberry will have his hands full, but if he continues to get his reads right, he’ll be fine.

Big questions

Will the short week matter? The Revs are rested, the Union are not (however, the Union are in a final and the Revs are, well, not). For Philly this could mean heavy legs for key men like Bedoya, Dockal, and Picault. This could come into play when Philly is trying to survive the Revs pressure and any concentration issues could be costly.

Can Philly exploit the Revs on set pieces? New England gave up two late goals on dead balls to Orlando City last weekend, and… boy were they ugly. Overall, the Revs have given up four goals on indirect free kicks, two off of corners, and five off crosses this year.

Conclusion

Philly likely needs at minimum four points out of their next three matches, but seven would go a long way toward solidifying a place in the playoff race as the team enters the final ten matches of the year. The Union are contenders, and they still have home games against the Revs, Montreal, and Red Bull to go. The hunt for a postseason berth starts now.

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