It is very hard to score on Philadelphia Union right now.
The center backs are aggressive, but everyone is covering well. The wingers are tracking back, frustrating attempts to create overloads. The goalie… well, it’s Andre Blake.
But it certainly didn’t help that 10 of DC United’s 11 starters were two days off of a fruitless charge up Red Bull Hill. Ben Olsen’s team lost Yamil Asad that night, and they lost Oneil Fisher to a tight hamstring at halftime against the Union. Once Fafa Picault darted into the box and doubled Philly’s lead, DC’s jelly-legs could not put together a comeback.
Based purely on the opening 25 minutes, the Union may not have been the team expected to open the scoring on Wednesday night. DC United had a plan to overload the middle of the pitch using dynamic winger movements.
The basic idea was this: Draw Borek Dockal forward by dropping a midfielder into the back line. This created a 3v2 in the first phase of buildup play, with Cory Burke and Dockal trying to cut off one side of the pitch but allowing a lane into the center that, normally, Ale Bedoya would be monitoring. However, DC looked to drag Bedoya to the far side of the field by moving their second holding mid (the one that didn’t drop into the back line). This left Lucho Acosta and Haris Medunjanin in the center. Acosta could either check in short or move off to a wing, pulling Medunjanin and opening a lane to Wayne Rooney checking back.
At this point, DC rolled both wingers narrow, adding two additional bodies to the center and forcing Philly’s defenders and wingers to decision-make on the fly about how to handle these movements. When the ball was on DC’s left, Paul Arriola pulled into the half-space where Ale Bedoya usually sits while Zoltan Stieber dropped off the Union back line into the right half-space. With Acosta pulling Medunjanin wide and a holding mid keeping Bedoya out of the way, there was a clear lane from Arriola to Stieber.
The wrinkle that kept Philly’s fullbacks from simply tracking the wingers inside was extremely high fullback play from DC. Both Oniel Fisher and Joseph Mora pushed on to the Union back line, pinning the Union fullbacks in place to create space around the narrow wingers. This system worked quite well early on, allowing DC to move through the midfield with ease and, at times, return the ball to their key playmakers in space.
Additional twists included Wayne Rooney’s extremely deep checking run into the left half-space that Jack Elliott followed at first, but then left in order to return to his position, giving Rooney the space to angle a long diagonal out to Fisher on the right.
What happened after the Union’s first goal may be as important as the goal itself. As the rest of the team was celebrating with CJ Sapong, Ray Gaddis was receiving instructions from the Union coaching staff about how to handle DC’s gameplan. The home side never looked as threatening after Philly tweaked their approach.
The goal itself, though, should not be overlooked. It was both a testament to Philly’s high workrate and symbolic of what has separated the Union from their competition in the Eastern Conference for the past month.
It began with Auston Trusty’s powerful clearing header, but a huge key for the success of the break was that DC United’s Russell Canouse did not recover to a central position after starting the play that led to DC’s cross into the box. This meant Borek Dockal had space to break into with the ball, and at that point the Union were in full-on transition mode with Fafa Picault quickly creating room for himself up the left.
Shutting up shop
The final point to make about Wednesday night’s match is that it highlighted a very pragmatic side of the Union. After going ahead, they made smart defensive adjustments and held DC United to three shots — none from good positions; the best was a Kofi Opare header that was hardly a threat — and, importantly, controlled loose balls in the middle of the park. Between goals, Philly allowed DC United a single recovery in the attacking half, meaning that United rarely had any opportunity to create transition moments that could give Lucho Acosta and Rooney time and space.
When teams cannot win the ball back in threatening positions, Philly’s defense is organized enough to prevent good chances from developing. United’s shot chart is not one that you would expect to lead to goals against Andre Blake, and it didn’t.
Philly is back in action on short rest when they travel to Orlando City SC this weekend. A win will tie the Union for the most points in a season under Jim Curtin with seven matches still to play.
Additionally, with Columbus Crew facing NYCFC and Montreal Impact going up against Red Bulls, a win could both move the Union into fourth place in the east and create a nine point gap between them and the next closest club in the standings. That would be a nice cushion to have heading into a September schedule that will be packed following an international break.