Sometimes you know exactly what you’re going to get. Red Bulls on rest? The lineup is a fairly easy guess. How will Columbus Crew play? Pretty doggone consistent answer.
But when Philadelphia Union went down to Orlando Saturday night, there were surprised abound. First there was the lineup. James O’Connor called two previously-suspended players — Cristian Higuita and Yoshi Yotun — and recovering Sacha Kljestan into the eleven. He dropped Carlos Ascues into the back line to make space in the midfield and shifted Jonathan Spector out to left back so Ascues himself had somewhere to go. Whew.
The midfield, then, was entirely central players: Yotun, Higuita, Kljestan, Will Johnson, and Oriol Rosell. The shape? That’s a little harder to describe. Rosell was the deepest man, with Yotun, Johnson, and Higuita all dropping back at times and pushing up and wide at others. Kljestan occupied the left half-space and was a passenger for most of the match.
This breakfast scramble of a midfield had two prerogatives, and the first was the second surprise of the night. Out of possession, Orlando piled numbers in front of the box to prevent goals. This is a decided non-O’Connorian approach to soccer, and it shows just how desperate Orlando is for results that they have turned to re-enacting the movie 300 around the box rather than coming out to press. At Louisville City, O’Connor’s pressure was a legitimate weapon that could control the flow of entire games. The current midfield, when healthy, likely has the energy to execute a similar system, but the defensive corps are not solid enough to support it. Thus: A home bunker.
But the bus parking beget the third surprise, which is that even with nine or ten players behind the ball Orlando City only gave up two goals. They filled the box with bodies, but there was very little organization among those bodies, meaning any movement for the Union found space. Borek Dockal was flabbergastingly granted time on the ball near the top right of the home box three times inside of the first six minutes of the game. Haris Medunjanin was, three times at least, given ample time to approach within four yards of the box and unleash a shot with no pressure on him whatsoever. Ale Bedoya, similarly, squeaked a rip wide of the near post after meeting no resistance just outside the box. Normally, you might discourage players from pulling the trigger from beyond the area, but that’s because you anticipate those shots to at least be under slight pressure. Nope. The Union simply could not find the range at the end of a tiring eight days that featured matches in two of the muggiest conditions of the season.
The second prerogative of the Orlando midfield was to bounce out and create width in attack whenever possession was gained. The Lions would look for Dom Dwyer’s excellent early runs behind the Union fullbacks or seek to hold the ball in their own third and wait for Yotun to split wide left and either Johnson or Higuita to hustle out to the right flank. This allowed the home side’s fullbacks to remain deep and protect the box. Once they broke out, Orlando’s method of attack was fairly straightforward: Get the ball into the left half-space, then get it wide, then look for Dwyer in the box.
Yotun shined in this system. The Peruvian has a versatile skillset, including a cultured left foot that can deliver with pace and curve. He could pop up in the left half-space after Kljestan advanced to clear it, or he could drift wide to the left flank and deliver dangerous balls behind the defense. Of Orlando’s eight key passes — passes that set up a shot — and two assists, Yotun had six and one.
This was the fourth surprise. OCSC’s weird shape gave Philly defensive problems early on. Figuring out who to track was difficult, and in the first half hour, Orlando found success in the left half-space both through Jonathan Spector’s passing and by moving the ball to the right of midfield in their own half then playing short diagonals behind Borek Dockal but in front of Ale Bedoya then proceeding to the left flank for a cross. The goal was to attack the space behind Philly’s back line, and it nearly worked both when Dwyer found a free header at the back post and when Higuita nearly tucked in a long cross from a narrow angle on the right.
The system was costly to Orlando in terms of physical energy, with the midfield basically playing as both central and wing players. So as the match wore on, and particularly in the second half, there was very little threat from the home side.
Dockal goes down
If not for the fifth surprise, an injury to Borek Dockal, the Union would have almost certainly taken all three points. A slide tackle from behind by Cristian Higuita caught the Czech playmaker’s ankle, and he had to leave the match before halftime. Derrick Jones replaced the man now tied for the league lead in assists, with Bedoya pushing forward into the attacking midfield role.
After this change, Philadelphia had far more difficulty penetrating the Orlando box. And while it’s tempting to place the blame for this on the man that took up Dockal’s creative mantle, the full answer is more complex.
Part of Philly’s success this year has been driven by their ability to overload the right side and, in doing so, create space in the box and in the center, or at least free up Bedoya, Dockal, and Keegan Rosenberry to attack those areas once they get free due to a numbers advantage. With Jones remaining central to snuff out the most dangerous counterattacks, the Union no longer created that dominance on the right side with regularity. Thus, they were no longer able to penetrate an extremely crowded box as often as they did over the first 30 minutes of the match. You can see in Bedoya’s passing chart that he possessed the ball around the box quite often, but the incisive balls that Dockal provides at an elite rate were no longer there.
In the end, Bedoya had no Bedoya of his own to create the space he needed to turn and assess his options.
Strong wing play
A final aspect of this match to highlight is the continued evolution of the Union’s current front three. With Orlando deep, this was probably the most dynamic the Union’s attackers have been, with Fafa Picault drifting to the top of the box at times, attacking up the left, cutting inside, and even popping up on the right.
CJ Sapong had an excellent match combining up the right and then darting into the box to provide a second target. The big winger had a single incomplete pass on the night, and it was a cutback centering ball after he got into a dangerous position on the endline.
Furthermore, Sapong’s powerful run through midfield to open the second half may have been his most confident moment on the ball this season, and if he continues this strong play, more goals are likely from last season’s leading scorer.
Overall, the Union will see this as points dropped against an inferior opponent. But on a night when two subs had to be made for injuries at the end of a physically taxing stretch, returning home with seven points in a week should still feel like an accomplishment. Five MLS matches without defeat heading into an enormous showdown with sixth place Montreal puts Philly in a good position to meet a crowded September schedule. Now they just need to evaluate the extent of Dockal’s injury and hope Ilsinho’s hamstring recovers in time to provide an important option off the bench during the back stretch of the season.