Tactical Preview: How the Union can bounce back in playoff match

NYCFC and Philadelphia Union met on Sunday and only one side came away happy with their performance. The Union didn’t match the home side’s early intensity, they gave up a set piece goal and an own goal, and Jim Curtin said the coaching staff counted nine separate errors on NYC’s third.

Despite the loss, Curtin and his squad feel confident they can return to the wet birthday cake of a pitch in Yankee Stadium on Wednesday and get a win.

Why?

Experience and adjustments

NYCFC plays 17 games a year on the par 3 pitch at Yankee Stadium. They are used to its miniature dimensions and hand-me-down mattress bounces. In contrast, the Union’s center backs, playmaker, and striker had never dealt with the nuances of the surface and at times looked unsure of themselves early in the match. New York City pounced on this uncertainty and made their chances count.

Now Philly can return to the Bronx with a feel for the ground and more trust in their feet. They will likely play the ball a bit faster, feel a bit more sure in their footing, and come out with more focused intensity.

Additionally, the Union will make some key tactical tweaks to address the advantages NYC created last time out.

The first thing Philly will try to remedy is how NYC pulled their shape apart by creating overloads in wide areas. Jim Curtin singled out NYC’s left wing (the Union’s right) as a problem area. Dome Torrent started left fullback Ronald Matarrita at left wing with Ben Sweat behind him. Matarrita pushed high and kept Keegan Rosenberry occupied, and this allowed Sweat to drag CJ Sapong around as Maxi Moralez, Alex Ring, and Yangel Herrera sought to fill in the left half-space and provide options for Alex Callens. Here’s how that ended up looking:

All three central midfielders are to the left of the central fifth of the field (imagine the pitch divided into five vertical sections of equal width). The Union have Keegan Rosenberry watching the deepest NYC player, Matarrita, and this makes it difficult for them to track all five NYC players. Furthermore, if CJ Sapong steps forward one man and Rosenberry follows, Matarrita will be free because Mark McKenzie cannot slide out to the wing without leaving a gaping hole for David Villa.

There are many potential solutions, though. Philly can work to keep their central midfield more connected (notice how wide Borek Dockal is at the bottom of the screen) or change their rotations so Auston Trusty ends up on the inside of Villa with Ray Gaddis tucking further in to keep an eye on the space behind.

No matter how Curtin addresses this issue, he will look to ensure that Sapong does not end up tracking players when they move deeper than Rosenberry, as happens below.

In this instance, Rosenberry steps to close off a vertical pass while Sapong loses his man on a wide run. It would be simple single out these two Union players for criticism, but the bigger issue is that the Union are unable to keep the ball-carrier’s head down. If Maxi Moralez feels pressure in this situation, he’ll have a far more difficult time picking out long options.

Putting pressure on the ball was a constant issue for Philly in the opening phase of the match. NYC used Sean Johnson to create 3v2s deep against Cory Burke and Borek Dockal, and this led the rest of the Union to begin a zonal press behind them that seemed to consistently leave an extra man free. In those moments, NYC had its high wingers pulling Philly’s back line apart and knew exactly where to send the ball to get behind the high line and threaten.

A final adjustment the Union can make is the classic ‘thing that sounds simple but is actually very hard’.

Once Philly fell behind on Sunday, they lost a bit of focus and didn’t execute in the small ways that made them such a difficult opponent for New York Red Bulls. This led to a very stretched shape and, quite possibly, to the disagreement between Borek Dockal and Cory Burke just before halftime. When the Union are at their best defensively, they can cut the field in half with Burke and Dockal, making everybody else’s assignments easier to read. Additionally, a locked-in Union team is very aware defensively. In the clip below, you can see that when Haris Medunjanin takes a quick free kick, nobody steps forward to close the acres of space between the NYC box and the halfway line even though NYC has no players forward. Mark McKenzie makes an excellent open field tackle to smother the Cityzens’ counterattack, but ideally Philly ends this break out far earlier.

Going forward

In attack, the message will likely be straightforward: Return to what got you here, but pay attention to context. That means: Play your game, but on a small field. Much attention gets paid to how Yankee Stadium cramps Philly’s style, but there are always opportunities hidden within constraints. The Union can lean into their right-sidedness while making better use of Fafa Picault on the left. Keeping closer links in midfield will allow the Union to push Rosenberry up the pitch, and NYC will need to either bring bodies back to defend or risk being overrun the way Philly was at the start of Sunday’s match.

The Union can also use Cory Burke more than usual. Burke is rarely involved in Philly’s combination play, instead staying high to make runs behind the center backs. By bringing Burke into play and letting him touch the ball and play quickly the opposite direction — often toward Picault — the Union will create multiple routes across the pitch horizontally. This also allows Picault to pinch in, open the wing for Ray Gaddis, and create tight central shape for the Union that can help them counterpress more effectively.

The Union have not lost three matches in a row all season, and they certainly don’t intend to start now. New York City’s fast start last Sunday papered over a team that ran out of gas defensively and allowed a number of excellent Union chances to develop late in the match.

Can Philly come out of the gates hard and turn the tables on their monied opponent when it matters most?

Halloween. 7PM. A youth soccer pitch. In a baseball stadium.

Be there to find out.

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