The Union won, yeah, but Jim Curtin did not come out of his club’s 3-0 victory feeling like the demons of last weekend’s loss at LA Galaxy had been wiped away. He emphasized that he wants this team to think of themselves as a great MLS team, and that means playing to the best of their abilities whether up a goal, down a goal, or tied.
Curtin felt the Union took their feet off the gas after going ahead, and the numbers back him up. Over the first 25 minutes, Philly attacked Montreal and turned them over in their own half repeatedly. During the rest of the match, the team struggled mightily to create and finished with only four shots. Three of them went in.
So what went right and what went wrong in the Union’s big win, one that wiped away the ugly memories of 2018’s home loss to the Impact? Right: The defensive shape over the first half hour. Philly didn’t have their typical speed in back with both Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie out. That meant the entire team shape had to move as a unit to prevent Montreal from creating by playing the ball to Maxi Urruti between the lines. Urruti is an intelligent mover in the middle, and his primary aim was to pop off of Aurelien Collin and Jack Elliott and move into the hole left behind Haris Medunjanin when he moved into the channels to help defensively. When Montreal moved the ball to Diallo, their right center back, the winger — Orji Okwonkwo — pulled wide to the touchline and a central midfielder would try to draw Medunjanin in so he would leave a lane to Urruti. The striker would look to play quickly to Okwonkwo breaking in behind. Okwonkwo was able to isolate Kai Wagner because Bacary Sagna moved high up the pitch.
Although Montreal had a clear plan built around Urruti’s talent for playing with his back to goal and connecting play in front of a defensive line, the Union had a response. Brenden Aaronson’s defensive work rate and Jamiro Monteiro’s positional awareness helped Philly counteract the Impact’s combinations.
Impact defense and Union attack
With Monteiro joining in defensively on the flanks, the Union were difficult to break down and the Impact’s shot chart is one that Curtin can be proud of. Where, though, were Philly’s shots?
This was the downside of Monteiro’s movements. The Cape Verde international was rarely in a central area beyond Montreal’s midfield following turnovers. As a result, Cory Burke often dropped into that hole with nobody above him. Matt Doyle highlighted how Philly’s skill with Monteiro, Aaronson, and Ilsinho combining with Ale Bedoya meant that Montreal’s low block could be cracked, but it was rare that combinations atop the box developed.
In short, the Union sorely missed somebody like Marco Fabian once they had the lead, even if the scoreline didn’t show it.
Monteiro’s absence in the center of attack wasn’t the only thing stymying Philly’s offense. Montreal is nothing if not disciplined defensively, and Remi Garde got wonderful defensive protection for his back four from wingers Harry Novillo and Okwonkwo. Both players dropped all the way into the back line and made it extremely difficult for the Union to create man-advantages in wide areas. At one point Ale Bedoya was yelling at Wagner to finish a deep run beyond Aaronson but Wagner halted his run, believing that Okwonkwo was too close to him to create a real opportunity.
Without Wagner this weekend, it will be interesting to see how the Union go after Vancouver Whitecaps. They could stick with a 4-2-3-1 look and use speed on the right to once again try to expose Vancouver’s left. But knowing the ‘Caps need goals and are likely to push forward, Curtin may instead opt to return to the 4-4-2 that puts bodies in the center and allows a second striker to play above Cory Burke. This could allow Monteiro’s deep movements to be covered by a dropping striker like Burke while the other striker stays high.
The Union will look to make it two in a row against Canadian sides when they travel to Vancouver on Saturday, April 27 at 5 p.m. ET.