Photo: Earl Gardner
Coming off a midweek loss to Orlando City, Montreal made a notable number of changes to their starting eleven but, surprisingly, didn’t alter their basic shape or tactics. Philadelphia Union, with Alejandro Bedoya returning from a week with the US men’s national team, matched the visitors’ sluggish pace to produce a match full of ideas but lacking in precision and composure.
In a match where offensive movement was hard to come by, the goals were always likely to come out of nowhere. And, boy, did they ever.
The Union’s tally took some brilliant work from a guy who isn’t one of the top ten playmakers in MLS (ahem), but it was also the culmination of a key half in the Union rookies’ young careers (more on that later). Moments before the goal, Joshua Yaro had found Keegan Rosenberry in a national park’s worth of space. Rosenberry completed the rookie connection to Herbers, and the Creighton product tapped a lame cross into Laurent Ciman’s feet. The ball popped back out, and Yaro took advantage of Armando Villareal’s ludicrous willingness to allow contact by bumping Nacho Piatti to the ground. Given another chance, Herbers took a shot in the back in order to lay the ball off to Tranquillo Barnetta, who did the rest.
The entire sequence leading up to the goal highlights how much the Union — and the Impact — asked of the rookie right side. Alejandro Bedoya is a wonderful steadying presence, but this is still three players straight out of college asked to contain one of the two most dynamic men in MLS this season. Add to that the way Montreal came out with a clear intent to contain Chris Pontius, and you have three rookies asked to stare down Piatti while simultaneously providing penetration into the Impact’s final third. The Union’s young trio generally did a good job, with the second guessing on display in the clip below more an anomaly of their play than a feature.
Herbers in particular deserves praise. His two goals and five assists are very close to the two and six that Khiry Shelton produced as a rookie a year ago, and he has done it while playing further from goal than Shelton did.
On Saturday, Herbers was tasked with both supporting Rosenberry defensively and providing a vertical orientation to the Union’s attack. Philly needed to pressure Montreal up the right in order to keep Ambroise Oyongo in check and make Laurent Ciman move from the center. Herbers delivered, though it’s important to look deeper at what he tried to do when he got into dangerous positions.
Jim Curtin has emphasized low, near post crosses all season. With CJ Sapong running into the box and mobile midfielders behind him, the Union look to play the ball behind a defense for tap ins or, at the very least, chaotic loose balls. Herbers consistently looked for that ball, as instructed. He didn’t always do it well, but he did the right thing. And that’s the mark of maturity that the Union coaches will likely take away from his performance.
And one more thing to remember: This is a player transitioning to a new position. In college he got on the end of crosses, now he has to play them. Philly leans very heavily on its wingers to both get into the box and provide defensive support, and that means there is an element of modern fullback in how they play. Knowing when to break forward and when to stay close to Rosenberry for support is something Herbers will continue to learn going forward. Saturday was far from perfect, but in a match where he was the primary route forward, Herbers’ was very good; consistent delivery will come with time.
There are few new takeaways from the visitors’ tying goal. It was yet another case of the Union looking disorganized and unprepared for a defensive set piece, with players quickly losing their marks once the ball was in play. In this case, Hernan Bernardello was wholly unmarked at the top of the box, and once the ball was played to him, man-marking turned to mayhem.
Tranquillo Barnetta, Fabinho, and Ilsinho all immediately drop what they are doing and move toward Bernardello. Of the three, Barnetta seems the logical choice to step because he is the free man. Fabinho ends up in no-man’s-land, but he could conceivably step to Harry Shipp if Bernardello played the ball wide. Ilsinho is simply in space.
Additionally, Joshua Yaro leaves Mancosu and finds himself in the center of the box without a mark. Warren Creavalle steps off his post as if he’s going to push the opposition offsides, but when Bedoya stays on his man, Creavalle is, like Ilsinho and Yaro, marking space.
Overall, it was Mancosu who punished the Union, but it was the chaotic reaction that meant Montreal had numerous ways to convert once the ball entered the box. Philly has struggled all season with late game discipline, and this is just one more instance of that. It is also another moment to ask whether Chris Pontius, one of the team’s best aerial presences, should have remained in the match over the exhausted Barnetta and Bedoya.
Let’s go back a moment to Montreal’s game plan, because there was an early cat-and-mouse game that played out between Mauro Biello and Jim Curtin. Biello wanted to keep Chris Pontius from beating him and play the ball quickly through the Union’s midfield pressure. Philly wanted to create turnovers in Montreal’s half and, lacking that, make sure that it was Hasoun Camara and not Laurent Ciman who played the ball out of the back.
Interestingly, both sides executed well early on, with the Impact forcing Pontius to check inside to get involved and the Union aggressively attacking Ciman. Camara’s long passes created little without Drogba to receive them, and Montreal’s deep midfield trio kept Pontius from finding space when he left the wing. Whenever the Union’s winger returned to the touchline, Danny Toia was close by, abdicating forward runs to keep the home side’s leading scorer in check.
Deep, deep, deep midfield
On Wednesday (and against Toronto before that), Biello deployed Kyle Bekker as a hybrid No. 6/8 in midfield. It’s an innovative and intriguing move that makes a good deal of sense given Didier Drogba’s velcro touch. Long balls to Drogba triggered Bekker’s direct running, which pulled defensive lines apart. This created space at the top of the box for Piatti to weave his magic.
Against the Union, Biello again went with a No. 8 type midfielder in a No. 10 role, though this time it was Patrice Bernier looking to run off of… Matteo Mancosu. Wait, what?
Mancosu’s movement, as it was during a brief cameo last these teams met, was quite good. But Bernier either had no idea how to interpret his role or was simply content to act as a third holding midfielder. He completed two forward passes in the attacking half and attempted one incomplete cross.
Behind Bernier, Marco Donadel and Hernan Bernardello were also content to stay deep and let their side attack with only three (!) players. They combined for seven passes beyond the center circle; Harry Shipp had four by himself in 11 minutes after replacing Donadel.
In short, the Impact had few routes forward, and that was somewhat by design. Their main goals were to keep Chris Pontius and Tranquillo Barnetta from beating them, and it took the latter literally dribbling through their defensive net for Philly to score.
September soccer, lethargy be thy name
There is no denying that after the Impact threatened Philly early, both teams lapsed into a fairly sluggish contest. In the 15th minute, and again in the 25th minute, the Union’s offense looked like they were playing “red light, green light” and nobody knew who was supposed to say “green light.” It didn’t help that Alejandro Bedoya was clearly feeling the effects of a long week with the US national team and a crowded midfield meant it was difficult to bring Fabinho into attacks.
Add in Rosenberry’s conservative movement due to Piatti’s presence and it’s easy to see how tactics and tiredness combined to suck the life out of the match.
With this in mind, it’s extremely surprising that the Union only used two of their subs, and that they used one on Roland Alberg. That is no indictment of Alberg as a player, merely an acknowledgement of his strengths and weaknesses. Few would suggest that Alberg is the appropriate player to chase and harry and team when protecting a lead, nor does he have the size to be a game-changer on defensive set pieces. Finally, Alberg is not much of a threat to run in behind, meaning a defense can commit more bodies forward late.
Yet, he was the chosen sub, with Tranquillo Barnetta moved to the wing and CJ Sapong — who has struggled to impose himself as a vertical threat this season — retained up top. It will be interesting to see how Curtin explains these moves in his midweek press conference, because they seem odd given the scoreline, and even odder given Biello’s moves.
Assistant coach Mike Sorber happened to be speaking with the Union announcing crew when Didier Drogba was introduced, and when asked how his side would react, he indicated that little would change. This is notable because Drogba came in for Patrice Bernier, meaning that the Impact shifted to a two-striker set and were now attacking with four instead of three. Soon after, Dominic Oduro entered as an option to run in behind when Drogba brought down 70-80 yard balls on his chest (because he does that regularly, and it’s always, always impressive). Philly responded by adding Ilsinho on the right, ostensibly to hold possession and play penetrating passes. Then by removing Pontius and shifting a tiring Barnetta to the left, to help with Oduro; it was Barnetta who was slow to close down the cross that led to Mancosu’s goal.
This was a match the Union should have won. They gave up their 13th goal in the final 15 minutes of a match, meaning 29 percent of the goals they have allowed this season have come in the final 17 percent of game time. Additionally, Philly gave up the goal to a team that has been extremely good in the final 15 minutes of the match (13 goals so far) without using two available defensive-minded substitutes.
In the end, it may be best to chalk this up as (hopefully) a learning experience for the Union coaching staff and for the players. The Union know they are at their best when they are a high energy, quick-transition team, and they were not that on Saturday. Furthermore, the coaches went with what seemed like pre-planned substitutions instead of recognizing that Bedoya and Barnetta had both given all they had and at least one needed to step off. Perhaps this match is best viewed both as a reminder of how young and inexperienced the Union — both on the field and on the sidelines — still are, and how far they have come since 2015. The Impact are an extremely experienced side, and they didn’t bat an eye after going down a goal. Philly will need to do better going forward, especially considering how difficult their last five matches are going to be.
Andre Blake – 7
If Blake’s distribution can improve in the offseason (and it must), he’s on his way to being elite. Box control has slowly improved all season.
Keegan Rosenberry – 6
Tasked with watching Piatti, he didn’t get forward as often as usual. That said, he did a fine job on the Argentinian playmaker, who found moments of brilliance but struggled to be a singular force against the rookie.
Joshua Yaro – 4
Now that it is fairly clear Yaro has the starting job going forward, the next step is for him to just… trust himself. There are a surprising number of moments when Yaro and either Blake or Marquez seem to hesitate, as if they aren’t sure who is taking charge of a situation. It is in these moments that we remember how stop-n-start Yaro’s season has been. Then he laces a pass through the midfield (a necessary pass, with Montreal shutting down the left side) or accelerates to clear the box, and it becomes clear how high his ceiling is. The mistakes Yaro made were typical of his season, and they are mistakes the Union will have to live with as they look to build a stronger sense of understanding in back over the last five matches of the season. Yaro remains the best option going forward, but he needs to trust himself and take more responsibility as the playoffs approach. One thing Yaro did well was advance the ball when he had space. Below, you can see him draw Bernier in, but both holding mids check for a square ball meaning there is no free man forward.
Richie Marquez – 6
Compared to Yaro, Marquez continues to play a bit deeper, which can pull Fabinho further back and slow Union attacks up the left. Montreal did a great job closing down the route from Fabi to Pontius, which meant that Marquez’s deep positioning created issues getting out of the back on the left. Defensively, he was strong, and helped with Ontivero since Mancosu was working the right side of the back line. One question that must be asked of Marquez is why he lets himself get dragged deep when he could hold a line and let forwards drift offsides. It may be that the constant changing for CBs next to him makes him wary of holding the line. In the 30th minute, you can see both Marquez and Yaro allow Mancosu to pull them far, far deeper than they should be, which allows Montreal to play into space behind Rosenberry. That pass is not available if the defense is holding a higher line. It has never made sense for Philly to counterpress while simultaneously dropping deep defensively.
Fabinho – 5
With Toia sitting on Pontius, Fabinho needed to draw attention to free up the Union’s leading scorer. Instead, he was pinned deep by Ontivero, and it made it difficult for Philly to switch fields and open up the match.
Warren Creavalle – 6
A wonderful step forward for Creavalle, who hung in the middle, kept things simple, and showed that he can be an incredible nuisance (a compliment) when he is positioned well. He still struggles to provide support to the wings, but that just seems to be the way it goes.
Alejandro Bedoya – 4
Simply put, Bedoya needs to be a force both defensively and in attack for the Union to make a run this season. He looked (understandably) tired Saturday. Philly’s success over the next month and a half depends on him being more involved going forward so the team can control the ball and not simply score and hope they don’t give up goals.
Tranquillo Barnetta – 7
A sensational shot that capped off an active performance. Perhaps the one downside to his game is that his continual push forward tended to create gaps between him and the rest of the midfield, which struggled to get into the match. This can hardly be blamed on Barnetta, but it will be interesting to see if his connections with Bedoya improve once the latter has his legs back.
Chris Pontius – 4
A rare off-night brought on by a good defensive system that kept him in check.
Fabian Herbers – 7
An assist, and the only key passes of the first half, but Herbers has more to give. His defensive work was excellent though, and even in the 64th minute he was sprinting back to help Rosenberry with Piatti.
CJ Sapong – 5
He needs to get on the end of those balls in the box. That said, he took an absolute beating and received almost no protection from Villarreal.
Ilsinho – 7
Did exactly what he was on to do, hold the ball and play it into safe areas.
Roland Alberg – 6
Not the right sub, but did what he usually does: Hung high and looked for openings.
Geiger counter – 1
Missed penalty aside, Armando Villareal was only spared a fight because these teams were so tired. He seemed to think that going through the back is a legal move now, and let both teams do it consistently. Given, the typical complaint against PRO refs is inconsistency, but this was swinging far too much the other way.