Photo: Courtesy of Portland Timbers
Philadelphia Union began the 2016 season riding a strong defense and CJ Sapong’s impressive blend of offensive and defensive contributions up front. After a dispiriting loss to Dallas, they rebounded and showed how attacking the ball with vigor could allow a team without superstars to compete in MLS.
Fast forward to September and the Union defense is cracking on a weekly basis. CJ Sapong is snakebitten to the point that Chris Pontius spent time up top against Portland.
But on the plus side, Andre Blake has emerged as a potential star in the making.
Inertia of the wrong kind
The Union have rarely looked unbeatable in 2016. But at times they have shown that they can raise their level to compete with the best in the Eastern Conference. To get there, though, they need to play as a unit, and control either the middle of the pitch or the flanks for a significant period of a match.
On Saturday, the Union controlled the left wing for the first fifteen minutes. Fabinho moved forward, Chris Pontius curled inside, and the team looked to have a route from back to front in a difficult environment.
Once the Timbers adjusted, however, Philly struggled to respond.
To be clear, the Union were not run out of the building. Fifteen shots — eight on target — is a healthy return in Portland, where nobody but the home side has really done well this season. For the Union, the issue was that once they lost Fabinho’s push up the left, the only route forward they had was through the center. And the Timbers often sat back in a tight back four with Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury protecting, and absorbing pressure. Philly’s wingers both tucked inside, and their fullbacks failed to make a regular impression in the final third. As a result, the Union were only able to dent the home defense with crosses, but they were rarely in the right place to, well, cross the ball.
Above, you can see Philly get stuck in a very static attack. By the end of the move, three players are on the Portland back line, Rosenberry is wide, and there is nobody occupying space in the center that could pull someone out of the back and create a chance to penetrate.
This was symptomatic of the Union’s issues all night: Poor offensive spacing allowed Portland to transition too easily and, as a result, Philly’s midfield became more and more separated, with Alejandro Bedoya and Brian Carroll deep behind Tranquillo Barnetta and neither player stepping forward to provide a central option.
In the video above, Barnetta makes the most out of a bad situation. After Bedoya plays the ball forward, he stops. Brian Carroll has stepped back as a square option and also isn’t stepping. This means that once the Union have advanced down the right, they have no way to switch fields. This was a common problem that haunted them all match.
When Rosenberry advanced, he was often tracked, and Fabinho ceased going forward after the first 15 minutes. Philly became narrow, and — even worse — they often became flat.
As a result, even though the Union were able to consistently run at the Timbers (who often sat deep to organize against such threats), they rarely penetrated or created the type of chaos that has haunted their own defense for months now. Below, you can see one of Philly’s better chances. However, you can also see that it comes from CJ Sapong collecting the ball at the edge of the box with space between him and Liam Ridgewell and immediately playing it wide. This is a very defensible decision, but it isn’t the right one for a striker. It is incredibly difficult to find space to attack a center back one on one as a striker, and if Sapong drives at Ridgewell, he puts the defender in a position where he must get a tackle perfect or not make it. Furthermore, Sapong will have Diego Chara on his back. Essentially, this situation greatly favors Sapong, yet he doesn’t consider taking advantage of it. It’s not an indictment of Sapong as a player, but it is a glaringly clear example of a striker low on confidence in front of goal.
Another reason the Union leave Portland without points is that they largely failed to win their individual/close-to-individual battles. Fanendo Adi bossed the center backs, Darren Mattocks got the best of Rosenberry, and — perhaps most importantly — Darlington Nagbe rang Bedoya’s bell.
Portland’s American international midfielder was far better than Philly’s, and it was obvious all night. There are caveats: Bedoya was tasked with a far more responsible role, and Brian Carroll wasn’t moving the ball forward and attracting attention like Diego Chara. But Nagbe was still special.
Don’t write off Bedoya, though. Remember that he is adjusting to the league, to a new role, and playing with a new midfield partner, while Nagbe is carrying none of that weight. But Bedoya needs to produce more like a two-way player going forward if the Union are going to make noise in the postseason.
Defensive depth (again)
I have so many videos of the Union center backs getting separated from the rest of the team that I don’t even know which ones to use. The one where Adi penetrates 15 yards into the Union half and the center backs stay goal side, creating a giant gap that lets Nagbe, Adi, and Valeri combine to quickly move into attack after a turnover?
The one where Joshua Yaro’s retreat holds everyone onside?
Or maybe the winning goal, when Richie Marquez lets himself get pushed far behind his teammates as if he was defending a basketball hoop instead of a soccer goal.
This seems to be a persistent issue for Philly’s defense, and one that has popped up no matter who features in the middle. This isn’t a Joshua Yaro issue, a Richie Marquez issue, or a Ken Tribbett issue. In the end, it’s a coaching issue. These young players are consistently making the same class of mistake, and it is a correctable one. Below, you can see what a defensive line should do when faced with pressure.
Is it a perfect comparison? Of course not. But Portland follows the theory that by holding a flat defensive line, you own the space behind that line. Yes, you can get beat with a great pass. But by holding a line, you ensure that a) the back four are closer to the ball, which b) gives the opposition less space to work with and, relatedly, c) allows the rest of your team to close down the ball because space is so compressed that there are fewer places for the attacking team to go. Nobody in modern soccer uses a sweeper because modern soccer is about owning space on the pitch as a team.
Look at the passing chart for Portland’s midfield. What should stand out is how many lengthy passes they are able to complete in the middle third. Those passes are difficult to pull off under pressure, but Portland wasn’t under much pressure because the Union defense was dropping off, which meant the Timbers could play through Adi, advance, and spread the ball around. They owned a lot of space on the pitch. And even if Barnetta’s relentless movement and Fabian Herbers’ drives toward goal meant Philly had real chances to take this match, they were rarely in control of it after the first 15 minutes.
Andre Blake – 8
A number of big saves, but he couldn’t do it all. He had no right making that save on Mattocks at the end.
Keegan Rosenberry – 3
An extremely rough second half from the rookie as Mattocks got his number and kept it. Undid a solid first half, including a wonderful step to start the break that sent Herbers in on Gleeson. This won’t sit well with the rookie. Remember this weekend when Jordan Morris wins the Rookie of the Year award. Morris’ 10th goal of the year — assisted by Seattle’s epic midseason signing Nic Lodeiro — may have saved the Sounders’ season, while Jack Harrison collected two assists and Rosenberry lost his battle with Mattocks.
Joshua Yaro – 2
The first yellow was situational, and quite soft on replay. But he could have gotten one for the arm in Mattocks’ face (inadvertent as it was). Also had a missed clearance that almost let Portland in and a deflection into Adi’s path that Blake saved. Overall, a very rough day but a lot of it came after the Union midfield lost its functionality. There was this unbelievable leg-stretching save, though.
Richie Marquez – 3
It’s unclear why the Union center backs continue, week after week, to let the opposing striker dictate how much space is available. On Portland’s second goal, there was no reason for Marquez to let Adi be that deep in the box.
Fabinho – 4
Once he stopped going forward, Nagbe and Valeri had no reason to track back.
Brian Carroll – 4
Four tackles, four interceptions, and the most ambitious volley you’ll ever see him hit. But Carroll is not a player for a track race, and the second half was all about transitions.
Alejandro Bedoya – 3
Bedoya cannot continue to be so far behind Philly’s attacking forays. He should be, at minimum, arriving late to the box. Right now he spends far too much time cleaning up transitions because Philly’s offensive shape is so flat that any ball that pops out turns into a chance going the other way.
Tranquillo Barnetta – 7
A solid performance, including a wonderful run that should’ve been an assist to Sapong. He was working until the very end, though at times he took space he should have left for others, which left the middle wholly unoccupied.
Fabian Herbers – 6
Another assist, another solid outing, and a few more missed opportunities. Though others may dislike him deployed on the right, he continues to produce, this time moving central as Ilisnho often does, but actually creating a goal.
Chris Pontius – 5
A wonderful goal, and set up Herbers for another. But overall, Pontius was too narrow considering Fabinho rarely ventured forward after his initial forays.
CJ Sapong – 3
His shot on goal was a reaction shot, and a good one, but right at Gleeson. Sapong’s not dangerous enough around the box. He can be, but right now he isn’t.
Ilsinho – 4
As much as he can and should produce, he doesn’t. Below, you see an instance where Herbers would almost certainly have crashed the box. Ilsinho does not, and is in no position to defend the transition either.
Roland Alberg – 4
Didn’t do much. Also, let’s remember the match when Chris Pontius played striker and Roland Alberg played as a holding midfielder. Because that was weird.
Charlie Davies – 4
Jim Curtin said he did the dirty running, and that’s because he didn’t get much of the ball.
Geiger counter – 3
Chris Penso wasn’t that bad, and he certainly wasn’t the reason the Union lost the match. Make up your own mind about Yaro’s first card, but Penso could’ve shown one for the hand to Mattocks’ face later (he shouldn’t have, but he could’ve).