Photo: Earl Gardner
Who: Philadelphia Union (6th place, 42 points, 11-12-9) vs. Orlando City (9th place, 35 points, 7-11-14)
What: 2016 regular season game
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Sunday, October 16 at 3 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Ricardo Salazar; Andrew Bigelow and Jeffrey Greeson; Jorge Gonzalez
If Philadelphia Union wanted to make one of their biggest league matches as a club as uncertain as possible, they could not have picked a better opponent than Orlando City SC. At 3-6-4 since Jason Kreis took over in late July, the Lions are in that embarrassing middle school transition phase where their voice cracks a lot in front of girls and they can’t stop letting in four goals at a time.
Orlando City has already been eliminated from the playoffs, and Philly can all but secure their second trip to the postseason with three points at home. But defending their Chester turf means stopping a team that, if nothing else, has the perfect arrows to aim at the Union’s Achilles’ heel.
Kaka has a Balon d’Or, but Cyle Larin is the player to watch on Orlando City. Especially for the Union, who defend set pieces using tactics borrowed from the pages of Distracted Puppies Weekly, Larin represents a very serious problem.
Below, you can see Larin drift just a step behind his defender then turn his body to prepare for a through ball. The first step is important because it separates him from the defense and creates a situation in which any defender breaking the line by stepping back (a likely occurrence in MLS) will play the big striker onside.
Under Jason Kreis, Orlando usually attacks with four players, reserving two deeper midfielders and varying whether fullbacks join the attack. Kreis actually tried a 4-4-2 diamond against Toronto FC recently, but quickly realized that TFC’s strong buildups through the back meant they could spread the diamond, check into half-spaces, and let Michael Bradley pass on through. Carlos Rivas was subbed off after 40 minutes and the 4-2-3-1 that will likely come to Philly was re-installed.
Ideally, Orlando would build attacks by creating a numerical advantage in the middle with two strong passing center backs and the two holding midfielders trying to receive the ball on the half-turn and hit the advancing fullbacks. This would let Kaka check in to a fullback, survey the field, and casually beat three players as he does with an almost chilling consistency. But things have not been ideal for Orlando. Often, they end up unable to play through the middle and instead go long and wide. A winger collects the ball then plays a 1-2 with Kaka (who beats a defender in the process, because Kaka) and a cross is eventually sent through the box with Larin after it like a heat-seeking missile.
Larin, though, is often a lone missile. Particularly when play builds through Kevin Molino and Kaka, Orlando has had a hellish time getting numbers crashing the goal. Matthias Garcia-Perez has provided a good alternative to Kaka creatively, but he has the same nightmares about the box as Cristian Maidana. Antonio Nocherino, nominally a No. 8 but lacking the will to get forward, occasionally approaches the top of the eighteen, while Servando Carrasco’s runs forward are largely of the decoy variety. Thus, it falls on Larin’s shoulders to produce the final product. And, to be fair, that’s usually a safe bet.
Below, you can see how Orlando can struggle without midfield support. Even after Kaka slows the ball down, nobody even arrives in the picture to offer a late run.
But over the last six matches, Larin has struggled to find service as OCSC’s defensive issues have left him isolated. After averaging 3.15 shots/game in the first six matches after Kreis was appointed, Larin is down to 1.5 shots per match over the last six. That number would be even lower if he had not tagged four shots against Montreal in Orlando’s last game. The big striker nearly had two more as well: Kaka’s brilliant cross gliding by him in the first half (as Ambroise Oyongo hung on his shoulders like a human backpack), then Julio Baptista headed a cross wide of goal with Larin cutting in to fire it home behind him.
This is not all on Larin, though. Look at how Orlando gets stuck going long with only Kaka as an option on the left. Without anybody to distract defenders, Larin is operating in 2v1 situations most of the match.
Unfortunately, Larin’s resurgence was too little too late. The loss to Montreal knocked the Lions from playoff contention. Kreis has said that he expects his team to “finish strong” despite the absence of a postseason incentive. Indeed, with a midseason coaching change, players are essentially auditioning for the 2017 squad in October. So while there may be some changes to the lineup — or a potential experiment with team shape (Kreis likes him a diamond midfield…) — the Union should not expect to face a B squad.
Home field must be an advantage
In the Eastern Conference, only Red Bulls have more home wins than the Union. However, all but two of Philly’s eight home victories came in the first four months of the season. Since July, only DC United and Sporting Kansas City have felt Chester’s wrath.
The Union’s other home matches have been notably underwhelming. The late goal given up to Montreal and the Salt Lake dud immediately spring to mind as examples of points left on the table. Philly hasn’t lost when scoring at least two goals at home, but a draw against Orlando City would be disappointing. The aim must be to play like a home team that expects to win, which means holding the ball with confidence and maintaining longer strings of possession. As Kevin Kinkead’s recent article (and PSP’s analysis piece) highlights, the Union can be dangerous when they move the ball horizontally and attack up an open wing.
With two fullbacks who can serve good crosses into Sapong and Pontius, Philly has the right personnel to dominate the ball when they get in rhythm. The struggle is always going to come in the center, where anything less than a 100% Alejandro Bedoya leaves the Union with only one elite ball-mover. Overcoming this shortcoming is all about positioning: As the ball moves around the back and across the midfield, options need to be anticipated so each recipient has a simple, quick pass to make to keep play moving. Particularly against Orlando City, who tend to leave massive gaps between their front four and holding midfield, the Union can stretch the first line of defense across the pitch then penetrate and find Creavalle and/or Carroll in enough space to avoid instant pressure. This type of offense, though perhaps less exciting than the transition mode Philly has favored of late, is the type of dominance that can not only help a home side establish a lead, but also hold it. Remember: The Union have scored first in two of their three home losses this season.
Get that guy going
No, not CJ Sapong. Though that would be nice too. The bigger issue is that Keegan Rosenberry has no key passes or completed crosses since the 59th minute against Portland. As worrying as Sapong’s lengthy goal drought has been, it is only the past few matches — since Rosenberry grew silent — that the Union offense has truly sputtered; they had three goals in four matches prior to scoring two on Red Bulls.
Rosenberry is such a key component to the Union’s success because he offers creativity from a wide area. If teams attempt to collapse the center on Tranquillo Barnetta, Rosenberry in space can pick out long, accurate passes into the danger zone, hold the ball in the final third, and drill crosses to the back post. On the other side, Fabinho offers just one of those options.
The problem is: Everybody knows about Rosenberry now. He’s no longer the rookie right back with a question mark next to his name on opposition white boards, now he’s the focus of video analysis. Keeping him pinned back severely limits the Union’s ability to stretch the field and move the ball outside-in, particularly with Fabian Herbers occupying more central positions than Ilisinho did as a regular starter.
Orlando’s wingers are not particularly defense-savvy, but they are dangerous enough to make Rosenberry think twice about moving up the field with the inconsistent coverage of Ken Tribbett next to him. But getting forward must be a mandate for the rookie, because it both offers the Union far more options in possession and forces Orlando’s left back to play more conservatively.
Should he start again? Look again at his shot chart over his scoring drought. It is very, very bad. But the alternatives are not much better. Charlie Davies seems a last resort based on his usage thus far, Fabian Herbers has been excellent out wide and doesn’t offer nearly the same physicality and hold-up play in the center, and Roland Alberg’s one-match cameo as a striker was not a fuzzily-lit good memory.
A long break between matches, and Jim Curtin’s deep reserves of support, means Sapong is very likely to trot out in the first eleven rested and with shoulder fully chipped. He needs to take a shot or two early. Even if they are from bad locations (and bad location shots are, generally, an extremely bad thing), Sapong needs to get the feel for collecting the ball and attacking the net. It’s just what strikers do, and it’s what a striker like him, who can use his body in many ways, needs to use it for. Sapong has a tendency to let defenders dictate battles, and since he is generally one of the strongest players on the pitch he can take pride in winning some of those battles, as if letting his opponent choose the weapon makes his victories more rewarding. Below, you can see how Larin invites contact in the open field then uses his strength to roll off of it.
But as Hannibal might have said, the battle can be won before it takes place. Sapong can look around at the Union’s last few opponents like Bradley Wright-Phillips, Fanendo Adi, and their upcoming opponent Cyle Larin, and he can see strikers who look to create space then invite contact. That is, they choose where to battle and they do it on their terms.
Prediction: Union 3-1 Orlando City
The Orlando City defense has not been good under Jason Kreis. Or, to be more exact, it has been inconsistent, and the low points have been very low.
The Union should be able to create opportunities if they are confident enough to mix extended buildups with occasional balls in behind. This latter strategy was almost comically effective for Montreal, with even a loose clearance creating an opportunity for Nacho Piatti.
Defensively, there are two big keys for Philly. First, expect Kaka to beat people on the dribble. Especially on the road, Orlando relies on their superstar to create his own space with the ball then find an open man in the chaos that follows. Kaka is just exceptionally good at this, so just don’t leave enormous gaps behind the man who is facing up to the ageless Brazilian.
Second, track Cyle Larin. Always. In the open field, track Cyle Larin. On set pieces, track Cyle Larin. Twenty-one year old strikers just don’t move the way Larin moves off the ball, with early shuffles buying him an extra yard of space to crash the box. The Orlando talisman will get on the end of dead balls, but he will also follow up everything, so any scramble in the box will likely have Larin involved. Just… track him.
This is not a must-win. But it is a ‘would-be-extremely-nice-if’ win. Playoff teams should beat non-playoff teams, and Orlando is the latter while Philly desperately wants to be the former. Controlling a match at home is vital in the playoffs, and the Union have done a poor job of it over the past two months. This is a chance to show that, with time, Jim Curtin and his staff can revive a squad that has every right to expect a postseason berth.
They just need to earn it.