Photo: Earl Gardner
It took all of 90 minutes in 2017 for Philadelphia Union to match their road points total against Western Conference teams from a year ago.
Last season, the Union drew a memorably ugly match against Colorado Rapids to claim the only point they would earn during their travels to the west, going 0-4-1 overall.
More impressive was how they snagged the point, with strong play from two holding midfielders making MLS debuts and grinding two-way play from Chris Pontius and especially Fabian Herbers. Philly did not create many chances, but they conceded fewer.
Consider this: Jordan Harvey’s shot off a corner — the one Keegan Rosenberry saved off the line — was the only Vancouver shot on frame. On the other end, the Union’s best look was a spinning backheeled effort from Bedoya.
Throughout preseason, Jim Curtin rotated between an aggressive midfield that slotted Alejandro Bedoya next to Haris Medunjanin and a more conservative setup with a holding player sitting in beside the Bosnian. Starting the season on the road, Curtin played it tactically conservative, but that meant being risky in his lineup choices.
Make no mistake: the Union head man rolled the dice by starting Derrick Jones, and he was rewarded.
Jones, in his first MLS minutes, was far from flawless. He suffered a loss of confidence and dip in form after an early misplayed pass, but recovered to provide one of the better performances the Union have seen from the defensive midfield role in quite some time. Jones’ athleticism was immediately noticeable, but it was his positioning that made him the standout performer on the evening.
“I thought he was the standout performer on the night — both teams,” Curtin said of Jones.
And while that is debatable, there is no question that Jones put in an exceptionally mature and disciplined showing.
The keys for Jones and Medunjanin were controlling the center and supporting the center backs. For Medunjanin, this meant finding enough space to turn with the ball and covering runs when his rookie sidekick stepped to the ball. Jones often had the more complex task of providing the short outlet through the middle without advancing too far beyond his partner. Against Vancouver’s soft pressure, both players were comfortable collecting the ball and turning, though Jones was one of many Union players that preferred to return the ball whence it came rather than quickly turning to switch fields. Yet it was only when Philly quickly moved the ball across the pitch that they were able to penetrate past the home side’s own disciplined, deep-lying midfield.
Jones: So good, and so much room to improve
Jones should improve as he becomes more comfortable in MLS and begins to think more independently, so criticizing a 20-year-old rookie for being a few steps out of position seems harsh. Let’s not call this criticism, then, just pointing out areas in which the young giant can grow.
Jones’ conservative passing game meant the Union often required Medunjanin to get on the ball to switch fields. In the screenshot to the right, you can see that Jones has found a good position between defenders but has acres of space behind him. By taking just a few steps back, Jones can turn with the ball and attack space, disrupting the defense’s shape and pushing the ball to the far side for an attack.
One issue the Union had turning buildup into chances was Bedoya’s relative absence in the middle during the first half. In the screenshot just below, you can see that when Bedoya drops slightly off the back line, he has space to act as a link to the far wing, and those quick horizontal transitions are how Philly builds many of their most dangerous moves. Now if Jones takes two steps forward, he is in position to attack the middle of the pitch with the ball, drawing the defense and finding Bedoya in the left half-space.
Defensively, both midfields worked in relative sync, with Medunjanin showing impressive instincts tracking back to a holding role when Jones stepped to press. Laba was perhaps the least consistent man in the middle as his form dipped following a strong opening half hour. But overall, the prevention focus of both duos was executed so effectively that the match never got out of second gear.
This tactical wariness made for a match that seemed as if it could only be decided by an individual error. Both teams were hesitant to commit more than four to an attack, which meant defenders accumulated around the ball carrier like zombies in The Walking Dead. Laba’s early effort over the bar may have been the most aggressive any midfielder got until Jones found his way to the edge of the box and overhit a through ball midway through the second half.
Play was pushed wide by both teams, and dangerous crosses were at a premium. The Union’s strength in back masked issues in their zone coverage farther up the pitch. More than once, Jay Simpson, Alejandro Bedoya, and Chris Pontius struggled to effectively communicate and hand off runners as Vancouver worked the ball out of the back. Allowing Laba or Kekuta Manneh to receive the ball behind the first line of defense forced the Union to collapse centrally, and this exposed the right side of the defense, where Rosenberry had acres of space to cover as Oguchi Onyewu played a very narrow position. Time and again, Vancouver’s touch and vision let them down when they seemed likely to create a good opportunity.
Stuck on the same side
The first half opened with both sides testing the debutantes in the center of defense. Vancouver smartly looked to move Onyewu by playing behind Rosenberry, and the Union sought to test Christian Dean by running Jay Simpson behind Jordan Harvey.
Onyewu remained narrow throughout the contest, and the Whitecaps had early success running at Rosenberry with superteen Alphonso Davies. Philly adjusted by drawing Herbers back to help on Davies whenever possible, a move which could be seen as an indictment of Rosenberry but is more about the outsized skills of the Vancouver winger than defensive problems at right back. Make no mistake: Rosenberry had an alarmingly inconsistent match on the ball, with Davies closing him down quickly and forcing a number of bad choices. But from a defensive standpoint, the Union were always going to have to offer help by sliding Onyewu over or pulling Herbers deep, and they chose the latter.
Dean, however, needed no help. The former No. 3 overall SuperDraft pick — chosen after Andre Blake and Steve Birnbaum — showed an impressive blend of size, closing speed, and anticipation to smother Simpson. As a result, Simpson only had five touches beyond the center circle in the first half, all but one of them a backward pass. That’s fine hold-up play, but it did little to stretch Vancouver or provide the advanced touches needed to find Bedoya’s aggressive forward runs.
Bedoya stays high early
In order to create dangerous moves without moving holding midfielders into advanced spaces, both teams needed to draw their opponents into the center with their initial passing then spread the ball wide. Unfortunately, neither side found consistent access to their central attackers, and neither advanced midfielder reliably found the spaces (Bedoya) or vision (Manneh) to disrupt the defense and create scoring opportunities.
Let’s start with Bedoya.
After the match, Kevin Kinkead described the Union’s attacking midfielder as a “volume” playmaker. That can be a euphemism or a compliment depending on context, tactics, and expectations. For instance, some players need a lot of opportunities to create a few good chances. A system can build around this by using that playmaker in a hard-working, all-over-the-pitch role that sees them on the ball quite often. On the other hand, if you put a volume playmaker in a role where they have to make the most out of their few opportunities and do it in tight spaces, you’re probably in trouble and need to find out what Chaco Maidana is up to these days.
Early on, Philly appeared to be using Bedoya in a role that garnered him few touches, but the ones he got were in deep positions. The US international often looked to make runs into the spaces that opened with Simpson dragged a center back out to the wing, but Simpson’s inability to win those battles meant Philly was left with Bedoya up the pitch and out of position when the ball was turned over. Opta credited the Union man with zero defensive actions in the first half (including recoveries!) despite his high work rate. This reflects Bedoya’s vertical movement and Philly’s aim of exploiting space between a young, inexperienced central defensive pairing.
On the right, you can see how Bedoya’s advanced positioning leaves the Union with only a defensive cycle or a stunning crossfield ball from Onyewu as means to switch fields. Particularly with Medunjanin favoring deeper positions, Bedoya needs to playing a linking role rather than looking to get on the end of balls through the back line.
The strategy itself is not necessarily a bad one, but it seemed a poor fit given the personnel on the pitch. Simpson couldn’t win aerial battles or collect balls cleanly enough to find a runner who could drive at the defense and find Bedoya’s runs. When Fabian Herbers did find Bedoya behind the defense, it was after he beat a man by himself and threatened the back line on the dribble.
As the match wore on, Bedoya began to play a deeper role that allowed him to connect with the other midfielders. This gave the Union far better control of the center of the pitch defensively, and — just as importantly — opened spaces for Fabian Herbers to advance on the right. In the first half, Herbers and Bedoya were both aiming to occupy the half-space just outside the Whitecaps’ box on the right. With Medunjanin and Jones hesitant to step forward, this left a gaping hole in the center, and meant Philly couldn’t run at the suspect individual defense of Andrew Jacobson and Matias Laba.
Bedoya’s deeper role, however, did not produce the sort of central connections Jim Curtin may have hoped for. Medunjanin drifted to the right to combine with Rosenberry, who now had more space to advance behind Herbers. Yet the Union struggled to quickly switch play from right to left, and Fabinho never managed to rampage forward into space because the ball only made its way across the field by cycling through the back four.
Going forward, the Union need to figure out how they want to use Bedoya in the build-up phase of the match, because for all his talents, he should not be occupying a role that resembles the one that, say, Roland Alberg might play.
With Bedoya advanced, Philly has the pieces to play a more movement-oriented attack that can exploit the man-oriented zone defense many MLS teams use through the center.
A man-oriented zone means players will pick up opposing runners in man coverage when they enter their zone, but they will drop back into shape once that runner leaves. This scheme can be exploited by moving players from the wings or from the front line into a zone once a defender is already occupied in man coverage. That sounds complicated, but it just means that when a central player manages to pull, say, Laba or Jacobson forward, a winger or striker needs to recognize that a zone is now uncovered and move into that space quickly. Philly actually did a good job drawing Vancouver’s midfield out of shape but did a poor job moving players into unoccupied zones.
Defensive heads up
Keegan Rosenberry struggled in a number of one-on-one showdowns with uber-prospect Alphonso Davies, and that’s fine. Unless you are writing Paolo Maldini on your team sheet each week, expecting a fullback to contain a dribbler as talented as Davies is, let’s say, not smart. Dropping Herbers to help was a reasonable solution and it generally worked out well.
The bigger issue for Philly was their rotations on the right side when the Whitecaps did manage to collect the ball in the center. Kekuta Manneh has a long list of qualities, but vision in tight areas is not near the top of his list. And that is why it both makes more sense to play him as a winger and why the Union weren’t punished when they backed off and let Manneh collect and turn in the middle.
More than once, Manneh or Davies mishit balls, missed runners, or misread the defense when a skilled playmaker would likely have punished Philly. Specifically, this occurred on the right, where Onyewu was reluctant to leave the middle and left oodles of space for Rosenberry to cover. The same problem popped up in the final preseason match, with DC United pulling Marquez wide, cutting play back central and finding Lloyd Sam when Onyewu drifted to the left half of the pitch and Rosenberry was left at sea with an entire half of the pitch to cover alone. This is an area the Union need to shore up quickly, because Greg Vanney will be pointing it out to Jozy Altidore, and the big man won’t miss Giovinco’s runs when he holds the ball in front of Philly’s back four.
The other thing to look for going forward is Fabinho’s recoveries. The fullback — and he’s not the only one — has a history of returning slowly to reform the offsides line after getting drawn deep. That occurred more than once on Sunday and will be duly exploited by teams like the Red Bulls and Toronto FC.
The Union cannot be unhappy with a road point to start the season, nor can they be thrilled that their offseason machinations produced a single, bouncing, low percentage shot from the number nine position. But overall, Jim Curtin has to be happy with his team’s execution, particularly on the defensive side of things.
Jones and Medunjanin were very disciplined at remaining central and that eliminated many of the simple transition outlets and runs through the middle that put the defense on its heels last season. Teams will look at Vancouver’s ability to get the ball into the box and wonder if they can send a late runner through when Philly’s mids collapse deep to help, and they will certainly continue to probe behind Rosenberry if Onyewu is going to continue his narrow positioning.
How Philly tweaks their system to account for these attacks will say a lot about their ability to earn points on the road this year. Keeping Bedoya in a more positionally disciplined role gave the team far more control over the center in the second half, but Medunjanin struggled to figure out where to go with the ball once the Union captain stayed close. Creating cues and patterns that quickly move the wingers into unoccupied central zones may open the width for advancing fullbacks, but it has to be done far quicker and more efficiently than it was on Sunday.
Additionally, this match showed off a Union side that seemed comfortable sitting in and breaking forward. Playing at home — as the Whitecaps showed — they may not generate much offense without committing another player forward in attack. Can they shift Jones or Medunjanin closer to the box without giving up transition chances?
These are the questions facing Curtin and the Union after 90 minutes in 2017. They are, undoubtedly, far better questions than those asked after 90 minutes last year.