Photo: Paul Rudderow
The wind played a huge factor keeping Toronto from hitting balls in behind in the first half, and the Union scored with their only shot on frame, but that was absolutely the best half of soccer — organizationally — Philadelphia has put together in quite some time.
Aside from a penalty softer than a fresh Philly pretzel, the defending Eastern Conference champions managed a single shot — blocked — in the first half.
Admittedly, the wind kept TFC from exploiting space behind the Union back four, eliminating a defensive weakness the Canadians pummeled mercilessly last season. But it’s also notable how well Philly played the wind: The defense stayed high, held a strong line, and compressed space so the midfield could quickly close on TFC’s attackers. Altidore and Giovinco dropped into the midfield, but they rarely had space to drop very far: Philly kept their lines tight, and it was great to watch.
Use the field — all of it
Although it was clear from the outset that Toronto was struggling with the weather conditions, it was also quite obvious that the Union had internalized a few simple rules in attack: Use width, rotate play, and control the wingbacks.
After the match, Jim Curtin said, “When we got word that Beitashour wasn’t going to be on the field it changed a couple things and the way we wanted to go at them. So yeah it changes fast, we have to be adaptable and be on your toes.” Translated, Curtin is saying that Philly wanted to attack fill-in right wingback Tsubasa Endoh. In the preview, PSP highlighted TFC’s lack of depth but noted that it probably wouldn’t be an issue on Saturday. Um, oops?
The Union spent much of the first half rotating the ball around the midfield and looking to isolate Fabinho on Endoh. This was a very good plan: Endoh isn’t a real wingback and his defensive instincts reflected that fact. The only potential hitch was Fabinho and his cookie monsteresque love of crosses.
Above, you can see Alejandro Bedoya remind Fabi that, hey, recycling play would be groovy. Luckily, Fabinho usually took the open space through midfield and consistently found useful passing options. It helped that Derrick Jones and Haris Medunjanin provided excellent support to the fullbacks, a feature lacking in the Union’s game much of last season.
Spreading the pitch allowed the Philly to find their midfielders without pressure, and this, in turn, forced Michael Bradley to stay deep in passing lanes. Over the past two years in Toronto, the US midfielder has developed an exceptional feel for when to step up and suffocate space in the channels and when to stay central. He had to stick against the Union and it opened space in the middle that allowed the home side to control play.
Herbers shows more than hustle
A second aspect of the Union’s buildups that allowed them to own the early phases of the match was the superb movement of Fabian Herbers. The second year winger always seems to be second choice behind Ilsinho but keeps showing that he has the uncanny ability to influence a match. On Saturday, he was up against an excellent wingback in Justin Morrow and simply dominated.
Normally, Toronto can use their wingbacks to pressure opposition fullbacks, but Herbers continually made early, deep runs that pinned Morrow back and opened space for Keegan Rosenberry. The winger then drifted inside to find the space left when Bedoya dragged Bradley into TFC’s backline. It was the kind of smart and incisive movement that doesn’t show up in the stats… unless you look at Morrow’s first half passing chart.
There is still a reasonable argument that Herbers’ loose first touch and questionable final third decision-making will prevent him from becoming a regular starter in MLS. But decision-making can improve, and Herbers is already producing at a fairly steady clip (though it should be noted that AmericanSoccerAnalysis thinks the German overperformed his Expected Assists by over 3 last year, so keep an eye out for a regression in his chance creation numbers).
Even if you consider the flying kickpass to set up Pontius a fluke,
it’s becoming hard to deny that Herbers both consistently puts himself in compelling attacking positions
and still has some growth potential in the final third.
After the Vancouver match, Kevin Kinkead (whose tactical analyses are always worth reading) noted that Haris Medunjanin seemed to be MIA defensively. Indeed, it seems as though the Bosnian’s size doesn’t necessarily translate into a physical style of play. But through two matches, there is a lot to like about how Medunjanin handles his defensive duties, and his positional sense is a subtle but powerful reason the Union have yet to concede from open play over 120+ minutes.
A key difference — perhaps the key difference — between Medunjanin and almost everybody else Philly used in a holding role in 2016 is that he rarely tries to do too much. Medunjanin reads and responds to the his partner, and the Union shape in general, exceptionally well.
“It’s important for me,” Medunjanin told PhillyVoice before the season, “People always say, ‘you’re not a defender.’ Okay, I agree with that. I’m not a defender. I’m not like a Claude Makalele or N’Golo Kante, who can (win) the ball like that. But if we stay compact, then you don’t have to be a defender. If we stay compact and stay within, say ten yards of each other, then it’s hard for teams to pass by you there. But when the game begins to become (wide open), it’s very difficult for me, which is why I need one guy who can play there, you know?”
Thus far, the Union have done a good job staying compact, and Medunjanin has responded by fulfilling his end of the bargain. Below, you can see him slide over to close off a passing lane to Giovinco, allowing Onyewu to stay in the back line.
And moments later he slid over early to direct the break wide and finished it with a tackle:
Still later in the first half, he dropped in and covered for Keegan Rosenberry.
If teams can find ways to run at Medunjanin — and they will try in the coming months — he could be a defensive liability. But, leaving the first half in Vancouver aside (when Bedoya was too far forward), the Union seem to be taking the tactical, if not shape-related, aspects of Kevin’s advice by protecting their creator with a compact shape and active, intelligent support from Jones and Bedoya.
Finally, this turn from Medunjanin simply must be highlighted. It set a pretty high mixtape bar for Ilsinho to (inevitably) leap over this season. Come for the skill, stay for the sneaky-spectacular movement before Rosenberry’s pass.
Jonesing for more
The subtlety of Medunjanin’s defensive performances this season has been matched by the in-your-face aggression of his midfield partner.
Particularly in the first half when TFC could not play over the top of Philly’s midfield, Derrick Jones put the middle of the pitch in a chokehold. Recoveries can be a tricky stat, since they may be treated with less reverence than tackles, but can take essentially the same form (see below). Jones had eight recoveries in the first half alone, and, importantly, most of them came in the middle of the pitch.
Indeed, the most exciting tactical aspect of the 2017 Union midfield has been a dedication to maintaining a presence up the gut. When Jones presses, Medunjanin stays, and vice versa. The coordination is a far cry from the 2016 Union, who could not rein in the do-it-all natures of Tranquillo Barnetta and Alejandro Bedoya in holding roles.
If Jones continues to play within himself and add attacking confidence, Jim Curtin and Maurice Edu have a very difficult conversation coming up. Below, you can see how Jones’ athleticism remakes a turnover into a quickfire attack after he holds off Altidore (no easy feat).
But there are still quite a few rough patches to the rookie’s game. For instance, he benefited greatly from Mark Geiger’s absurdist take on how to referee soccer: How a player can escape a card for committing a penalty and then avoid a booking once again after cynically dragging his man to the turf in the open field is a mystery on par with Gerard Butler’s success as an action star.
Jim Curtin had the best take on Jones in his post-match comments, noting that the academy product has a) truly been excellent, b) still has to prove he can do it consistently, and c) has greatly exceeded any fair expectations thus far.
Bedoya and Vazquez
It speaks volumes that Alejandro Bedoya missed a penalty and can still make a strong case that he outplayed compatriot Michael Bradley, who notched a smart assist.
Hounding Bradley was the first order of business for Bedoya, but he was also able to continually drag the Toronto holding midfielder into the back line with well-timed running. Bedoya is never going to be the type of player you picture in your head when you think “attacking midfield creator,” but that’s only a problem if you keep expecting him to be that player when he isn’t.
Often, attacking midfielders are thought of as players that can do something special to win or change a game even when the rest of their team is below their best. Mauro Diaz, Diego Valeri, Kaka, and Federico Higuain all fit this description, and MLS has many more talents from the same mold.
Bedoya can slip into that mode on occasion, but more often than not, his true qualities are of a different nature. Instead of stepping forward when everybody else is off the pace, Bedoya excels as part of a cohesive unit. That seems like an attribute that could be applied to nearly every player, but it’s the degree to which he excels in such situations that makes Bedoya special. When the Union play as a compact and composed team, Bedoya’s intelligence and workrate become multiplicative and make the jobs of everyone around him easier. He shadows passing lanes approaching the ball, presses from behind, makes runs to open space at the right times, and does it all while avoiding the small errors that can turn a mobile player into a liability.
Contrast the way Bedoya can elevate an organized team with the way Toronto’s new creator Victor Vazquez disrupted his side’s defensive structure. Vazquez has a lot of attacking skill, but he was consistently a step or four slow with his defensive reads on Saturday, and TFC struggled to cope.
First, Vazquez was slow to close down Medunjanin, and this negated Toronto’s ability to control space on the pitch. As long as Medunjanin has time to pick his head up, he can pull out an endless array of passes. On the Union’s opener, Vazquez didn’t step to Medunjanin quickly and the Bosnian zipped the ball over to Chris Pontius’ head to set up Jay Simpson.
Later, Vazquez took a poor angle to the ball and allowed the Union to switch fields with ease, effectively counteracting the pressure TFC uses to trap opponents on one side of the pitch.
Things that sucked: Geiger
Let’s start with Jim Curtin’s post-match comments: “It’s hard, listen, it is a hard job that they have, it’s not one that I want to do but at the same time it’s tough because our guys just emptied their tanks for 90 minutes and they get a point out of it and I think it should have been three.”
And later in the same presser: “Players win games, coaches lose games and referees tend to sometimes… I won’t say it, because I might get in trouble, but yeah I’m frustrated. It’s the guys on the field that do the work, it’s the guys on the field that deserve the credit, and they deserved I thought, all three points today. I don’t have a really good feeling after that, but they put a ton into it.”
Curtin can’t say it directly, but PSP can: Geiger was stupendously bad. He got the big decisions wrong, his use of cards to control the match was amateurish, and he provided players with no guidance as to what was and what was not a foul. Geiger is not always terrible. Jeremiah Oshan at Sounders At Heart sums up MLS’ top official quite well: “While the league is often criticized for the officiating standard, Geiger has generally been at least decent and even managed to get solid review for his work during [the 2014] World Cup.” Oshan also noted that Geiger had been so bad during a Gold Cup semifinal between Panama and Mexico that Panama considered protesting and CONCACAF had to put out a statement that basically said even Geiger knew he was bad (the highlight of the statement is that CONCACAF didn’t call him one of best referees in the region, just one of the “best regarded”).
On Saturday, Geiger got the Union penalty wrong.
Fine, that’s also on the assistant referee. But Geiger made it oh-so-much worse with what Richard Whittall appropriately called a “by-the-book” penalty call to even things out. Make-up calls are terrible. Two wrongs don’t make a right as a ref; the job is to get each call right, not to keep things even.
Geiger didn’t stop there, though. He didn’t produce a card for either foul he called in the box (wha?), and he let the Union get away with PSP’s proposed gameplan of fouling in the center to an almost comical degree. Five Union players committed three or more fouls, yet only Fabinho picked up a caution. After receiving that card, Fabi came in with a foot at groin-height and escaped without a second card. The Union supporter might say Yay, but the rest of my soccer being wonders when MLS will recognize that this is simply not good enough from their top official.
The ref also let Altidore off when he cynically dragged Herbers down in the 50th minute,
evened things out by doing the same for Jones in the 55th,
and didn’t card Tousaint Ricketts for kicking Andre Blake in the face.
As Curtin noted with impressive calm after the match, grabbing in the box is a league-wide reffing initiative, but “not kicking the goalkeeper in the head was another big initiative.”
Things that sucked: The broadcast
I have no personal issue with any member of the Union broadcast team, and I assume and hope they are all good people. But… wow. That was one of the least professional broadcasts a professional organization could have put on.
There were three major whoopsies that overshadow numerous minor problems (e.g., holding shots of coaches, fans, video bits, or players while the game is being played).
First, the broadcast entirely missed Toronto’s penalty. In fact, it showed a shot of Giovinco quickly turning his head to see what happened instead of the actual play on the field. To compound that error, few shots — like, say, a reverse angle of the foul — were provided through replays. How does that happen?
Second, the broadcast never showed the play in which Fabinho received a yellow card. That play did not make it to TV live or on replay. How does that happen??
[CLIP UNAVAILABLE DUE TO NOT BEING SHOWN ON TV]
Third, the broadcast never showed an offsides line-angle replay of C.J. Sapong’s goal. We know they have the technology, and that Sapong was certainly close enough to warrant another look. HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN???
Finally, the broadcast nearly missed the second Toronto goal, and had to quickly cut from a close-up at the spot of the foul to show Justin Morrow magically behind the Union defense. Luckily, a replay of the full sequences was later provided. But still…
In the end, it’s hard to argue with earning a point against a Toronto team that recruits Italian national team players while the Union scoop from the English lower divisions. But the nature of these dropped points hurts. The Union largely controlled TFC, gave up one huge chance to Jozy Altidore, and only allowed goals off set pieces or self-serving makeup penalties.
Eventually, the Union will need to earn three points. Next week they face off against another team with a big, strong striker and an injured international star. Hopefully they can do it with a different man in the middle.