In two home matches this season, Philadelphia Union have led for a total of 42 minutes. They have collected a single point from those games.
Despite hosting two of the best in MLS thus far, the Union have played some of their best soccer at home, dominating Toronto FC for long periods of the first half and controlling Portland for half an hour before losing momentum, patience, shape, mentality, and, almost inevitably, the match.
The beauty of soccer is that a team without superstars like Diego Valeri, Fanendo Adi, and Darlington Nagbe can compete by using tactics, organization, and control of space.
On Saturday, the Union first showed that they are a capable side when operating as a thinking, executing team. Then they showed that the Timbers are a team that punishes opponents who lose organization and concede space.
This was the 2015 Union all over again: Capable but mentally fragile. And that is worrying.
The first 30
The opening half hour was remarkable for how much Philadelphia looked like the team Jim Curtin wanted to see. With the physical C.J. Sapong restored to the lineup, the Union played longer passes to their striker and moved forward as a unit to collect second balls. Derrick Jones joined Alejandro Bedoya farther up the pitch in these moments, inverting the midfield triangle and running behind David Guzman and Diego Chara, who were caught in the gulf between Portland’s high front four and deep back line.
Sapong was excellent early on (and strong throughout), and he looked to find channels that would allow line-breaking passes. Look no further than the big striker’s 25th minute run through the box to see his renewed confidence, with Sapong using his movement to show Chris Pontius where he wanted the ball. This is an element that has been frustratingly absent from Sapong’s game for months. This early dominance created a 1-v-1 with the goalie for Fabinho, but the defender failed to provide the finish Philly deserved.
The beauty of the Union’s first half hour was how it highlighted all the ways they can threaten when operating in sync. Fabinho’s chance came off a Sapong knockdown, and it was followed in the 16th minute by a huge chance off Pontius’ superb counter-pressure after turning the ball over. Tripping over a prone Guzman was the only thing preventing Bedoya from a clear shot off Pontius’ good work. That foul granted Haris Medunjanin a free kick that he arrowed low, showing how dangerous he can be from well-positioned set pieces. Off the resulting corner kick, the Union’s big center backs caused chaos, and Ilsinho had a shot blocked away. Then, finally, Philly scored off a corner kick, capitalizing on Medunjanin’s consistent deliveries.
Throughout this period of ascension, the Union kept their three central midfielders close together. Medunjanin retreated deep then directed Bedoya and Jones in coverage, and Bedoya consistently shadowed passes into the channels when he stepped high to join Sapong in pressure. Notably, both wingers provided stellar coverage by shadowing passing lanes to the wings, essentially pushing Portland into the crowded middle. They also offered wonderful back pressure, reading plays well and closing down from behind to knock balls loose for counters.
Valeri, Nagbe, Adi, and the Union right
The visitors, however, had a plan. It just took them a while to figure out how best to execute it. The plan had two parts:
- Get the ball to Nagbe and Valeri in dangerous positions.
- Do it by exploiting the Union fullbacks.
Initially, Portland tried to get behind the aggressive Fabinho, establish possession, and work the ball back around to the left where good movement and overloads could create separation between Adi and Oguchi Onyewu. Valeri dropped deep to break the Union’s first line of pressure, then moved into space behind Fabinho when the fullback stepped high to Sebastian Blanco. Though he found space, Valeri found less support than he needed and was often isolated.
Ilsinho’s profligacy around the final third — along with the toll recovery sprints took on his energy levels — provided a solution, and after Philly went ahead, Caleb Porter made tweaks that turned the match.
Adi sat on Onyewu for the first half hour and and discovered that referee Robert Sibiga was enjoying the cage match far too much to blow his whistle.
Following Marquez’s opener, Adi began to drift wider, challenging Onyewu to follow or hand him off to the diminutive Keegan Rosenberry. When handed off, Adi once again became a dominant aerial force, providing an easy outlet for the visitors.
He also spotlighted a consistent defensive problem for the Union: Rosenberry is caught in two defensive minds this season.
Since the opening weekend, teams have identified the Rosenberry-Onyewu relationship as one fraught with communication issues. The second year right back tends to retreat deep and narrow to provide cover for Onyewu’s lack of speed. This means Rosenberry has a sizable gulf of space to cover when the ball is played to an opposing wide player.
Adi stepping wide and Ilsinho consistently losing the ball and granting transitions coincided with Valeri’s move to the left half-space. This began pulling Medunjanin out from his protective role, since Jones was staying to the left of the formation and Bedoya was playing highest in the midfield. Portland moved the ball to the wing, where Ilsinho was AWOL or chasing and Rosenberry was deep. Now they had numerical and positional advantages and could mercilessly attack a back four that has been far too timid closing space against attackers facing goal. Much like Ortiz’s goal for D.C. United last week, Portland’s opener came when a player had far too much space near goal to line up and take a shot. Nagbe simply cut across the formation and, finding nobody stepping to him, fired away.
Having discovered this pressure point, the Timbers spent the rest of the half pushing on it. Adi and Valeri both found excessive space to line up shots from the exact same region, and even shots from low percentage areas outside of the box are dangerous when great players are taking them without pressure on the ball.
As Portland took control of the Union’s right flank, the home side’s midfield was forced to defend deeper and deeper, and they were no longer able to play long through Sapong and recover in midfield. Leaving out Sapong’s recoveries, Philly had eight by other players in the Portland half in the opening frame. That number was halved in the second 45, with three of the four coming after the Union had already gone behind.
Shots, shots, shots-shots-shots
Portland’s go-ahead goal was more than a tad lucky, but it reflected their dominance — and Philly’s glass confidence — following Nagbe’s equalizer. Between the Timbers’ first and second goals, they took seven shots to the Union’s two. Philly’s chances came from the head of Onyewu and the left foot of Ilsinho, hardly two places that count as production houses of goals.
More broadly, the Union’s only three shots on frame all game came from the heads of defenders and Medunjanin’s set piece. Did Ilsinho come close when he cut across goal in the 51st minute? Sure. But the Brazilian is still flashing a giant zero for shots on target in 2017, with a single key pass in 183 minutes of action. Fabian Herbers, the man Ilsinho replaced, is also without a shot on goal this season, but he has earned a penalty and has contributed six key passes. That means Herbers is averaging four times as many key passes per 90 than Ilsinho.
Philly is winless in five games this season and winless in 13 (counting playoffs) stretching back to 2016. During that dark run, they have earned three points from five matches in which they’ve scored first. Yowza.
Fans will naturally look to assign blame, and there is plenty to go around right now. Jim Curtin accepted that much will go his way in his post-match press conference on Saturday.
However, the uncomfortable truth is that MLS currently requires a combination of dedicated youth development and smart foreign investment for success. Clubs like FC Dallas and Toronto FC may be able to field strong lineups because they are generating young talent from within, but they compete for the cup because their big money is spent on game-changers like Mauro Diaz and Giovinco. Philadelphia has consistently moved money to bring in solid players who can prove vital as secondary pieces around a star or two, but they have no field players who would make a preseason All-MLS first 11, and their best chance for a second 11 player — Rosenberry — has been targeted almost continuously to disastrous effect this season.
Contrast the 2017 fortunes of the Union and San Jose Earthquakes. The Quakes finished second from the bottom in the Western Conference last season, with comfortably the worst attack in the league. They spent on a striker (Marcos Urena), a playmaker (Jahmir Hyka), and the back line (Florian Jungwirth). At 2-2-1, San Jose is hardly lighting the world on fire. But each of those players is unquestionably a MLS starter, and the Quakes are currently undefeated at home. Perhaps they won’t make the playoffs in a crowded west, but if the new faces jell with the old, they certainly have a chance.
The Union had similar needs: A striker, a playmaker, and central defense. They brought in Jay Simpson, Haris Medunjanin, Gilliano Wijnaldum, and Oguchi Onyewu. Alejandro Bedoya — a wonderful player but nobody’s vision of a game-changing star — came in last summer. Of those names, only Bedoya and Medunjanin have established themselves so far, and both look to be excellent supporting pieces only.
Roland Alberg, Walter Restrepo, Anderson, Ilsinho, and Charlie Davies highlight a disturbingly long list of players whose impact you might be able to see if you squint. Keep all that in mind as blame is distributed following a third straight defeat.
This is a team without stars, and that means it is a team that must be perfect for 90 minutes to compete. When playing the blame game, keep in mind how similar that statement sounds to the ones Jim Curtin made with a poor roster in 2015.
The current squad is far better than that one was, but the league is far better as well.