It’s been a really sleepy start to the Union season.
Three games in five weeks makes it hard to generate any kind of continuity or buzz, especially during a combination Sixers and Flyers playoff push. It also doesn’t exactly help when the first two matches feature an early sending off and a snoozer of a scoreless draw.
The glass half full approach would center on the idea that the Union haven’t allowed a goal through 180 minutes, about 120 of which were played at full strength. The glass half empty bemoans the fact that the team hasn’t scored an even-strength goal in 2018.
But if you know anything about Jim Curtin, he’ll take a nil-nil over a 3-3 any day of the week, and starting the season with four points out of six is a lot better than starting with four points out of 24, which is what the Union mustered last year en route to a diabolical 0-4-4 start. It took them two whole months to get to 7 points last year.
I don’t put much value in the season opener, simply for the fact that New England took a horrendous red card in the first half and spent the rest of the game defending a Union onslaught. Philly won 2-0 in comfortable fashion, a nice game to ease in a young defense and a couple of homegrown players making their first MLS starts. There are worse ways to get Auston Trusty and Anthony Fontana acclimated to the senior team.
The second game gives us more to work with, a matchup against a well-coached and organized Columbus team. Philly only generated 3 on-target shots from 9 total looks, but generally limited Columbus while keeping a decent defensive shape at home. I thought Gyasi Zardes should have buried one of his chances, but he didn’t.
The Union handed Borek Dockal his MLS debut, and he just wasn’t clicking with his teammates out there, putting up these numbers:
- 2 off-target shots
- 0 key passes
- 31/38 passing overall (81.5%)
- 1 unsuccessful cross
- 1 time dispossessed
His passing numbers look okay, but there wasn’t much incisive distribution. He completed 7 of 8 inside the final third, but most were right on the edge of the area with Columbus sitting in their blocks and staying compact. I did, however, appreciate his active body language and post game press conference. Guy seems like a winner, like someone who actually cares, which is more than you can say about some of the duds who have played for past Union squads.
The one thing that jumped out at me was that Dockal tended to pop up on the right side of the field in the same area that Alejandro Bedoya likes to operate from. When you look at each team’s 8/10 heatmap combination, Columbus was a little more balanced, spacing a bit better and getting almost 40 more touches on the ball:
This sort of follows the trend we’ve seen from Bedoya in the past year or two, where always seems to drift to the right side of the field.
I’ve asked Curtin about this before, and he thinks it’s just a product of Bedoya being a right footed player who spent most of his European and international career on the right wing. Haris Medunjanin, your ball-dominant #6, is a left footed guy who operates deeper, almost like that Xabi Alonso or Andrea Pirlo-esque regista who can make things happen from more distant starting points.
Haris usually opens up and faces left, putting the ball on his strong foot, but he doesn’t really trend to the left side of the field, which you see below:
There’s just more positional balance to Medunjanin’s game.
It’s interesting, because Haris is dropping a bit deeper to receive the ball this season. The Union will split the center halves and drop the #6 between, showing three in the back during the buildup. It’s the exact same thing Columbus has been doing for years, so it felt like a bizarro world mirror-matchup this past weekend.
Theoretically, if Haris is pulling deeper, does that mean Bedoya has more space to operate in the middle of the park? If Medunjanin is Wil Trapp, can Bedoya emulate the Artur or Tony Tchani role?
He pulls back a bit but it’s still mostly right sided. Other times he’s completely out of the picture when the Union start their buildup:
If the above is the case, and Bedoya is sort of hugging the right side there, or recovering from a forward run, then Anthony Fontana or Borek Dockal is going to have to come occupy that space, otherwise you’re just fumbling around with three players in possession while everybody else stands 40 yards up the field.
This is better:
Anthony Fontana dropping in to help Medunjanin and the center backs draws another defender forward and gives Bedoya some space to operate if he wants to stay higher up the field.
In the the sequence where I pulled the image above, he pounces on a New England mistake, drives toward the box, and sets up a pair of scoring opportunities:
Never mind the blown sitter there. I probably should have cut off the clip before Sapong’s miss, but whatever. He got his goal later in the game.
So you see what I mean about the Union build up? Bedoya just always has this right-sided swing to his game. In clips like the one above, he’s in a great position to jump on the loose touch and push forward in transition. Other times they get too clumpy on the right side, which has this “toilet bowl” effect, where the entire team sort of rotates clockwise, with Fabinho pushed way high, David Accam pinching inside next to Sapong, and a cluster of Bedoya, Fabian Herbers, Keegan Rosenberry, and Dockal/Fontana kind of stepping on each other’s toes.
It’s hard to illustrate without a wide camera angle, but it’s sort of like this:
That’s going to be the primary issue going forward, getting Dockal acclimated to his teammates and trying to smooth out the build-up play. Keep in mind you’re also going to have Fafa Picault starting on the right side, presumably, when he comes back from suspension.
To that point, I’ve always felt like it just makes more sense to play Bedoya as a right mid and let Derrick Jones start as the #8. I know they’ve said they aren’t interested in playing Bedoya wide, but it just feels to me like he does most of his work over there anyway. I think you kill a couple of birds with the same stone, which is putting a DP in his natural position, a spot where can be more influential offensively, while allowing Jones to get on the field and continue to grow and develop as a box-to-box type of guy. The counterpoint, I think, is that the Union have enough wing talent already between Picault, Herbers, Cory Burke, and Ilsinho.
Anyway, a couple of other notes:
David Accam –
He just always seems like he’s capable of making something happen. It’s been awhile since the Union have had a guy who makes you perk up every time he gets on the ball. Ilsinho used to have that effect during his first year.
I think Accam did a bit too much dribbling last weekend, and was stuffed a couple of times inside the box while trying to shoot. That’s not exactly his game, but with Fabinho getting so far forward, he sometimes looks like a second striker playing next to Sapong up there. I’d like to see him get out in space and run at defenders, which might be the case with the Union going on the road next weekend. Still, a lot of good things from the new DP so far.
Auston Trusty –
He isn’t making bone-headed year one mistakes and just needs to minimize those inaccurate long balls.
Jack Elliott –
No sophomore slump at all. He had something like six clearances and a block the other day, and continues to impress me with his on-ball composure and diagonal passing game.
Keegan Rosenberry –
Looks more like himself this year. I think he works better with a right-sided midfielder who can interchange with him up the flank. He had some great chemistry in 2016 playing next to Ilsinho on that side of the field. There’s been a lot of change in that position, from Chris Pontius, to Picault, to Herbers, to Ilsinho, to Burke subbing in. Need some consistency over there.
Fabian Herbers –
I want more from him. He was excellent at the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 before suffering the injury. He looks like he’s trying to find space to get on the ball over there, wants to pinch inside and play more centrally.
C.J. Sapong –
Can’t leave him on the island. Columbus did a nice job of limiting his looks and squeezing down on him, and his best contribution was three key passes that his teammates couldn’t capitalize on. He had a really nice layoff that Dockal chunked over the net.
Haris Medunjanin –
Best passer on the team by a country mile, just needs help from Bedoya in defensive transition and has to be careful in front of a young backline.
That’s all I’ve got after two games. It’s been okay soccer so far, but my biggest concern coming into 2018 was the defense, which has looked pretty good. That’s the glass half full approach.