It feels like every time the Union start stringing some wins together, they sputter and spin out.
It happened last year, when the club won a franchise-record 15 games, yet blew another U.S. Open Cup Final before crashing out in the opening round of the playoffs. All of the goodwill that squad built up quickly went right into the toilet, which was unfortunate.
The 2019 team is going through one of those stretches right now, having mustered just two of a possible nine points in a three-game home stand against Western Conference opponents. Seattle bunkered and held on for a clean sheet. Portland carved open the U on a pair of counterattacks, and Colorado blocked double-digit shots last night at Talen Energy Stadium in a 1-1 draw.
In that span, Jim Curtin’s team scored two goals on 64 total shots, which is kind of crazy to think about. It’s not for a lack of trying, but they just can’t put the ball in the back of the net right now.
They’re still in second place* in the East, though I’m a points-per-game guy, and the reason I use the asterisk is because the Union’s 1.67 number is better than D.C.’s 1.63. However, there’s now just four points separating second and fifth place, which makes me feel like this little slump is gonna come back to bite them in the ass in a few months time.
Five thoughts, after the jump:
1. formation change
Curtin went back to the 4-2-3-1 last night as a way to switch things up, get a different personnel grouping on the field, add some width, and help unlock a stagnant offense.
For the most part it worked, with the Union mustering 13 shots in the 67 minutes before Marco Fabian came in, which saw the U shuffle back to the 4-4-2 diamond they’ve been using for most of the year.
One thing I think I disagree with, in hindsight, is Jim’s decision to start Ilsinho instead of bringing him off the bench, simply for the fact that I think Fafa Picault plays better as a winger in that shape. Why not start him in that position, yeah? Instead, Jim played Sergio Santos on the left, Ilsinho on the right, and moved Jamiro Monteiro further up the field while leaving Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin in the 8 and 6 roles.
I may have done it slightly differently, but I didn’t have any issues with that formation last night, and I think Jim was correct to try to switch things up. They took the lead, created chances, and probably should have added a second goal, but it just never came.
2. Jamiro Monteiro is the real deal
I’m ready to say it –
Monteiro is one of the best Union players I’ve ever watched. No joke. He’s only played in nine games, but I’ve seen enough to say that he can play any midfield position and he’s got the two-way skill set that makes him an excellent pressing midfielder who also has spatial awareness and good ability on the ball. Dude is only 5’8″ and 140 pounds, which gives him that balance and low center of gravity that you see in guys like N’Golo Kante, Sebastian Giovinco, and Lucho Acosta. Those types are a pain in the ass to defend.
Playing about 70% of last night’s game as a number ten in the 4-2-3-1, Monteiro assisted on the Union’s goal while adding two more key passes, five shots, and going 7/9 on dribbles. He was Whoscored.com’s highest rated player of the game.
He also brilliantly weighted a couple of balls in the final third, including this one:
Said Curtin of Monteiro’s performance last night in a more advanced role:
“He probably could have had four assists if you add it up. His natural spot is probably on the side of the diamond in midfield, a little deeper, but he still created enough chances for us and almost had the goal at the end, maybe it was a penalty, maybe not. But Jamiro had a good performance and I thought was one of the guys that checked a lot of the positive boxes tonight and was one of our few bright spots. His ability to get out of tight spots and set guys up with passes, plus he has a real urgency and intensity about him for the entirety of the 90 minutes. On a night when we weren’t our best, he was a guy who I thought had a good game.”
Agreed. He’s been consistently one of the best players on the field in every game he’s played for the Union.
3. need attacking fullback play
Curtin will tell you that a fullback’s first responsibility is to defend, that if one guy is forward, the other needs to stay at home. That’s partly predicated on the fact that Haris Medunjanin is a different kind of #6, a defensive liability but a brilliant distributor and build out facilitator.
Ironically enough, Ray Gaddis had two great scoring chances last night, one a 30-yard volley that just missed the upper corner, and a slashing run that was blocked inside the box.
What he’s not doing is putting crosses into the box, those 2-3 per half that Curtin wants from his fullbacks (this was quoted in a recent Jonathan Tannenwald article that I can’t find).
Last night, here’s how Gaddis and left back Kai Wagner did in crossing the ball and making key passes:
Four unsuccessful open play crosses for Wagner with one key pass, then zero attempted crosses and zero key passes for Gaddis.
If you listen to the “It’s Always Soccer in Philadelphia” podcast, you know I’m a Gaddis critic, though I try to fairly point out that he’s a guy who has been bounced around in his career, from right back, to left back, back to RB, LB, now RB again. It’s rather ridiculous, and he’s a good defender, but when teams are sitting in and inviting the Union to break them down, Gaddis and Wagner should be able to provide a little more width, that crossing threat that pulls opponents laterally and allows Kacper Pryzbylko to get his head on some service in the box.
4. Marco Fabian still has a role to play
I’m not gonna sit here and say this was a bad signing, or that Fabian has bombed out, or anything along those lines.
Dude is a Mexican international with tons of experience, and right now they need somebody to sit at the tip of the diamond and help unlock teams that are going to park the bus and invite the Union forward before looking to counter. Brenden Aaronson has done a lot of things well this year, but he’s 18 years old and needs time to grow into the role. Monteiro looked good playing further forward last night, but I like him as a shuttler more than a CAM right now.
If you’re asking me for a starting lineup based on a 100% healthy roster, I’m going with this:
I think you either give Olivier Mbaizo the keys to the car at right back or look for somebody else in the transfer market. They could also use a stud striker, especially after trading David Accam and losing Corey Burke for a few months.
5. Haris Medunjanin and transitional defense
Probably the biggest weakness on the team, transitional defense.
You saw two instances in the Portland game where Monteiro and Bedoya coughed the ball up, which doesn’t happen often, but it took them out of position and really left Medunjanin and the center backs in tough situations.
This was one:
Yeesh, yeah, that’s not Medunjanin’s strength, and Auston Trusty doesn’t cover himself in glory there either. Sometimes you just gotta yank somebody down, take the yellow card, and get your teammates back on the dead ball.
You’ve seen this year how important Monteiro and Bedoya are as shuttlers, guys who dig in, protect Medunjanin, and allow him to ping the ball around. It’s a big reason why the Union are a top-ten possession team in MLS, because Haris is bracketed by a pair of hard-working, two-way midfielders who can press, pass, and put out the transitional fires that he cannot. When one or both of those guys is taken out of the play, that video clip above is an example of what happens.
Fortunately, the Union are only being dispossessed 9.7 times per game, which is 17th out of 24 teams. It’s not happening as frequently as it could be. But they are averaging 15.3 unsuccessful touches per game, which is 9th in the league:
Those numbers both increase at home, since the Union have more of the ball. The above chart involves all games, both home and away.
So yeah,all of this is the blueprint moving forward: protect Medunjanin, get the fullbacks more involved in the attack, and hopefully a healthy Fabian starts clicking, starts breaking down defenses with a bit of skill and flair. The Union are putting shots on goal but they’ve been a bit stale in the final third overall, which is something they need to fix in order to stay near the top of the table.
I’m not worried. I think they’ve got enough quality to do that, they just need to get a little creative in and around the box, need somebody to show that killer instinct and nose for goal.