Is this the year that the Philadelphia Union break through? That is the big question on the minds of the Union faithful. In their nine seasons the team has reached the MLS Cup playoffs three times and matched that with three US Open Cup Final appearances, but they’ve collected a record of 0 wins and 6 losses in those pivotal moments. Generally speaking they’ve been outclassed in these games as well, allowing 13 goals and scoring just 4. Are these results just the growing pains of a new franchise or is something else going on?
The Union have been surprisingly mediocre franchise over their nine seasons, and that’s meant in the best possible way. They’ve never had a season expected goal differential above 5.7 or below -3.1. Since 2011 their expected goal difference is +13. On average they rank around mid-table when it comes to xGD. Not bad for a team that started from scratch in 2010 and typically spends in the bottom half of the league.
Their best season from an xGD standpoint was 2014. That was the season that Head Coach Jim Curtin took over for John Hackworth mid-season and brought the Union to 5th in the league in xGD, but finished one spot out of the playoffs. While this 2018 season is their best performance in terms of points, it is their second best from an expected goals point of view.
The lineup and the element of surprise
The issue with the Union is not that they haven’t figured out how to win, although that plays a part, it’s that the Union are easy to game plan against with time to prepare. Coach Jim Curtin whose been at the helm of four of the aforementioned pivotal losses, with a -7 goal differential in those games, is a coach that changes very little. You can bank on his 4-2-3-1 lineup that he rolls out without wrinkle in tactic or his water fearing pants. Vegas won’t be placing odds on this particular lineup because it’s an absolute guarantee to be the view one hour prior to the playoff game (okay, maybe 19 year old Mark McKenzie will replace Jack Elliott).
The roster may not ooze star power but it is solid throughout with the key the triangle in the middle.
Internationals Borek Dockal (Czech Republic), Haris Medunjanin (Bosnia & Herzegovina) and Alejandro Bedoya (USA) form as good a midfield trio as any in MLS and are the keys to the engine. The trio gets a significant percentage of the team’s touches and makes good use of them.
Philadelphia ranks second in terms of total usage for a top midfield trio and third in the league in passing accuracy minus expected passing accuracy. This is not to place a value judgement on that style, but showcases how the team focuses their play. Medunjanin and Bedoya are the bottom two and both are more like a pair of box-to-box midfielders, with Medunjanin linking from deeper positions. His passes are 23% longer than Bedoya’s and 43% more direct. If the Union are to be successful with the counter attack look no further than the left foot of Medunjanin.
Dockal is the creative force, however. From a setup point of view think Miguel Almiron of Atlanta United FC. Going into the last match they both have 11 final pass assists and nearly identical key passes with 76 and 75, respectively. In the final third it is Dockal’s vision that makes the team go.
While the midfield trio is the possession anchor of the team a preview can’t be complete without mentioning Fafa Picault. The winger, who leads the team with 10 goals, is used to break down opponent fullbacks with his speed and open up play behind the defensive line. He’s been effective enough to earn a call up during the last round of USMNT friendlies.
The midfield is the key to this team. They have the ability to impose their will, possess the majority of the ball, and be on the front foot of games. However, if teams can disrupt this flow then they will find space behind a young back line.
Curtin has placed a lot of trust in a very young defense and they have for the most part delivered on expectations. The team presses at times and plays a medium to high block, placing their trust in that midfield. This has left a starting backline that averages under 23 years of age exposed on many occasions. They’ve conceded 47 goals in 33 games, and while no one will write stories about their defensive prowess, they’ve more than held their own. The anchor is 20 year old US youth international Auston Trusty who has played nearly every minute this season and is the most aggressive offensively of the center backs.
And then there is one time MLS goalkeeper of the year Andre Blake who has had a solid if unsensational year between the pipes. He’s sporting a +2 Goal - xGoal score this year, but that might be more due to the defensive setup than to any leakage from Blake himself. If he gets hot Blake can keep any game close, which can be crucial in the cagier high stakes postseason matches.
Rookie Corey Burke has been the revelation up top this season with nine league goals. He replaced CJ Sapong who struggled this season with a league worst -5.8 G-xG. Burke is a little more hopeful with his shooting but has proven to have a finisher’s touch when it matters. Burke needs to round out his game, but given the current setup of the roster his ability to put the biscuit in the basket was more than welcome when last year’s leading scorer started to slump.
The Union playoff hopes come down to coaching approaches. How will the opponent look to slow down the Union midfield and counter? Will Curtin make adjustments to counteract the approach?
It’s unlikely the Union will go away from what got them to their first 50 point season. They will look to control the ball through the middle with high percentage passes and bring the fullbacks into play. When they arrive at the final third they are generally looking for a moment of brilliance from either Picault or Dockal. Mistakes with this plan can prove costly and teams have been able to exploit them on the counter. A carefully devised plan seeks to cut off some of these options and make the Union play on their back foot.
Barring an unforeseen run of good fortune the Union don’t project a deep run. As of this writing they are likely facing a road playoff game which will be a difficult task, but this is their best playoff team in history and they might just break through with their first big win. That would be a good enough season for this franchise as they look to establish themselves as a consistent challenger for trophies.