By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)
At 40-1 to win the MLS Cup the Philadelphia Union aren't extreme underdogs, but they aren't the darlings of prediction season either. The Union made just one significant signing this offseason as they gave cap space to the Chicago Fire in exchange for David Accam, who replaces the departed Chris Pontius. The Union lost two other reasonably important contributors in Oguchi Onyewu and Roland Alberg, and that pretty much sums up the offseason for the Union, and the reason why there is no buzz about the team.
But the unthinkable does happen in the world of soccer.
Two years back Leicester City caught the soccer world by storm by winning the Premier League after oddsmakers put their title hopes at 5,000-1. They did it with exceptional defense and a rigorous commitment to the counterattack. With the acquisition of Accam, the Union could potentially set up in a similar fashion and might just be the unthinkable surprise of the season. Here’s how.
Leicester City was rock solid on defense allowing just 36 goals in 38 games, good for third in the league. They had an anchor in Wes Morgan and were very well organized. The Union have shown the ability to organize and will need to be to protect a young defense. With Onyewu no longer in the fold the Union center backs are thirsty for experience. Jack Elliott (22 years old) is sure to start alongside either Richie Marquez (25) or U.S. U20 star Auston Trusty (19). Josh Yaro (23) also figures to get some time. Keegan Rosenberry (24) will man the right side and Fabinho will manage the left with Andre Blake between the pipes. The key to a good defense for the Union will be to stay compact and protect this backline. When the Union stay compact they can be very effective.
The above chart shows the Union's goals across three different periods of last year. During the first seven games the Union allowed fourteen goals. This was actually the continuation of a catastrophic period defensively for the Union, where they gave up an historically bad 64 goals over a 32 game stretch. Over those seven opening games the Union averaged 11.7 defensive actions in the attacking half per game. Defensive actions in the attacking half is a simple proxy for determining how high up a defense is playing. League average was 9.8 last season. The top three most aggressive teams last year were no surprise; Red Bulls (13.5), NYCFC (11.5) and Atlanta United (10.9). The Union started out as aggressive as the most aggressive teams in the league.
But credit to Jim Curtin who steadied the ship and commanded a compact defense. Over the next 23 games the Union allowed just 26 goals, a rate that would have landed them in the top five defenses in the league if they had maintained it all season. During this stretch they averaged 8.0 defensive actions in the attacking half per game, which would have ranked lowest in the league. They literally went from one of the most aggressive teams in the league to the least aggressive, and it worked. As the season wound down and they were out of the playoff race they loosened up again and allowed seven goals in their last four games. Not coincidentally they were more aggressive higher up the pitch with 12.3 defensive actions in the attacking half per game.
If the Union stay compact they have the potential to play top level defense. With a young backline the need to play more conservatively is even more critical.
Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy surprised everyone with 41 goals during their run, driven by their speed and a relentless pursuit of open space. With the acquisition of Accam the Union now offer an intriguing set of skills up top. Accam and his wing partner Fafa Picault will form one of the faster pairings in the league, and CJ Sapong is a versatile hold up forward and deft scorer from close range. You can almost imagine CJ holding up a long ball, then flipping it out to a streaking winger and then working to seek the return ball in the box. This trio put up 37 goals last year and there is no reason to think they can’t develop a counterattacking blitzkrieg and best that total this year.
The central midfield
Of vital importance will be the bond between Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin in the central midfield. While Medunjanin is no N’Golo Kante defensively, he boasts one of the best left feet in the league and could easily spring Accam and Picault will long balls out wide or up top to Sapong. Bedoya will need to be the fixture that glues the defense together, but he also is an excellent link between the defense and the attack.
This pairing played most of last season together and the partnership figures to only get stronger. How well this duo performs is the key to the season as they will need to simultaneously protect a young backline while linking quickly to the versatile attack.
The final piece
There is one problem with this romantic idea, and that is the single mindedness of coach Jim Curtin. Over his 3+ years coaching the Union, Curtin has shown very little propensity to counterattack. In fact, helping the Union develop any kind of playing identity is his biggest shortcoming. In his ideal world he’d build a pressing and possession oriented team, but he’s never been given the talent to pull that off. The result is a directionless team, half wanting to possess and half thinking they should counter, playing a brand of soccer that resembles watery oatmeal. The kind your Dad made and you felt you had to eat it.
The Union is set up to play a winning brand of soccer this season, but it will take a commitment to protect a young back line while exploiting exciting speed on the outside. Don’t be surprised if the Union are on the outside of the playoffs looking in come October. But don’t be surprised if they catch lightning in a bottle and make the preseason pundits feel like they did when Leicester City was on top of the world