By Harrison Hamm (@harrisonhamm21)
The Philadelphia Union are making a concerted effort to keep the ball this season. They are fifth in MLS in passes per game and have built their attack around getting the ball into the half-spaces and putting the wingers (especially Ilsinho) in positions to run at defenders.
Their 4-0 home win against Vancouver was a manifestation of their newfound approach. They were on the front foot for most of the game against the bunkering Whitecaps, so even with midfield distributor Haris Medunjanin suspended, they demonstrated how good they can be with the ball.
Only about six minutes into the game, they enjoyed a sequence of possession (gif above) that embodies their ability to turn possession into chances on goal. It also helps demonstrate the value of Alejandro Bedoya.
The passing and movement in this build-up is basic, but that’s what makes it effective. Notice, for example, how Borek Dockal’s checking back to the ball forced Brek Shea to pinch in just that little bit, allowing Keegan Rosenberry to run into space on the right flank. (Philly saw Shea as a weak left-back and went hard at him all game, to great success.)
Bedoya has made his soccer living by doing productive things on the ball and never making the Wwrong decision in situations like the above. He won’t be mistaken for Xavi or Iniesta, but he knows when the simple pass works, and he makes that pass a high percentage of the time.
His original dribble into space got the Union attack started in that clip, and he further enabled his team by dropping back into the space Vancouver left while chasing his dribble. That allowed him to find Warren Creavalle in the middle, who found Rosenberry on the wing (the chance didn’t lead to a great shot, but Rosenberry had a ton of space in a good area).
USMNT fans haven’t always been impressed by Bedoya’s clinical, quietly-intelligent style, but he does good things on the field. His passing score is an impressive 56.9, second-highest in MLS behind only Matt Besler (and one of three midfielders in the top 10 — the rest are defenders). He completes a lot of passes, more than would be expected given the difficulty of those passes.
Philly are sixth in the Eastern Conference, with a legitimate shot of eventually beating out Orlando City, Chicago and Toronto for that final spot.
Julian Gressel, Atlanta’s Quiet Fulcrum
I could talk for days about how much Julian Gressel does for Atlanta — he does something good every time he’s near the ball, whether it’s a subtle run, perfect through-ball or exquisite cross into the box. We’ll focus on one specific thing he did against Portland.
Watch this clip, in which a long sequence of Atlanta possession ended in right-back Franco Escobar having his header saved by Jeff Attinella.
Aside from that great pass through to Darlington Nagbe to start the play, Gressel’s involvement is not immediately clear. But his early recognition of Escobar’s foray into the box allows him to step back and cover the Argentine’s position, letting Escobar have a chance at goal. Gressel is exceptionally skilled at managing the relationship between players on the flanks.
Gressel is most natural at the wing-back spot. One reason Tata Martino has been so fond of three-at-the-back formations this season is Gressel’s ability to slot in there. But he can (and has) played pretty much every position for the Five Stripes.
He’s a good advertisement for the value of the SuperDraft.
Jo-Inge Berget’s Second Goal
Jo-Inge Berget and Maxi Moralez combined and used space well on Berget’s second goal for NYCFC on Sunday, the eventual winner in Domenec Torrent’s managerial debut.
As Ismael Tajouri-Shradi carries the ball forward, Moralez checks off of the backline like a number nine, filling space that should have been covered by a midfielder. Tajouri-Shradi’s pass forces Nick Hagglund to step to him:
Berget, who had been trailing the play, quickly realizes that Hagglund is stick in two minds. Knowing that Moralez’s first instinct will be to look for a pass through, Berget sprints directly forward.
Moralez’s pass comes early enough so that Berget can run onto it, and Hagglund struggles to find the ball, allowing Berget to maneuver easily past him and finish into the far post. Hagglund is left helpless. He couldn’t have stepped to Moralez without Berget having an easier route through, and dropping back to track Berget, the decision he was halfway to making, would allow Moralez space to run with the ball.
NYCFC did a nice job of creating that lose-lose situation for Hagglund.
Quick Goalkeeper Decisions
Jeff Attinella deservedly made the Team of the Week for his performance for the Timbers in their 1-1 draw with the Five Stripes. One of his best plays, although it may not even go down as a save, came in the 93rd-minute, as Portland were trying to preserve a result.
In a lot of situations, Ezequiel Barco’s ball through to Miguel Almiron would have been well-weighted enough to allow Almiron to coolly finish a late winner. But Attinella is fast and confident off his line, judging the play perfectly and just getting there before Almiron could tap it by him. Any hesitation and the Paraguayan is celebrating.
Attinella ripped the starting Portland job away from Jake Gleeson and hasn’t looked back. He’s done it somewhat quietly — in a difficult season for MLS goalkeepers, he hasn’t warranted much consideration for Goalkeeper of the Year — but he’s been a plus starter. His xG differential is -3.96, the sixth-best in the league.
Portland’s improved defense has helped him. The average distance of shots he’s faced is 20.6, the highest number of any goalkeeper who has played at least 500 minutes. By contrast, Gleeson, who played the first six games of the season before losing the job, faced shots from an average distance of 13.9, the lowest in the entire league.
Attinella has given up four goals (on 35 shots) in 787 minutes with an above-average xG differential. Gleeson gave up 13 goals (on 28 shots) in 576 minutes with a 2.73 xG differential. Those numbers speak highly of both Attinella and the Timbers’ vastly improved defense under Giovanni Savarese.
Attinella and the Timbers go to Seattle next weekend, hoping to keep up their defensive form and challenge for the top spot in the Western Conference. If there are any Little Things to take note of in that game, I'll be back to tell you about them.