The Philadelphia Union produced an impressive attacking performance Wednesday on their way to a 2-1 win over D.C. United in the Rowdies Suncoast Invitational.
Marco Fabian and Cory Burke scored second-half goals for Jim Curtin’s side to earn its fourth victory of the preseason.
What’s most important about Wednesday’s game is the Union displayed improvements from their lackluster showing on Saturday against the Montreal Impact. Below is a look at the three biggest takeaways from the Union’s victory in their penultimate preseason contest.
Best forward pairings emerge
The Union have been searching all preseason for the perfect forward combination to start the Major League Soccer season on March 2.
While we don’t know the two starters yet, we’re aware of one pairing that doesn’t appear to be effective.
C.J. Sapong and Cory Burke weren’t able to combine well off each other in the first half since both are physical, hold-up type forwards.
When Fafa Picault entered for Sapong at the start of the second half, he immediately added a burst and some width to the attack, which resulted in the game-winning goal scored by Burke in the 74th minute.
The top responsibility of the forwards in the new 4-4-2 diamond system isn’t to provide width, but that’s what Picault naturally provides with his pace.
By opening up the opponent’s defensive shape, Picault is able to create chances from the wing for the other attacking players hanging out in the penalty area.
The difference in production from the first half to the second shows the Union are better off with a pacy forward complementing a physical forward to start off games.
Burke was supposed to start up top with Sergio Santos, but the Brazilian was held out of the contest with knee soreness.
That meant Burke had to wait until the final 45 minutes to be partnered by a forward that brought an extra flavor to the attack that he could benefit from.
If Burke is near the top of the forward depth chart, it would be wise of Curtin to pair him with either Santos or Picault so he can benefit from their pace.
But what exactly Santos brings to the pitch remains to be seen, as he hasn’t played a minute of the two preseason games that have been streamed from Florida.
Wagner highlights how Union will find width in new formation
While the Union’s forwards can create depth on occasion, the primary providers of width on the field will be the fullbacks.
Left back Kai Wagner, who struggled getting forward Saturday, provided a perfect example of how the fullbacks are supposed to function in the new system.
Wagner received plenty of opportunities to surge forward and combine with Alejandro Bedoya, who was positioned on the left side of the midfield diamond. The 21-year-old German still needs to work on his crossing so he can become more of a threat in the final third, but he showed his potential Wednesday night.
However, Wagner still has work to do to earn the starting position for the March 2 season opener against Toronto FC. He made a few sketchy clearances when defending and wasn’t perfect with his crossing efforts.
But the good news for Wagner is he is earning more playing time than Homegrown player Matt Real, who was pegged as the favorite to win the starting job at the start of the offseason.
Auston Trusty’s adventurous night
Auston Trusty didn’t have a perfect night, but he only made one massive mistake in the Union back line.
The second-year Homegrown player was caught out by Wayne Rooney on D.C.’s lone goal. The Englishman used a well-timed run to get behind Trusty and easily beat goalkeeper Andre Blake.
Trusty made a few other slip-ups throughout the contest, but he was able to remedy the mistakes by getting back in position, or clearing the ball away from the net.
As long as he learns from the mistake he made on the Rooney goal, Trusty should be in position to put together one final strong preseason performance against United Soccer League side Ottawa Fury on Saturday.
The teammate who will partner with Trusty in Week 1 is now more of an unknown because Mark McKenzie picked up an ankle knock in training, which led to Jack Elliott starting alongside Trusty instead.