Mar 2, 2019; Chester, PA, USA; Toronto FC defender Laurent Ciman (26) and defender Laurent Ciman (26) celebrate a victory against the Philadelphia Union at Talen Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
CHESTER, Pa.– After weeks and months of anticipation ahead of the 2019 Major League Soccer season, the Philadelphia Union fell flat Saturday in their 3-1 loss to Toronto FC.
A few defensive lapses allowed TFC veteran Michael Bradley to score on two occasions for the visitors, and a lack of creativity up top hampered the Union’s advances into the final third.
The Union held 61.6 percent of the possession, had eight corners and took 17 shots, but only four shots went on target in the defeat.
Below is a look at the biggest takeaways from Saturday’s loss.
1. Failure to track Bradley hurts Union twice
It’s inexcusable that the Union allowed Bradley to work his way into the box unmarked not once, but twice.
In the buildup to his first-half stoppage time goal, Bradley played a pass from a deeper role, and it appeared Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin was keeping tabs on the Toronto FC captain.
By the time Bradley made his way to the top of the penalty area, Medunjanin stopped following him, which allowed the American midfielder to cruise close to goal and finish for TFC’s first goal.
Medunjanin didn’t cover himself in glory on Bradley’s second goal either. He was close to Bradley (at the top right) before the TFC man made his decision to break into position to pounce on a rebound created by Andre Blake’s save.
When Bradley was ready to strike his shot from the top of the box, Medunjanin was nowhere close to him, and it allowed plenty of space to shoot.
After the game, Union captain Alejandro Bedoya noted that the team as a whole needs to get better defensively, but it was clear on the pair of Bradley goals that Medunjanin was at fault.
“Those are just runs you have to be able to track,” Bedoya said. “Somebody has to track them, whether it’s our 6 or our center backs. That’s their No. 6 getting into the box. He’s done that his whole career. Those are the same types of runs I like to make. Nobody tracked him.
“I didn’t see the replay, but maybe one of the outside backs could be tucked in more. It’s various factors. It’s a team effort, so you can’t pinpoint one person. But when you see the No. 6 of the opposing team making a late run into the box like that and nobody is tracking him, that’s a breakdown.”
For the upcoming games against Sporting Kansas City and Atlanta United, head coach Jim Curtin could consider putting Warren Creavalle into the No. 6 role, and either use Medunjanin as a left-sided midfielder on the 4-4-2 diamond so he can’t be exploited — or keep him on the bench.
Those mistakes can’t be made throughout the season, and the Union don’t have time to deal with more miscues like the ones Medunjanin committed.
2. Forwards need to create more
The Union were on the offensive for the majority of the first half, but the closest they came to scoring was Bedoya’s header off the post in the 25th minute.
“I think we had a lot of the ball,” Curtin said. “We had some really good looks at goal, especially in the first half, where we had them under the gun a little bit.”
Outside of that, the forward pairing of Fafa Picault and Cory Burke, as well as Marco Fabian in the No. 10 position couldn’t create many quality chances.
“We obviously weren’t sharp enough in the final third,” Bedoya said. “I thought we played in their end most of the time. It’s not the start we wanted at all.”
Part of the struggles had to deal with the ineffectiveness of Ilsinho, who wasn’t able to find space on the right side to flash his creative flair on multiple occasions.
The Union failed to pose a consistent threat in the middle of the field, and without that avenue of creativity, they were forced to play long balls and through the wing.
The Union are going to play differently on the road, but in their next home game, March 23 against the Columbus Crew, they should find a way to press through the middle of the attacking third through the combination of Fabian, the two strikers and the left-and-right-sided midfielders.
3. Tactical flexibility already on display
One of the positives to come from Saturday’s loss was Curtin’s ability to show tactical flexibility.
Curtin’s first change brought on forward Sergio Santos for defender Ray Gaddis, which shifted the formation to a 3-5-2.
By the end of the game, the Union were playing with five true attackers in Santos, Picault, Burke, Fabian and David Accam.
“It just wasn’t a night where things went in for us, so we did make a change tactically to a 3-5-2, had as many attackers as we possibly kind of could on the field, got a goal to push things a little bit and then obviously coughed one up at the end of the game where we’re throwing some bodies forward,” Curtin said.
Although the Union only got one goal out of the switch, it’s a sign the club is willing to break away from the strict formation of past seasons, when the 4-2-3-1 was the only formation played.
In the future, the aggressiveness at home should translate to more goals, but now the focus shifts to what personnel the club will play on the road against two strong opponents.