CHESTER, Pa. — If Saturday night’s game between the Philadelphia Union and FC Dallas occurred in any other year of the Union’s existence, the club likely would have left the field with a loss or draw.
But this is a different Union team than ever seen before. This is a team that works hard for each other, has quality up and down the roster and inspires confidence in a fan base that hasn’t had much in 10 years.
The Union fought through FC Dallas’ defensive bunker using astute personnel changes and tactical alterations that weren’t possible in previous seasons.
“I think it’s a real sign of the group’s character,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “I think in past seasons maybe we have a let down and we don’t find a way to break them down.”
Below are the biggest takeaways from the Union’s come-from-behind win over FC Dallas.
1. Curtin nails substitute decisions
For the first time in a while, Curtin got each one of his three substitute decisions correct.
Cory Burke, Ilsinho and Jamiro Monteiro all made significant contributions that led to the pair of goals in a seven-minute stretch.
Burke was the first new entrant on the field in the 56th minute, and he earned an 85th-minute penalty and scored off a rebound in the 86th minute.
— Philadelphia Union (@PhilaUnion) April 7, 2019
Burke used his physical presence in the air to challenge Matt Hedges at the right post off a shot rifled in from distance by Monteiro that was saved by Jimmy Maurer.
“Cory’s been sharp for us,” Curtin said. “He was away with the (Jamaica) national team. He’s come back into the team and trained hard and trained well. I’m really happy for him to get his goal. Hopefully this starts him rolling again because when he gets hot, you guys have seen how good he is at scoring goals.”
Ilsinho opened up the FC Dallas defense on the right wing, and his inventive play with two defenders around him, catapulted Alejandro Bedoya into the penalty area on the way to his game-winning goal.
“All three of the subs that came in for us are guys that I can tell you from experience, defenders don’t like to see coming in,” Curtin said. “No one wants to defend for 60 minutes and then see Ilsinho come on the field and run at them for the last 30. No one wants to see Cory Burke come in and bang with the center backs. No one wants to see Jamiro Monteiro come in because he can impact the game in so many different ways. And you saw that tonight.”
During his time in charge, Curtin has either not had the proper bodies on the bench to make the necessary substitutes, or he would make like-for-like changes that didn’t adjust to the defensive tendencies displayed by the opponents.
The quality of players coming off the bench and the tactical flexibility, like taking Ray Gaddis off for Monteiro, comes from the confidence sporting director Ernst Tanner has installed from the top down.
“You’re starting to see pieces of the system and style that Ernst has instilled in the group,” Curtin said. “You see the depth with our ability to bring players off the bench.”
In past seasons under Earnie Stewart, the Union were forced to only play one way, in a 4-2-3-1, and that put shackles on Curtin to make the proper decisions in games.
Now that flexibility is encouraged, the Union coaching staff will continue to develop more wrinkles with their substitution patterns to make future changes as successful as Saturday night.
2. Tactical flexibility on display with Bedoya at right back
When Gaddis left the field in the 78th minute, Curtin unleashed his latest bit of tactical flexibility.
The Union shifted to a three-man back line with Alejandro Bedoya lining up as a right back when the team defended.
From a defensive standpoint, Bedoya’s move to the right flank didn’t hamper the team since the U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder has played a variety of positions in his career.
“I turn into a little Cafu there. I’m just kidding,” Bedoya quipped. “I’ve always been a versatile player my whole career, and outside backs in the modern game are sometimes inverted wingers, outside mids. I started my career playing more on the outside and I was comfortable there at right back or right mid, so I’m trying to get the ball to our best players, guys like Ilsinho on the ball, and whatever I have to do to help this team win. I know I can play pretty much anywhere on the field.”
Bedoya’s movement to right wingback also helped the attack flow better since he was able to combine with Ilsinho, who lined up on the right flank of the attack.
The two experienced players tried to find the perfect way to break down the FC Dallas defense, and they finally did so in the 92nd minute.
Ayyy, @MLS, how's this for a Goal of the Week contender?
— Philadelphia Union (@PhilaUnion) April 7, 2019
Curtin’s tactical flexibility was triggered by FC Dallas taking Michael Barrios off in the 74th minute. By taking Gaddis off four minutes later, Curtin made it clear he was going to attack substitute John Nelson and Ryan Hollingshead on FC Dallas’ left defensive flank.
“The second Barrios comes off the field for them was our cue to know they were going to see this out,” Curtin said. “The kid Nelson is a left back by nature, not a winger so we were aggressive and countered their move.”
This is the exact tactical acumen we’ve been waiting to see out of Curtin, who as we mentioned above didn’t have the freedom to make a move like this in the last three seasons.
Curtin’s counter to the Barrios substitution was a game-changer, and it produced Bedoya’s game-winning goal.
3. Defense does little things to keep FC Dallas quiet
The Union lost their shutout streak at 210 minutes on a Reto Ziegler free kick in the 10th minute Saturday, but after the visitors scored the opening goal, the back line shut down FC Dallas.
In the final 80 minutes, the Union gave up two shots and Luchi Gonzalez’s side didn’t put another shot in the direction of Andre Blake in net.
That has to do with the positional awareness of centerbacks Auston Trusty and Jack Elliott, who held firm against most threats, including those on the counter attack.
While the attackers pushed forward in the second half, the center backs were sometimes left on an island, but they did well in one-on-one situations to keep FC Dallas out of the penalty area.
The best example of that came in the 64th minute, when Trusty forced Zdenek Ondrasek off the ball while the FC Dallas forward was surging down the left side of the field on a counter.
Because the centerbacks have earned the trust of the coaching staff to make the proper plays, the Union are able to make the attack-minded tactical changes that can produce victories.