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Philadelphia Union needs to be more efficient breaking down bunkered defenses at home

May 18, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin (6) reacts to a play on the field during the second half against the Seattle Sounders at Talen Energy Stadium. (Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

CHESTER, Pa. — R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

In just two short months, the Philadelphia Union have earned respect across Major League Soccer for their new style of play. With that new-found respect comes an adaptation in how opponents approach games at Talen Energy Stadium. The Seattle Sounders sat back for the majority of Saturday’s 0-0 draw and dared the Union to break them down, similar to what FC Dallas almost succeeded with on April 6.

“I think it is a sign of respect for sure, but you always want teams to come out and try to play you,” Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson said. “It’s not the best when a team is just sitting back. If teams are going to come here and try to get a point against us, I guess that’s what they have to do.” 

The difference between Saturday’s draw and the victory over FC Dallas was the lack of accuracy in front of the net out of Jim Curtin’s side. 

The Union only placed six of their 20 shots on target and a second-half alteration that brought Ilsinho on the field didn’t do enough to completely break down the Sounders. 

Before the win over FC Dallas, Curtin challenged the Union to take a step up from a good to a great MLS team. 

In order to continue on that path, the Union now need to make adjustments to how opponents defend in order to avoid another goalless draw like the one that took place Saturday. 

Here are a few ways the Union can fix that moving forward.

Use more technically-gifted players from the start

Not all opponents are going to come into Chester and bunker, but when the Union think that is going to occur again — and it might be Saturday against Portland — they need to utilize players who are more technically gifted. 

May 18, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union midfielder Ilsinho (25) runs the ball up field past Seattle Sounders defender Jonathan Campbell (3) during the second half at Talen Energy Stadium. (Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

Ilsinho might not be able to go for 90 minutes, and he has played well in the super-sub role, but he could be worth a go for the first 45-60 minutes if the Union believe that is beneficial to them. 

A healthy Marco Fabian helps the Union solve the issue more. The Mexican midfielder is more technically sound at the No. 10 than Homegrown player Brenden Aaronson, who was reluctant to shoot on a few occasions Saturday. 

“For me, finish my chances for sure,” Aaronson said of what he needs to improve. “I had way too many. That’s a thing I guess I’m learning and I need to get better at, so that’s one for me. And I think the ball movement, it had to be quick tonight and we were quick with it and we created so many chances, but it’s just the finishing touch.” 

When he’s been in the starting lineup, Fabian has attempted shots without much hesitation from distance and in and around the box in order to test the opposing goalkeepers. 

“I think if Marco is in, he brings the ability to shoot from distance that could maybe soften up the defense,” Curtin said.

In the three games prior to Saturday, the Union did a great job of putting a high volume of attempts on target.

The one attempt from Jamiro Monteiro that put Stefan Frei under a bit of pressure forced a rebound that Frei had to rush to collect before Kacper Przybylko got to the ball. 

An ideal lineup would feature Monteiro, Alejandro Bedoya, Fabian and Ilsinho in some variation of the 4-2-3-1 in order to play to Ilsinho’s strengths, spread the defensive line and strike through Przybylko, Santos or Fafa Picault as the lone striker. 

More balance when Ilsinho enters

Ilsinho has made such a positive impact when he comes on the field that it is only a matter of time before the Brazilian attracts two or three defenders on the right wing. 

In order to avoid opponents putting too much attention on Ilsinho, the Union could be a bit more balanced when they attack with the winger on the field. 

Kai Wagner has proved throughout the season he can provide the necessary support on the left wing to bring that balance, but this is still a team that goes to the right first because of the tendencies of Bedoya, Ilsinho and others. 

For the final 20 minutes Saturday, everyone inside the stadium knew the ball was going to Ilsinho in isolation situations for him to create a significant scoring opportunity.

Ilsinho got past the Sounders defense on a few occasions, but the final product was missing in the final third. He made 47 touches in 34 minutes, which was more than double Santos’ total from 56 minutes of work and four more than Aaronson recorded in his 76-minute shift. 

By spreading the ball around the field and switching it in a quick manner through Haris Medunjanin, the Union can break down defenses with more success. 

When the Union attack as much as they did Saturday, Medunjanin acts as the fulcrum of the approach, with Bedoya leaning to the right wing to combine with Ilsinho and Monteiro jettisoned to the left to play with an overlapping Wagner. 

When the ball is played out to the right wing, the Union should send one of their two strikers to the back post. In this case, if play is switched fast, the Union have a ruthless finisher ready to score in space before the defense rotates over to him. 

Ilsinho is an important part of this squad and should get the ball when the Union are moving forward in search of a goal, but in order to keep him effective throughout the season, they have to provide more balance to avoid an overcommitment of defenders that eventually silences the Brazilian’s production. 

Formation changes

Curtin said after the game he thought about shifting to three at the back, but the entrance of Raul Ruidiaz squashed those plans. 

May 18, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin looks on prior to a game at against the Seattle Sounders Talen Energy Stadium. (Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

“Yeah, we thought about it, but at the same time, once Ruidiaz comes in now that’s fresh legs and a real danger on the counter,” Curtin said. “So we discussed going to three at the back with the lone striker, but again, it would also kill you to lose a game like that too.” 

Curtin’s best tactical adjustment came in the win over FC Dallas, when he moved Bedoya to right back in a three-man defensive setup to get the best out of his combination play with Ilsinho.

The move paid off in the form of a stoppage time game-winner from the captain.

The specific move of Bedoya to right back can only happen in the final 15-20 minutes of a game in which the Union are dictating the pace of play. Using Bedoya as a right back for 90 minutes could leave the Union exposed on counterattacks with two or three true defenders on the field. 

Curtin has bounced between the 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 depending on which personnel he has on the field, but he could also consider the 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 for certain matchups. 

The 3-5-2 would utilize Auston Trusty, Jack Elliott and either Mark McKenzie or Aurelien Collin in the back. In that formation, the Union could put Bedoya, Medunjanin, Monteiro, Aaronson and Fabian on the field at once with two strikers, but the concern there would be who carries the defensive responsibilities. 

In a 4-3-3, the Union could try to use their technical ability and speed to pummel a defense. With any combination of Fabian, Santos, Przybylko and Picault up top, the Union would have the perfect combination of skill sets to break down defenses in a few ways. 

The risk with the 4-3-3 comes with Medunjanin, who would have to be the first man back to help the defense while trying to create from his attacking role in the middle of the field, but that can be compensated for with the recovery skills of Monteiro and Bedoya. 

If Curtin can find the perfect balance with the 4-3-3, utilizing it at home on a few occasions would throw something at defenses that isn’t already on film.

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