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Philadelphia Union still looking to go from average to great

Apr 20, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya (11) celebrates with defender Ray Gaddis (28) after scoring a goal during the second half against the Montreal Impact at Talen Energy Stadium. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

CHESTER, Pa. — Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin issued a challenge to his team ahead of Saturday’s 3-0 win against the Montreal Impact

“I challenged the guys this week,” Curtin said. “Do we want to be average and be in that fight for 5th through 12th in the Eastern Conference, or do we want to be a team that moves forward?” 

That’s why the Union head coach and his players weren’t completely happy with the performance they delivered at Talen Energy Stadium. 

In order to be one of the league’s best, the Union need to clean up mistakes and be the aggressor for the entire 90 minutes. 

While Curtin saw plenty of positives from Saturday’s game, there were also some glaring issues that came about that the team will work on fixing ahead of the Week 9 trip to BC Place to face the Vancouver Whitecaps

Here are three things we learned from the Union’s home win.

Early goal and tactical adjustments neutralize Montreal 

Breaking down Montreal’s defensive line was critical to the Union’s success on Saturday afternoon. 

As they have on many occasions against the Union, the Impact set up a bunker to limit the amount of scoring opportunities from the home side. 

“We know they are going to sit back with 10 guys,” Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin said. “I think in the first 30 minutes we were sharp and moved the ball very quick from side to side and we opened up some spaces and we scored a quick goal. It helped us to break them up a little bit.”

Curtin approached the issue head-on by starting Ilsinho, Jamiro Monteiro and Brenden Aaronson in the midfield layer of a 4-2-3-1 formation with Cory Burke playing as the lone striker. 

Burke’s 14th-minute goal, which came from a 3-on-2 break down the field, forced the Impact out of their shell and shifted the game in the Union’s favor. 

“In transition, when we get the ball, play it quick to Cory or to Brenden or to Ilsinho and then come at them with a lot of guys and that’s what we did,” Medunjanin said. 

The other bit of strategy Curtin employed to neutralize the Impact was playing Monteiro in an advanced role in the midfield. 

Although Monteiro isn’t a true No. 10, he slid into that role to negate the impact of Montreal’s Samuel Piette. 

“The reasoning was we wanted (Monteiro) there was to get to Piette, who was their biggest starter of their counters and transition moments,” Curtin said. “(Monteiro) did that very well, He would fall into the category of the guys who were amazing in the first 25 minutes and then it did taper off a little bit. We have to raise the bar.”

“I thought (Monteiro) did a good job,” Curtin said. “You can see his quality on the ball, how busy he is. And when he really closes and steps to the ball, the speed that catches people off guard. Teams will get used to him and they’ll scout him and they’ll realize some of his strengths and he’ll have to adjust.” 

By scoring early and limiting the production of Piette, the Union held the Impact to one shot on target out of the eight they attempted. 

Depth continues to play important factor

Apr 20, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake (18) leaves the game after being injured during the second half at Talen Energy Stadium. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Curtin woke up to a text saying Mark McKenzie was in surgery for appendicitis on Saturday morning. 

The center back, who was supposed to start in place of the suspended Auston Trusty, told the manager about the illness on Friday night. 

“When you wake up at six in the morning to a text that Mark is about to go into surgery, you look at Montreal and you go ‘Here we go again’ because it’s been a strange matchup for us and we’ve done poorly at home against them,” Curtin said.

With McKenzie out, Curtin turned to veteran center back Aurelien Collin to make his first MLS start since July. 

Collin filled in admirably next to Jack Elliott, and he wasn’t the only player asked to step up on Saturday.

After Andre Blake went off with a right groin injury in the 54th minute, Homegrown goalkeeper Matt Freese came on for his club debut. 

In addition to those two alterations, the Union were already playing without Marco Fabian and Sergio Santos due to injury. 

Even with the adversity adding up, the Union didn’t look fazed and battled through everything to pick up the victory. 

The seamless transition to players further down the depth chart speaks to how well of an offseason Curtin and sporting director Ernst Tanner had while putting together the squad. 

“I think we’ve done a great job in the offseason of acquiring good talent not only at the top end of the roster, but young guys pushing for minutes,” Curtin said. “It used to be that a red card, an injury could change us in a drastic way, whereas now we have full confidence in the group to step in and have it be a seamless transition.” 

Errors need to be cleaned up

Apr 20, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union defender Kai Wagner (27) walks off the field past Montreal Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush (1) after receiving a red card during the second half at Talen Energy Stadium. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

The Union were frustrated with their performance because of the drop off that occurred in the second half. 

Montreal took it to the Union for the first 10 minutes of the second half before order was restored by Alejandro Bedoya’s 57th-minute goal. 

“We can’t drop our level,” Medunjanin said. “If we drop our level, we can be beat, even at home. We need to be sharp every game and for 90 minutes.” 

“You saw in the second half, they got some of the pressure when it started,” Medunjanin said. “Two-nil is a very dangerous result. If you give the goal up quick, they are going to feel like they are going to score.” 

The most glaring error of the second half came in stoppage time, when Kai Wagner unnecessarily went in for a sliding challenge and was sent off. 

“Once you leave your feet, you’re putting yourself in the hands of the referee,” Curtin said. “I think it’s a learning experience for (Wagner). I’m not happy about it. It’s the most angry I’ve been after a 3-0 win because we made some silly mistakes and now we’ll be shorthanded because of it.” 

“It was not smart,” Medunjanin said. “We told (Wagner), it’s 3-0 and you know how referees here are. They just wait for sliding and they are going to look at it, review it again and you can get a red card for an unnecessary thing. Stay on your feet. You need to be smart. Hopefully he will learn from this.” 

If the Union want to be the great MLS team Curtin has challenged them to be, the mistakes need to be cleaned up and they should leave the field more pleased after a three-goal win. 

“We talked at halftime about things we could do better,” Curtin said. “I think the guys agreed, but we didn’t really execute better in the second half. I sound negative after a 3-0 win, but I want these guys to take it to the next level and not be an average MLS team, which is what we’ve been in the past. We want to be a great MLS team and we have a lot of work to still do to do that.”

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