When CJ Sapong nodded the ball into an empty net midway through the first half on Saturday afternoon, he gave the Philadelphia Union their first multi-goal lead since August 27th. In the time elapsed, the Union stumbled ass-backwards into the playoffs, had their season mercifully ended by Toronto FC, took a long break, and resumed their winless ways when the 2017 MLS season kicked off a month and a half ago.
Saturday’s game was the Union’s 15th in a row without a win, breaking the mark for futility that the club set last week, which broke the mark the club set the week before, which broke the mark the club set the week before, which broke the mark the club set two weeks before (international break), which broke the mark the club set the week before, which broke the mark the club set in 2014.
Unlike all the other games (save for perhaps the Union’s last game against Montreal, in which the Impact tied it up in the 88th minute) this one was in the bag. The Union should have snapped their hideous streak on Saturday.
They got off to a perfect start, as they absolutely owned an uncoordinated Impact defense and scored the goals to prove it. When Roland Alberg’s penalty bounced off the hands of Evan Bush and into the back of the net, that should have been it. Blowing a three-goal lead is so difficult that the Union, now in their eighth season, had actually never done it before this weekend.
So what went wrong? How did the Union blow their best chance at a win in the last eight months? Let’s take a look.
Toothless (Midfield) Defending
Of course! Any time a team ships three goals in a game, that team’s defending can be faulted. While some goals—like 55-yard chips—can be excused, at least to a degree, there were none of those on Saturday.
Montreal’s first goal, the one that hit the home team right in the gut just as they were preparing to take their three-goal lead into the locker room, put the Union’s poor defending on display.
Piatti’s run begins in the midfield, where he drags the ball past Alejandro Bedoya and shoulders stiff arms a backtracking Chris Pontius. Once he’s by those two, he’s met by...no one. Haris Medunjanin, watching the play develop from a safe distance, orders Jack Elliott to step, and maybe he should have. Instead, he decides to track Matteo Mancosu, who, even though he was straying offside, was in enough of a dangerous position to keep Elliott honest. Richie Marquez was then next in line to challenge Piatti, but the midfielder faked him out easily before picking out the far post.
Matt Doyle, the Armchair Analyst over at mlssoccer dot com, wrote a very good post about the Union’s softness in the middle. There, he highlighted, among other things, the lack of defensive bite in the midfield. That’s something that’s been apparent since the season opener, and it was clear to see on Saturday.
The issue, as Doyle points out, is that Haris Medunjanin is the deepest-lying of the three Union central midfielders, but his defensive work rate is almost non-existent. On Piatti’s goal, Medunjanin is very, very slow to see the play develop, and when he finally recognizes the danger, he does nothing to stop it. His defensive issues are twofold, in that he has neither the instinct nor the legs to make a real difference when the other team has the ball.
Medunjanin’s forte is moving the ball around, and only Vincent Nogueira (blessed be his name) is in the same conversation when talking about the best passers in Union history. But Medunjanin is nominally the team’s defensive midfielder, which makes his poor defending a bit of a problem. To mask it, the No. 8 is tasked with extra defensive responsibilities. Bedoya, who’s played in that role the last two weeks, covers a ton of ground, but he has a proclivity to roam and his defending isn’t exceptional either.
On the third goal, that positional unawareness comes to the fore. Doyle points out that some simple long-ball play creates a ton of space for the Impact, and that’s because neither Bedoya nor Medunjanin is protecting the backline.
Unlike in recent years, neither of the Union’s deepest central midfielders are natural defensive midfielders. Despite Medunjanin’s and Bedoya’s positive qualities, their partnership will always present some problems. Though they’re dissimilar in that Bedoya’s strength is his movement and Medunjanin’s is his passing, both players like to get forward. Though this can create for some great attacking play, long balls and quick counters can be absolutely devastating as a result.
That Medunjanin and Bedoya are in this awkward situation is largely not their fault. Head Coach Jim Curtin, who does not bear all the fault in this either, needs to quickly and clearly define the two players’ responsibilities, or else teams will continue to run through the Union’s midfield.
Chris Pontius (12 goals, six assists, 2571 minutes) and Fabian Herbers (Three goals, seven assists, 1290 minutes) were two bright spots last season. In his first season with the Union, Pontius had his best MLS campaign and earned the Comeback Player of the Year award and a USMNT call-up as a result. Herbers came on strong in the second half of the season, and he ended up leading the team in assists despite making only 13 starts.
On Saturday, Pontius got his second assist of the season, knocking down a ball from Haris Medunjanin just as he did for his first one. Though he’s become a bit of a weapon in the air, he’s recorded only four shots on goal through seven games, converting none of them.
After starting the first three games of the season, Fabian Herbers has inexplicably been relegated to the bench in favor of Ilsinho. The Brazilian looks no more productive than he did last season, when he tallied two goals and two assists in 1286 minutes. In 2017, Herbers is the only player of the two who has had a hand in a goal, as he set up CJ Sapong’s goal against Toronto FC. Herbers already looks like the more complete player, in that he’s a better playmaker and a willing defender.
Whether changes need to be made on the wings or not, there certainly needs to be more production from those positions. Pontius and Ilsinho have offered next to no threat during the run of play, and that cannot continue if the Union hope to salvage anything from this season.
The longer it gets, the harder it is
With every passing loss and demoralizing draw, it becomes that much more difficult for the Union to break out of this record rut. When the final whistle blew on Saturday, several Union players fell to the ground, while others stood there motionless. The few fans who still remained voiced their displeasure. The players are clearly frustrated, and the fans are either angry or apathetic, and justifiably so.
The streak certainly weighs heavy in everyone’s mind. When Ignacio Piatti cut the lead to two in the 41st minute, and Dominic Oduro nearly scored a second just before halftime, everyone in attendance had an inkling of what the second half might bring.
Post-game, Alejandro Bedoya shared his team’s defensive strategy going into the second half and lamented the lax defense that he saw instead.
“We talked about that at halftime. We said, ‘What’s our game plan now, up 3-1?,’” Bedoya recounted. “We were controlling the game. We said, ‘Let’s start first 15 minutes, let’s pressure.’ I thought we weren’t getting there. So after 10 minutes, I just called everybody and said, ‘Let’s not go and press, let’s get CJ at the half-circle and stay compact like we were doing.’ But you keep dropping back and you play soft defense and you allow second balls in the box and don’t put bodies on guys in the box, you get punished. That’s what happened to us today.”
Most teams don’t blow three-goal leads, but the Union aren’t like most teams. They’re in the midst of one of the worst winless streaks in recent MLS history. Every game, they have to contend with that fact in addition to the other 11 guys on the field. Every game, that task becomes more difficult.
- The Union will go west to take on the Los Angeles Galaxy this weekend. LA has also had their fair share of troubles to start the season, as they sit 10th in the West thanks in large part to their terrible home record (1-0-3). Like Jim Curtin, Head Coach Curt Onalfo has come under fire for his team’s poor start. Unlike Curtin, Onalfo has a more talented roster to play with, and Galaxy fans are expecting him to right the ship when the Union come to town on Saturday.
- CJ Sapong’s scoring an outstanding .75 goals per 90 minutes so far this season. He almost certainly won’t be able to keep up that pace, though if he does, he’ll be on the USMNT before the end of the year. It looks far more likely that he’ll finally score double-digit goals in a single season. He’s scored nine in a season twice: for the Union in 2015, and with Sporting Kansas City in 2012.
- Ilsinho’s late-game exits have become as entertaining as anything he does on the field. The midfielder has been subbed off in all of the last three games, and every time, he takes the most circuitous route to either the bench or the locker room. Here he is leaving the game on Saturday, exiting via the touchline opposite the fourth official:
Last game, he went straight to the locker room after being substituted. When he was taken off against Portland two weeks ago, he also came off at a remote location, opting to walk around the pitch before arriving at the bench. At the bottom of the gif below, you can see him making his long journey. At this point, Jay Simpson, his replacement, had already been on the field for more than 15 seconds.
Sadly, there is no footage of Ilsinho’s magnum opus, his 200-yard trek from the opposite side of the field all the way back to the bench after being subbed off against New York City FC.