Does anyone remember the 1980s Western Athletic Conference in college football? Teams like BYU, Nevada, and San Diego State were constantly involved in high-scoring shoot-outs, with defense taking a back seat to 62-59 barnburners where the ball was thrown 45+ times a game and no one east of the Mississippi took them seriously at all. The stodgy old Big Ten teams, the still-relevant Big Eight powers, and the SEC all sniffed at the high-scoring games, the lack of defense, instead deriding them as “amateurs”. The traditional teams still ran the triple-option, the wishbone, or designed multiple off-tackle runs into stout defenses. They won boring 14-7 games while the WAC teams would lose crazy shootouts.
While the traditions of college football have all largely fallen to the wayside as the speed-option or “air-raid” offenses that throw the ball around are all in vogue now in college football, the memory of those WAC teams has largely been forgotten. The reason they threw the ball and scored so many points has also largely been forgotten. They had to outscore their opponents because they couldn’t play defense, and so instead of trying to protect leads by sitting on the ball or simply running trap plays for three yards, they had to develop ways to score tons of points because their defense was going to give up tons of points. Even if they would lose big games against the “traditional” teams, they would at least have fun.
The Philadelphia Union’s 4-5-1 formation seems primarily designed to cover for an inexperienced defense. With Josh Yaro injured, the Union have used Jack Elliot and Richie Marquez in center-back roles with veteran Oguchi Onyewu filling in at times. Elliot and Marquez might be the future of the Union’s defense, but they don’t appear to be the “right now” of an MLS defense. So Jim Curtin uses a formation that covers for his inexperienced central defenders, having two midfielders in play in front of the back line to protect them while the fullbacks go up on the attack. The only problem with this plan is that the midfielders that are being played in those positions can’t defend. Like at all.
Haris Medunjanin can pick out a pass, provide remarkable free kicks and corners, and set attackers free in the final third. Alejandro Bedoya can pretty much do the same thing, only with movement and running. Derrick Jones is young and has a fantastic work rate, but doesn’t have the experience to play positionally to cover the backline. Maurice Edu would be ideal to play aside Beyoda or Medunjanin, but he’s still out with injury. So instead of setting the team free, Curtin is trying to keep his defense from being exposed - but as we’ve seen time and time again, they are getting exposed anyway.
The first half of the Portland Timbers game, the team controlled the tempo and had a good deal of possession, but only scored off of a corner. Meanwhile the Timbers scored a goal on one of the few scoring chances they got. Against New York City FC, the team again played well in the first half, only to give up a goal on a single good chance on a defensive breakdown and then David Villa made a once-in-a-lifetime goal on a throw-away shot. Against the Montreal Impact, the team couldn’t keep the a lead and allowed Ignacio Piatti to run past what seemed like the entire team and score a wonder goal to open the floodgates. The Union kept a clean sheet against the LA Galaxy, but that had more to do with the incompetence of the Galaxy attack and the posts than it did with the Union’s defense. So what’s the point of playing to prevent goals when they’re going to be scored anyway?
The Union should take a page out of the old WAC teams of the 1980s and go on the attack. The backline is going to be exposed no matter what, and the team is going to give up goals. So instead of trying desperately to draw 1-1 or nil-nil, the team might as well throw attackers on the field and try to outscore their opponents. Even if the team loses 5-4, it would still be more entertaining for the fans than watching the team grind out a “moral victory” of a 1-0 loss.
Jay Simpson on for Ilsinho in the 77th. Union still not pressuring the NYCFC goal.— Philly Soccer Page (@phillysoccerpg) April 15, 2017
Ditch the 4-5-1 and go for a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-3. Put both Jay Simpson and CJ Sapong up front with Chris Pontius or set Fabian Herbers and Ilsinho free on the wings to create havoc. Just don’t keep a lone striker up top and have the ball never get near him. This team has plenty of attacking options, and rather than play to not lose, the team should play to go out and out-score the opponents. Will it work? Who knows! But the current tactics and formation sure aren't working. “Defining” insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results might be hackneyed, but it’s still a good point. Something has got to change to give the Union a chance to win, and simply trotting out the same philosophy and the same personnel and expecting it suddenly to produce results certainly seems crazy.