It would not take a genius to recognize that the Philadelphia Union had the better of the play in the second half of Saturday’s 2-2 draw in Orlando. While there are numerous factors that played into the Union eventually getting the upper hand in the 88th minute, one in particular stood out. Almost immediately out of the locker room, head coach Jim Curtin’s side pressured Orlando City the full length of the pitch, a drastically different approach to defending than in the first half.
Over the course of the first five minutes of the match, Cory Burke forced two Orlando City mistakes in their own defensive third by applying high pressure. For reasons unknown, for the majority of the next 40 minutes, the Union elected to sit off instead. Orlando head coach James O’Connor seemed more than willing to be the team to concede possession when he rolled out a lineup that consisted of three center backs, Scott Sutter, four defensive midfielders, Sacha Kljestan, and Dom Dwyer. Still, the Union seemed content to let them play out of the back despite the obvious lack of creativity.
That changed in the second half. It did not take long to see the completely different stance that the Union were set to take. They pressured high, made Orlando City uncomfortable, and simply did not allow them to dictate the tempo. Orlando City was slow to adjust, consistently misplacing passes and allowed the Union to recover the ball higher up the pitch.
For numbers’ sake, Orlando City had 14 percent less possession in the second half than in the first half and misplaced five percent more of their passes. Orlando City had no answers for the Union’s press and struggled to sustain any sort of possession despite the clear emphasis on keeping the ball to slow the game down based on the team selection.
Passes Allowed Per Defensive Action (PPDA) is a metric that has become more and more relevant over the course of the last few years as pressing systems have become more of a talking point. While Jurgen Klopp and his gegenpressing may be the most notable, teams all over the globe, including in MLS, have made it a priority to win the ball in more advanced positions. PPDA measures how many passes a team allows to take place before a tackle, interception, foul, or challenge occurs. Essentially, the lower a team’s PPDA, the quicker they are getting into a position to make a play on the ball.
In the first half, Orlando City was allowed to rack up an average of 34.2 passes before the Union would make an attempt to win back possession. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Union had a PPDA of just 10.5 in the second half. The tactical shift was easy to see and it certainly passed the eye test, but the numbers that back up the effectiveness of the high press are staggering.
Despite the absence of Borek Dockal for the final 50 minutes, and the unfortunate injury to Ilsinho just ten minutes after coming on as a substitute, the Union were still the far more dangerous team in the second half. Considering the fact that they were forced to play the majority of the match without two of their more potent attackers, it was a rather impressive turn of events in the second 45 minutes.
Moving forward, high pressure should be a staple of Jim Curtin’s tactics. With C.J. Sapong now on the right wing, it allows him to have defensive responsibilities that are more familiar to him than tracking back. It also keeps Fafa Picault further up the pitch and closer to goal. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, it relieves some of the pressure off of our young center backs. Jack Elliiott and Auston Trusty have been a formidable partnership, but the fewer decisions they have to make in space, the more effective they will be. At 6’5” and 6’3” respectively, if the Union can force teams to play long and direct out of fear of losing the ball in their defensive third, the game will become simpler for Elliott and Trusty with their primary role being winning aerial duels.
The Union still have nearly two weeks off before hosting Montreal on September 15 which should afford them some much-needed rest. Like Orlando City, the Impact will have no interest in playing out of the back. Instead, they will look to sit deep to absorb the pressure of the Union attack and then hit on the counter in open space with the likes of Ignacio Piatti. Still, one of the best ways to cut off the Argentinian’s supply may be to pressure immediately after conceding possession and hope to force Montreal into playing purposeless long balls in the direction of Trusty and Elliott.