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How the Union’s combination play changed the game against the Red Bulls

Looking back at the Union’s big win at Red Bull Arena

Philadelphia Union v New York Red Bulls Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

One of the emerging qualities of the 2020 Philadelphia Union has been their ability to beat opponents in multiple ways.

They’ve now scored on free kicks, corner kicks, opposing team’s corner kicks, a 22-pass possession sequence and quick-hitting combinations that can rip through an exposed defensive line. The first two goals in Sunday night’s 3-0 win against the New York Red Bulls came from that rhythmic combination play.

Brenden Aaronson’s first-half goal showed an improvement in the Union’s dynamic movement in the attacking third that was absent throughout much of the game against the Crew. As Jakob Glesnes passed the ball out wide to Ray Gaddis, Alejandro Bedoya and Andrew Wooten played the high line on the near side and Kacper Przybylko and Brendan Aaronson did the same on the far side. But as Bedoya checked back for the ball and read Gaddis’ pass into Wooten, his run behind Red Bull defender Mandela Egbo was lethal. Egbo sucked out and became exposed behind. Wooten played a perfect first ball into the space. And because central defender Tim Parker followed Wooten, it left Przybylko and Aaronson with a numbers advantage centrally. Przybylko pushed the line as an option for that early ball, and Aaronson waited behind. He’d lost the central midfielder and Tim Duncan, the Red Bull outside right back, failed to pinch. The quick ball from Bedoya set up the space in the middle for Aaronson, who still had to finish, and did he ever.

The back four for the Red Bulls were spread out and lack communication, but the goal showed how well the Union can play those quick combinations. There were so many good movements for young players to see: Wooten’s decisive check, Bedoya’s check and go, even Przybylko’s run leaving room for Aaronson. Strikers want to score goals but sometimes they create space for others, and this goal was one of those moments from Przybylko that won’t show up in stats.

Following the win, Jim Curtin praised Aaronson’s ability to peel away and find the gap that set up his shot. “The cut back ball is something we work a lot on in training,” Curtin said, “and Brenden, rather than running into the big center backs and the trees in the box, finds a pocket in what we call the green zone, right in front of where the center backs usually are.”

Aaronson’s self-recognition of spaces where he’s most effective is evidence of his development as a number 10. He’s been the architect of a number of build-ups out wide but hasn’t matched that success inside where opponents have enforced more physicality and double teams. But he’s developing that inner presence with the help of his coach and teammates. “There’s been a lot of work on my final third,” Aaronson said following Sunday’s game. “After training, I’m always getting that ball from Ale. We’ve worked on that a lot recently.”

The Union’s second goal originated from similar movements off the ball that led to another rapid combination. As Aaronson pulled the ball back from a busted counter, Przybylko and Wooten held that high line near the center backs and Ilsinho hung out wide to the right. As three Red Bull defenders converged on Aaronson, Bedoya again made a well-timed run out of the back into that space and beat all three players with one touch. As Bedoya attacked with speed, again the stretched Red Bull defense left plenty of gaps. But the cutting run from Wooten that split the center backs was what the Union were missing against Columbus. Three players collapsed on Bedoya, but they were sluggish and Bedoya slipped the ball into space for Wooten. The next critical run was from Przybylko. He recognized that he and Wooten outnumbered Parker. Duncan was out of the play again, so as Przybylko followed Wooten, he was left open for an easy tap in. The ball from Wooten showed incredible poise. The best way for Wooten to be in the conversation as Sergio Santos’ replacement is to score, but making the correct runs and playing the correct passes in these situations will assure him a starting spot in the next game. Przybylko, to his credit, still had the finish the chance, but from the six yards out he’s been nearly automatic lately. Exactly the type of poacher’s goal that he’ll convert often.

The Union’s last two opponents played different styles in the back. Columbus restricted those gaps through the middle, didn’t chase out wide, had better organization, and stayed compact in the space from the corners of the six to the top of the D in what Curtin referred to as the red zone when discussing his own team’s defensive performance against the Red Bulls. What will be interesting against New England on Saturday is how well the Union can combine against a stingier team. Santos scored against the Revolution in the MLS is Back second round, and the two teams drew 0-0 in their last game several weeks ago, with the Union’s best chances coming from the counter, which will be significantly reduced with the absence of Santos.