The Philadelphia Union came into Ohio for the second time in three weeks and were frustrated by an organized defense content with keeping numbers behind the ball and challenging the Union to beat them.
Despite the Union running through the Red Bulls, Revolution, and Impact in successive games, two of those three teams finished the game with 10 men and one had just fired its coach and appeared in shambles defensively.
So should the Union be concerned about a future path through Ohio and did the Crew expose their biggest weakness?
There were questions to be asked about the Union’s ability to break down the defense of. Cincinnati, which followed the game plan for beating the Union that originated with the Portland Timbers and had been perfected by the Columbus Crew. Get players behind the ball, tighten the man-marking in the box, and disrupt the Union’s rhythm through the midfield with pressure and often times, aggressive challenges.
“Cincinnati’s a team with the three big center backs that are excellent in the air,” Union coach Jim Curtin said after Sunday night’s game. “We played too many balls that were just floated into the box, too many balls that were too direct.”
Kendall Waston, Nick Hagglund, and Tom Pettersson, who average six-feet three inches and a touch over two-hundred pounds, were not afraid to assert that physical play in the game’s opening minutes.
Although on paper, FC Cincinnati came out in a 3-4-1-2, there were many moments where outside midfielders Andrew Gutman and Joe Gyau played more like wingbacks, sitting in as if playing five defenders, which prevented the Union from attacking the outsides on a narrower turf field built for the University of Cincinnati’s football team. Cincinnati were able to clog the middle and force the Union to move the ball quickly in order to break them down.
“The way to beat them is to play the balls on the ground,” Curtin said, “make them have to deal with two things, make them have to deal with a second run and movement off the ball, and we had little instances of that tonight, but for whatever reason we weren’t sharp enough.”
The Union managed two shots in the first half, both from José Martinez, and neither threatened the goal. Martinez received a cutback ball at the top of the box that he scuffed off his plant leg and rolled well wide of the target, and his second slipped off the side of his foot and hit the banners hanging twenty feet above the goal.
The Union’s most successful breakdown came in the 66th minute when Jamiro Monteiro found Ilsinho wide after a disrupted corner. Cincinnati had six players in the box, two of them locked on Kacper Przybylko and Alejandro Bedoya. Ilsinho and Aaronson played a crisp one-two, and Ilsinho got in behind, but Bedoya was well covered and Przybylko was standing on the penalty spot. Ilsinho could only manage a toe poke before keeper Spencer Richey’s challenge, and the ball rolled out of bounds on the far side for a throw in.
“There weren’t many times where we got in behind them with either the strikers running or a third-man run,” Bedoya said after the game. “A couple of times I was able to get behind, maybe against another opponent my cutback ball would have been on but they just had so many bodies in the box, so it was tough to break them down.”
With Przybylko covered up top, he began drifting backward, making it more difficult to set up those third-man combinations, and Andrew Wooten was ineffective with threatening runs. Sergio Santos may have been more suited against Cincinnati’s defensive shell because of his energy and unpredictable movements, but he’s still returning from a hamstring injury and was only expected to log partial minutes. Santos did have the game’s best chance with nearly ten minutes to play when he found a gap between the center backs, spun an entry ball into the box and struck a low skipper that nicked the far post.
Bedoya’s presence will be missed on Sunday against Inter Miami after the Union captain picked up his fifth yellow card in the second half, but he remained positive about the Union’s ability to make adjustments.
“This is a good learning experience for us as a team, and how we can be sharper in our transition moments in the final third and also with our patience,” he said. “Can we move the ball around faster from side to side, shifting them over, and get those third-man runs in behind?”
What may be difficult for the Union moving forward is that they still among the MLS elite, and opponents will begin tweaking their own tactics to resemble the Ohio model to beat them. The Union should expect the same strategy when they face Cincinnati at home on October 7 and when they make their second trip to Columbus on November 1 . And it’s likely that should the Union go on a deep run through the MLS playoffs, they’ll have to break through that stingy Ohio defense to reach the MLS Cup final for the first time in club history.