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Three takeaways from the Union’s disappointing loss against D.C. United

After Philadelphia fell 3-1 in the District, it’s time to raise some questions.

Andrew Zwarych / Philadelphia Union

Sheesh. That game was tough. The Philadelphia Union saw themselves dominated on the pitch in D.C. on Saturday night, raising plenty of criticisms about the squad.

Let’s get into some of the finer points of where the Union succeeded, and where, for most of the game, they failed.

Starting strong (it’ll happen eventually, right?)

Without a doubt, the lack of early game aggressiveness has been the more consistent theme of the 2021 Philadelphia Union. Usually, the Union’s struggles come in the first 15-20 minutes of a match, but they’re able to recover, so long as the defense avoids conceding a goal in those opening moments.

Against D.C. United, the Union couldn’t seem to get their act together for the first forty-five minutes. Jim Curtin’s test with the 4-3-2-1 system seemed to boggle his team, and allowed for United to consistently get in behind the Union’s normally formidable backline. The team that usually allows no more than one goal per game allowed three to get past them without a whole lot of fight.

Jim Curtin is right to look for change. But pushing players into a more defensive stance when they need to attack stronger from the get-go is not the solution.

Changing it up

If the Union has one identity, it’s that they are consistent. The lineup is the same every week, as are the late substitutions, as is the formation.

After some struggles over the past few weeks, Jim Curtin and the Union took their extended break between matches to experiment with the team’s formation. After running with a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation for almost the entirety of the 2021 season, the Union walked out onto Audi Field in a 4-3-2-1 formation.

To call the 4-3-2-1 a failure is an understatement. The Union looked their worst all season, and arguably the worst over the past few seasons. They allowed for D.C. to create good chances, while the Union wasn’t able to put much together on their own offensive end. The end-to-end failure of the team forced them back into the diamond formation by the second half.

With that said, good on the Union for looking for a change of pace. Adjustments are needed, and at this point in the season, acceptable. The Union are bound for at best, a first-round exit from the MLS Cup Playoffs with their current form. They need a change and they need it fast. Hopefully, they’ll find what they need soon enough.

What’s a good defense without an offense?

If the Union’s defensive effort on Saturday was a failure, then the offensive effort was a travesty. The Union may have gotten plenty of balls into the box, but as Curtin noted himself, those crosses were meaningless. Attacking and midfield players combined for a total of three shots (from Bedoya, Burke, and Sullivan each), while defensive players combined for seven shots.

Despite that the Union’s failure to earn points usually comes at the hands of the offense, the team was moved into a more defensive formation than they were used to, giving no chances to their attacking players. Pushing more players towards the back of a formation that already has a mindset that could be characterized as “too defensive” is not what the Union needed.

It’s past time for the Union to become an attacking team. Saving goals saves games, but scoring goals wins them; right now, only one is happening in Chester. And after D.C., it’s not certain that either are happening right now.