“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
Though proverb has been linked to British educational writer W.E. Hickson and American educator Thomas H. Palmer from the mid-1800s, and scholars believe Robert the Bruce shouted the phrase over 500 years earlier before battling the English, the Philadelphia Union followed the advice in their season-opening draw against Minnesota United Saturday afternoon.
The game was fairly even statistically (possession, shots on target, duels won), the Union had eleven corners to Minnesota’s two. In all but three, the Union targeted the front six and/or front post with low-driven balls to be redirected into traffic. In past seasons, the Union’s front-six targets on corners had been one of their more dangerous offensive set-pieces, undefendable when executed and nearly unstoppable even when the service or first touch is off. In Saturday’s opener, more than half were one touch away from finding the back of the net.
In the 35th minute, the Union found the equalizer they needed on a front-six target that was kept alive and recycled when Jakob Glesnes found Cory Burke on the far post.
This corner set up perfectly for the classic Union front-six opportunity. Early in the game, the Union stacked inside the six yard box and were able to target the front post as the Minnesota defenders collapsed into the goalmouth. Soon after, Minnesota stuck two players on the front post to counter the low cross. But that didn’t matter as the Union continued to go after the space in front in order to set up misdirection and chaos.
Bedoya had been the target on many front-six corners in the past, an artist of the redirected header, and he snuck between the two Minnesota defenders to reach the ball first again. He did well to get down and skim it into the goalmouth, and Jack Elliott missed the next touch by inches. Union players appealed for a handball (there certainly could have been contact), but they were unable to convert the chance at the front post even as the ball pinballed around.
What followed was another Union trademark, the counter-press. As Minnesota half-cleared the ball away, it fell to Emanuel Reynoso, the most dangerous player on the field. But Olivia Mbaizo applied instant pressure and made it difficult for Reynoso to escape from danger, forcing Reynoso back into the box where Glesnes could press from the front. Reynoso’s failed backheel went to Leon Flach, who then found Wagner, and the Union were able to recycle the ball and keep the pressure on.
With four Union players across Minnesota’s six, Glesnes whipped in an exquisite bending cross to the back post that dipped out of Minnesota goalkeeper Tyler Miller’s reach. Elliott’s presence took one defender at the front post, Daniel Gazdag drew another, and Burke slipped in between the center back and right defender and met the cross to head it home.
In the 66th minute, the Union nearly scored again on a front-six target. Another Bedoya header skirted through the goal mouth, only this time both Julián Carranza and Jakob Glesnes had their shots blocked.
The Union scored directly off 9 corners in 2021 (15% of their total goals), and 5 of those came off front-six targets. The biggest one broke Atlanta United in the CCL quarterfinals when Kacper Przybylko tapped home a Glesnes front-six header for the game’s opener against the run of play. Gazdag scored another against Nashville SC in the Eastern Conference semifinals to tie the game at 1-1 seconds before the end of the first half. Several more, like this example, resulted from keeping the ball in the final third following a corner attack. As the year progresses and defenses tighten their grip, look for the Union to go after this area of the field. They may not hit every time, but as we saw on Saturday, it’s effective.