This season, the Philadelphia Union have used nearly the same lineup, the same formation, and produced comparable defensive metrics as previous seasons, but something’s changed.
At this stage last season, when the Union were 1-2-1 and concerns grew about managing a compressed schedule in multiple competitions, they were still performing at a high level but not getting league results. After drawing the season opener against Minnesota United, the Union won the next three games and are off to their best start in franchise history, sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference standings with ten points.
So what’s really changed?
The one word answer is pressure. When fresh, the Union have the capability of winning games by grinding down opponents with continuous pressure. In 2022, the Union have pushed their defensive line higher up the field, forcing opponents to play out of the back with more resistance, which has led to more turnovers and ultimately scoring chances. It’s a small adjustment, one that might not be as noticeable, especially against a team like NYCFC who had 73% of the possession, but the biggest consequence of that change has been results.
“We do like to press high home and away,” Union coach Jim Curtin said while talking with the media after the New York City FC game. “The thinking there is to play the percentages and put the opponent in a position to make more passes to get to our goal. It sounds simple and it’s not a new concept, but it’s one that our players have executed pretty well.”
Since Curtin has taken over as head coach, the Union have instilled a defensive philosophy that has taken time to develop but within the past three seasons has led to the 7th-fewest goals allowed and the most wins of any club.
“We have to always have the first pressure to the ball. That’s our number one principle of philosophy. The best backlines of all time can’t defend without pressure to the ball. We just choose to do that a little higher up the field.”
After four games, the Union are second in the league in tackles with 95 (NYRB 112) and tackles in the middle third with 46 (NYRB 47). Their 17 tackles in the attacking-third ranks second behind Austin FC (18) and that’s without recording any against NYCFC. The Union also rank second in the league in pressures with 802 (NYRB 1115), third in successful pressures with 247, third in attacking-third pressures with 225 (NYRB 269, LAFC 245), and second in middle-third pressures with 369 (NYRB 545). Most of these rankings are improvements from 2021 and on par with the 2020 Supporters’ Shield-winning campaign.
Because of the whole-team commitment to defending, the Union handled NYCFC’s dynamic attack despite not seeing much of the ball, rendering many of the attacking metrics meaningless.
“If we have José following Maxi Moralez,” Curtin said, “and we can put somebody else on the ball, and they have to make 7-8 passes before they’re close to our goal, the likelihood for a mistake is higher.”
The defending MLS Cup champions completed nearly 400 more passes (586-219), yet the Union had one more shot on goal (4-3) and scored twice off restarts to take three points on the road, the club’s first win in Yankee Stadium.
“As the game went on today, they kind of pinned us back deep,” Curtin said, “but when you’re protecting a two-goal lead on the road, that’s sometimes what it looks like.”
Unlike the New York Red Bulls, who top nearly every defensive action category and employ a high press as well as an aggressive counter-pressing philosophy, the Union have maintained a compact diamond midfield shape, which causes opponents to play through one side of the field while the midfielders seal any attempts at switching the point of the attack. Union captain Alejandro Bedoya spoke about the style and its success after the NYCFC game.
“The diamond that we play, it’s for the midfielders,” he said, “for the number 8s especially, we got to do a hell of (a lot of) running, I mean you look at our numbers, it’s always the 8s that are running the most per game usually. For me, it’s not getting any easier as the older I get that’s for sure, but that’s the way we play, and I think it’s important, especially on a field like New York’s, it’s shorter, so actually makes it easier to press higher up.”
The Union press can deceive opponents because of the way the forwards sit at the front edge of the middle-third, waiting for the right opportunity to attack the ball. The tactic, to borrow basketball terms, works more like a trap than a full-court press. The Union have used a similar tactic in the past depending on the opponent, but they’ve been more effective with the addition of Julián Carranza. Over the past 365 days, Carranza ranks in the 98th percentile among forwards in pressures per 90 minutes (30.44) and tackles per 90 minutes (2.38). He also ranks in the 97th percentile among forwards in interceptions per 90 minutes with 1.24. To compare defensive efficiency, Carranza’s predecessor, now with the Chicago Fire, ranks in the 13th percentile in pressures per 90 minutes and interceptions per 90 minutes and is in the 22nd percentile in tackles per 90 minutes over the same time span.
“Julian’s been excellent for us on the defensive side,” Curtin said. “He’s worked his tail off, he’s drawn fouls, he’s done little things that add up, but at the end of the day, the job of a striker is to make plays and get assists and goals and he’s doing that for us now.”
Carranza recorded his second assist of the season on Bedoya’s opener against NYCFC. Carranza isn’t the only Union player making an impact defensively in the final third. Sergio Santos and Nathan Harriel are tied for third with three tackles in the attacking-third. Santos is tied for seventh in the league in attacking-third pressures with 42. He is followed by Cory Burke (33-tied for 12th ), Carranza (32-tied for 13th ), Gazdag (29-tied for 19th ), and Flach (26-tied for 22nd ).
The Union’s high pressure has not only disrupted opponents from playing through the midfield but has also led to more scoring chances. After finishing the 2021 season tied for 19th in defensive actions that led to a shot on goal with 16, they are currently tied for second with four, one behind Columbus and LAFC, and a have reached a quarter of their previous season’s mark in only the first four games. In addition, the Union have scored one goal from a defensive action (Bedoya vs Montréal), half their total from 2021, which ties them for first in the league.
(Note: This last statistic has its flaws because it doesn’t credit defensive pressures prior to the goal like the one Burke scored vs Montréal that came from a Flach pressure, otherwise the Union’s tally would be much higher.)
Leon Flach was one of the best players at sustaining pressure through the midfield last season and has been even more productive through the first four games of 2022. Flach ranks third in pressures (121) behind Red Bulls Frankie Amaya and Lewis Morgan and is second in defensive pressures (75) in the middle-third. Gazdag is tied for 13th with 45 pressures in the middle-third.
With a full preseason, a normal schedule, and time for both new and returning players to acclimate to the system, the Union have been able to build efficiency in their defensive game plans.
“It’s about putting in the work,” Bedoya said. “Obviously we have new strikers in place. Julian’s come in and gotten acclimated to our style of play. Daniel’s coming along as well, pressing with the right pressing cues, but we’ve got this style of play and it requires us to press high, make it uncomfortable for teams to play out the back, and when we can turn teams over and try to convert those chances, which we have to be better at and will be better as the season progresses.”
Bedoya has led by example. Once an attacking winger when he first signed as a Designated Player, the former National Team player and World Cup veteran has been among team and league leaders in defensive actions over the past three seasons.
“Everybody’s on the same page,” he said, “and that’s what we work hard in training for, and that’s a credit to the coaching staff and all the guys buying into that.”
The Union face a number of like-minded opponents over the next two months in Charlotte, Columbus, LAFC, Portland, and NY Red Bulls, so the battle of defensive pressure will be one of the deciding factors in the Union’s continued run of success.