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Philadelphia Union hope to play their way out of home ties

A look at the positives and negatives behind the Union’s string of draws

Jack Verdeur

If a win makes us hug the stranger next to us in Subaru Park and a loss makes us kick the nearest seat, what about a tie?

No result has drawn more varied emotions from soccer fans than the dreaded tie. Each game resembles a rose or a thorn for different reasons, but the compilation of Philadelphia Union ties over the past two months has steered fans toward the latter.

When looking back at the Union’s run of ties and considering the location, opponent, performance, and context of the game, each tie has been unique. Some games they’ve played well and deserved a result whereas other games they’ve been fortunate. The Union are not yet halfway through the regular season, and in previous two years they’ve outlasted the competition by remaining consistent. The concern is that they’re forming bad habits, and in years’ past, those trends have continued in the post-season.

The Union drew 1-1 at home to FC Cincinnati last Saturday, their fourth-straight home tie, fifth overall this season at home, and their seventh in nine games. The Cincinnati tie was different because it followed a three-week international break, came against an opposing coach, Pat Noonan, who knew the Union’s system inside and out, and included a lineup with two significant former Union players in Ray Gaddis and Haris Medunjanin. Playing a 5-3-2 system, Cincinnati maintained a possession advantage by controlling the midfield, prevented the Union backs from getting forward, and kept numbers behind the ball to prevent Union counters. From Cincinnati’s perspective, the game plan worked as well as it could have despite the Union taking the early lead on Alejandro Bedoya’s 17th minute goal.

After the game, Union coach Jim Curtin revealed his frustration with another home tie despite anticipating some rust.

“With the big break, you’re always worried about some sloppiness, bad passing,” he said. “You’re working hard to prevent that in your first game back and we had too much of it after we scored the goal.”

The Union connected on 76.6% of their passes, and that percentage dropped to 62.2% in the attacking half and 64.4% in the final third. Though passing efficiency goes down with more pressure and less space, Curtin’s larger issue was his team’s struggles to find Daniel Gazdag, who’s been having a stellar start to his 2022 campaign, leading the team with 7 goals while adding 3 assists.

“You know, for 45 minutes to go by and not really have any entry balls into Daniel’s feet, which is our strength, you know, that wasn’t us,” Curtin said.

The Union have found success this season pressuring the ball in opportunistic moments in the middle and attacking thirds and countering off turnovers. Saturday night, Curtin said those transitions became stifled when the Union played too direct.

“Our defenders would be on the ball and then there’d be almost four of our guys in a straight line against their back five and everybody looking to go in behind and that’s not really a way to create a transition moment. We didn’t have levels. We didn’t have Ale and Leon for example, being a level, Daniel being a level on his own, and then our two strikers being that third level.”

Once again the Union were out-possessed by an opponent, which has happened in 7 of the last 8 games, but Curtin’s side have always been efficient in the counter game.

“We were almost flat against the other team’s back line,” he said, “and there’s nowhere to go. No one was coming back to get the ball. So you saw as a lot of balls got dumped, their big center backs won everything tonight and one head ball and that led to open spaces in the field for them rather than what we’re usually good at, you know, maybe pulling those center backs out a little bit, maybe making them release into the midfield and then getting in behind and getting those transitions going.”

The Union have traditionally been a difficult team to beat with a lead because of their defensive stability and counter-attacking style, but what’s changed this season is giving up more of those leads. In eight ties this season, the Union led in six of those games. Twice, they came from behind, and once they played to a scoreless draw.

In 2021, the Union came from behind in eight out of twelve ties, three times they were ahead, and once they finished scoreless. Despite relinquishing more leads, the Union are tied with NYCFC for fewest goals against in MLS with 11, significantly better than the rest of the league. The other positive is that the accumulation of ties are not losses. The Union have only lost one league game this season, on the road, and still maintain a 10-1-5 home record since losing to Club America in the Concacaf Champions League semifinal last year.

Over the previous seven ties, the Union have been out-possessed by an average of 55.7-44.3 margin (against NYRB, the Union had a 61-39 advantage) and outshot 103-78 (32-30 shots on target), but one area of Union play that has remained consistent has been chance creations.

The Union have averaged 1.34 expected goals over the last 7 ties. Though opponents have averaged 1.46 xG, that figure includes lopsided margins at New England and at Nashville as well as a slim disadvantage at LAFC, games where the ties could be viewed as positive results considering the performance, environment, and opponent respectively. Though the Union have averaged 1 goal per game over the last 7 ties, they are still creating chances, and very good ones at that.

Captain Alejandro Bedoya spoke about the opportunities from the Cincinnati game. “We had some crystal clear chances,” he said. “Daniel would say that he would love to have those back.”

Gazdag had two great looks at goal late in the second half. The first came from Cory Burke in the 73rd minute when Burke got away from the center backs in the box and slid a pass across the penalty spot that Gazdag struck into Cincinnati keeper Roman Celentano’s body. The second quality chance, and the likely match-winner, came off a header from Burke in the 86th minute that Gazdag hit at Celentano again.

“Guys off to internationals,” Bedoya said, “you’re going to get some rustiness in there but I don’t make excuses. We’re just not finishing plays off. We got to be better at home. How many ties is this now at home that should be wins? Games that we should be better at making more of our chances.”

When considering the last four home ties, the Union led in three of those games, and the fourth came in a lackluster scoreless game against Inter Miami. Those 8 points would have the Union in the lead for the Supporters’ Shield race with 34 points. The Union are 3-0-5 at home this season compared to last season when they were 11-3-3, with the only blemishes coming early in the season in consecutive losses and the final loss in the Eastern Conference Final.

But Bedoya stopped short of calling the recent ties indicative of performances down the road. “It’s too early to think about that stuff,” he said, “so I just know right here in the present time, there’s way too many choke points at home for us. For us, this is our fortress. This is where we should be the strongest. Take care of all your games at home and get results away.”

Another positive trend is that the Union have taken points on the road, in some instances when maybe they weren’t expected. They are 3-1-3 away from home this season, already matching their win total from a season ago when they earned a number of come-from-behind draws down the stretch that made the difference in finishing as the second seed in the East. In the Union’s eight ties this season, five have come against teams in current playoff positions, with LAFC at the top of the league standings on 30 points, only 4 above the Union. Cincinnati is level on points for the final spot in the East while Miami and Minnesota are both 2 points off the pace in their respective conferences.

So where does that leave the Union fans with ties? More frustrated than fortunate in most cases, which only means the expectations have risen. The Union have 19 games remaining in the regular season, over three and half months to improve their finishing and situational defending. They are still unbeaten at home and on pace to finish as a top-three seed in the East, but the question still remains as to whether they have enough to win those close games rather than prevent losing.