Pressure and counter. It’s been a Union mantra for several seasons, and it presented itself again in a mighty way Saturday night in the nation’s capital.
Playing their second road game in four days, the Philadelphia Union absorbed a tremendous amount of pressure minutes into the game, only to hit DC United back with 6 goals, leading to another lopsided victory.
But it wasn’t so convincing in the early goings. Three minutes into the game, Ravel Morrison’s shot hit Jack Elliott’s arm in front of goal before Miguel Berry blasted the rebound wide. Though close, VAR ruled no penalty. Morrison again broke free in the 16th minute, but Andre Blake stopped him cold from point-blank range.
Three minutes later, Taxi Fountas hit the outside post from the top of the box, leaving Blake helpless as he watched it pass. The Union took DC’s best and came away unscathed. Withstanding pressure has been a trademark of this team. Whether it’s getting bodies in front of shots or Blake making spectacular saves routine, the Union have demonstrated throughout the 2022 season that it takes something special to beat them. And for a good team with plenty of positive characteristics, resiliency might be its strongest.
“I think the guys woke up after around the 20-25 minutes and looked like ourselves again,” Union coach Jim Curtin said after the game. “You could feel down low, they [DC] put a ton into the first 20 minutes of the game, like a ton. So they were a little bit fatigued after that too because they were flying. Credit to them, they came out really, really fast, caught us off guard quite a bit.”
Mid-way through the half, the Union found more of the ball, relieving some of the pressure, and pinned DC back into their own end. Julian Carranza had several good looks, one blocked, one saved, and two missed, so it was evident a goal could come at any moment. Though the Union gained control of their hosts, the last two road performances still left questions about their finishing, and playing the third game in a week raised concerns about how much players had in their tanks.
The tipping point came in the thirty-seventh minute when the Union applied a healthy dose of pressure and counter.
The first goal came off a DC throw in at midfield where the Union were able to close space and execute a timely pressing sequence. When DC defender Sami Guediri threw the ball into forward Martín Rodríguez, the Union forced him to play back to Guediri, which signaled an immediate cue for Dániel Gazdag.
Alejandro Bedoya and Olivier Mbaizo had the sideline sealed, while Jose Martinez and Jack McGlynn clogged the middle, making it difficult for the DC forward to play his way out. Gazdag forced Rodríguez toward the sideline, then not only pressured the ball but won it clean.
Once Gazdag possessed the ball, the Union counter kicked on. His first touches were positive and his first pass went forward, a key principle of Union transitions. Carranza drifted wide, bringing center back Jose Alfaro with him, and Mikael Uhre was left alone against newly acquired Victor Pálsson, who’s not a center back and was only playing the position because Steve Birnbaum had been dismissed in DC’s game against LAFC Wednesday night. After a quick service from Carranza, Uhre controlled the ball with his chest and had plenty of time to turn and finish to put the Union up.
“A couple plays or bounces here or there and we’re picking the ball out of our own net, and it’s big trouble on the road to try to come back.” Curtin added. “So we kind of weathered the storm, got a little lucky to be honest…but then to have the resiliency, for Mikael to make a play, you started to realize if we just connected two passes, all of a sudden we’d find ourselves in almost a one-v-one in space.”
One swift transitional moment decided the game. And from there, the Union asserted themselves with more authority. After the first goal, the Union press and counter game flourished. Uhre broke free again in first-half stoppage time and was hacked down by Alfaro, which led to Gazdag’s penalty before the break. In the second half, Carranza scored the next three goals, all off Union turnovers and counters, the latter two in the attacking third. Once again, the Union controlled a game through defensive pressure, then converted that pressure into attacking moments.
“We took the field tonight not wanting to let each other down as tired as we were,” Curtin said. “We put that out of our minds and we said whatever it takes tonight we have to get a result and then this will go a long way if we want to win the Eastern Conference and we want playoff games to come through Subaru Park.”
What it took Saturday night was a reliance on their core principles of play. The Union currently rank second in MLS in pressures behind the NY Red Bulls, second in middle-third pressures, and fourth in attacking-third pressures behind the Red Bulls, LAFC, and FC Dallas. They rank second in overall tackles and tackles in the middle-third and lead the league in interceptions. All of that pressure translates to an aggressive counter style that is difficult to stop regardless of the opponent, but nearly impossible for a struggling opponent like DC.