This is not your daddy’s Jim Curtin. If any Philadelphian correctly predicted the lineup that Curtin settled on for Saturday night’s clash with DC United, it would have been the equivalent of picking the perfect bracket during March Madness. No 4-4-2 diamond. Instead, Kacper Przybylko in a 4-2-3-1 single striker formation. Ilsinho and Brenden Aaronson in the starting lineup in favor of Marco Fabián and Andrew Wooten. And the one we’ve been waiting for, drumroll… McKenzie at CB in favor of both Aurelien Collin and Auston Trusty.
DC United came into Talen Energy Stadium desperate for three points. Not only had DC United won only one of their previous six, but they were also sliding further down the MLS Eastern Conference table. They found themselves in fifth place, already having played more matches than any club above them in the standings. Adding insult to injury, their star, Wayne Rooney found himself staying home for this one after drawing a straight red card. This was due to a forearm Rooney delivered in a loss to the New York Red Bulls Wednesday night.
Regardless, there was still no reason to take them lightly, and that was due to the talented cast they were still able to put on the field. USMNT regular, midfielder, Paul Arriola, forward, Ola Kamara, who before leaving for a short stint in China, was among MLS leaders in total goals the past three seasons, and diminutive midfielder, Luciano Acosta, one of the toughest players to defend in all of MLS.
The match got off to a quick pace with the Union getting a good scoring opportunity in the 4th minute. Aaronson had a chance to do something in the DC 18 yard box early on but the defender easily dispossessed him. This was disheartening because the young midfielder getting bullied off the ball was the reason he had been benched in previous weeks. Luckily for the Union, things would turn in their favor less than a minute later. Defender, Kai Wagner delivered another one of his killer crosses to a streaking Przybylko who delivered a quick strike past DC goalkeeper, Bill Hamid for the 1-0 lead.
The Union were able to preserve the lead ten minutes later, thanks to the play of center back, Jack Elliot. He cut off and cleared a pass intended for Kamara right in front of the Union goal. In the 16th minute Przybylko made a good move to fake out a defender, passed to Aaronson who was given lots of space to wind up and then blasted one past Hamid into the left side of the net. The Union were now up 2-0 in the blink of an eye. It was clear at this point how they planned to utilize Przybylko in this formation.
For you basketball people out there, it was similar to giving the center the ball at the high post and let guards and forwards receive a pass while cutting towards the basket. This was a genius move by Curtin. With five midfielders, DC most likely thought Przybylko would just be making runs toward goal the entire match. Instead, he was fed the ball early in possession and the midfielders were playing off of him. In the 36th minute, just as they had constructed, Przybylko delivered a beautiful drop-off, this time to Ilsinho, who didn’t need his usual bag of tricks. He literally walked through two DC defenders and put the third Union goal of the first half past Hamid.
The lone Union highlight early in the second half came when the 6’6” Elliot was left one-on-one with the 5’3” Acosta and prevented him from getting the ball near the sideline with some fancy footwork of his own. Acosta would score for DC in the 56th minute but other than that goal, there were only a few notable moments during the balance of the match. Throughout the second half, the Union were playing around with the ball too much on the offensive end. I know they wanted to kill possession, but they also passed up a few opportunities to shoot in favor of going for an unnecessary extra pass.
Late in the second half, midfielder and Union captain, Alejandro Bedoya received a yellow card, and had begun this match already on a yellow card accumulation warning. For that reason, he will miss the match against Atlanta United FC next week.
My biggest gripe of the match involved Curtin subbing off Jamiro Monteiro rather than Haris Medunjanin with five minutes left to play. Medunjanin was also on a yellow card caution and if he drew one, the Union would be without both he and Bedoya against the club they are battling for first place. I asked Curtin in the post-match press conference if he had given any thought to subbing out Medunjanin instead and he said, “We talked about that… Haris does so many things that keep us stable in there… I trusted him, he’s experienced and he did a great job not picking up that second yellow.”
Even though the Union went with a midfield-heavy lineup, they were only slightly better than DC in possession percentage, but they made the most of their opportunities. Przybylko had, in my opinion, his best game in a Union uniform. He was all over the place, dribbling around defenders, maintaining possession, delivering solid balls to streaking teammates, and as usual, a pest to the opposing backline while on defense.
Elliot was on-the-spot as usual and Mark McKenzie had a solid return to the playing field. Next week, the Union host the defending champions, Atlanta United FC, and will be without their captain and leader, Alejandro Bedoya. The Union are deep enough and if Curtin pulls the right strings, could be back atop the East come next Saturday night.
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