The 2020 MLS season kicks off Saturday and the Philadelphia Union begin what they hope to begin their campaign with a positive result on the road at FC Dallas Saturday evening.
For the first time in three years, the Philadelphia Union will be without veteran midfielder Haris Medunjanin and his expert-level vision and passing abilities. But Head Coach Jim Curtin, entering his seventh season with Philadelphia, is confident his group has shifted to a more high-pressing system with more defensive-minded players in midfield without Medunjanin and his double-digit assists on the roster.
Saturday evening’s battle at FC Dallas will be the first true test for Curtin and his group. After seven pre-season matches, all against fellow MLS opponents, Philadelphia should be primed for a difficult week one matchup against a highly-talented offensive team in Dallas.
The match will be won or lost in the midfield, with both teams hoping to utilize quick transition play to their advantage.
For Philadelphia, they welcome back three core members of a successful midfield grouping from last year. Team captain Alejandro Bedoya and his new contract extension return yet again. Fresh off his USMNT debut, Brenden Aaronson returns for year two of his early pro career. And last but not least, Jamiro Monteiro returns to the group with a long-term contract in hand after the club spent a record transfer fee to purchase him from FC Metz earlier in the off-season.
The midfield trio will play a monumental role in 2020 and Saturday will provide a glimpse of just how well they can operate without Medunjanin on the pitch to help control play.
Without Medunjanin, Philadelphia is expected to play without the ball much more often. In past seasons, the club would hope to control play while executing some rather slow and methodical build-up with Medunjanin operating as sort of a point player, directing traffic and spraying long balls forward.
In 2020, Philadelphia will hope to rely on defensive work to create offense, hoping to bank on counter-attacking opportunities as a way to create the bulk of their chances.
“We want to be comfortable without the ball,” said Curtin this week during his weekly presser with reporters. “How quickly can we turn our defense into an attack?”
A big key to focus on in Saturday’s match-up is where exactly Philadelphia can create turnovers on the pitch against Dallas. The goal is to force turnovers as deep in Dallas’ end as possible. But just how successful they’ll be at causing havoc remains up in the air.
Aaronson knows the game-plan well and he hopes to start his second full MLS season the same way he kicked off 2019, scoring his first professional goal after earning a start early on in week three at Atlanta United FC.
“I think I’m more confident now that I have that whole first season under my belt along with the pre-season we’ve had, we all have more confidence going into everything,” said Aaronson during a phone conversation with PhillySportsNetwork.com this week. “I’m just going to approach it the same way I did last year. The things I did last year are what kept me on the field.”
One thing Aaronson excelled at last year was his movement both with and without the ball. He continually navigates to dangerous spaces on the pitch, making any club’s defense a bit worried about his presence. Yet there are minor improvements needed in his game if the Union hope to exceed last year’s results. And Aaronson is aware.
“So I’m just trying to add that final pass and final shot to my game. Throughout the week I just want to keep my focus and work hard,” said Aaronson.
And the absence of Medunjanin isn’t lost on Aaronson either. Both he and the rest of the midfield group understand what is now missing from last year’s system of play. But they’re focused on executing a different high-pressing style with more quickness.
“Throughout pre-season, we really focused on what our style of play is and what we’re good at as a club and what made us so successful last year,” said Aaronson. “We’re a pressing team and we like to win the ball and play it forward. I think that was the main focus throughout pre-season and we need to get the new guys to learn the style of play while having the guys that were there last year to re-focus on that.”
Those new guys are Jose Andres Martinez and Matej Oravec, both acquired this off-season in hopes of replacing Medunjanin. Both players have varying skill-sets in terms of offensive abilities but what they both have in common is their defensive-minded mentality with the ability to be physical when challenging for balls and winning back possession when needed.
Who exactly will start Saturday remains a mystery. Will Curtin go with a new signing or will he decide to play veteran role-player Warren Creavalle at the defensive midfield spot?
That decision will be crucial, considering the weakest point of a high-pressing team is the space between the midfield and the backline. A solid defensive skill-set is needed in order to assist the backline as much as possible if Philadelphia gets stuck with numbers upfield.
If Philadelphia can create chaos with their pressing ways while also making the most of their time on the ball, a positive result should be obtainable to start the 2020 season. But if the midfield grouping lacks chemistry or timing, Saturday could turn ugly very quickly.
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