Union takes on Orlando in crucial eastern conference bout

The Philadelphia Union is coming off three big points at home. Beating DC United allowed the Union to leapfrog Orlando City SC for second place in the eastern conference. Now, Philly heads to Florida for a week packed with two games against Orlando and Miami. First, the Union takes on Orlando in a match that will be crucial for both team’s hopes to make it to the top of the east.

Mandatory Credit: PHILADELPHIA UNION, ANDREW ZWARYCH

Union takes on Orlando

This match is a big one for the outlook of the eastern conference standings. The second-place Union takes on the third-place Lions down in Orlando on Thursday night. All of MLS will be watching as it’s a nationally televised game on ESPN. Orlando has been one of the better sides in MLS but has had a winless start to their month of July. The Union now has an opportunity to create a winning streak and show the conference and the league as a whole that they are still one of the best teams in MLS.

This one will have intensity and should be a good one. Let’s take a look at what’s at stake for both teams in this clash of titans of the eastern conference.

Orlando’s interesting form

Orlando has been a good team from the start of the 2021 season. In their first ten games, they had taken points from nine; winning six of those matches and losing just one. Oscar Pareja has his men flying playing a high-paced possession-based style. Their quality in the build-up and in their attacking through wide possessions has led to them scoring 21 goals in their 13 matches. They came out swinging in the first three months of the season, but this month they seemed to hit a bit of a snag.

The Lions are currently on a three-game winless streak. They lost at home to New York Red Bulls to start the month, followed that up with a loss at Chicago, and a draw at the first match in Toronto since 2019. The match that should immediately stick out for Union fans is the loss to Red Bull at home. As much as Union fans dislike that team from North Jersey, they did just provide a blueprint to beating them.

Orlando City is at times too comfortable to play out of pressure. They look to build their attack with that sustained possession, and at times it gets them in trouble. A high-pressing team like New York and Philadelphia can pounce in those moments when they arise. It’s how Red Bull found their goals to be the Lions at home, and it’s what the Union will have to do as well. For Philly specifically, this match presents a huge opportunity.

The Union’s opportunity

Philadelphia is coming off an emotional win against rivals DC United. The rain delay in that match showed just how passionate the fans are, with the party that went on under the stands outside of the locker rooms. This Union team will see their effort on the pitch and their unrelenting support from the fans, and look to carry that with them to a place the Union has only won once. All-time the Union has the upper hand against Orlando, but they have struggled with taking all three points home. This game presents the opportunity to do so with the stakes raised.

The Union moving past Orlando in the standings by a point, and Orlando having a game in hand is crucial to the makeup of this particular matchup. The Union knows that an away win will give them the edge over a team they will only play twice this season. Even a point would be spectacular, the only disappointment would come from a loss. The opportunity is present for Philly to put distance between another eastern conference side that will be competing for the top of the conference.

This is an opportunity right around the middle of the season. It’s one where you can say the match actually matters in the long run. Does this Union team want to be at the top of the east again in 2021? Then they’ll have to show well at Orlando, a team that is proving they’ll be in the top four of the east this year when all is said and done. The opportunity is present, but how can the Union get this job done?

Three keys to victory

If the Union is going to take points away from Orlando down in the swamp, then they will have to do three key things. Stop Nani at all costs, limit Orlando’s attack from wide spaces, and have the front three of Gazdag, Santos, and Przybylko combine in the attack.

Stop Nani at all costs

Nani is still Orlando City’s talisman. As he goes, they go. He leads their team in goals (7), minute per goal (124), shots on target per match (1.4), successful dribbles per match (1.5), key passes per match (1.8), and big chances created (4). At 34-years-old the Portugal attacker is still one of the best to do it in MLS.

The Union will need to shut him down, as he’ll come down their right side. Ale Bedoya and Olivier Mbaizo will have their hands full stopping him, but should be up to the task. Getting the ball off his foot and isolating him on the wing will go a long way for the Union’s efforts in taking points from Orlando.

Limit Orlando’s chances from wide areas

Orlando loves their 4-2-3-1 formation. Nani, Benji Michel, and even Chris Mueller at times have been able to destroy teams from the wing. Outside backs Joao Moutinho and Kyle Smith love to bomb down the wings as well creating an overlap and numbers advantage in the wide areas. This can be a problem for the Union who like to play with a narrow diamond in midfield. The Union saw against DC United last weekend that teams will try to spread out their congested midfield in order to find space to attack.

Orlando tries to do this to teams to open them up, and then find a way into the middle for a better look at goal. Whether it is one of their wingers tucking inside or a central player getting involved in the attack, the Lions start wide to open up the opponent’s middle. The Union will know that this can be one of their weaknesses. If their outside backs can hold firm and their shuttles can offer some help in support at times, then they should be able to limit Orlando’s chances from wide areas.

Get the ball to the front three

The Union has a nice new partnership forming in their front three of Gazdag, Santos, and Przybylko. The three are the top three attacking options the club has right now, and they are firing on all cylinders. Against DC United, Gazdag had an assist, Przybylko a goal, and Santos a goal and an assist. This is the type of production the Union wants and desperately needs from their front three.

The main knock on the Union so far this season has been that their attack is not always lethal. This past game for the Union’s front three could be a coming-out party for things to come this season. If they can start producing at the level they did against DC against a side like Orlando this week, then the Union just might be a side that will truly compete for the top of the east as the 2021 season heads into its second half!

Prediction

I see this game as a high-paced affair between a possession-loving team, and a counter-attack-loving team. Essentially this match is going to come down to which team makes the other pay for their mistakes. There will most definitely be glaring mistakes from both sides as Philly and Orlando love to play fast, but a team that comes out on top will be because of capitalizing on the other’s mistakes.

For the best result I see the Union lining up this way:

Bendik; Wagner, Glesnes, Elliot, Mbaizo; Martinez, Monteiro, Bedoya, Gazdag; Santos; Przybylko.

This lineup would allow for consistent defense and tenacious pressing. I see Bendik keeping the starting role in goal after his strong performance in DC (it also gives him the opportunity for revenge against a former club). The backline stays the same as always under Curtin.

The midfield is where things get jumbled a bit. I see Jose “El Brujo” Martinez keeping his spot at the six as he’s been excellent in winning his duels and passing in the past two matches. Jamiro Monteiro comes back in the side after a suspension dropping Leon Flach to the bench. Ale Bedoya gets the start as Captain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s subbed early in the second half for a player like Flach.

The front three is the biggest key for me. If Gazdag, Santos, and Przybylko click as they did against DC, then Philly could just walk away with all three points.

I think the boys are up for it and will be able to defend first and then spring attacks. As the Union takes on Orlando, I see this one as a huge 2-1 win for Philly that could be one of the biggest results of the season.

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Mandatory Credit: PHILADELPHIA UNION, ANDREW ZWARYCH

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