The Union host their first-ever eastern conference semifinal tonight against Nashville SC. Philadelphia knows that they are three wins away from hoisting their first-ever MLS Cup. A late-season run to claim the 2-seed, and a dramatic round one win over New York Red Bulls were the first steps toward the ultimate prize. Now, the Union will need to do what many thought was impossible before the season started, win the games that matter most. Can Philly do this? They may have cracked the formula to do the impossible.
Have the Union cracked the formula to make MLS Cup?
The match tonight against Nashville will be a huge test for this Union team. There are only four teams left in the east; all of the top-four seeds made it to the conference semis. It’s time for the Union to show that they belong with the big boys of the conference. Philly’s mentality is up there, now it’s time to see the play on the field meet that mentality.
The Union has a system, coaches, and players that are suited for a deep playoff run. Philly is one win away from making their deepest playoff run in team history, and they seemed to have figured out a formula to get the best competitive advantage in each match. The Union started their stretch run of matches in the regular season in the 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree formation. Somewhere around the hour mark, they flipped it to their traditional 4-4-2 diamond with a super-sub coming on to change the game. All the while, Philly’s commitment on the defensive end helped them get to where they are now. This, coupled with luck, could be the MLS Cup-winning formula for this Union team in 2021.
Oh Christmas Tree
The Union’s adoption of the 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree formation has been an interesting development for this team in 2021. In today’s world of soccer, using the traditional number 10 is not the norm anymore. Leave it to the Union to come out of the gate using two. What this does allow is for even more domination in the midfield for Philly. Since the Union loves to press and have bodies to clog up the midfield, having the dual-10’s has done this and also has allowed creative players to have the ball at their feet.
Usually, this formation sees Daniel Gazdag and Jamiro Monteiro on the ball when the Union attack with the lone striker of Kacper Przybylko in front of them. This front three are very good with the ball at their feet to create but need a bit more help to create the deadly chances to score. When Philly is in the Christmas Tree, they rely heavily on the counterattack to open spaces to find a goal. The Union’s style of play helps with this and allows the team to be comfortable for the first hour of the match. Then after that, Philly will look to flip the match on its head.
Flip the game on its head at the hour mark
Inside of the first hour, the Union will look to press, counter, and have the ball at the feet of their creative players. Around the hour mark, the formula flips. Curtin will look to make a sub and change the formation to their more traditional 4-4-2 diamond formation. Usually, this means the introduction of striker Sergio Santos. Santos is a pacy striker whose direct play changes how the Union plays. Instead of getting the ball to the feet of playmakers, at the hour mark Philly will look to play more direct.
This changes things up abruptly for the opposition. It’s something Curtin and this team have done over the past two seasons to get the best competitive advantage. Bringing on a guy like Santos, Illsinho, or even Paxten Aaronson can change things in an instant. In games that are literally win-or-go-home, it is nice to have a coach and players who are willing and able to do this. This switch-up is a major part of the formula that could see the Union make it to MLS Cup, but so too is their team foundation.
Defense wins championships
That team foundation is their ability to defend and defend well. The Union was tied for the least goals conceded per match averaging one goal against per game. They’ll need to keep that up if they want to make it all the way to MLS Cup. One huge factor for this strong backline is that they only allowed 13 goals at home this season through 18 matches.
That is a stout defense, and it’s one that will need to be on full display should the Union want to continue their winning formula. It’s a long-used sports cliche that defense wins championships. Maybe this, coupled with their formational setup can help this Philly make a run to MLS Cup? They have the pieces in place in defense and in goal to stop any of the remaining teams from hurting them too badly, and the rest of the formula can help them find the winner!
Union vs Nashville; Sunday, November 28 @ 5:30 pm EST
The Union’s formula that could carry them to an MLS Cup is a sound one playing into all of their strengths while lessening the effects of their weaknesses.
Starting the game with a high press that can allow for the playmakers to be on the ball, shifting to a more direct approach with supper-subs, all the while relying on one of the league’s best defenses is about as sure of a plan as any.
The Union will look to do this again tonight against Nashville SC, then next weekend against either New England, or NYCFC in the eastern conference finals, then the following Saturday against either Portland, Salt Lake, or Kansas City in MLS Cup. Can they work out of this formula and make it all the way? We’ll have to wait and see to find out!
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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union, Andrew Zwarych