The Philadelphia Union lost their third game of the season this past weekend in Cincinnati. Philly was outplayed in the entire game en route to a 3-1 loss. This was the first match all season in which Philadelphia let in three goals, and it should be taken as a humbling moment for this team with 10 matches to go in the 2022 season.
Union suffer their third loss of the season from familiar foes
Philadelphia had a tough time getting into the game in Cincinnati. Former Union assistant coach, and now head coach of FC Cincinnati put on a masterclass in how to frustrate Philly. Pat Noonan showed earlier in the year that his Cincinnati team could get points against Philadelphia; with his front three flying high, he knew that they could exploit the Union’s strong defense.
From minute one, Cincy came out and wanted to press just as much as Philly did. Cincinnati’s take on pressing was different, instead of just pressing the ball on whoever had it, they looked to take away Philly’s playmakers. The Union’s 4-4-2 diamond was in full effect, and the midfield of Gazdag, Flach, Bedoya, and Martinez struggled with Cincy’s pressing. Philly didn’t get the ball to Bedoya or Gazdag as much as they wanted; they are the midfield playmakers who could possess the ball and find the best path forward to attack.
Noonan knew that Philly could settle in if they could counter quickly off of their own press. So he made it hard for Philly. Cincy took away the midfield playmakers, and held a close watch on the strikers, making it Falch and Martinez who needed to start attacks for Philly. Flach was flustered looking for a quick option to get off the ball, and Martinez was forced to be the playmaker, which made it hard for the Union to progress the ball down the field.
Because of all of this, Cincinnati was able to beat the Union at their own game. They created turnovers in the Philadelphia half by pressing less-skilled players on the ball and got loads of chances from it. Philly was lucky not to be down at the half; A VAR review took away a Cincy goal before halftime, which could have flipped the tides for Philly if they had changed personnel.
The Second half is where all the goals came, and it wasn’t Philly getting them in bunches like we saw in July. Philadelphia didn’t make any changes at halftime, and Cincinnati kept the same pressure on them as they had done in the first half. This led to the first goal, a beautiful near-post run and finish by Brandan Vazquez.
Vazquez beat Elliot to the ball and hit it first time to beat Andre Blake. Just five minutes into the second half the Union was down. It was clear they need to change some players on the pitch to create a spark, but no substitution came. Five minutes later, Philly concealed again.
Some beautiful on-the-ball work from Luciano Acosta but Jose Martinez in the spin cycle, creating space to find the run of Brazilian striker Brenner. Brenner outran Jakob Glesnes and saw Andre Blake coming out. He calmly slotted the ball past the keeper to make it 2-0.
Just 10 minutes into the second half Cincinnati’s lockdown defense and pressing game turned Philly over in bad areas; their skilled possession players and smart strikers then finished the plays giving them two goals in five minutes. At this point Philly made changes, bringing on McGlynn for Flach and Burke for Carranza, but it was too little too late.
While the Union got on the ball more in the final 35 minutes of the game, they were down 2-0 and reverted to playing long balls over the top to try to kickstart the attack. Cincy dealt with it well and found more ways to counter an exposed Philly midfield and backline. This is how Cincinnati scored goal number three. A counter-attack led to the chance. Acosta had the ball in the final third and saw Barreal in space just outside the 18-yard-box.
Barreal was supposed to be marked by Martinez, but he jogged the whole way back instead of running with intensity to stop the chance. Barreal was able to take a touch into the box and get his shot off to beat Blake. It was 3-0 with 19 minutes to play and the Union were burried.
Philly made their final sub a few minutes after the goal, bringing on Aaronson for Uhre. The homegrown was a spark in the attack connecting with fellow homegrown Jack McGlynn in limited time on the pitch. Aaronson was able to provide a moment of brilliance in a game already lost.
Some fancy footwork around Cincy’s box allowed for Aaronson to get a shot off, it took a huge deflection and popped up high in the air chipping the already committed Cincinnati goalkeeper. It was a consolation goal in a game that was a humbling moment for this strong Philadelphia team. The match ended in a 3-1 loss.
In the Union’s worst loss of the season, there are clear takeaways. There are some for the Union themselves, one for who you don’t want to see in the playoffs, and another about the margins for success in MLS in 2022.
1. Lack of Tactical Flexibility
The first takeaway has to do with how the Union game-planned for FC Cincinnati, and how they lacked the foresight to adapt to the game. This Union team can be tactically flexible I wrote over 1,000 on it at the end of last week. In this game they showed an unwillingness or stubbornness, that will greatly hurt their chances to win trophies in 2022.
When Cincinnati came out pressing the Union’s more selective-pressing players, an adaptation to get players who can dominate the ball and beat the press needed to occur. The chance for this came at halftime as it was still 0-0 with the momentum favoring Cincy. Jack McGlynn should have come on to use his high IQ in the midfield to beat the press. Paxten Aaronson or Quinn Sullivan could have come later as well to stretch the field if Cincy kept pressing. This didn’t happen, and Cincy scored twice in five minutes.
The Union is its own worst enemy at times, but if they want to win something this year, they will need to learn from this mistake. Curtin will need to see it and be able to adapt quickly in matches like this for Philly to have a chance at winning in 2022
2. Cincy is a force to be reckoned with come playoff time
Cincinnati is no joke anymore. They are holding firm in a playoff spot with 10 games to play, and if they get in, no one will want to play them in a one-off match. They took four out of six points from the Union in 2022. and seem to have Philly’s number.
When they have a former coach, GM, and many players who used to play for Philly it can be easily understood why this side knows how to play them so well. However, if things shake out and Philly has to play a playoff match against Cincy, there will likely be a lot of nerves in a win-or-go-home match.
3. The margins are getting thinner
The Union’s loss sees them drop lower in the race for the Supporters Shield and the race for the top spot in the east.
LAFC was the only Shield contender that won this past weekend. They now have a six-point gap over Austin and Philly (Austin leapfrogged Philly because they have more wins) and have a game in hand still to play. While the Union may have the easier schedule down the stretch, they can’t afford to lose games like this if they want to win the 2022 Supporters Shield.
The race for the top spot in the east (and likely a spot in Concacaf Champions League-CCL) is also heating up. No team in the top four of the east won this past weekend, Montreal and Red Bulls being the only teams to get a point. This sees the Union hold on to first place for now, with a three-point cushion over NYCFC. However, NYCFC does still have a game in hand on the rest of the east…
The Union will need to learn from their mistakes and stubbornness in this loss to Cincinnati if they want a chance to be the top team in MLS, and secure a spot back in CCL. We’ll see this Saturday if they can get back on track against another team that’s beaten them this year, the Chicago Fire.
Be sure to return to Philly Sports Network for more Philadelphia Union and other soccer content!
Follow our Union team on Twitter:
Doop on Union fans!
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union, Andrew Zwarych