Union’s latest draw vs Montreal shows their 3 major flaws

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

The Philadelphia Union has not had a good 2024 season. They crashed out of the Concacaf Champions Cup Round of 16 and are a mid-table team in MLS’s stacked Eastern Conference through 16 MLS Matches. Philly is just one MLS match away from the midway point of their MLS season, and they sit in eighth place. Their latest draw at home to Montreal showed three major flaws on full display. Let’s look at the match, Philly’s flaws, and ask where this club can go from here.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Union vs Montreal Recap

The Union welcomed back eight former players from their previous 14 seasons on Alumni Night. No doubt fans were hoping some of their favorites like Sebastien Le Toux or Ilsinho could suit up to help their team get a long-awaited win at home. Philly has been held winless at Subaru Park for two months; they had one draw and four losses in their previous five home matches ahead of this Montreal game. Montreal has been struggling on the road this season and has been dealing with many injuries. It was the perfect opportunity to get back in the win column. Then the first minute of the match happened.

After both teams failed to put some passes together, Montreal dealt with Philly’s attempt to boot the ball forward in the opening seconds and then attacked down the left side. Wagner was out of position trying to get into the attack, and Lowe was pulled out wide to stop Ruan from getting a cross in. Ruan made Lowe look silly and found Yankov at the top of the box. He drew the other center backs Elliot and Glesnes to him, and laid the ball off to Ibrahim who didn’t think twice about hitting a ball first time from 20 yards out.

The hit was a perfect shot that beat Semmle to his left corner and Montreal was up after just 49 seconds.

It was a total gut punch, but Philly woke up after it. They created some chances to level the match but failed to do so before the end of the first half. What was going Philly’s way was that Ariel Lassiter was given a Red Card for an elbow to the face of Jose “El Brujo” Martinez. CF Montreal would be down a match for a whole half but were up a goal already. As the second half kicked off, Curtin brought in Sullivan and Bedoya for Glesnes and Flach returning his team to their 4-4-2 diamond shape. They quickly found that the narrow formation would pay dividends.

The Union won a PK in the 56th minute, and Daniel Gazdag easily converted it to get Philly level. Just two minutes after that they sparked a counter-attack through Quinn Sullivan who smartly found the run of Mikael Uhre who wrong-footed a defender, and then hit a beauty of a shot with the outside of his foot to give Philly the lead. It looked like the Union was going to get that long-avoiding home win, but that was short-lived.

Jack Elliot got a red card for a reckless challenge in the 63rd minute, and Montreal scored off the ensuing free kick after some pinball in the box. Philly was not able to find the winner in 25 minutes of 10v10 action and settled for yet another draw.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Philly’s 3 Major Flaws

The draw felt like a loss yet again. Frustrated fans and players left Subaru Park as the Union now had 14 days off thanks to a FIFA International window. Philly will now be without some players during this window and possibly for a longer period, as the European Championships and Copa America start in just a few weeks. This draw showcased three major flaws of this Union team: Lapses of judgment, poor in-game tactics, and a lack of difference-making depth.

1.) Lapses of Judgment

Philadelphia showed in the first minute of the match that they were not mentally prepared to get into this match against a team that was struggling just as much as they were. They were not prepared at all for a quick counter-attack after they attempted to push forward. Philly lost possession in their attacking third, and couldn’t close down three separate Montreal players from processing the ball up the field, and another from making a late run and hitting an uncontested shot from far out.

In less than 30 seconds Philly conceded a goal after playing the ball in their opponent’s final third. This has been happening all season, in almost every match. This flaw has been fatal to Philly all season, and it’s been happening to a defense that has three players who have either won defensive player of the year or been in the running for it in seasons past. Slow reaction times and a lack of anticipation are hurting the Union. This was an area the club used to excel in, which is why they were a lethal selective pressing/counter-attacking team. That seems to be a trait of the past for this club.

2.) Poor In-Game Tactics

The Union has been rigid with the tactical identity they have ascribed to over the years. The first time the club began to form a tactical identity was when Earnie Stewart was Sporting Director. He wanted all Union teams to play a 4-2-3-1 and play like a Dutch team; total football style. Jim Curtin did his best to implement this style, but the rigid nature of this style did not allow him to make many tactical changes in the game.

Fast forward some years and Ernst Tanner is at the helm and he wanted his teams to be very narrow to press and counter-attack the opposition. unlike Stewart, Tanner allowed Curtin to tweak the formation to fit his players, however, it seems like Curtin has failed to find the best way to do this. When the Union is in big moments or needs a spark, Curtin seems to change up formation or personnel, but the flow of the team becomes compromised. It seems as though because Curtin’s early years as a coach were fomrated to a rigid 4-2-3-1 formation he did not learn how to adjust things properly in-game.

This has led to a lot of issues when a change is needed in specific moments of games. Curtin is a great man manager and can run a team well in their preferred tactical formation or style, but he does not make the correct change when his team gets punched in the mouth right now. It feels as though he waits too long to see if the players on the pitch can figure out a solution to the problems that they are committing due to their lapses of judgment. I don’t envy Curtin at all with the weight of this right now, but hopefully, he and his staff can find ways to right the poor in-game tactics currently on display.

3.) A Lack of Difference-Making Depth

When you look at teams that win trophies at any level of professional soccer, they tend to have good-to-great players for that level in the starting XI, and true difference-makers coming off the bench to help change a game. This Union team does not have that difference-making depth option off the bench right now, and they are beginning to plateau to the middle of the pack MLS as a result. Gone are the days of Ilsinho coming off the bench to flip the pressing 4-4-2 diamond to a possession-heavy 4-2-3-1. However, look at the starting XI, and the Union have arguably the best team they’ve ever had.

Finding a guy who can beat player 1v1, can be called upon to be a super-sub, and possibly play their way into a stacked starting XI would be a good place to start to correct this flaw. Philly has not been a big buyer in past summer transfer windows, but they need to be now if they want to continue to be competitive in the east. Also knowing that mainstays may be sold as soon as next month should also prompt this change as well. In every transfer window, the club should add at least one quality player that could fit the mold as a game changer, if they don’t do this, then the team will fall to mediocrity.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Where Does the Club Go From Here?

Philadelphia Union is at a crossroads. They have “Run it Back” for two seasons after their statistically best season ever in 2022. They failed to win trophies that year falling just short of the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup to LAFC. Now they can choose to do a few different things. They can choose to continue to play this season with the players on this roster and hope they flip a switch and become a top-four team again, they can blow it all up and start a rebuild, or they can add a few quality players to allow the team to be more tactically flexible.

We all know which path Philadelphia traditionally takes; the path of not changing the roster and hoping for the results on the field to change. However is that best for the club? With changes sure to come as some star players likely getting moved either this coming summer or winter, could we see Philly choose to blow up their roster and rebuild? I don’t think we are necessarily there yet, but this could be on the horizon with a “golden generation” of homegrowns rising.

The path that the club would take should they want to push to be a top-four team in the east yet again in 2024, would be to keep the nucleus of their starting XI for the rest of the season while adding some skilled playmakers this summer to freshen the team up. This could be on the offensive or defensive side of the ball. Add more high-quality competition to this team, and the Union could become less one-dimensional and more hungry.

We’d likely see fewer mental lapses, due to players knowing a new player is coming in looking for a chance to make the starting XI. We could also see more willingness to change tactics in-game from the coaching staff if challenges arise should these difference-makers be added to the roster. It would obviously add better depth to a team that has relied on older veteran midfielders and outside backs to provide a spark in attack.

Will we talk about this being the first major season of decline for Philly, could it be the start of a major rebuilding process that sees an overhaul of the team and its coach, or will we see ownership step up and spend big money on difference makers that may not be day-in-day-out starters right off the bat? Time will tell which path the Union will take, but right now Philly has to make their intentions known as they approach the midpoint of the 2024 season.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union