When Ernst Tanner took over as Philadelphia Union sporting director this winter, there was reasonable concern over new changes he might implement. The Union were coming off a season in which they showed real promise, with a squadron of young players and a playoff berth. Given the history of this franchise, taking any steps to change a move in the right direction comes with a certain apprehension.
But even the most optimistic of Union fans (a rare breed, mind you) could not have anticipated the success their team has enjoyed to start this season. Philly is verging on elite, winning four of its past five games and sitting atop of the Eastern Conference, ahead of D.C. United on goal differential. They play with confidence and skill.
Tanner’s original vision of a pressing, 4-4-2 diamond team hasn’t quite come to fruition. The Union want to play on the ball, first and foremost, an ideology that most effectively capitalizes on their personnel. Jim Curtain cultivated a willingness to play with possession last year, as Philly figured itself out and nurtured an identity.
Creating a model for success
They will continue to develop and coalesce. The process, so to speak, is still in the early stages. But seeing the Union successfully combine its own younger talent and newer transfer pieces is a beacon of hope for MLS teams that want to take this kind of approach. (Looking at you, RSL.) It is possible to win while processing in this league.
Philly have certainly been fun to watch. A willingness to play actual good soccer drives their success — they move with and without the ball, they play on the attack, and they pass and combine to create their chances. The diamond formation they play (that part of Tanner’s vision they stuck with) can be fairly complicated to use with a system like the Union’s, but Philly accomplish it without muddling things too much.
How Philly is doing it
Last weekend against Toronto FC is a perfect example. The Union won 2-1, a quality victory against a likely playoff team, and proved versatile enough to successfully implement a game-plan counter to Toronto’s strengths.
Philly watched Toronto’s midweek loss in Atlanta and took notes on the Five Stripes’ approach. Atlanta United had focused entirely on surrounding TFC’s midfield and cutting off central outlets, sacrificing space on the wings in order to restrict Toronto’s outlets in the middle.
TFC, hampered by a rested midweek lineup, struggled to respond on that Wednesday. They tried to play through wingback Ashtone Morgan in possession as a response to Atlanta’s central focus, but Morgan lacks the ability on the ball to play such an important role.
Seeing this, the Union implemented similar principles. Their diamond formation is perfect for what they intended to do — invert midfield shuttlers Alejandro Bedoya and Jamiro Monteiro even more than usual and restrict TFC’s overloaded midfield, forcing the Reds to hit difficult switches and play through the flanks more than they wished.
It was a risk, but a calculated one; the changes of direction and ball movement required to break down the Union are tough to accomplish. With Jozy Altidore starting on the bench, TFC couldn’t do it.
Figuring out how to complicate things for opposing teams is part of Philly’s evolution. Once they accomplish that, they’re able to play the way they want to play. They can pass with a purpose, swimming around the area occupied by the forwards (particularly Kacper Przybylko) and dribbling right at the spine of the defense. Watching for more dual-creator minutes, with both Marco Fabian and Hype Train American youngster Brenden Aaronson on the field, will be fascinating.
Everything was not seamless in the Toronto game — Alejandro Pozuelo was as active as ever, and perhaps the result would have been different had it not been for TFC’s defensive ineptitude — but nothing is designed to be seamless. The Union will continue to put themselves together at the back, where they play plenty of younger studs.
With quality moves in the transfer market — Przybylko, Fabian, Monteiro, left back Kai Wagner — and a willingness to develop their own talent, Philly have assembled a deep depth chart. They play with a real identity. It looks like we can safely say that the Union will be sticking around.