With the games ticking down on the schedule faster than anyone wants to admit, the Philadelphia Union had a golden opportunity to close out July in good position in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Instead, the Union suffered from the same deficiencies that have plagued them all season in the 3-0 loss to the New England Revolution that knocked them six points out of sixth place on Saturday night.
The three road defeats to the Montreal Impact, Columbus Crew and Revolution over the last two weeks carried a similar tune. The Union attack was unable to create a consistent threat in the final third and the defense began to get overwhelmed as the club chased an equalizer.
On Saturday, it was clear the wrong lineup decision had been made by manager Jim Curtin. Roland Alberg, who stirred up a bit of controversy by demanding to take a penalty kick and then missing in Wednesday’s win over the Crew, failed once again to be the dynamic playmaker in the No. 10 role the Union have wanted him to be. To add salt to the wound, Ilsinho, coming off his best game of the year, was taken out of the starting lineup.
Frustrating minute after frustrating minute passed on until Curtin brought on Ilsinho and Fafa Picault in the 60th minute. After the double change, the Union showed signs of promise, building up on a few occasions and creating pressure on the Revs defense, but that was something that should’ve been done in the first half.
To their credit, the Union created a few scoring opportunities, and if Kei Kamara didn’t head Oguchi Onyewu’s header off the line in the 69th minute, we might be talking about a different result. But the point still remains that the Union left Gillette Stadium with five shots on target, all of which came in the second half.
The first solution seems simple: bench Alberg. Sure, the Dutchman’s morale may be down if he gets benched, but you can’t worry about player’s feelings when your playoff hopes are hanging by a very slim thread. Unfortunately for the Union, there is no true replacement other than Ilsinho, who is a natural winger, or Adam Najem, who still needs more MLS experience to become a true difference maker.
What the Union can do is improve the starting lineup around the attacking midfield trio in an attempt to create more chances. Keegan Rosenberry has been banished to the bench for most of the season in favor of Ray Gaddis, but he brings more of an attack-minded approach to the game, something the Union desperately need out of their fullbacks. Giliano Wijnaldum has done enough at left back to remain in the lineup, but he can’t go forward often because he gets caught up field too much and leaves space on the counter.
If the Union can get their fullbacks to make more successful overlapping runs, they’ll be able to extend opposing defenses, and even if Curtin sticks with Alberg, it should create more gaps for whoever the No. 10 is to work into. The overlaps would also help Alejandro Bedoya work into the attack from his defensive midfield spot. Bedoya’s first job isn’t to attack, but he can be a nice complimentary piece when the time calls for it.
The Union’s one strength is in defense. Jack Elliott is arguably the Rookie of the Year favorite at this point and Onyewu is more consistent than anyone thought he would be back in March. Andre Blake is the marquee name in net, but John McCarthy has done a solid job in between the pipes as well. In games where the attack is clicking, the defense shines and usually limits opponents to chances, but when they can’t get the ball out of their own half and others are trying to overcompensate, the center backs get left out on their own.
For all of their struggles, the Union are still six points out of the playoff race, which is maddening to some who just want the offseason to start, but if Curtin makes these tweaks to his lineup, the Union could take advantage of their three home games in August, starting on Saturday against FC Dallas.