March 20, 2017

Orlando 2, Union 1: Player grades and analysis for a mostly sloppy road performance

Soccer Union
032017_unionjulian Julian Brown/for PhillyVoice

Purple smoke rises from the Orlando supporter's section after Cyle Larin's first half goal against the Union.

It's funny how a matter of inches can be the difference between a good result and a bad result.

If Ilsinho scores in stoppage time, instead of hitting the post, we're sitting here talking about how the Philadelphia Union fought back twice to steal a point on the road.

Instead, the discussion focuses on a terrible first half, poor set pieces and a lack of sharpness in the attack.

The Union actually out-shot Orlando in its brand new stadium by a count of 13-10 on Saturday night. The problem is that only two of those shots were on frame, and the second resulted in a fantastic save from opposing goalkeeper Joe Bendik.

Defensively, the Union backline was sliced open twice, which is all that Orlando needed in a 2-1 win.

Press or be pressed

The Union really struggled to find the ball in the first half, and that's because they just couldn't relieve the waves of pressure that Orlando was putting on the backline and defensive midfielders.

When I went back and re-watched the game, I found this passage from the 33rd minute of play:

There's a lot going on here.

First, Orlando is playing in a 4-2-2-2 formation, which we call an "empty bucket," basically because you have two wide midfielders and two defensive midfielders, which creates a bit of a gap in the middle of the field. That's the "empty bucket," which is also the space where Derrick Jones and Haris Medunjanin operate.

Jim Curtin, in his weekly presser, talked about SC's tendency to push their wingers up the field, which makes the shape look like a 4-2-4 at times. When those wide midfielders play higher, you're blanketing opposing defenses with an evenly numbered 4v4 in their half of the field.

Orlando really used this brilliantly in the first half on Saturday night. In the video clip, it attacks in waves, pressuring a Union player whenever he receives the ball with his back to goal:

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You see in the image above how the wide players, Giles Barnes and Matias Perez-Garcia, have moved up the field to create a pressing line of four. With Medunjanin playing to Andre Blake for safety, Carlos Rivas forces the Union goalkeeper to boot the ball into the air, where Orlando wins the aerial duel and Richie Marquez ends up nodding the ball down for Derrick Jones.

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When Jones receives the ball, it's the same thing. He's smothered immediately by Antonio Nocerino and Servando Carrasco, who understand that turning your back is a cue to press. Jones, to his credit, takes a quick touch and hooks the ball forward, and Alejandro Bedoya is able to lay it off for Medunjanin, who swings it wide to Fabian Herbers.

But when Herbers receives the ball, he's surround by three purple shirts and turns it back over to Orlando.

That's the important thing about pressure; it's just as much about the second, third, and fourth guy. It's not just about Rivas running in a straight line at Blake, it's about teammates reading cues and knowing where the next pass is going.

Philly really struggled to break this pressure, because it was forced to hoof the ball forward over the line of four forwards and two midfielders. When it did, C.J. Sapong found himself in a wrestling match with 6'4" center back Jose Aja. With the Union unable to play short, and unable to play long, they just didn't have anywhere to go with the ball in the first half.

Set piece sloppiness

Last week's snowstorm resulted in an atypical Union practice schedule.

They practiced Monday, then had off Tuesday, which is usually reversed. Then, on Wednesday and Thursday, the snow forced the team to train indoors, on turf, at YSC Sports. They flew out Friday and had one more day to prepare on grass.

That's the excuse I'd make for the horrendous set piece performance we saw in the first half. The Union tried one short corner routine and two designed plays that didn't even come close to working.

I logged each one from the first half.

This one starts with Bedoya and Pontius standing over the ball. Bedoya plays laterally for Medunjanin, who kind of botches the first touch. When he plays back across for Pontius, the Union are offside.

We saw this one in the preseason and we also saw it in the season opener. It's a clever attempt at misdirection, but Pontius has to hold his run.

This time you've got Bedoya and Pontius over a corner kick. Instead of knocking the ball into the box, they try a short routine and Bedoya is offside when he receives the return pass. The offside call was so obvious that the center official made the decision without even looking at his linesman.

The last one took place right before halftime, and it looked to me like Medunjanin was actually trying for Keegan Rosenberry at the top of the box. Jones is already in that area and doesn't seem to be expecting the ball. He takes a wild swing and knocks it into the stands.

That's three blown opportunities in 30 minutes.

Grades

Starting XI: Blake; Fabinho, Marquez, Onyewu, Rosenberry; Medunjanin, Jones; Pontius, Bedoya, Herbers; Sapong

C.J. Sapong: B

C.J. took his goal well with a nicely-timed run on a near-post cross into the box. His ability to head the ball into the ground made it much more difficult for Bendik to react and swat it away.

Outside of the goal, it was one of those outings that felt more like WWE than MLS. The battles with Aja turned out to be mostly fruitless, with the majority of the whistles favoring Orlando. The Union just didn't have enough meaningful possession to create any other scoring opportunities for Sapong.

Chris Pontius: C-

An off-night for Pontius, who shanked a left-footed half-chance in the first 45, then failed to put a free header on target in the second half.

His third credited shot was a header that missed the far corner, but it looked as if he might have been trying to pick out a teammate at the back post.

Pontius finished the game with just 14 passing attempts.

Alejandro Bedoya: C-

I'm giving him credit on the Union goal for attacking Herbers' near-post cross. It's that moment of pressure that makes for an awkward defensive play, and you see the ball carom into the path of Sapong for the knockdown finish.

Bedoya had a chance to steal an equalizer at the end of the game but saw his point-blank header saved by Bendik.

Otherwise, it was another outing where he became lost in the number ten role and failed to have any real impact on the game. He was blown offside a couple of times as well.

I'm not judging Bedoya until we're seven or eight games in, but he's certainly not playing like a seven-figure designated player right now.

Fabian Herbers: C

Herbers went 8/14 in passing with one blocked shot attempt.

His best contribution was the cross that he put into the box on the Sapong goal.

Derrick Jones: C

He got better as the game wore on, but it wasn't as smooth of an outing as we saw in the first two matches. Jones didn't have as many touches on the ball and Orlando's pressure sort of squeezed him out of the game.

Haris Medunjanin: B-

Slow to start with the Orlando press, he actually finished the game with six key passes.

Three of those passes came from second-half corner kicks, so I don't how valid they really are. I do recall an early sequence when he was gifted a turnover and clipped a really nice channel ball for Pontius. Another key pass was a simple square ball for a Herbers' shot attempt.

He also played a perfect set piece for Pontius, who missed on a free header.

A good sign for Union fans is that he found a way to get himself involved and showed real alertness in the second half.

Keegan Rosenberry: C+

He actually started the sequence leading to the Union goal with a nice interception at midfield.

A mixed bag otherwise, with some nice defensive plays, a couple of turnovers, and no real opportunity to pump crosses into the box.

Oguchi Onyewu: C+

He headed one off of his own crossbar, then took an early yellow, but otherwise did pretty well in the first half and matched Rivas and Larin for strength.

I can't really fault him on the second goal because it's just a brilliant sequence from Orlando. Larin peels off perfectly, and Onyewu tries to grab him and catch up, but when you're knocking the ball around like that with one-touch passing, no defender in the world is stopping it.

Richie Marquez: A-

No culpability on either of the goals. He's been the Union's most consistent player this season.

Fabinho: D+

Fabi gets the blame on the first goal, since he played Rivas onside, then failed to catch up with Larin, who beat him for a tap-in.

When he did get forward, he didn't have much success, lumping one cross towards Sapong and another out of play.

Fabinho's best contributions were a couple of last ditch clearances inside the box. I counted at least two where he booted the ball out with an attacker in a scoring position. He also had a block at the edge of the penalty area.

Andre Blake: A-

Not much he could do on either goal, but he came out bravely a couple of times in the first half to snuff out Orlando half-chances.

On the sequence where Onyewu headed the ball off the crossbar, Blake came up with a huge punch to end that play and allow his team to recover.

Substitutes

61' Ilsinho: B-

If that ball goes in, we're talking about putting him directly into the starting lineup.

Actually, he probably should be in the starting lineup anyway.

In this game, he just didn't see enough of the ball.

76' Roland Alberg: C

Drew a foul to win a set piece for his team, but just didn't show enough urgency during a 15 minute shift.

86' Fafa Picault: N/A

Again, not enough time to influence the game. There is no point bringing in an attacking sub beyond the 85th minute of play.

Referee – Fotis Bazakos: B+

The Union didn't get much of anything in the first 20 minutes, which included a bogus foul call on Fabinho and a no-call on Herbers in the corner.

Bazakos was correct to card Onyewu, though, for the basketball screen on Giles Barnes. When you're moving towards an opponent, you're going to be called for that foul every single time. It's the same concept as a charge vs. a defensive foul.

There were some chunky tackles in this game, and when it looked like things might get out of hand, he actually did a nice job of keeping things relatively calm.