June 15, 2017
The Philadelphia Union looked relatively comfortable in a 3-1 win against Harrisburg on Wednesday night.
Credit the USL visitors for making this a one-goal game at halftime. And credit the home team for answering back in the 47th minute to essentially put the match out of reach. Despite a touch of sloppiness at the end, Jim Curtin's team avoided the letdown that we've seen against the City Islanders in past Open Cup games at Talen Energy Stadium.
We won't hand out grades for a fourth-round game against a lower-division opponent, but there are some interesting things to take a look at.
When I saw the Jack Elliott and Josh Yaro pairing in the starting lineup, I immediately thought it was the best combination of passing center backs that the Union have ever put on the field.
One is a rookie and the other is a second-year player coming off an injury. I expected some rust and communication issues, but there really wasn't much of either.
Elliott tried this huge diagonal in the opening two minutes and nailed it.
Keep in mind he hit this from the left side of the field. Elliott has played as an RCB since making his Union debut.
He tried the pass again in the 31st minute and Harrisburg knocked it out for a throw.
The best sequence I could find was this one, which took place in the second half and featured some calm back-half movement before Yaro dropped a dime for Marcus Epps, who sparked a 4v2 with clever chest control.
That's the kind of stuff you're going to get when you have a triangle of Yaro, Elliott, and Haris Medunjanin, who might be the three best passers on the team.
I clipped the Harrisburg goal about 30 seconds prior to the ball going into the back of the net, because the genesis of the play is important.
It starts with C.J. Sapong winning the ball through a bit of hold-up play, then Derrick Jones charges forward and loses possession, pulling himself out of the play. Giliano Wijnaldum, to his credit, busts his rear end to recover, but a little channel ball is misread by Elliott and Keegan Rosenberry is left in no man's land trying to defend two players when Yaro gets pulled in rotation.
Overall, a lot of individual mistakes there, but you see how an error in the other half of the field tips the dominoes for a goal that actually happens 70 yards away.
It was one of the few moments where it looked like there were communication and rotation issues among a group of players that isn't usually on the field together.
One of the more intriguing things from Wednesday night's win was the use of C.J. Sapong on the wing.
We've seen him play there before, beginning with his Kansas City days where he slid out wide to accommodate the addition of Dom Dwyer. In Philly, he typically only plays wide in late-game situations when another striker is brought on.
He scored a great goal in this game, cutting to his left and firing into the far post.
But the thing to analyze is how his wing play meshed with Jay Simpson, who played as the number nine in this setup.
In this clip, you see a bit of interchange between the two:
You never see that in a typical Union game because C.J. doesn't have anybody to run off of when he's the point man. In that clip, however, Simpson does well to hold the ball and let Sapong make the run, which you would expect to happen the other way around.
And here's another clip, this one leading to Simpson getting behind the defense and smacking one off the goalkeeper's leg.
Basically, what you see there is Sapong moving the ball forward with his head, then pushing into the center of the field with that slow diagonal. It doesn't look like much in the video, but getting another body into a dangerous area forces the attention of the left center back, who has to respect that run. If he steps to Alberg, Sapong is through. If he holds off, Alberg has acres of space to turn and play that through-ball, which is exactly what happens.
This is what it looks like in the moment of decision making for the center back:
Think of it like defending a pick and roll in basketball. You're playing a high/low game and a choice has to be made. Do you switch off and cover Tristan Thompson? Or do you fight through the screen to stay with Kyrie Irving? It's really not much different in soccer.
Speaking of Alberg, he had a couple of nice passes in the final third and probably should have had an assist on the play above. He had a couple of shot attempts, the first two coming off of set pieces that weren't executed perfectly. He did a bit of defensive tracking and won a few tackles, but didn't make it on the score sheet.
Simpson also didn't find the back of the net, but finished with a pair of assists and did some nice work in the hold-up game.
Another interesting thing was to watch the Jones and Medunjanin, which is one that we haven't seen for a few months now.
We've talked in recent weeks about Alejandro Bedoya's tendency to trend to the right side of the midfield, which was something that Warren Creavalle mirrored when he covered for Bedoya in New York two weeks ago.
In this game, Jones actually drifted to the other side of the field, with Medunjanin dropping in closer to Josh Yaro to receive the ball.
It doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things, but it's another wrinkle to keep an eye on as we continue to pick up on player habits and trends. I think one of the reasons Medunjanin was able to operate from that area is because Rosenberry plays higher up the field, while Ray Gaddis usually stays closer to home.