March 06, 2017
This game was not an instant classic, but Union fans should be happy with a stout defensive performance and a clean sheet in Canada.
These are the types of results that make a difference at the end of the year, and Jim Curtin's team returns to Philly with a well-earned road point and a bit of confidence going into Saturday's home opener.
It was a conservative performance in Vancouver, but also a solid one. The Union backline held up well, the new guys did not look out of place, and you wouldn't even know that 19-year-old Derrick Jones was starting his first game in Major League Soccer.
The offense was not spectacular but did manage to put five of seven shot attempts on frame. For context, Vancouver finished with just one shot on goal.
In week one, nine teams failed to even score at all, including New York City, Montreal, Toronto, and Real Salt Lake. Don't be concerned about the Union putting up a goose egg in Vancouver. Remember, it was rigid defensive performances that put Philly at the top of the eastern conference table going into last year's Copa America break.
Derrick Jones did not look like a homegrown debutante on Sunday night.
No doubt, it was a proud moment for Union ownership and academy staff, who brought Jones through the youth system, signed him to a Bethlehem Steel contract, then promoted him to the first team last year.
That's the pipeline that never existed in the early years of this franchise.
Deployed as a number eight and playing next to Haris Medunjanin, I thought Jones had a smart and safe game, positioning himself well and keeping the ball on the deck with simple and short passes. He provided some backbone in the midfield as well, winning a few chunky tackles and breaking up Vancouver attacks.
Here's a look at his combined activity charts:
On the left, I've got 43 for 60 in passing attempts for a 72 percent success rate. He showed nice balance here, with those 43 passes being split almost down the middle in each half of the field. He's going to have to operate there with Medunjanin sitting a bit deeper and pulling the strings from a different area.
On the right, he won four of seven tackle attempts, which is a typical number for someone in his position. He had a pair of interceptions and two clearances, one which came early in the game and inside the box after Alphonso Davies got by Keegan Rosenberry on the left wing. Jones drew two fouls, conceded zero, and was dispossessed just once.
Overall, his spacing was much better than what we saw in the preseason, and he showed a lot of situational alertness. I thought he looked like a combination of Warren Creavalle and Tony Tchani, which is to say that he got stuck-in when necessary, but also knew where to be in possession.
The second most intriguing player on the field was Jones' midfield partner, Medunjanin, who was also making his MLS debut.
Let's start with a heatmap to show where he operates positionally, as opposed to Vancouver's Matias Laba, who is more of a traditional defensive midfielder:
You see that Laba tends to sit in front of his back four as a proper shield, while Medunjanin will pick the ball up, move it forward a bit, then distribute. That means the onus is on Jones to be aware and sink into a deeper position when Medunjanin presses forward.
For Laba, who is more stationary, his midfield partner Andrew Jacobson didn't have the same responsibility as Jones. Jacobson's heat map looks similar, with less wandering and more of a dedicated presence in the middle of the park. Part of that is due to Vancouver playing a 4-4-2 in this game, but there are a lot of easy comparisons to make between each pair of partners.
Medunjanin was solid in his passing and went 66 for 75 on the night (88 percent). He couldn't pick out that incisive key pass, but I felt like he showed some urgency in moving the ball and only committed two poor turnovers that I saw.
His real issue is defensive mettle, or lack thereof, which you can see in his chart:
Medunjanin finished the game with eight recoveries and two clearances. He didn't even attempt a single tackle, win a single foul, or commit a single foul. He had one successful dribble and was dispossessed twice.
This is just another indicator of why Jones is so important in his role. He essentially needs to do the defensive work of two people.
This play was a good example of that, with Medunjanin in a static position and raising his arm for offside instead of making any kind of defensive play on the ball:
And I thought Vancouver's biggest threat would be getting out on the counterattack, which we really didn't see too much of of. In this case, you've got Medunjanin and Jones both moving higher up the field, then struggling to get back after a Rosenberry turnover that bounces to Kekuta Manneh right in the middle of the park.
Thought we would see more of Vancouver on the break last night, but this one was particularly wasteful - pic.twitter.com/n95iqkMUSl— Kevin Kinkead (@Kevin_Kinkead) March 6, 2017
Starting XI: Andre Blake; Fabinho, Richie Marquez, Oguchi Onyewu, Keegan Rosenberry; Haris Medunjanin, Derrick Jones; Chris Pontius, Alejandro Bedoya, Fabian Herbers; Jay Simpson
Jay Simpson: C
In the first few minutes, he had a couple of nice touches in the hold-up game that kept his team in possession of the ball.
I only counted four instances of final third targeting attempts from his teammates, with a defender getting away with a tug of the shirt about 15 minutes in. He couldn't get on the end of a Bedoya through-ball, then lost out to Christian Dean after a Pontius channel pass in the second half.
Simpson also looked to have some trouble with the turf, but that's what happens when you play on a plastic field after spending your entire career on proper grass pitches in England.
Chris Pontius: B+
Same as always, which is to say that he disappears for 20 minutes, then shows up with a really nice pass or a shot on goal.
Pontius finished with the fewest touches among all five starting midfielders through the first 70 minutes of the game. He did, however, lead the team with three shot attempts and two key passes while also doing his typical defensive work on the left flank.
Alejandro Bedoya: B
He had a good early look for Simpson in the right channel, then spent the rest of the first half trying to find different areas of space to receive the ball. For the most part, he did well bouncing around and keeping possession.
In the second half, he made a really nice run to latch onto a Herbers through-ball, but had a tight-angle shot saved by David Ousted. There was another tricky backheel attempt from a Pontius cross that almost snuck into the corner.
Bedoya plays the ten similarly to Tranquillo Barnetta, which is to say he's a well-rounded, "volume" type of player with a strong motor who can last deep into the second half. He just needs to find a way to give the striker a bit more support up top.
Fabian Herbers: B-
I thought he played a Pontius-esque game on the other side of the midfield.
There weren't many, if any, meaningful first half touches for Herbers. He did start the second half strong with a loopy cross into the box, followed by a driving run and channel ball that allowed Bedoya to get a shot off. He had another cross attempt later after running beyond Simpson and snagging a take-on at the edge of the penalty area.
Herbers finished with two key passes and one blocked shot, but also showed well as a two-way defensive helper for Rosenberry.
Derrick Jones: A-
A conservative and balanced game for Jones, who I compared to Tony Tchani earlier in the article.
Both players have a similar build, which is to say that they are strong, athletic tweeners of African descent. If you've watched Columbus in recent years, you'll recall how Tchani plays in front of Wil Trapp and occupies the middle of the park with his counterpart dropping into deeper spaces between the center halves.
That's a good case study for the type of player that Jones can be.
Haris Medunjanin: B
He was active early with some assertive touches.
We didn't see that incisive final ball or key pass, but I liked the urgency he showed in possession. There wasn't a lot of wild gesturing ala Antonio Nocerino, and you didn't see him get caught on the ball too many times. In a lot of ways, he also played a somewhat conservative game.
The few moments of jogging back defensively were expected, so no real concern there. His best defensive play was an interception at the edge of the penalty area after a dummied Vancouver cross.
Keegan Rosenberry: C+
He had a tough matchup against 16-year-old speed burner Alphonso Davies but held up well despite two hairy moments.
The first was in the opening five minutes when Davies beat him for speed in the corner. Jones was in a good spot to intercept the cross. The second one took place on the end line, but I think Rosenberry did a nice job of shepherding Davies towards that line, which allowed Onyewu to slide over and clear.
Rosenberry got stronger in the second half and cleared a ball off the goal line on a Vancouver corner. He also had a nice interception and overlap in the 78th minute which resulted in a cross that Fafa Picault butchered.
Oguchi Onyewu: A-
I was pleasantly surprised by Onyewu, who I had pegged as a liability going into this one.
His lack of pace turned out to be a non-factor because of his smart positioning and veteran prescience.
Richie Marquez: A
The reason you didn't hear his name called is because he quietly took care of every single threat that came his way.
Marquez looked comfortable last night, doesn't get any smoother than this - pic.twitter.com/bId8XaH7uo— Kevin Kinkead (@Kevin_Kinkead) March 6, 2017
He did a nice job limiting Cristian Techera, who finished the game with one shot attempt and one key pass.
Fabinho also had the best baseball slide of the night.
Andre Blake: B
He didn't have to make a save in this game, but put in two strong second-half punches.
The only iffy moment I saw was an early Manneh chip that Blake had to tip and grab out of the air, but otherwise, I thought his passing and clearing were both solid.
Maybe his best play of the game was the second-half moment where he came well off his line to prevent a quick transition over the top.
61' C.J. Sapong: C
Just five touches in a 29-minute shift, but he did have a clearance inside his defensive half.
71' Fafa Picault: B-
A really nice change of pace that the Union just didn't have last year.
He had one good look on a Rosenberry cross but looped a header way off target.
Referee – Sorin Stoica: A-
The game was well-officiated.
I thought he may have been justified in cautioning Onyewu for the first half high boot or second half body slam, but Stoica was lenient on the night.