The Union have grown accustomed by now to opponents paying them a compliment by lining up bunkered, packed-in defenses. And as more teams embrace the trend of high pressure in midfield, the Union have gotten used to that, too.
It’s not a coincidence that some of the Union’s best plays this season have started when their players have been stuck in tight spaces. Nor has their ability to escape those jams been just down to the skills of Brenden Aaronson, Ilsinho, and Jamiro Monteiro. The team makes a point of rehearsing those scenarios in practice, including drawing up fields that are intentionally smaller than real games.
“We certainly try to replicate that as much as possible in training,” Union manager Jim Curtin said Tuesday as his team prepared to visit D.C. United on Wednesday (8 p.m., PHL17). “Everything we do is usually in very narrow fields, maybe a little longer so there’s some room to play in behind, but very narrow and tight.”
Two of the best examples have come in recent games: Ilsinho and Aaronson’s teamwork against Inter Miami on Sept. 27, and the Brazilian’s defense-splitting pass against Montreal on Sunday. There have also been plenty of plays that haven’t resulted in goals but have surely resulted in praise during film sessions.
Here’s an example that fans might have overlooked. Early in the MLS tournament semifinal loss to Portland, the Union had a throw-in parallel with the top of their 18-yard box. Three of the first four passes beat multiple defenders in that deep area of the field. Then the ball came to José Andrés Martínez, who spun around Jeremy Ebobisse and split two Timbers players with a pass forward to an open Ray Gaddis. The sequence led to two Union shot attempts, with 18 completed passes from the throw-in to a save by Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark.
Or consider a scoring chance at Cincinnati on Sept. 23 in which Gaddis — yes, the same Gaddis many Union fans dislike — beat defenders four times in one build-up sequence with passes or dribbles. The last of those was a pass to Monteiro, who sprung Aaronson for one of the Union’s few scoring chances in the 0-0 tie.
That kind of soccer doesn’t just happen by assembling 11 players on a field.
“I think, over time and lots of work in training, you start to see how good they are at twisting out of a tight spot,” Curtin said. " ‘Getting comfortable being uncomfortable’ is what we say, and all of our players really thrive in that. While maybe our midfield is a little slight in stature when you think of Brenden and Jamiro, their quickness and ability to get out of tight spaces is what makes them special and makes them separate themselves from others."
Of course, it helps that the tactics the Union have become good at beating are the same ones they deploy against opponents. When the Union beat Cincinnati in Chester last Wednesday, the second goal started with an Aaronson steal. He then passed back to Kai Wagner, whose ensuing ball to Kacper Przybylko split three opposing players. Pryzyblko then fed Monteiro, who hit a delightful chip over Cincinnati’s midfield to set Aaronson free.
The ultimate measures of the Union’s success are still goals scored, goals conceded, and above all, wins. But across MLS this year, people who like to focus on tactics have been full of praise for the Union’s style. If the team keeps winning, more casual fans will likely see their point.
Warren Creavalle will miss Wednesday’s game after suffering an ankle injury during the first half of Sunday night’s game. Creavalle took a hard hit from Montreal’s Samuel Piette and was able to stay in the game until halftime but couldn’t keep going.
Ilsinho, who got crunched just before coming out in the second half, has recovered enough to potentially be on the bench. Gaddis could also be on the bench after missing the last four games with a hamstring injury.
Jakob Glesnes is still out after suffering a concussion in the home game against Cincinnati.
José Andrés Martínez was on the bench in Venezuela’s 1-0 World Cup qualifying loss to Paraguay on Tuesday in Merida, Venezuela, but he did not play. That meant Martínez did not play in either of Venezuela’s games this month, after the national team got FIFA to force the Union to release the midfielder. He was not even on the bench in last Friday’s 3-0 loss at Colombia.