The Philadelphia Union might be at a turning point. It's true that, following a 2-1 home victory over New York City FC, the team been unbeaten in nine consecutive Major League Soccer matches, but things weren't going as well as appearances suggest. Seven of those nine matches were draws and prior to Sunday's NYCFC match, the Union had drawn two consecutive matches with head coach Jim Curtin saying after a particularly disappointing draw against FC Cincinnati, "It's not a lack of effort. We're missing that one player, one piece to break down an opponent."
That one player was supposed to be new striker Mikael Uhre, but thanks to a series of injuries, he's been unavailable for seven league matches this season and hasn't been able to get going. Though, with two goals in the last three weeks, there's at least the chance that that's beginning to change as he's able to finally demonstrate his strength at finding space in the penalty area. On Sunday, it only took nine minutes for that movement to lead to a vintage Union goal, starting with a ball over the top from Jakob Glesnes that Alejandro Bedoya played into Uhre in the box.
It's a good goal but one that also shows why the Union have struggled at times this season. To score, the Union use their press to force teams into making a mistake that they pounce on with devastating accuracy. Teams know what they want to do, but the Union are too good to simply be neutralized. It's hard to simply not make mistakes against the Union, but when teams do, the Union can tend to run into issues as their press runs out of steam.
Uhre and fellow new striker Julian Carranza are supposed to press to create those mistakes, and either one of them or shadow striker Daniel Gazdag will turn those into goals. It's a simple method at its core but one that requires the Union to sprint around the pitch for 90 minutes each match, and the demands of such a high energy system can mean the team gets punished later in matches.
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In their unbeaten stretch, the Union scored the first goal seven times, with that goal coming within the first 25 minutes of the match six times. But, once they've conceded, the team has lacked the spark to get back into matches. Some of this is down to Gazdag whose set of skills mean that often the team can't build strong opportunities from sustained possession but he's so good at what he does that you live with that. This season Gazdag has taken 32 shots compared to only creating 16 key passes. When he's scored seven goals, it seems like something you can live with until you dig a bit more and see that almost all of the key passes generated by the team come from left back Kai Wagner.
Wagner's 32 key passes are 10th in all of Major League Soccer and 11 more than the next member of the Union, the ever-present Alejandro Bedoya. In previous seasons, Jamiro Monteiro would be able to change things from the left side of the midfield but now Leon Flach isn't turning possessions won into chances for the forward players. It's an issue that after the Concacaf U-20 Championship, Jack McGlynn, Paxten Aaronson and Quinn Sullivan can possibly help resolve, but for now the Union are an imbalanced team and they have to outwork everyone else.
Considering everything, the Union are a good team who can out defend the opposition and if Uhre is able to perform like an elite striker in the league, they can make the jump to being a great team. But if Uhre can't make that jump, the midfield will need to create more chances to balance the team. To make up for that, they need to outwork the opposition which has become an issue at times.
The lunch pail mentality has suited the team but, now that they operate as favorites in most games, teams are becoming less likely to play into their hands. Sunday against NYCFC, it looked like it would be the same old story when Sean Johnson came up with impressive saves in the first half before Wagner conceded a questionable hand ball in the box to lead to the 89th minute equalizer but this time the Union had an extra gear to want to beat NYCFC.
Head trainer Paul Rushing was dismissed, getting a red card after trying to treat a player and then shoving NYCFC's Malte Amundsen when he got too close, leading to a coming together on the pitch and then the stars aligned for Jose Martinez's 96h minute shot to deflect off of Cory Burke for the Union to return to the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
It was certainly a fortuitous goal, but it's a situation where good teams create their own luck by working hard. The Union could've accepted the draw like they did against Cincinnati but they kept fighting. This will get easier if their top striker Uhre keeps scoring goals and his 16 shots in only 506 minutes isn't a bad ratio for a top forward. Taking a shot every 32 minutes or so, more are bound to go in when he takes up good positions.
What this team needs to prove is that they can work this hard against teams that aren't NYCFC. The team was vulnerable and are in a transition period replacing Ronny Deila with Nick Cushing and they're also a team that is good enough to go at the Union directly. If the Union can't impose their will on teams that sit back, the run of draws will return just like it did after their last win versus the Portland Timbers. With the Summer transfer window opening on July 7, the easiest way to right the ship may be by adding a creative midfielder deeper on the pitch to replace what was lost with Montiero.
Los Angeles FC,, have already signaled their intent to win everything that there is to win in MLS but the Union can come close to matching them by playing their cards right over these next few weeks.