(NOTE: This is a tactical analysis of Saturday’s match. For a Red Bull perspective on this match, see my colleague Daniel’s post found here)
The Philadelphia Union played host to Red Bull New York on Saturday evening, with the home squad nicking a goal midway through the second half to regain their early claim on the Eastern Conference, 1-0.
The Union came out with a 4-4-2 arrangement, shying away from the 4-3-3 they’d been using in the early going. Carlos Ruiz and Sebastian Le Toux combined as the strikers, while Justin Mapp returned to the lineup as the right midfielder. Keon Daniel started his first match for the Union on the left.
Hans Backe brought New York out in the 4-1-3-2, which is a wider, more attacking version of the 4-4-2 diamond. The excitement around the park was finally facing Thierry Henry, who was left out of their October match in Chester. Juan Agudelo paired with the Frenchman. This was also the first start for their new playmaking central midfielder Dwayne De Rosario.
The first half was dominated by Red Bull New York. The wide midfielding tandem of Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards were the primary thrust of the attack. Their end runs were disappointing though, with crosses met by heads of the Union backline or the punches of Faryd Mondragon. New York had two glorious chances to open the scoring. Juan Agudelo worked himself open in the area, and hit a controlled roller that cleanly struck the far post. His other opportunity came as he broke past Danny Califf towards goal. Mondragon went down early, but Agudelo’s shot was unfortunate to strike wood again.
Philadelphia’s attack was direct and counterattack based. New York would apply pressure, and Philadelphia would try to play long balls to Ruiz, Le Toux, Daniel, and right back Sheanon Williams. These efforts showed little success. Daniel was the most effective at running into space down the left flank and waiting for Le Toux to come over and help him against Rafa Marquez and Jan Gunner Solli. Ruiz was very poor at holding up the ball for his teammates to provide support. Le Toux and Ruiz were both played through a few times, but both lacked the pace to break down Tim Ream and Marquez.
The match went to halftime scoreless, with an early change by Peter Nowak as Brian Carroll took a knock and was replaced by Amobi Okugo.
The second half saw a reorganization by the Union. They played an interesting formation that looked 4-2-3-1 on attack, 4-3-2-1 when New York had the ball in their own half, and 5-4-1 when hemmed in. Daniel could have almost been considered a wingback in his play, as he came back and allowed Jordan Harvey to be a third central back.
Philadelphia made some necessary changes, primarily bringing off Ruiz for Roger Torres. Danny Mwanga had come on earlier for Mapp. The deciding play was forced in the 68th minute by pressure placed on Ream by Torres. Ream’s pass to Marquez was errant, and came directly to Mwanga. The 2-on-2 break worked out to Philadelphia’s favor, with Torres being played through and chipping the ball past Bouna Coundoul for the goal.
The match continued to be dominated by New York, but the Philadelphia counterattack was more dangerous over the final 20 minutes than in the early parts of the match. The final 20 minutes displayed just how far the Union defense has come, with Califf, Harvey, and Carlos Valdes weathering the storm with clearing header after clearing header.
The story for New York is blend right now. De Rosario will learn this system and thrive, but the question has to be with Thierry Henry. He was very quiet through the entire match. You have youth in Agudelo, and reputation in Henry, but one isn’t producing for them at the moment. Can New York hold onto their promising young striker if Europe comes calling this summer? Can Henry produce the necessary goals in this stage of his career?
The Union answered this bell at home, a necessary statement after a weak performance against the Galaxy. They weren’t particularly impressive offensively in this match, but the defense appears solid. The concern would be depth, because they only have five true backs. The offense is sputtering, and Nowak must find a way to either tool a tactic to incorporate Ruiz, or push Mwanga ahead of him. It’s clear at this point there is a chemistry issue with Ruiz fitting into the current build, and they may need a few goals by the time they reach their April 23rd match against a clear favorite, Real Salt Lake.