The Philadelphia Union had gone nearly a month since their previous victory. The home side overcame a halftime deficit to defeat Chivas USA 3-2.
For the second match in a row, manager Peter Nowak fielded a combination 4-1-4-1/4-1-3-2 shape, with Carlos Ruiz as the lone forward when out of possession. This was the exact lineup fielded by Philadelphia in their scoreless draw with Sporting KC, a match the Union dominated.
Chivas USA came out in a modified 4-4-2 diamond formation, with some similarities to Philadelphia’s formation. Paulo Nagamura returned to his usual defensive midfield position, with Ben Zemanski playing on the right side of the midfield formation. Zarek Valentin started at right back in place of Michael Lahoud.
Chivas’ main task was dealing with the five advanced players in the Union formation. In that, you had four players who identify more as forwards, with newcomer Veljko Paunovic and Sebastien LeToux in advanced midfield positions. Additionally Justin Mapp is an attack-minded midfield player, so Philadelphia was setup to be aggressive from the opening kick.
The trouble for the Union, in this attack-minded tactic, was that the players were often to quick to jump ahead and into the play, and it caused trouble. After the match, Nowak said, “I think in many situations we tried to push the ball through the defenders too fast. There were always 4-5 guys running, and then the ball was intercepted and (it created) a big hole in the middle.” When the play built successfully into the final third, chances came, such as a through ball from Ruiz to LeToux which was directed away by Dan Kennedy. On the ensuing corner, Paunovic nearly netted his first goal on a header, but Nagamura was guarding the post and cleared the ball off the line.
The danger came from the visitors’ counterattacks, and several opportunities presented themselves, including an early chance by Marcos Mondaini. Faryd Mondragon came out of net, and Mondaini chipped the Colombian keeper, but the ball fluttered away from goal. Another chance was taken by Nick LaBrocca from 22 yards in the 27th minute, and Mondragon had to be alert to stab the ball over the bar.
The opening goal came following the ensuing corner, as a scramble in front of net allowed Zemanski to head the ball across the face of goal to center back Michael Umana. The Costa Rican headed the ball home for the lead.
Nowak made an adjustment at around the 30th minute. The two wing midfielders, LeToux and Mapp, switched sides. This was one of the ways Nowak addressed the issues in the center of the pitch. LeToux explained, “We like to come inside, and not stay too much on the sideline. He’s a lefty and I’m a righty, and we can come inside to our good foot.” The natural inside wing runs helped to keep the team compact, as well as gave Jordan Harvey and Sheanon Williams the opportunity to provide the width in overlap. Even with those adjustments, the match went to the half with Chivas leading 1-0.
The second half saw Nowak make two personnel changes. Danny Mwanga, the team’s rising star forward, replaced Jack McInerney, while left midfielder Keon Daniel replaced Jordan Harvey at left back in an interesting substitution. For Chivas, Andrew Boyens replaced the goal scorer Umana.
Chivas tried to thwart the Union’s forward play by holding a high defensive line. This tactic not only shrank the attacking midfield, forcing strikers deeper in the formation, but also required perfect timing from the main targets. In this case, Carlos Ruiz was that man, and he struggled to contend with the trap. Mapp commented, “They played a high line, and it worked on several occasions being just a step offsides and the ball wasn’t played on time. It was effective sometimes, but in the end, we got our goals.”
And the Union did, striking less than three minutes after the break. Paunovic, in only his third game after returning from a two year retirement, settled Mapp’s cross off his chest near the penalty spot, and volleyed the shot past Kennedy. The Serbian newcomer said, “The coaches, in my week here, have told me to get close to the goal. I did what they asked, and was there when Mapp crossed the ball from the side. I was lucky to have the opportunity to control the ball.”
One of the factors that played into Paunovic’s goal was the leftback Daniel, playing out of position at fullback. He inserted a level of speed and danger to the position. It was Daniel who overlapped with LeToux on the left, which drew Zemanski’s attention enough to allow the Frenchman room to send the diagonal cross to Mapp. Daniel spoke of his versatility, saying, “It’s football, it’s common sense. I’ve played in plenty of places, and I feel I can play anywhere. It was a choice of the coach, and I just did my best.” Daniel’s width and speed nearly netted the Union another tally, in the 68th minute when he got free down the left. He passed through a defender’s legs from the byline, and Ruiz got the ball before it reached Kennedy. He passed to Paunovic whose shot from 7 yards was cleared off the goal line by Boyens. The rebound was then sent over the bar by Mapp.
The high line continued to pester Ruiz and the Union, until a breakthrough in the 69th minute. Ruiz had a head of steam, and this time he was fortunate to have Ante Jazic play him onside. Paunovic launched the ball from the midfield stripe. Ruiz broke onto the ball, staved off Boyens, and shot the ball through Kennedy’s legs for the 2-1 lead.
The Union couldn’t hold off Chivas though, and a giveaway by Brian Carroll allowed Jorge Flores to play Justin Braun into the area. He fought through Danny Califf’s grab, and beat Mondragon in a footrace to the ball. He slid the ball past the keeper to equalize at 2.
Philadelphia did have some heroics left, in the form of Danny Mwanga. The hard-working LeToux gathered the ball on the right side of the field, and he played the ball to Mwanga just outside the area. The 20 year old worked himself into space, turned, and fired a low liner to the left of the keeper to break the deadlock, 3-2. Mwanga said of his recent string of long-range tallies: “Teams are coming here and know how good we are, so they sit back and try to defend. The more they are dropping, that gives us space to take shots. We took many shots last game, and tonight we were lucky to finish our chances.”
The game finished 3-2, but for one player this game was an opportunity to show fans that, at 33 years of age, he still has the ability and desire to play at a high level. The journeyman Serb earned a goal and an assist on this night, and put himself in great scoring positions throughout the match. Paunovic added, “This is what I expect. I hope the people can see now that I can be very valuable for the Union. I’m here to help and enjoy playing soccer.” This is likely what Nowak was thinking when he called on the former Atletico Madrid striker. Paunovic seemed genuinely thrilled to be playing competitive football again, and he appears to have the trust of his manager. For a team that’s struggled for goals this season, the home fans certainly took notice of this productive effort.