Philadelphia Union – New York Red Bulls: Philadelphia’s Direct Attacks Dominate Poor New York Side To Advance Into Conference Semi-Final (4-3)

Philadelphia were the better team in the first half, but saw themselves 1-3 down at half-time against the efficient Red Bulls. Their attacks became even more direct in the second half, which helped them to dominate the game and prevented New York’s counters to tie the game. The game was finally decided by a deflected cross in extra time, which reflects the cruel nature of playoff soccer. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Jonas G.

The match between Philadelphia Union and the New York Red Bulls was the match between the third and sixth placed teams in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia are the surprise team of this Conference, finishing third, only behind Atlanta United and New York City. New York’s sixth place was disappointing, after winning the Eastern Conference title last season. 

Philadelphia manager Jim Curtin opted for a 4-3-1-2 formation instead of the 4-2-3-1 shape he used in the last match against New York City FC. With the change in formation there also came two changes to the starting lineup. Wingers Fafà Picault and Ilsinho started on the bench and were replaced by central midfielder Alejandro Bedoya and striker Sergi Santos. 

New York lost their last match of the regular season 0-3, away at Montreal. Manager Chris Armas reacted and made three changes. Rece Buckmaster started as right back, Marc Rzatkowski in defensive midfield and Tom Barlow was fielded up front in the nominal 4-2-3-1 formation. 

New York start in typical Red Bull fashion

New York started the game with all the characteristics that define any Red Bull-team – high pressing, many players on one side of the pitch and quick transitions. They did so very successful, denying Philadelphia a calm buildup and forcing them into long balls. After five minutes, this strategy was rewarded with the first goal of the game. Union’s center-back Jack Elliott had to play a pass under pressure which was intercepted by Rzatkowski. He immediately played the ball to Alejandro Gamarra who produced a lay-off to Josh Sims. After this quick combination, the right midfielder took a shot from seventeen yards out and scored. 

However, after taking the lead early in the game, New York did not continue their high pressing but dropped back into a medium block. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. In their 4-4-2 shape they tried to guide the ball to the wings, where they tried to create turnovers. Philadelphia therefore enjoyed their first longer possession spells after a rough start into the game. 

Usually, the diamond shape in midfield is used to create numerical superiorities in the central spaces. But in Philadelphia’s possession structure, the midfielders do not stick to the center but move into wider zones. Defensive midfielder Haris Medunjanin dropped back into the first buildup line, central midfielders Jamiro Monteiro and especially Bedoya moved to the wings. This resulted in a big hole in the middle of the pitch that was occasionally filled by Monteiro, but all in all resulted in a very wing-oriented buildup. 

The right side was more dangerous in this regard, which was down to the roles of the fullbacks. Right back Raymon Gaddis was very offensive, making runs into depth and playing diagonal passes from the wing to the center. Kai Wagner on the other side was stayed back most of the time. A typical attacking pattern for Philadelphia was a buildup through the right side. Bedoya and Gaddis combined on the wing and looked to pass the ball into the center. From there, Jim Curtin’s side looked for passes behind New York’s defensive line. Strikers Andrew Wooten and Santos made good runs into depth.

With their asymmetric structure in possession, Philadelphia attacked a lot through the right side. 

Philadelphia dominate and trail the game

Jim Curtin’s side looked to be in control of the game, but did not manage to create a lot of good chances. Because of the hole in the center, the center-backs were also forced to play a lot of long balls, if the passes to the wings were not possible. 

New York on the other side looked dangerous on the counter. Not only the first goal originated from a transition, but also the second. After a turnover, the strikers and wide midfielders immediately made runs into depth. Philadelphia had problems with these situations because of their own structure in possession. The midfielders and Gaddis often played very high, leaving the four defensive players – the center-backs, Wagner and Medunjanin – uncovered after a turnover. The counterattack before the second goal created a sequence of corners for the Red Bulls, with one eventually leading to the goal after 24 minutes.  

Alejandro Bedoya’s goal after a quickly taken free-kick after thirty minutes shortened the two-goal difference, but after a goalkeeping error by Andre Blake, Barlow’s shot into the empty made it 3-1 for New York in injury time of the first half. 

Philadelphia’s direct attacks turn the game around

The score was very unfortunate for Philadelphia, as they had more chances and controlled the game most of the time. However, they were vulnerable in defensive transition and two goalkeeping errors gave them a huge task for the second half. They started the second half with more direct attacks, playing a lot of vertical passes straight to the strikers. Although these attacks did not look promising, it was again a set-piece that brought Philadelphia back into the game, with Elliott scoring after 52 minutes. 

The pressure on New York’s defense increased after this goal. The strikers made a lot of runs into depth – even more than in the first half – and their teammates played a lot of passes behind the defense. Subsequently, the midfielders also moved up to support their strikers. Therefore, they managed to play a lot of passes into the box, but eventually failed to create scoring chances. 

The pressure decreased between the sixtieth and seventieth minute, though, and Jim Curtin substituted Ilsonho for Andrew Wooten. With that change made, Philadelphia switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation as well. Medunjanin and Bedoya played as defensive midfielders, Ilsinho and Brenden Aaronson as wingers. Monteiro was the number ten behind the only striker Santos. But Philadelphia had to wait until the 72nd minute, when Aaronson was substituted for Picault to increase the pressure again. 

In this 4-2-3-1 shape, Ilsinho stayed very wide on the right side, Picault on the other side moved inside and supported Santos in the last line. Gaddis remained very offensive and supported Ilsinho with over- or underlapping runs. Bedoya and Medunjanin interpreted their roles as defensive midfielders freely and moved up a lot. This resulted in a big hole in the center of the pitch – a problem that occurred a lot throughout the game. 

Philadelphia’s structure on possession after the switch to the 4-2-3-1 shape. 

Picault’s substitution was important because he made a lot of runs into depth, this was rewarded with the tying goal after 78 minutes. Again, the attack started on the right side, with Gaddis and Bedoya whose cross was converted by Picault. 

New York’s performance in the second half was very disappointing. They even were lucky and efficient to score three goals in the first half, but were completely harmless in the second. In their 4-4-2 defensive shape, they remained very passive and were not able to prevent all the passes behind their back-line. Therefore, they failed to create turnovers. As a consequence, they only had three shots in the entire half, compared to eight in the first half. 

Fabián decides the game in extra-time

Philadelphia desperately tried to score the decisive goal in the regular time, but failed to do so. Therefore, the match went to extra time. Philadelphia went on to dominate the match, but the intensity of their attacks understandably decreased after the comeback in the second half. Typical to their attacks throughout the game, the decisive goal originated from an attack through the right side. The first cross actually was too long and ended up at the substituted Marco Fabián. He tried to play another ball into the center but luckily for him, his pass was deflected and ended up in the goal in injury time of the first half in extra time. 

The Red Bulls had fifteen minutes to score another goal to bring this game to penalties. However, they were not able to create any dangerous situations in a more and more hectic game. The first and only shot in the second half of extra time came with their last chance but Bradley Wright-Phillips’ header was not on target. 


New York started the game pretty well with high pressing and counterattacks leading to the first goal. Although they scored two further goals in the first half, their overall strategy has to be questioned. It was not clear why they dropped back and played as passive as they did for the rest of the game. 

Philadelphia’s performance was very mixed. Good sequences in possession alternated with long balls into no mans land. Their structure with the very wide roaming midfielders resulted in big holes in the center of the pitch. Not only did this decrease the quality of their buildup, but also made it harder to counterpress After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. New York effectively after turnovers. 

The intensity of their attacks in the second half with a lot of runs into depth was impressive. However, they will face Atlanta United in the Conference semi-finals. Frank de Boer’s side presumably will not be as passive as New York against the ball and will test the defensive stability more often. If Philadelphia Union want to advance to the Conference final, they have to improve on their weaknesses. 

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