clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Know Thy Enemy: Revolution vs. the Consistent Union Defense Edition

The Union don’t concede a lot of goals and the Revs have been all about scoring this month, so can New England make up ground on the current East leaders?

MLS: New England Revolution at Philadelphia Union Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Both the New England Revolution and Philadelphia Union have had recent success in the regular season, with both sides capturing a Supporter’s Shield in the last few years. Their matchup tonight at Gillette Stadium at 730pm will likely feature a contrast in style and philosophy that has led both teams to recent and for the Union, very consistent success.

The Revs under Bruce Arena bolstered their roster with two high scoring DPs in Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou to pair with tailsman creator Carles Gil along with a nice foundation of MLS veterans and draft picks. The Union however have, to borrow their cousins the 76ers phrase, trusted the process under Jim Curtain with a more defensive minded system centered around a lot of homegrowns and some mid-level international contracts mixed in.

As an outsider looking in, there has always been a kind of slow and steady wins the race vision to success for the Philadelphia Union. There is also a certain uniqueness to how the Union operate both on and off the field and while other teams like Dallas and NY Red Bulls do a lot on youth development and a team like Nashville focuses just as much on defense, whatever the Union are doing they’re doing it their way and it works.

They built their team from the ground up with a heavy focus on youth development (and the Union are about to get a big windfall from Brenden Aaronson’s sell-on clause to Leeds) and less on big-money internationals. I wouldn’t call it a “moneyball” approach but I do think it is a smart way to build or start an MLS team as it’s more stable for long term success rather than the short-term, big money rosters we’ve seen have immediate yet fleeting success in the league like Atlanta United and LAFC.

Once again, the Union are at the top of the East, and they’re doing it with defense. Yes it also helps that noted UConn Huskies alumni Andre Blake is guarding the net, but the Union are really good at not letting the other team score goals part of soccer. Statistics back this up too, as the Union have been one of the best defensive teams the last few seasons.

Looking at the last few years, the Union allowed 50 total goals in both 2018 and 2019, followed by just 20 goals in 23 games in the 2020 pandemic season, and 35 goals in 34 games last year. Through 13 games this year, the Union defense has only allowed 9 goals, an absurdly nice 0.69 GAA.

At a basic glance at the numbers, this is what separates the Union from the other East frontrunners, most notably NYCFC and the Revs last year. That despite their lack of scoring compared to those around them, the Union are just as successful in the standings. They aren’t going to blow teams out or stack up a huge goal difference number, but they are going to get results and rack up points and they’ve been doing it under Jim Curtain for years.

This hasn’t led to a lot of playoff success yet, but the Union did make their first Eastern Conference Final last year. Whatever methods and analytics Curtain and the Union are looking at, they’re certainly doing something right a majority of the time in the regular season and it shows in a lot of ways beyond just the standings.

To counter this vaunted Union defense, the Revs have Adam Buksa who is in ridiculous form, two fullbacks in Brandon Bye and DeJuan Jones that have been racking up assists, and some reigning league MVP named Carles Gil who might be good at soccer. The Revs might be without Henry Kessler at centerback, which means another game with their defensive unit not at full strength but at least Matt Turner might be able to clean up some of the mistakes. More importantly, the Revs are going to have to name a replacement to launch a random sideline soccer ball into Row Z

(Watches Kessler yeeting the ball Alejandro Bedoya wanted to the throw-in quickly for 10 minutes)

Sorry, I got distracted from the real reason why we’re here and that is get some insight from our good friend Joe Lister over at Brotherly Game. Or at least as much information as he has about the Union’s defense, the method to Curtain’s madness/success, and Daniel Gazdag’s breakout year.

You can check out my answers to Joe’s questions over on their site.

TBM: The last three years the Union have been a mainstay at the top of the Eastern Conference, what has been the secret to this consistency?

JL: Defense, defense, defense. Jim Curtin is a defensive-minded coach, and he sets his team up to avoid conceding goals. The Union has never been the team that just hammers five goals past a keeper in one game, but they aren’t the victims of that either. By keeping games low-scoring, the Union gives its offense a chance to score just enough goals and earn at least one point. Even in slumps like the last month, the Union wasn’t losing, it was tying. Every point counts.

As for recently, Jim and Ersnt Tanner have done a good job of just adding a little bit more to the team each year. Last year it was Daniel Gazdag, this year it’s Julian Carranza and Mikeal Uhre. The team is really rounding out with Tanner’s “Moneyball” direction.

TBM: The Union are one of only a couple of teams to not allow more than two goals this year, obviously we know they’re a good defensive team...but on the flip side they’re also one of the few teams to not score more than two goals and of their six wins this year, five have come via shutout. The Revs had a similar statistical anomaly last year when they won basically every game by a single goal...why do I get the same odd “we care not for your analytics” vibe from this Union team?

JL: Curtin has some interesting analytics approaches, he’s pretty picky with the way that he looks at numbers. For example: xG is a big number for his staff, but nobody on the team cares about the possession numbers. Like I mentioned above, Jim knows that the defense will keep games narrow; it’s no matter of luck. Union games will always be decided by one or two scores. Yes, it would be really nice to score some more for insurance reasons, but that’s not how the team is set up. As long as the defense doesn’t collapse, two goals will be more than enough for Philly.

The Union does have a big analytics team, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. They just aren’t always looking at the same numbers we are looking at. Whatever they have, it seems to be working; Philly is top of the East.

TBM: Daniel Gazdag appears to be very good at soccer, did the Union ever expect him to be this kind of goalscorer last year when they signed him midseason and what has helped get him to his ridiculous form so far in 2022?

JL: Daniel Gazdag follows the David Gass Theorum, where he takes a year to get settled into the league. Gazdag came at a really awkward time last year for the club: there were a lot of injuries up front, and he had to compete for the no. 10 job with Jamiro Monteiro. To solve these problems, the Union played two no. 10s and had one striker, so Gazdag wasn’t really able to flourish.

Fast forward to 2022, Gazdag is the lone no. 10, and the Union has attacking pieces. He’s settled into Philly and MLS, and he’s just in the flow of things. He’s bought into the system and vice versa. It’s been great to see, and it stands to reason that he’ll continue this run of form for the duration of the season. Something to watch is his connection with Sergio Santos. They have this neat back-and-forth pass at the edge of the box that’s given the Union at least one goal and one other that should’ve gone in. Outside of this weekend’s game, he’s worked really well with Julian Carranza. That pair is one of the better combos in MLS.

Lineup/Injuries/Predictions/Etc.

Julian Carranza will be suspended due to yellow card accumulation. Sergio Santos went down with a weird hamstring (?) injury against Portland, but I think he’ll be good to start. Mikael Uhre, who’s been out for several games with quad discomfort, is expected to come off of the bench for the Union.

Lineup: 4-Diamond-2 - Blake; Harriel, Elliott, Glesnes, Wagner; Martinez; Bedoya, Flach; Gazdag; Santos; Burke

I have a 1-1 tie here. Daniel Gazdag gets one past Turner, but the Union struggles offensively without its two best forwards.