The Philadelphia Union are on what looks like a death spiral. Since the beginning of July they’ve scored seven times in two games against New England, and seven times in eight games against everyone else. So as it stands, unless they’re playing the Revs, they’re meat.
With the home stretch here and a fall from playoff contention a real possibility, that’s a serious problem. Philly’s dropped from first to a tie for third in the Eastern Conference, squandered most of their games in hand and are on the verge of being overtaken in the standings by D.C. United.
Defensively, they have issues which lie more with concentration and fatigue than with tactics. On the offensive side, however, they’re not using the pieces they have in the most logical ways.
The starting point is recognizing that Freddy Adu isn’t a winger. He’s not at his best out on the touchline going one-on-one. Rather, he needs his teammates around him in order to be effective.
Bob Bradley discovered as much in the Gold Cup final against Mexico, when he had Adu play in a false No. 9 role. Freddy generally stayed high and central during build-up that day, then flared out to the wings to allow Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey to cut into the box for a look.
Both US goals against El Tri involved Adu receiving the ball with his back to goal and playing quick combinations – first with an overlapping fullback (resulting in the corner kick that Michael Bradley headed home), then with Dempsey and Donovan en route to Donovan’s goal.
When fans look at Adu, they generally don’t think “Have him hold the ball up.” That’s considered donkey work, the stuff you want a big guy for. But against Mexico he made the kinds of plays that you’d expect from a Conor Casey or Álvaro Saborío.
It’s jarring when you realize that Adu has those same kinds of instincts in final-third build-ups. Like Saborío or Casey, he wants the ball coming at his feet with a defender on his hip. The fact that Adu’s often quick and clever enough to turn the man and get into space on his own – not a skill set typical of a MLS center forward – and has become smart enough to play first-time touches if he has support make him a legitimate weapon.
The tactical butterfly effect of putting Adu in the false No. 9 role is what it does for Sébastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga.
At the beginning of the year, before the Carlos Ruiz and Veljko Paunovic experiments, Le Toux and Mwanga were going to be the guys that Peter Nowak and company built around. But almost from Day One they were marginalized. Le Toux’s spent half his season on the wing, 1 million miles from the 18-yard box, while Mwanga has looked consistently overwhelmed with the hold-up and playmaking duties of a true center forward.
The false 9 bridges that gap. Adu can hold the ball up with his back to goal and draw defenders away from the penalty area, giving Mwanga and Le Toux the freedom to run into gaps off the ball.
And those gaps will be there. MLS teams haven’t had much experience facing a false 9 – nobody in the league plays that role consistently – and it’s logical to assume that the unknown will breed a certain amount of confusion from the typical defense.
The defensive adjustment will come because Adu will be setting up closer to midfield than a stereotypical center forward, which is what makes it a “false” 9. The premise behind it is simple: Go to where the defenders ain’t.
The reaction will have to be either the opposing d-mid drops deeper (and removes himself as a potential playmaking threat), or the central defenders step higher and defend in an area of the field where they're not comfortable.
Mexico chose the latter. When Adu was able to receive and hold, then pull the ball out to the wings, the whole Mexican defensive line came unglued and allowed room for Donovan and Dempsey to shoot the gap at pace.
That works for Mwanga and Le Toux as well. They’ve both shown this month that they’re at their best when facing and running onto the play. Both are decent enough finishers and reliably unselfish on the ball, so having them play off of Adu instead of him playing off them makes sense. Add in Sheanon Williams' bombing runs down the right flank, and a picture starts to come together at PPL Park.
Of course, it’s a big tactical commitment to make at a very, very late date in the season. But Philadelphia don’t have time for much else, and what they’re doing at the moment simply isn’t working.
For Nowak, it’s time to toss the dice. The Union aren’t the same team they were two months ago, and it’s time they had tactics that showed as much.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MLS_Analyst