I had a suspicion — I'd even go so far as to call it a "worry", given how much I enjoyed watching the Philadelphia Union play last season — that this winter's conjoined front office and stylistic overhauls would kill what had made Philly so fun, and relatively successful, in 2018.
They were going to be a "high pressing team" and they were going to play a "hunter-killer press" and they were going to move away from the patient, probing possession style that had defined them. They were going to be defined by what they did away from the ball, not what they did with it. I was bummed.
Through the first few games of the season, they weren't wearing the shift well. They hadn't changed their identity; they'd lost it.
But everything's a process, right? And the process for Philly hasn't been totally about abandoning the things that had made them fun and (pretty) good last year. Instead it's been about blending that old "we can pass through it" ethos with the new "we're really gonna play on the front foot" ethos of the new regime.
It took a month, but with four wins in five games, the Union have officially reached the "so far, so good" part of their evolution.
The latest data point is Saturday's 3-0 demolition of the Montreal Impact, who — with the exception of one awful trip to Kansas City — have been one of the best defensive teams in the league since last June. The Impact did what they do best (they parked the bus), so the Union jumped in, grabbed the wheel, and ran the visitors over three or four times:
See? The Union are still knocking the ball around. What's changed from last year is where on the field they're doing it, as well as the formation. On Saturday it was a 4-3-3, while through most of the year it's been a 4-4-2 diamond. Pretty much all of last year it was a 4-2-3-1.
The style change, the personnel change, the formation change... all of it seems to have made the Union better so far. It's certainly made them more flexible, which is probably why they're 1) off to a much better start than in recent seasons, and 2) have survived multiple injuries to key players. That's very un-Union-like.
The 3-0 loss was, of course, pretty un-Impact like. I don't think it's cause to panic, since if you go back 30 games, this type of result is an outlier. But the lack of attacking push since Ignacio Piatti was injured by Carlos Ascues is not an outlier: Montreal really seem to have zero idea how to put numbers into the attacking third, let alone put the ball in to the net. They have just two goals in their last five games.