Armchair Analyst: Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoff Round One analysis

For thoughts on Saturday's pretty wild slate of games, here's Bobby Warshaw's column. On to Sunday...

It's Oh So Quiet

It's almost impossible to analyze the LA Galaxy.

They started four center backs in Sunday's 2-1 win at Minnesota United, and yet one of them (left back Dave Romney) was overlapping a ton, and on the other side there was almost always a gap between right back Giancarlo Gonzalez and right center back Daniel Steres.

Why start four center backs, then?

They were trying to play on the counter throughout most of the game, but too frequently all three attackers – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Uriel Antuna and Cristian Pavon – stayed high at the same time. Or the wingers would be swapping spots so much that they weren't available to win flick-ons or second balls. Or when one of the two wingers dropped and got a head of steam, they'd then... fail to release the ball early and take advantage of the space created by pulling the Loons' backline upfield.

Why counter, then?

There aren't good answers here or elsewhere for a lot of what the Galaxy have done this year. I still can't tell how they really want to build up, and even with an extra defensive midfielder and two international caliber, match-winning CMs (literally match-winning tonight) they often struggle to stop simple combination play through the middle. It's tough to make heads or tails of anything.

Except talent. Talent tends to sort itself out, and the Galaxy have plenty (in attack, anyway):

Through 70 minutes the Galaxy generated almost nothing. Then in the 71st they had one of their few decent spells of possession of the evening, and the Argentine international played it to the Swedish international whose blocked shot fell to the feet of the American international who'd made a clever, instinctive run right to that spot. That is talent finding a way to make it work.

So Jan Gregus fell asleep for a split second, and it was 1-0 against his team. Four minutes later Jonathan dos Santos – another full international, and arguably the region's best player this summer when he led Mexico to a Gold Cup title – made it 2-0. Gregus would get a late goal back, but the Galaxy's talent was the difference. They had too much.

For the Loons, it's not back to the drawing board but it is the culmination of a three-year plan that saw them carve out real estate in the playoffs. It's hard to imagine either of their DP attackers – Darwin Quintero, who didn't start, and Angelo Rodriguez, who didn't finish (either his chances or the game) – will be back. Year 4 will be a different look for a very different team, but one whose core at least has playoff experience.

The Galaxy don't care about that, of course. They'll just care about their trip up the freeway to downtown LA to face the Supporters' Shield champs in the Western Conference semifinals.

Possibly Maybe

If you're going to make your fans wait an entire decade to taste playoff victory; if you're going to treat them to multiple U.S. Open Cup runs, and multiple U.S. Open Cup final losses; if you're going to show faith in a young manager and a younger team; if you're going to do all that, and then suffer through a late-season mini-collapse in which you fade from "fighting for first!" to "backing into third," then when that first playoff win comes... when that first playoff win comes, it better be memorable. It better be exhilarating. It better be a MOMENT, one that the fanbase can always look back to as an "I was there" slice of local sporting lore, one that mothers and fathers pass down to sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters over years and decades and generations.

The Philadelphia Union went down 2-0 and 3-1 in the first half, at home, in front of their long-suffering fans on Sunday afternoon. They won 4-3 after 120 grueling and mind-numbing rain-soaked minutes against the New York Red Bulls.

Union players, coaches, front office, owners, stadium vendors, talk radio personalities, beat reporters and – most importantly – the fans got their moment. The official attendance was 18,530. My guess is that thousands more will say "I was there!" in the years to come. This win was that big for Philly.

Let's take it in stages:

• In the first 20 minutes RBNY pressed high, hard and with no regard for human life. It felt like past versions of this team, and it paid off on the game's first goal:

In case you want the actual frame that indicates Philly's issue here:

That's three Union attackers letting three RBNY "defenders" (or probably "aggressors" is a better word for this moment) get inside of them. There's only one team that was ready from the start, and there was only one team that could win a clearance like this.

It obviously turned into a goal. More pressure from RBNY and a massive mistake from Philly's Andre Blake turned into the second New York goal, and it seemed like that would be that. Except...

• RBNY back off the press and blow another lead. The Red Bulls dropped 22 points from winning positions this year, fifth-worst in the league and the very worst of any team that actually made the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. That included a 3-2 loss in Philly on July 8 after taking a 2-0 lead and... yeah. If you were to write something like this, your editor would say the foreshadowing was a little too thick.

In the first 25 minutes of this game the Red Bulls had 13 measurable defensive actions in their attacking half:

That included the recovery you see from Marc Rzatkowski above, leading to the game's opening goals. But for the next 60 minutes they dropped deeper – in part forced by a substitution after an unfortunate injury to Josh Sims – and lost the ability to play on the front foot or really disrupt the Union's build-out from the back at all.

They had only seven measurable defensive actions in the attacking half from the 25th to the 85th minute:

It became a different game.

• Philly got forward, won a foul and cut the lead to 2-1 in the 30th minute. Blake made another error on a set-piece, which made the game 3-1 at the half – a half that had ostensibly been even. The scoreline said it very much was not.

But the second half and beyond was tilted almost entirely toward the home team. Just after the break the Union cut the lead to 3-2 off a set piece of their own, punishing RBNY's passivity and making it feel like the equalizer wasn't just possible, but inevitable.

• Philly's subs put them over the top. Jim Curtin's first switch was bringing on Ilsinho for Andrew Wooten in the 63rd, moving to a 4-2-3-1 from the 4-4-2 diamond in order to spread RBNY and punish what looked to be tired legs. Doing that also dragged the left side of RBNY's defensed out toward the touchline in order to help Kemar Lawrence corral Ilsinho, and while it kind of worked – Ilsinho didn't get on the scoresheet – it unbalanced the Red Bulls just enough to open up better looks in the box.

Fafa Picault, who was the second Philly sub of the game, got that equalizer in the 78th minute.

• Marco Fabian was worth it. The Mexican international was Philly's high-priced gamble this past offseason, commanding a larger salary than any other Union player in history. The regular-season results were decidedly mixed.

But Fabian wasn't brought in for the regular-season; he was brought in for the playoffs. He was brought in because he's the type of attacking talent who can give you a MOMENT.

And Marco Fabian did exactly that. It wasn't a vintage banger to the upper 90 from 25 yards, but rather a deflected shot (or maybe a cross?) from the side of the box that sneaked over Luis Robles' head, pinged off the woodwork and into the back of the net.

There was nothing particularly pretty about it, but for Union fans it will go down as the most beautiful goal in team history. So far.

• The Union deserved their win. They twice rallied from two-goal deficits, out-shot their guests 31-12, survived two (arguably three) brutal errors from Blake, and still fought back to win. I have no idea if they'll have anything left in the tank for the Eastern Conference Semifinals down in Atlanta on Thursday (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN, TVAS in Canada), but I do know that just getting there – and doing so in this fashion – is the moment so many Philly fans have been waiting for.

It was a long time coming.


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