“We create our own luck.”
The phrase often repeated by Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin came to fruition in the final minutes against CF Montréal Saturday night. And it was 17-year-old homegrown Quinn Sullivan who proved its meaning when he scored the equalizer in the 87th minute to help the Union earn a 1-1 draw and a valuable point at home.
The Union’s struggles in the final third have been a concern all season, but in the Montréal game, their chances were hampered by congestion in the box and their inability to find the target. The Union recorded one shot on goal, Sullivan’s, despite having 13 shots. Montréal defenders blocked five shots, but the rest missed the mark and a large percentage of those opportunities were from inside the penalty area.
What made Sullivan’s goal different was that he recognized the flow of the play, found a positive shooting space, and after receiving the ball, got it out of his feet quickly and kept his shot on the frame. He made it look simple, however, throughout the night, the Union made that process more difficult.
The bread and butter for the Union this season in the final third has been their ability to create two versus one matchups down the wings and provide an accurate service in the box. The Union were once again effective in controlling wide positions against Montréal. The final part, and one of the Union’s weaknesses, was creating enough the space for attackers to get on the end of those crosses.
It all started with congestion. The Union’s lack of developing space through movement in the box limited options on the final pass, which forced a number of crosses into the mixer or shots from wide angles that missed the goal. The Union also failed to position players in what Curtin often refers to as the “green zone,” the space in front of the back line of defenders, until Sullivan’s goal.
The first example came in the 15th minute when Sergio Santos headed Kai Wagner’s cross over the goal. The Union successfully attacked down the left side with ease, and by the time Wagner had the ball ready to whip in, he saw a line of Union players across the penalty spot. Santos found a gap between the central defenders but mistimed his header, which sailed over the bar. In the image below, you can see Santos trailing Daniel Gazdag’s run to find an opening, but the shape of each run is basically the same, straight and forward, and there’s no one trailing behind in that green zone. This attack led to a shot, but it also set the pattern for the Union’s runs in the box all game.
The second example happened in the 29th minute when again, the Union broke down the Montréal defense with a 2 vs 1 between Leon Flach and Santos down the left side. Only this time, Santos cut the defender and dribbled into the box where he managed a shot that missed the far post. I’d certainly encourage any player to shoot from this position, but it was Santos’ weaker foot and he failed to hit the target. The issue is the lack of options due to the shape of his teammates. Again, you’ll see the familiar line, this time across the six, and the lack of supporting depth because both midfielders, Gazdag and Jamiro Monteiro, were pressing the high line as well. The second image shows an even better view of the size of the gap between the front line and the second wave of attack.
We saw the lack of support when Cory Burke turned his defender and shot over the bar in the 30th minute, in the 32nd minute when Olivier Mbaizo forced a pass to Gazdag that was picked off, and again in the 36th minute when Wagner attempted a shot from distance that was blocked. In each one of these examples, the Union had no horizontal movement or support from the green zone, which limited the creative options and made the Union attackers easy to defend.
One of the best Union chances off the cross came a minute after Wagner’s attempted shot when a Gazdag-Mbaizo combination led to Mbaizo out wide with a free service. But in this example, the shape of the Union attack collapsed again with Monteiro getting in the box and Flach attacking the far post too early. Santos and Flach collided at the far post, and the ball fell to the ground in front of keeper Sebastian Breza before being cleared away.
One positive was that Union made a committed effort to get numbers forward, which was better than attacking with three players without risk to avoid a counter-attack. The big picture is that in a 15-minute span, the Union had six scoring opportunities that resulted in zero shots on target. Montréal made this inefficiency worse when they came down the field in stoppage time with three attacking players to score the game’s opener against the run of play.
This brings us back to Sullivan’s goal and why his run was so important in creating a quality scoring chance.
When Monteiro receives the ball deep near the end line, he’s looking up to find a target, but all he sees is the mass of blue shirts hovering around the near post. It’s late in the game, the Union have committed more numbers, with Jack Elliott in the box this time with the two strikers, but we’ve seen how the Union followed the same pattern from the previous examples.
During this sequence, however, the Union created an imbalance in the box leaving multiple players open, Sullivan among them. Monteiro didn’t force a cross with Montréal’s central defender Joel Waterman closing, and instead, he recycled the ball back to Wagner, who drove a low cross into the congestion. Meanwhile, in the box, Elliott and Santos drew the attention of the three Montréal defenders, with Bedoya, Przybylko and Sullivan free at the penalty spot. But as the ball was played back, most of the Union attackers remained in the high line, except for Sullivan.
Whether it was tired legs or tired minds, the lack of movement allowed the Montréal defenders to regain positioning despite their own signs of physical and mental fatigue. Elliott’s mini-cycle created enough of a distraction to prevent Aljaz Struna from clearing Wagner’s cross. Sullivan found the expanding green zone at the top of the D, and for a moment drew two defenders, one whom failed to recognize Przybylko drifting to the back post. But both defenders focused on the ball and the players behind and barely gave Sullivan a glance.
As the ball made it through, Montréal’s poor clearance allowed Elliott to gain possession, and as the Montréal defenders converged on the ball, Sullivan was left open, facing the goal with the time he needed to get his shot off. Sullivan’s ability to get into a positive shooting position created the chance to generate plenty of power and hit the target with accuracy, something the Union hadn’t been able to do all game.
Sullivan’s goal, like many of the Union late equalizers over the past month, salvaged a point in what could have been a disastrous result at home. The strike has since been nominated for Goal of the Week and is the frontrunner as of this writing, which would be Sullivan’s second. But what should also be talked about is how the young midfielder found a quality shooting position in a tense situation and created his own luck.