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Union’s formation change provides blueprint for surviving fixture slog



Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Union

CINCINNATI The Philadelphia Union made their intentions clear from the beginning at TQL Stadium: Saturday’s goal was to get through the match with FC Cincinnati in top shape for Wednesday’s trip to Atlas FC. But could the Union have discovered something more in the 1-0 loss?

After all, Philadelphia proved it had the depth to handle going without its best lineup, even against a top Eastern Conference side. Not only that, but the Union now know they have the versatility to throw a totally different style at their opponent should the situation call for it.

“We liked our shape a lot, and I think we’ve learned that we can play that way,” Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin said. “If you add Damian Lowe into the personnel, it gets even better, or if you add Kai Wagner it gets better.

“So it’s a formation that I’ve liked. We did change the personnel (from the ideal), but the shape was supposed to stay the same. When they score a goal, the shape changes. But before we conceded, we wanted to stay in the same shape, because it was working pretty well and frustrated Cincinnati.”

The ability to consistently play in the 3-5-2 could become vital for the Union if it successfully gets past Atlas and advances to the Concacaf Champions League semifinals. Philadelphia would get a much-deserved break on April 29 in between semifinal legs, but reaching the final could really make fixture congestion tricky.

The CCL finals are set for May 31 and June 4, which would cause Union’s matches with Charlotte FC and CF Montreal to get rescheduled. On top of that, adding CCL semifinal action would see Union play seven matches in May, whether or not Philadelphia reaches the final.

That means that if Union plans to challenge for MLS Cup again in 2023, defensive soccer will sometimes have to be part of the plan. Successfully playing the 3-5-2 could help turn losses into draws, and Union will likely need those points later in the season to dig out of their early hole.

“It hurts when you don’t take points,” Curtin said. “We had to make a decision to try to set ourselves up for the Champions League in the best way possible, and it was close to working but didn’t work. But I think it worked in terms of setting us up for our most important match Wednesday night to try to survive down in Mexico.”

Survival will also become a theme in the MLS season as depth comes into play later in the season. Last season, CCL champion Seattle showed what a lack of depth can do to a team that prioritizes winning in Concacaf. Like the Union, the Sounders dug themselves an early hole in MLS trying to win the Champions League. They succeeded in that ultimate goal, but they paid the price domestically as they missed the playoffs for the first time in their MLS history.

Philadelphia should find itself in better position to survive the MLS summer than Seattle. The Union do have a deeper roster, which they showed by getting strong performances Saturday from the likes of Quinn Sullivan, Matt Real and Nathan Harriel. As the matches pile up, the Union will likely need all three and others to step up, especially when curveballs such as Damian Lowe’s injury upset the game plan.

Union had planned to go with Lowe as their third center back on Saturday and trained with him in that role. But on Friday, Lowe tweaked his hamstring, forcing him out as a precaution. Curtin slid Harriel into the slot, and the young defender delivered a solid performance.

“Nathan and Matt were excellent,” Curtin said. “Nathan showed that he can play as the third center back. He’s a tremendous athlete and a great defender; he’s a defense-first guy. It’s not easy what we asked him to do, because he trained this week as one of the wingbacks and then on Friday the plan changed.

“We still wanted to stay with (what we had) and kind of mirror Cincinnati’s formation to catch them off guard. The ideas worked. It was a night where we still deserved a point, and that’s what hurts.”

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