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The Philadelphia Preview

As a lifelong fan of the Atlanta Braves, I don't like Philadelphia. I think their fans are overrated and rude (see: throwing snowballs at Santa). Further, as a kid, I got ridiculously sick from a bad cheesesteak. I've never been able to eat another one. Is that actually Philadelphia's fault? No. But I'm still going to hold it against them.


On Saturday, a surging Charlotte make their way up to the "City of Brotherly Love" and Subaru Park to take on the first place Union. Let's get into it.

Team

Total Possession

Shots per game

Shots on target per game

Goals for (xG)

Goals against (xGA)

Points (Standings Place

WhoScored Team Rating

Charlotte FC

49.8%

10.6

5.2

6 (5.3)

7 (9.4)

6 (8th)

6.55

Philadelphia Union

36.3%

13.0

4.8

7 (7.9)

2 (3.1)

10 (1st)

6.92

The first thing that jumps out to me is Philadelphia's goals against and xGA: 2 and 3.1, respectively. They've only played 4 games, but this is a tremendous defensive start. Second, their total possession is very low. Their 4 games have gone like this:

  • 1 Philly - 1 Minnesota, 52.5% possession for Philly

  • 1 Montreal - 2 Philly, 34.5% possession for Philly

  • 2 Philly - 0 San Jose, 31.3% possession for Philly

  • 0 NY City - 2 Philly, 26.8% possession for Philly

Each game they are getting less and less of the ball. Now, teams can be very successful playing a defensive-minded game where they play on the break, try to score from set pieces, and take their chances efficiently when they come in open play (see Athletico Madrid under Simeone or any of Mourihno's best teams). However, there is substantial risk involved in giving up too much possession. The Union have averaged only 31% possession over the past three games. That low amount of possession is not a recipe for sustained success, in my opinion. For reference, Atleti have averaged around 50% possession for the past few years and they have a well-earned reputation for being a defense oriented team.


It's also important to note that it's not just good teams who have been able to dominate possession against Philly. Both Montreal and San Jose are 2nd to last in their respective conferences; NY City is 10th in the East. Strangely, Minnesota is off to a good start and that's the only game so far this year that Philly has had more possession than their opponent. I'm not so sure I expect Charlotte to go to Philly and rack up 70% possession, but I also wouldn't be surprised if they got close. Of course, having possession without doing anything with it isn't what we want either. I'm sure Montreal, San Jose, and NY City would all trade their possession stats for the points.

 

Philadelphia have rolled with a pretty stable lineup throughout the season, playing in a 4-3-1-2. The biggest changes have come at the top with the strikers and at right back. Midfield has been the same throughout the year.

Injury Report

Philadelphia are relatively healthy. The only two issues they have are with forward and DP Mikael Uhre, who has been injured but is back in training for them this week, and one of their midfielders, Jose Martinez, who picked up a slight injury while on international duty. The Philly manager expects Martínez to be ready to play tomorrow and there are rumblings Uhre might make his first start.


Attack

Philadelphia has started 3 strikers at different points this year: Cory Burke, Julián Carranza, and Sergio Santos. As mentioned, Uhre was a full participant in practice for them this week, so he is also a candidate to start.


Burke, Carranza, and Santos are inconsistent scorers. Only Burke has ever scored double digit goals in MLS and that was back in 2018 (10 goals in 29 appearances, which was also his career high for appearances). Carranza's career high is 2 goals in 2020 with Inter Miami; last year he had 1 goal in 25 appearances. Santos is maybe the most consistent of the bunch, having scored 6 in 26 appearances last year, 8 in 21 appearances the year before, and 4 in 17 appearances 3 years ago. None of these forwards necessarily strike fear in you, though.


I think Carranza would have started all 4 of Philly's games were it not for a red card in the Montreal match. Due to suspension, he missed San Jose. Santos and Burke have been the ones to rotate between the other striker spot when Carranza is available.


With this lack of goal-scoring from forwards in mind, the signing of Uhre makes a lot of sense. He's only had one appearance this season (22 minutes), but he is apparently healthy now. Coming from the Danish Superliga, he has a good goal-scoring record. He scored 19 in 32 appearances in 2020-21 for Brøndby. He followed that up with 11 goals in 16 appearances in 2021-22 before his transfer to the Union. If he had been healthy and playing all year, I think Charlotte would have something to really worry about. However, even if he does start, this would be his first of the year and it's still a very new league for him. That's not to say he couldn't get into scoring form quickly, but you would expect a little rust and adjustment time.


All of their forwards are big. Carranza is the smallest at 6'0", 165 lbs. Burke is 6'4" and 181 lbs; Santos is 6'0" and 185 lbs; Uhre is 6'2" and 185 lbs. Given the size of their forwards, it is not a surprise that Philly is pretty dangerous off of set pieces. Burke, Santos, and Uhre are all winning more than 50% of their aerial duels (Uhre's stats come from his time at Brøndby this year). Carranza is not great in the air, only winning 16.67% of his duels, but he is also the smallest of the group. Carujo, Makoun, or any of our other CBs (plus the fullbacks) are going to have their hands full, as Philly will send in crosses towards these big guys.


Midfield

Martínez heatmap via SofaScore
Martínez heatmap via SofaScore

The midfield for Philly has been unchanged in all 4 games. It's a 4 man midfield with Dániel Gazdag, Leon Flach, José Martínez, and Alejandro Bedoya. Gazdag has been their main scorer so far this year. He already has 3 goals on the year, which is one off from matching his total from all of last year. Bedoya has chipped in 2 so far this year, which is also just 1 off of his total from last year.

Gazdag heatmap via SofaScore
Gazdag heatmap via SofaScore

As a whole, this midfield has passed the ball atrociously. According to MLS, Martínez has been the best passer at only 75.8%. Bedoya is at 61.8%, Gazdag is at 67.8%, and Flach is at 62.5%. The outlook is a little better when looking at the stats from FBref, but it's still not great. According to FBref, Martínez is still at 75.8% completion, but the rest see a bit of a bump: Bedoya is at 69.9%, Gazdag is at 71.4%, and Flach is at 65.3%. Regardless of whether you want to use MLS or FBref, those numbers are still horrible for a midfield.

Bedoya heatmap via SofaScore
Bedoya heatmap via SofaScore

Martínez and Gazdag are decent long passers, but Flach and Bedoya haven't been great so far this year. Gazdag has the highest completion percentage at 60%. Two notes about that though: 1) he's only attempted 10 long passes on the season and 2) Martínez is barely behind him at 59.4% completion, but has attempted 32 such passes. Now, Gazdag does play as an attacking midfielder, so his low attempts on long passes could just be the result of the positions he taking up. Viewed through that lens, his role might not be to make those passes, but when he has to, he can. With that said, his heatmap does show him popping up in wide areas quite often, so I'm not sure his lack of long passing is solely down to role.

Flach heatmap via SofaScore
Flach heatmap via SofaScore

On short and medium passes, Martínez, Gazdag, and Bedoya are fine (70-low 80% range for all of them). Flach is just a bad passer. He's 76.5% on short passes, 57.7% on medium passes, and 40% on long ones. These guys are professionals, so obviously they can all pick a pass if you let them. They just haven't been doing it this season.


Martínez sits at the base of the midfield and appears to be their best passer, at least so far. If I were Charlotte, I would look to harass him off the ball and make one of the others be the facilitator in the midfield.


Looking at their heatmaps, Bedoya is primarly providing width. Flach pops up a bit in central areas, but also provides width.


The right midfield area on all of these heatmaps--except Flach's--are interesting. First, look at Martínez: he is definitely tasked with providing defensive cover and he doesn't really move into the penalty area a lot. When he does move forward, though, he is primarily over in that right midfield area. Next is Gazdag, who drifts around the opponents half of the field a decent amount. But look there: Gazdag also appears to be taking up positions regularly in that same right midfield area. As previously said, Bedoya stays wide, but one of his most frequented positions is the touch line near the right midfield area Martínez and Gazdag frequent. Then you have Nathan Harriell (see below), the right back. He is getting up the pitch into the same area as Bedoya and just to the right of Gazdag and Martínez. It appears Philly likes the right side of the pitch and will build attacks from there. Fuchs (or whoever is playing LB) will probably have another busy day.


Defense

Harriel heatmap via SofaScore
Harriel heatmap via SofaScore

The backline for Philadelphia has been unchanged over the past 3 games. Olivier Mbaizo go the start at right back the first game, but was not great (at least from the clips I saw). Harriel replaced him in game 2 and has stayed in the starting XI. Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott has been the CB pairing for all 4 matches, and Kai Wagner has started at LB all 4 games.


Elliott is really tall at 6'6", which, again, adds to the danger they pose on set pieces. Glesnes is shorter, but is still big at 6'2" and 185 lbs. Unsurprisingly given his size, Elliott is really good in the air, winning almost 82% of his aerial duels. However, the whole backline is pretty good in the air. Harriel is at 78.57% of aerials won, Glesnes is at 75%, and Wagner is at 62.5%. I'm not sure Charlotte will find much success whipping balls into the area and trying to get a head on them. Ground passes and cutbacks might be the way to go.


Goalkeeping

Andre Blake has started all 4 games for Philly between the sticks and for good reason. Over the past 3 seasons, including this one, he's been one of the best keepers in the league. He just doesn't allow a lot of goals. Over his past 51 (regular season) games, he's only allowed 44 goals. In 2020, he had a PSxG+/-* of +5.8. He followed that up with a PSxG+/- of +7.5 last year. He currenlty has a +1.1 PSxG+/-. It must be said that PSxG+/- can indicate luck, but I think Blake's consistent positive performance points to skill rather than luck.


As far as passing goes, Philly isn't really trying to have their goalkeeper play out form the back. Blake has a 74.7% launch percentage, meaning he's booting the ball up the field to his big forwards. When given a goal kick, he's doing the same (82.5% launch percentage from goal kicks).


*NOTE: PSxG+/- is a measure based on PSxG, or Post-Shot Expected Goals. PSxG measures how likely a goalie is to save a shot. WIth PSxG+/-, a positive number indicates either a goalie is lucky or has a better ability to save shots.


Conclusion

In watching clips from all their games, I noticed that, defensively, Philadelphia really seems to clog up the middle. I didn't see a lot of good passages by their opponents that came from central locations. Most good attacks seemed to come from wide areas, then quick passes in and around the box.


I really wish Jóźwiak was healthy for this game as I think he's the exact type of player who could give them trouble. For this reason, I actually think Reyna could be really useful. He does like to run at people and can be successful doing it.


Philadelphia also likes to press high up the pitch. Our backline and midfielders are going to have to be prepared to work out of tight spaces when they win the ball and will need to make smart decision with their passing. On the bright side, if you are able to beat a high press with good passing, you will have a lot of attacking space to work with.


To me, there are two options this game:

  1. Keep what we've been doing for the past couple games, playing 2 up top and 4 midfielders.

  2. Be brave and play a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1.

I would love to see the latter.


I don't think Charlotte will be able to bully this back line and I'd like to see us go at them with some quicker, more technical players. For me, Bender is a nailed on starter at this point and I think Franco, as long as he's not tired from international duty, should start. If not Franco, then Alcívar. I'd probably then go Ruiz or Bronico as a deeper lying midfielder. Up top, I'd love to see Ortíz and Reyna start wide with Świderski through the middle.


Going into this write-up, I was pretty worried about our prospects in this game based upon league position. However, I don't think Philadelphia has been quite as dominate as their record would indicate. I do want to be clear that I think they're a good team and this will be a tough test. What gives me hope that Charlotte can take something from this game, though, is Philadelphia's inability to retain possession and their midfielders' poor passing so far this season. Philly's scoring potential also doesn't overly concern me. That's not to say Philly can't score because they certainly can. Charlotte has already faced teams with good--and probably better--attacks though, so, I don't think we're facing a team we can't handle. Charlotte have struggled all year with chance creation, but Philly present a real opportunity to dominate possession and create a lot of them. Let's hope they take advantage.


Prediction: Philadelphia 2 - Charlotte 2


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