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Philadelphia Union provide blueprint to match LAFC

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Teams play styles that face off well together.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Los Angeles FC Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

If Los Angeles Football Club have to face the Philadelphia Union again in 2020, watch out.

The teams are in opposite conferences, so Sunday’s wild 3-3 draw is likely to be their only meeting of the season, unless they square off in the U.S. Open Cup or MLS Cup. And if they meet there, the stakes will be sky-high.

It’s a small sample size, but after LAFC and the Union have faced off to two straight draws, one at each team’s venue, there’s a few clear conclusions to draw from their meetings.

Above all, these teams play styles that are complimentary enough that it’s a little like playing a mirror image, and that’s a little unusual in MLS.

Both Bob Bradley and Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin use a fast, attacking style with a high press, aiming to win the ball back quickly and take over as fast as possible. While Bradley’s style isn’t totally unique, with more and more teams integrating parts of his current preferred style, most teams do not try to play as fast or press as hard as LAFC, and that gives LAFC opportunities to boss games when they get in a rhythm.

From there, the specifics of the teams’ styles diverge a bit. Bradley prefers short passing combinations, with good buildups preferred, and if that doesn’t work, get the ball to Carlos Vela in space and let him do his thing. In contrast, Philly don’t have the star power of LAFC — Alejandro Bedoya is arguably their biggest star, and he’s a good system midfielder, not a scoring superstar — but like LAFC, they’ve built a squad of complimentary parts and the results are coming together.

The big wrinkle Curtin used against LAFC is a pretty obvious one: Use the two target strikers in a 4-4-2 to hit balls over the top or in space and let them run at LAFC’s creaky defense. Even if we agree Dejan Jakovic has been outperforming expectations so far, he’s not fast, and so going after the middle of the defense again and again and wait for them to fail to cover and clear was a prudent strategy.

You can see this to an extent on Philly’s final goal, which didn’t even come in transition. Union GK Andre Blake, who was clearly hurt on taking goal kicks and winced every time he did one in close-up on the broadcast, still managed to punt one way upfield with LAFC semi-set in a mid-block, with a flick-on giving Philadelphia possession just outside LAFC’s box. From there, a solid buildup and a couple half-chances with LAFC’s emergency defending coming through led to Brendan Aaronson taking a well-worked goal in miles of space in the box.

One of Philly’s strikers, Sergio Santos, scoring early meant LAFC had to be honest in defending him and Kacper Przybylko. Philly punting balls over the top meant LAFC were run ragged, and by the time Aaronson scored LAFC were in 2018 defensive mode, liable to concede at any moment and seemingly unable to get a handle on the game.

However, while time will tell if this frantic defensive style is a full regression to the 2018 LAFC team, one that led to more than a few dropped points, I would argue the Union are probably one of the toughest matchups for LAFC, too. They may be uniquely suited to make the black-and-gold look vulnerable.

Bradley didn’t say anything to that extent, but he admitted the Union’s “Red Bull” style (as in, one favored by the New York Red Bulls, RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg as a group system) is a different look than what LAFC normally faces.

“Red Bull teams only play one way, ok, they play the ball forward, they don’t try to play from the back, so your ability to press them can only be on counter-presses. Then they’re going to try and flick balls and run, the whole bit. I still think we handled those things well and we created a lot of chances. So, the kind of game was exactly what we expected,” Bradley told reporters after the game.

He also conceded something that runs counter to LAFC’s typical style — they needed to slow down more against Philadelphia to better find the game.

“Fast game, a lot of transition, we created a lot of chances but in moments when we needed to be more precise and find smart ways to slow the game down, take time to make sure and to get a play right, we weren’t good enough in those ways and then it’s never good to give up three goals,” he said.

All in all, the draw is one that does offer some concern for LAFC — giving up three goals at home is not good, as Bradley notes — but between the matchup and the styles on display here, it may be a rather unique problem for LAFC, facing the Union. The style they play is not something other teams can spend a couple days in training to prepare for and roll out, it’s something a team has to fully commit to and work on over a long period. Not even the New York Red Bulls play a “pure” version of this style these days.

But elements of what the Union did on Sunday, such as playing as high a tempo as LAFC, testing their defense with long balls, and generally aiming to match their intensity, are things other teams can work on and try to implement against LAFC. We saw this work very well with the Seattle Sounders in the playoffs last year, even though their playing style is not at all like the Union’s, but the tactics used were strikingly similar. As a result, Sunday’s draw will give LAFC lots to chew on in the video room this week and moving forward, but the same is true of their opponents, and it could come down to if LAFC can fully find their form and get back to peak sharpness again, or if their vulnerabilities will become a season-long issue, after the Union showed the league how LAFC can be matched.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!