Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin does not typically go out of his way to deliver heaps of praise on his fullbacks.
After Saturday's 1-0 win over the New England Revolution in the MLS is Back round of 16, Curtin immediately singled out Kai Wagner and Ray Gaddis as two of the team's top performers.
“I thought the play, in particular, of our outside backs defensively was excellent, whether it was making a tackle, a big block or a clearance," Curtin said. "I think sometimes we just expect them to be solid every game. It’s a time where I can single them out and give them a little bit of praise."
Wagner limited Tajon Buchanan's impact by holding him to 31 touches over 66 minutes. Gaddis contained Cristian Penilla, who did not send in a single cross and had three key passes not turn into a goal.
Wagner and Gaddis did well with pushing Buchanan and Penilla out to the edges, instead of letting them swoop in from the wings and combine with Gustavo Bou.
“Penilla is a great winger, really unpredictable and dangerous," Curtin said. "Buchanan and then Teal Bunbury are in the same boat. What (Kai and Ray) are great at is when the ball is travelling to the winger on the ground, they are great at closing the distance in getting so tight to them that the only option for the winger is to play backward or protect the ball."
"They do a great job of utilizing the sidelines as an extra defender," Curtin continued. "When you talk about 1v1, I don’t think there’s anyone better in the league than Ray. Kai, some of the clearances he makes are difficult ones where balls are whipped across in the penalty area and he’s able to clear balls with good contact with his right foot. He made really good plays on the entirety of the night. They both have different skill sets, but sometimes the play of the defenders doesn’t get the accolades so I think it’s important to single out how important they have been for us in every 90 minutes so far."
In fact, Bou was the most active crosser for the Revs, and two of his six were accurate. Only six of New England's 20 crosses were accurate, and Bou was the lone player with multiple ones.
Throughout the tournament, Wagner and Gaddis have shut down the opposing players on the flanks. In the 1-1 draw with Orlando City, the lone accurate open-play cross came from Ruan off the right wing.
By containing Penilla, Buchanan, Chris Mueller and others, the Union full backs have choked out the attacking chances and made life much harder on strikers that benefit from link-up play off the wings. That has led to Mark McKenzie and Jack Elliott silencing Heber and others with one-on-one defending and positioning in the correct spots.
Tactical Tweak Leads to Monteiro Assist
Curtin made a tactical tweak in the second half to push Jamiro Monteiro forward in an attempt to get on the ball.
The piece of strategy worked when the Cape Verde international picked out Sergio Santos for the game-winning goal in the 63rd minute.
Monteiro's positioning allowed him to be a perfect spot to receive a pass from Wagner in the middle of the field.
Since he was closer to goal. Monteiro took advantage of the space created by Brenden Aaronson's run into the penalty area.
Monteiro took two touches, one to possess and another to get the ball on his right foot, before flicking the pass over to Santos, who caught Brandon Bye out of position.
"In the second half, we got him higher up the field closer to the strikers," Curtin said. "When he can receive the ball and now turn and face the defense, that’s when they have to drop. That’s when they have to make decisions. Do they step to him? He has a real quality there. We moved up a little higher on the field. Sometimes when he’s as a No.8, there’s so much pressure to him where he can only play square and backward. He did a great job on the play of turning and facing the defense, making them drop and then clipping a good ball in behind and Sergio did the rest from there."
Monteiro led the Union with 72 touches and completed 90.6 percent of his 53 attempted passes. The assist was one of three key passes.
Andre Blake Continues To Thrive In Net
Andre Blake is up to 23 saves through four games in Orlando, and while the saves have been phenomenal, they do not tell the whole story of his performances.
The Jamaican has looked much sharper in choosing the right time to come off his line and where to be positioned.
For example, Blake had his wall lined up perfectly for Bou's late free kick. Blake still had to jump and turn the ball away from the net, but the save looked much easier because he was set up in the right spot.
Blake has turned away all but two of the 25 attempts on goal that he has faced, and he currently leads MLS with 27 saves.
Ideally, the Union do not want Blake to make that many saves every game, and that number should decrease as the defense gains more form and cohesion in the tournament and in any potential regular-season games after it.
Photos courtesy of Major League Soccer.