Philadelphia Union struggling with attacking depth


There is a growing concern about the depth of the Philadelphia Union attack.

Eight of the 12 goals scored in regular-season play, which includes the MLS is Back group stage and the "Phase 1" matches in home stadiums, have come from Brenden Aaronson, Kacper Przybylko and Sergio Santos.

Two of the other four tallies have come from midfield players. Alejandro Bedoya, Ilsinho, Kai Wagner and Jakob Glesnes are the other goalscorers.

In Wednesday's 1-0 loss to the Columbus Crew, the Union's production in the final third dropped off in the second half and multiple reinforcements did not start to flow until the 75th minute, when Andrew Wooten and Matt Real were brought on in a double substitution.

"We knew coming into the game that the chances and looks you get are few and far between," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "We created enough, but in the decisive moments in this league against good teams, especially when it gives up so few chances like Columbus, we weren't clinical enough when we needed to be."

"In the first half, they came at us a little bit more and that opened up some space in behind them and we were able to get out on the break, run and create some chances," Curtin said. "There were a lot of good balls whipped in on the ground by us that were on their way through the goal. Maybe we did not have the timing or the weight of the cross was a little bit off. We had the chances throughout the course of the evening, but we weren't able to get on the end of a cross or make an individual play."

Part of the drop off comes down to the fatigue of playing four games in 13 days in a season where players have not been able to gain full match fitness due to the stop-and-start nature of the campaign.

In previous seasons, the Union may have been able to weather that challenge better since they have played a wealth of Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday stretches.

The managing of minutes with two more games ahead in "Phase 1" led to Aaronson and Bedoya being taken off in the first set of changes in the 62nd minute.

With Ilsinho drifting out to the wing and the Union lacking a true No. 10 in the middle of a 4-2-3-1 or a retooled 4-4-2, they could not break down a Columbus defense that has conceded on two occasions in regular-season play.

Wooten and Real were brought on to try and make a difference, but they could not make a lasting impact on the match in 15 minutes.

In fact, the four attack-minded substitutes had one action in the final third, which came from Wooten, and failed to record a single shot.

Ilsinho and Wooten have been the primary choices to come off the bench when Przybylko and Santos start, but they have not been as effective as manager Jim Curtin hoped.

In four regular-season appearances this season, Wooten has placed a single shot on goal and his only tally came in the MLS is Back knockout round.

With fewer weapons to bring off the bench and stretch the defense, Ilsinho has not been able to exploit one-on-one matchups, or run at a pair of defenders. Most of his actions Wednesday were lateral moves and he only broke through on the right wing a few times.

A year ago, Curtin had the luxury of adding Marco Fabian and Fafa Picault off the bench to support Ilsinho and the third forward on the bench, whether it was Wooten or Santos.

Curtin has some options to turn to to support Ilsinho and Wooten and attack defenses with fresh legs, but they are largely unproven choices.

Anthony Fontana, who has 277 minutes in 18 games over three years, can play in an attacking position in midfield if need be. But the problem Curtin runs into with Fontana is he would have to take off Aaronson, Bedoya or Jamiro Monteiro to make him fit in the tactical approach, whether it be 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2.

Wooten is out of form, but he is the only experienced forward option. Jack De Vries is in his first Major League Soccer season.

In a normal year, De Vries would have been able to build up form and confidence while playing down in the USL Championship with Philadelphia Union II. Instead of receiving minutes to hone his presence up top, he has sat on the Union's bench.

Curtin could give De Vries and Fontana more time on the pitch to see if they can make an impact, but he traditionally does not rush young Homegrown Players on to the field if they are not ready. Of course, Aaronson was the exception to that rule.

Getting Cory Burke back in the squad would help with forward depth, but the process for his visa to be reinstated is at a standstill.

“It’s at the point where we’re waiting. It’s a ridiculous situation. I wish I had answers and could help," Curtin said.

Even if Burke were to return to the squad in 2020, he would have to go through a quarantine after arriving from Jamaica and work back into fitness. His last game on loan at St. Polten in the Austrian Bundesliga was July 2.

With each day that passes, Burke's game form likely diminishes no matter how much training he is going through at the moment.

For now, the Union are stuck with the current options they have unless they dive into the transfer market for depth. In that case, an experienced attacking midfielder would be the preference, but there is no indication a move is happening at the moment.

The consistent run of games should bolster the team's overall fitness, and may lead to better form in front of goal. The expectation is for the Union to play six additional home and away games to complete the regular season.

But if the goals do not flow in, and the subs remain ineffective, the concerns around the attacking depth will grow.

Photo courtesy of Major League Soccer.