MLS 2019: Philadelphia Union vs Houston Dynamos – tactical analysis

MLS 2019: Philadelphia Union vs Houston Dynamos - tactical analysis tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

After smashing five goals against D.C United, Philadelphia Union were looking for a victory against the Houston Dynamos who had lost out to a tense game against NYC FC. With Atlanta United three points behind Philadelphia, a loss would mean losing out on a hard-worked lead in the MLS. The Dynamos were looking for a win as they are just six points behind the qualification for the final series play-off.

In this tactical analysis, we will look to use a combination of analysis and tactics to dissect why the Houston Dynamos lost 2-1 to the Philadelphia Union.


MLS 2019: Philadelphia Union vs Houston Dynamos - tactical analysis tactics

Jim Curtin made no changes to the squad or to the formation that triumphed over D.C United. Wilmer Cabrera made a total of 6 changes to his exhausted and heavily yellow-carded team. 

The first of the changes involved rotating goalkeeper Tyler Deric for Joe Willis. The next set of changes regarded the defensive line. First, the left-back DaMarcus Beasley was put in for Adam Lundqvist and, for the final change to the defensive line, Jose Bizama was put in for Adolph Joseph DeLaGarza. 

Midfielder Matias Vera, due to his yellow card, was dropped for Boniek García. Attacker Tommy McNamara was dropped for Mauro Manotas and forward Romell Quioto, due to his red card, was dropped for forward Christian Ramírez. 

Cabrera also changed the formation from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2, a switch, as we’ll see, ended up being deadly for Dynamos. 

Philadelphia’s build-up leads to midfield control

Houston Dynamos, as shown in the lineups, lined up in a 4-4-2. This formation presented Philadelphia with an opportunity to exploit this classic formation. 

Philadelphia looked to exploit this formation by changing their 4-3-1-2 to a 3-5-2 when in the buildup. This change involved one of the fullbacks staying on the defensive line while the other fullback goes further upfield. 

This formation change puts five Union defenders against Houston’s block of four. This situation creates a 5v4, a numerical superiority in the favour of Union. This unique situation allowed the Union to get creative in the centre of the pitch.

One of the ways this unique tactic aided Philadelphia was getting the fullback free or in a 1v1 position.

The concept behind this play is to exploit the wing space through numerical superiority in the midfield. Since there is always one Union player free, he can drop near the fullback. As such, the numerical superiority allows Philadelphia to relieve the pressure from the wing area and consequently, use the number of midfielders to attack the same space.

As buildup started, the midfielders in the wider areas of the pitch would come in narrow. This movement vacated space on the wing flank.

From here, the fullbacks, now acting as wing-backs, would drop slightly. Since the fullback was in some space, the Union’s centrebacks could confidently pass to the wingback. Moreover, at times, the fullback would draw the opposite fullback.

This meant that when the fullback received the ball, he was in a 1v1 position. While at first, this situation seems like a disadvantage as there is a possibility that the fullback might get dispossessed. While this risk was certainly there, the Union’s fullback made sure to pass the ball to a free Union player.

This pace in play meant that the Union could then exploit the space left behind the opposition fullback.

MLS 2019: Philadelphia Union vs Houston Dynamos - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see one of Philadelphia’s tactics

Here, with the three defenders in the build-up, two midfielders move inwards. This draws their opposition markers and as such, opens up space for the right and left centreback to have a clear passing option to the wide midfielders.

This is important as it allows Philadelphia with a clear and safe way of moving the ball upwards from where they can interact and attack the Dynamos defence. Additionally, the two midfielders also provide the defenders with additional passing options so that Philadelphia can beat the two forward press.

Philadelphia had another variation of this tactical concept. This was done when the Union were into Houston’s opposition half. Since Philadelphia had numerical control, they used their midfield strength to congest the play in the centre of the play.

The constant movement of the ball and fast short passes meant that Houston’s defensive structure would be drawn inwards. This presented the ripe opportunity to exploit the wide areas.

As such, during this congestion of play, the fullbacks would make runs on the wing space. This allowed the Union to have an outlet for the sustained pressure and congestion of play. As such, the fullback would have lots of space to contribute to the attack. 

At this point, the Union also utilized another small tactic. With the fullback moving forward, the two forwards could peel off. The logic behind this was if the opposition fullback moves and confronts the Philadelphia fullback, the presence of the striker can create a 2v1 situation.

This allows Philadelphia to get past the fullback and continue to attack. 

MLS 2019: Philadelphia Union vs Houston Dynamos - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see Philadelphia’s numerical superiority yielding rewards

We can see, with the white links, the three midfielders in the five-man midfield of Philadelphia (two midfielders are out of the frame). What is important to notice here is that all three of these midfielders combined intricately.

This combination of play remained in the centre of the pitch which meant that the Dynamos midfielders went inwards. Then, with a single pass, the fullback gets the ball in tons of space and time.

This combination of space and time allow the fullback to make higher quality actions such as crosses and through balls which consequently increase the chances of Philadelphia scoring a goal.

Houston Dynamos’ buildup stuns Philadelphia

Houston, just like Philadelphia, are a team rooted in possession-based football. And just like Philadelphia, the Dynamos relied on the buildup for their attacks.

While the Union did use buildup to create counterattacking scenarios, most of their efforts were to establish midfield superiority and attack from there. The Dynamos, on the other hand, used buildup for creating counterattacking scenarios.

The Dynamos initiated their build-up in textbook fashion. The centrebacks split up wide with the fullbacks going upfield and with a midfielder dropping between the centrebacks. However, there were some small tweaks that allowed Dynamo to break against Philadelphia.

One such tweak was having the fullback go narrow, from the wide position. There were various reasons behind this. The first reason is opening a passing lane to the wide midfielder such that a Dynamo player can pass to him.

Another benefit was that it added another player to the midfield of La Naranja. This added another person to the La Naranja midfield, allowing for the creation of temporary numerical equality in the midfield. This would allow La Naranja to play through the Union.

From here, the Orange Crush would sustain the play near the midfield and defensive line. This was done to draw the Union deeper and launch long passes to one of the strikers upfront where he could wrestle with the defenders and contest for the ball.

Another way of creating these chances was through a variety of either long and small passes to switch the play. This was primarily done to obtain a 1v1 situation on the wing. Through this 1v1 situation, La Naranja could expect crosses or cutbacks. 

MLS 2019: Philadelphia Union vs Houston Dynamos - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the benefits of the fullback coming inside for the Dynamos

In the picture shown above, the fullback comes in narrow (as shown through the red arrow). This action is important as it adds the fullback to the midfield, allowing Dynamos to achieve equality with Philadelphia’s midfield.

This action also will attract a nearby opposition player allowing a nearby Dynamos player to have an open passing lane to the wide midfielder. The creation of these passing lanes means that Dynamos can bypass any press and sustain the play.

These two actions are important because they actively invite more Philadelphia players allowing for a greater payoff when Dynamos build up and play through the back. As such, the Dynamos would be able to get through more of the opposition team and create a counterattacking scenario upfield.

Another tweak in the Crush’s build-up play involved using the fullback to create space in the centre of the pitch. Here, instead of the fullback simply sustaining play, he would start dribbling with the ball.

This simple action, at first, seems of little consequence. However, the statistics start to tell us that Dynamos used this strategy a fair amount. Both of their fullbacks recorded 7 complete dribbles, out of the 26 dribbles completed by La Naranja. In fact, it was right back, Bizama, that recorded the most dribbles (4) in Cabrera’s Dynamos. 

The position of these dribbles is an indicator of how these dribbles were used. All seven dribbles were recorded near the midfield line or in the centre of the pitch.

A fullback would dribble upwards to the midfield line. Any time a player dribbles, opposition players are attracted to the player. This creates space and holes in the opposition’s defensive structure. As such, the team is able to get its players into dangerous positions. 

This exact principle was behind the reasoning of La Naranja. By having the fullback dribble upwards, opposition players such as the opposition midfielder would be attracted. This would create space around the fullback.

From here, La Naranja could have their wide midfielder drop down from this high positioning and occupy the newly created space. This allowed the Crush to have control in the midfield and quickly switch to the other side where a 1v1 situation would be created with the opposition fullback.

MLS 2019: Philadelphia Union vs Houston Dynamos - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see Dynamos’ fullback tactics

Here the fullback (shown in red) moves from his deeper position, shown in purple, and dribbles forwards. This movement attracts the nearby Philadelphia Union midfielder which consequently creates space behind the midfielder.

This space can be targeted by the wide midfielder and as such, allows Dynamos to instantly attack the Union defence. Moreover, the movement of the fullback allows other midfielders to come to the centre, as seen in the diamond.

Not only does this diamond allow Dynamos to play through any Union press, but it also allows them to control the tempo of the ball. This is because a diamond allows Dynamos to attract more opposition players which leave other nearby players free or a midfielder in the diamond free.

Through these intricacies and their speed of play, Houston were able to threaten the Union in a blitz. However, poor touches or a second’s delay in movement meant that Dynamos weren’t able to convert their buildup prowess into attacking results

This can be seen as the Dynamos created more shots, 11, than Philadelphia, 9. Moreover, 7 of La Naranja’s shots were inside the penalty box, increasing the xG of every shot. Additionally, the Dynamos had more shots on target, 4 compared to Union’s 2. Clearly, Dynamos were creating good chances and moves but it was ultimately failing due to mis-hit passes or poor touches.

The Union’s defensive deficiencies  

With build-up being one of the primary mechanisms of Dynamos’ buildup, it was essential that Philadelphia press and defend in an effective manner. However, this pressing was ineffective as seen through the shooting statistics shown in the last section.

So how did they defend and where did they wrong?

Keeping in their formation of a 4-3-1-2, Philadelphia used their attacking trio to primarily apply pressure on the two centre-backs and the central defensive midfielder. This is a standard pressing action.

However, where Union lost their defensive structure was in the midfield and defensive line. One of the first problems with their defence was that the whole team would not defend as a unit.

Defending as a unit is important as it compacts the space between the players and the defensive and midfield line. Compact space means that the opposition team’s player has less space to move and work around in. 

When a team doesn’t defend as a unit, like the Union, it often means that space is created between the lines. A player inside this space has space to work around in and more importantly, if creative players get space, through-balls and hidden runs start being made.

This is what happened as the defensive structure of the Union was not compact. This could be seen in the amount of space present between the defensive and midfield line of Philadelphia. Another instance of this characteristic of the Union’s defending structure could be seen in wing areas.

There, where the fullback would have the ball along with a wide midfielder, too many Union players would crowd there leading to the creation of space in areas such as halfspace. This halfspace ended up being exploited by the La Naranja attackers.

MLS 2019: Philadelphia Union vs Houston Dynamos - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the pressing and defensive deficiencies of Philadelphia

This picture showcases Philadelphia’s deficiences. Here, Dynamo are attacking through the wing. However, the space between the defensive and midfield line (shown in grey) is large enough for the striker inside the space to be creative.

Note how the fullback is going to attract a Philadelphia defender, which will only serve to widen and largen the gap. In fact, this situation here leads to a goal as the fullback passes to the unmarked player. Since he is between the lines, he has enough space to pick his time and location and score the goal.

Gaps like these happened frequently throughout the game and if it wasn’t for Dynamos’ poor final third play, Dynamos would have scored more goals.


The Union will be very satisfied with the win. This result still keeps them at the top of the table. This analysis of tactics has shown that Dynamos, at times, cut through Philadelphia in a matter of seconds. This will be a cause for concern for the Philadelphia Union who will look to improve their defence. For the Houston Dynamos, this loss will be a blow in their hopes for making the final series play-off.

Artwork by @chapulana

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