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Union alignment in doubt, altering game to game

CHESTER — The summer of 2023 has increasingly been a fact-finding mission for the Union. Its season will be decided in the fall, by the five-game measuring stick of the MLS Cup playoffs in an attempt to dispel a perpetual bridesmaid status.

But Jim Curtin and his club keep receiving conflicting information.

A disappointing 2-2 draw Saturday night speaks volumes about the possibilities and the perils of the team’s 3-5-2 formation: A dominant first half to build a 2-0 lead, then a pair of defensive breakdowns for which they were punished by Eastern Conference leader FC Cincinnati.

This comes on the heels of routing New York Red Bulls in the 3-5-2, which followed a 3-1 loss in Toronto in the 4-4-2 diamond, which followed a pasting of D.C. United at Audi Field in the 4-4-2 diamond.

So what to make of it all? Even Curtin doesn’t seem totally sure.

“You’ve seen extremes,” he said Saturday night. “You saw a Red Bull performance where it looked pretty good. There’s been games where we’ve grinded out ugly wins in the back three. I still will tell you, when all of our players are here, which they weren’t tonight, we’re probably best out of that diamond, but I still think the (3-5-2) formation is a useful one.”

The Union spent the last three years playing almost exclusively out of a 4-4-2 diamond. When its ceiling was broached last year, Curtin sought another layer. The club acquired Damion Lowe and deployed him with fellow center backs Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott often in a 3-5-2 this season.

The Union experimented heavily with it in the Leagues Cup, which led to dour performances, including the semifinal stomping by Inter Miami and Lionel Messi. After five straight 3-5-2 games, Curtin went back to the 4-4-2 diamond for the third-place game against (an albeit disinterested) Monterrey.

The numbers are mixed. In the 4-4-2 diamond in MLS play, the Union are 8-5-3 (1.69 points per game), with 30 goals scored and 22 allowed. In the 3-5-2, they are 6-3-1 (1.9 ppg) with 19 goals scored and 10 allowed.

The Union’s best form of the season, a stretch of one goal allowed in four games in late May into June, came in the 3-5-2. So did the exasperating run through the Leagues Cup knockout stages.

Some of the change is by necessity, with midfielders Alejandro Bedoya, Jose Martinez, Jesus Bueno and Leon Flach all missing time for injuries or suspensions. But Curtin last month was clear about what he feels his team’s best shape is.

“I think when our best players are all healthy and available and playing good … I still will always say our best formation is the 4-4-2 diamond,” Curtin said. “… We win differently with three in the back. It’s not a barrage of chances. When you think of teams that play three at the back, our wingbacks are defense-first. You think of some of the wingbacks all over the world and they’re almost always wingers. We’re different in that mold. We’re still a team that wants to be hard to play against defensively. In those back threes, we can grind out ugly wins.”

His players are in accord.

“I think that’s the best formation that we play in,” forward Julian Carranza said of the 4-4-2 last week. “We played that formation last year all season and we finished first and we went to the final. We feel more comfortable with that formation, we know what to do, how to press and how to move. Playing with a back of five defenders was kind of difficult for us because we didn’t understand the moments of where to press, where to move. The formation with four defenders is the best for our team.”

“I like it more to play in a back four because I think we have better spacing,” Kai Wagner said. “I think we have more lines to play forward. I think our pressing system is way better in a back four. When you watch the Red Bull match, everybody was happy with how we played, but most of the time when we played a back five, it was not working as well. I’m happy to play a back five, but in the moments when we have Ale Bedoya who’s suspended and it’s hard with injuries and things like this to get the formation. But I prefer a back four.”

The formation changes are a give and take. The 4-4-2 diamond, with a midfield backline shield, makes the Union hard to play through down the middle. But it makes them narrow. In theory, three center backs in the 3-5-2 widens the defensive structure. But it allows free runners through the middle.

Aaron Boupendza’s goal Saturday is a salient chicken-and-the-egg case. Both Lowe and Elliott stepped into midfield to try and break up the play. When they failed, Boupendza and Yuya Kubo were left running free, Glesnes and Wagner pursuing. You have to ask if that’s a product of (to be fair, rare) mistimed challenges or if they make those mistakes because of the system’s freedom to take risks.

It’s hard to separate individual contributions from the collective. Glesnes had one of his best games in D.C. and one of his worst in Toronto four days later, both in the 4-4-2. Fatigue or formation? Did Cincinnati turn the tide Saturday because of formation or the absence of Bedoya, Flach or, from the 63rd minute on, Martinez?

Those are the mysteries Curtin has to unravel by October.

“I don’t blame the formation in this instance because it can’t look so good in the first half where we probably could’ve had four goals and then the second half, you concede early and give them hope,” Curtin said. “That’s the biggest thing. We made two big mistakes. They punished us.”

Source: Berkshire mont

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