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Philadelphia Union's 3

Jul 19, 2023Jul 19, 2023

The short-term benefits of the Union's 2-1 win at Colorado on Saturday include the three points gained in the standings, propelling the team to fifth place in the Eastern Conference, and the confidence boost from a comeback triumph.

But there might be a long-term benefit that matters more.

Union manager Jim Curtin has wanted for some time to use a 3-5-2 formation more often. It happened occasionally when Stuart Findlay was here, but it really has been in Curtin's head since Damion Lowe came on board this past offseason.

Curtin had only deployed the setup once this year before this past weekend, a 1-0 loss at Cincinnati in early April. It was sandwiched between Champions League games, and the Union's lineup was heavily rotated to keep the big names fresh for the bigger contest.

Saturday, though, had no such complications. Curtin adapted his tactics to trump Colorado's, and his choice delivered the Union's third straight MLS win.

"I think we can use it on the road, in particular, against teams that are really good with the ball and that we can counter-attack [against]," he said after the game. "Depends what personnel you have, but there's some ideas there, and there's a window to — if your wingbacks really attack in a smart way, it can be a really successful formation."

» READ MORE: Union defeat Rapids, 2-1, behind strong night from Julián Carranza

The wingbacks definitely attacked in this game, and that paid off. Kai Wagner snuck in from the left side to belt in the game's tying goal from 24 yards, and Olivier Mbaizo surged down the right flank to meet Jack McGlynn's pass and feed Julián Carranza for the winner.

Curtin figured the 3-5-2 could work even better if it had two players who missed Saturday's game because of injuries: José Andrés Martínez as the central midfield fulcrum and Mikael Uhre at forward with Carranza. Leon Flach deputized for Martínez, surrounded by McGlynn and Alejandro Bedoya, and Dániel Gazdag stepped up to the forward line from his usual attacking midfield spot.

It turned out that as Gazdag naturally withdrew a little bit behind Carranza, the midfielders’ roles weren't all that different from what they are in the Union's usual diamond-shaped 4-4-2. Ideally, a 3-5-2 would have Carranza and Uhre, then Gazdag behind them flanked by two of many potential colleagues. Mbaizo and Wagner would man the wings, and three centerbacks would backstop them all.

There is a caveat to all of this, and it threatened to play out Saturday. With Brandan Craig gone to the under-20 World Cup with the U.S. national team, all three of the centerbacks on the Union's game day squad were in the starting lineup.

Had any of them gotten injured, Curtin would have had to shift Wagner or fellow outside backs Nathan Harriel and Matt Real into a more central role. They can do the job, as Harriel did in the Cincinnati game, but it's not ideal.

» READ MORE: The Union's Jack McGlynn, Quinn Sullivan, and Brandan Craig make the U.S. U20 World Cup team

This part of the conversation hints at what the 3-5-2 might truly unlock: Craig's first major minutes with the Union's first team. The 19-year-old has so much potential that English superpower Liverpool already has scouted him, but he has made just one senior-level appearance so far: a three-minute cameo against D.C. United last July.

It would be easier to debut Craig alongside any two of veterans Jack Elliott, Jakob Glesnes, and Lowe in a 3-5-2 than with just one of them in a more open 4-4-2.

"You want that full stable of guys to choose from, and then you can start to pair strengths and weaknesses," Curtin said. "If you have ball winners — you have Damion the ball-winner and Jakob the ball-winner and you have Brandan in between, that's a little easier job for Brandan to kind of read [the game] in the middle of two guys that are more experienced and athletic."

For now, it's all just wondering. But just as the Union's rise to fifth in the Eastern Conference has hinted at this team's true talent, Saturday's tactics also hinted at more to come.

"Personnel will dictate it; opponent will dictate it too," Curtin said. "I still think our default will be the 4-4-2 diamond, but I think we learned a lot tonight. And I think we can not only do this well to get draws on the road, but I think we can be pretty dangerous in it, too."

» READ MORE: Born to soccer, the Union's Northeast Philly-bred Quinn Sullivan and Brandan Craig aim for the 2026 World Cup

The Union return to action Wednesday night with a home game against D.C. United, starting a stretch of four of their next five games being in Chester. It's the team's first MLS game of the year on traditional television, with a national broadcast on FS1 and Fox Deportes. The game also will be available for free on Apple TV, without having to pay for the MLS Season Pass streaming package. Apple's broadcast will have different announcers from Fox's in English and Spanish.

Though the listed kickoff time on most schedule websites (including the Union's) is 7:30 p.m., the actual kickoff time will be 7:55 p.m. to accommodate Fox's pregame show.

José Andrés Martínez and Mikael Uhre are expected to return from injury absences. Curtin said Tuesday that "whether it's as a starter or off the bench [is] still to be determined. ... but they’re both going play tomorrow, I’ll put it that way."

D.C.'s team includes some familiar names for fans of the English Premier League. Manager Wayne Rooney starred for Manchester United, Everton, and England's national team; midfielder Mateusz Klich was a teammate of Union alumnus Brenden Aaronson at Leeds United; and striker Christian Benteke has played for Aston Villa, Liverpool, Crystal Palace, and Belgium. Benteke is questionable for Wednesday's game because of an ankle injury.

» READ MORE: The Union's three Designated Players all got raises this year