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A tactical preview of the US Open Cup final

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What to expect in the Dynamo’s biggest game of the season.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard not to look at the Dynamo’s 2018 campaign as a lost season. They wasted magnificent early-season attacking performances from the still-electric front three; Mauro Manotas’s career year will have come in a 10th-place season. The core from the deep playoff run last year, seemingly young and hopeful, doesn’t seem to be there the way it once did. Questions are starting to linger about coach Wilmer Cabrera’s management acumen.

A trophy, which potentially could come at home on Wednesday in the US Open Cup final, would preserve some goodwill. They’ll have to beat the young and hungry Philadelphia Union to accomplish that — the Union have built an enviable core, with Homegrown players and a fun, proactive style, things the Dynamo have failed to add to their own once-enviable core.

The USOC final is an enormous game between two teams seemingly trending in opposite directions. Some notes on what to look for:

  • Philadelphia are a tactically interesting team precisely because they do not fit today’s definition of a tactically interesting team. Their 4-2-3-1 formation is relatively standard and mostly sticks to nominal positions, with ball-moving center midfielders, an engine as an attacking mid and straightforward touchline-hugging and channel-running wingers.

Their movement off the ball is no less dynamic or unpredictable. But they don’t have true inverted wingers and they have one of the truest No. 10s in the league, bucking two trendy attacking tendencies.

  • Midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin dictate the Union’s passage of play. They each get on the ball a ton; Medunjanin’s touch percentage of 13.5% is fifth in MLS, per American Soccer Analysis, and Bedoya is completing passes at an 89% clip, among the highest percentages in the league.

Neither is a pure defensive midfielder, though Medunjanin will sit deeper. They aren’t physically imposing, so center forwards have been able to bully them at times, but Bedoya has made a career out of covering extraordinary amounts of ground, and Medunjanin is deceptively tall (6’1”).

Much of Philly’s attack runs through Medunjanin spraying diagonal switches:

He hits 65.7 long balls per game, 10th in MLS. He is among the league’s most effective at it. The Union use his delightful pinpoint switches to transition from regular cycles of play to meaningful possession in the final third; Medunjanin relieves pressure and creates mismatches on goal, with Philly having drawn out the opposing press.

Medunjanin lashing balls forward was once the Union’s only tactic, relying on CJ Sapong to win duels in the air. It’s now become a way to capitalize on longer, deeper stretches of possession, and it’s a go-to method of transitioning from defense to attack:

The Dynamo should see Medunjanin as the fulcrum through which Philly operates, because much of what they’ll do in the attacking third starts with him — he is the primary way that they get into the attacking third in the first place.

  • To diminish that advantage, Houston’s goal shouldn’t be to outright mark Medunjanin. (Marking Borek Dockal, who will drop to facilitate things very often, would be the smarter approach.) They have to find a way to deal with the players on the receiving end of the Bosnian’s distribution.

Bedoya is one of the most important parts of doing that. He’s on the ball less than Medunjanin and Dockal, but his role is similar in importance. He conducts the deeper possession that unlocks opportunities on the other end, and he is the on-ball fulcrum of Union’s suffocating flair closer to goal.

The Union are renowned around the league for their entertaining style of play. The reason they entertain is their willingness push numbers forward and use intricate passing and movement to create chances. Dockal provides the final ball — he’s among the league leaders in assists, and he is a top 10 producer of key passes — and Bedoya drifts, making everything just that much easier for his teammates.

  • Wingers Fafa Picault and David Accam are speedy and slippery on the ball, mostly starting their runs from the flanks and darting around slower fullbacks. They’ve each had their scoring woes this season, but they’re useful in the width and on-ball threats they provide — Accam, particularly, could go off at any moment.

Houston’s fullbacks are among the slowest in the league, no matter who they start at right back. (I’d guess we see Adam Lundqvist, but it also could be former Philly winger Andrew Wenger.) Sapong, a more physical target winger type, has recently stolen some starts from Accam and could get the nod opposite Picault. His aerial ability is an asset on those Medunjanin long balls.

Dockal is listed as questionable, though MLSsoccer.com projects him to start. If he’s unable to go, it’ll most likely be Bedoya moving up and either Derrick Jones or Warren Creavalle (most likely the young Homegrown Jones, who has looked good in recent minutes) starting next to Medunjanin.

  • Philly’s backline is historically young. Third-year right back Keegan Rosenberry has been the elder statesman for much of this campaign. Center backs Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie have earned the trust of coach Jim Curtain, though they can sometimes make rookie mistakes, as is to be expected from two rookies.

The Dynamo have to be willing to go at them, especially with Alberth Elis. If Houston are going to win this game, it’s almost certainly not going to be by out-possessing the Union. Philly have shown to be vulnerable on the counter-attack, and Rosenberry likes to push forward. The Dynamo shouldn’t be overly conservative, but they have to be willing to let the Union take the game to them.

Cup finals are not the regular season. In these one-off, postseason-type games, matchups matter more than anything else. Cabrera has to know that, and he has to understand that the best way to win is not going to be clumsy midfield possession, as Houston have been apt to try for much of this season.

With an advantage attacking set pieces, this is a winnable game for the Dynamo. They’ll have to get Elis and Romell Quioto going, and they will have to stick with what has made them difficult to beat in previous winner-take-all games.