There were times on Saturday night when Union left back Matthew Real could have walked untouched from one end of Talen Energy Stadium to the other.
The Union’s most dangerous attacking threat, Fafa Picault, and Earthquakes playmaker Valeri Qazaishvili were both on the other side of the field, which drew most of the focus to that side.
And on many occasions, Union left winger David Accam pinched inside from the flank, At times, he set up shop right behind central striker C.J. Sapong.
That left a lot of space on the left side of the field for Real to exploit — and Jim Curtin wants that space exploited.
I’m writing about this scene for an analysis piece on the Union. pic.twitter.com/tzvNYdgLtT
— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) April 9, 2018
Real did the job well on Saturday, completing nine of his 15 passes in the attacking third of the field. Many of those passes were crosses that troubled San Jose’s defense. One play would have led to a goal if not for a great save by Earthquakes goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell.
A defender must beware the temptation to push high up the field too often, though. The more that happens, the higher the odds of getting caught on a counter-attack.
That’s what happened on the Earthquakes’ goal. When the passing sequence began, Real was at the midfield line. San Jose’s Danny Hoesen ran right by him to chase down a through ball, then squared a pass behind Real to scorer Magnus Eriksson.
One bad moment shouldn’t outweigh the many good moments, though. After all, if the Union had gotten more than one goal from their 22 shots in the 1-1 draw, the sparse crowd in Chester wouldn’t have booed the teams off the field at the end. The lack of scoring was far from Real’s fault.
Instead, consider Real’s outing to be another petri dish in manager Jim Curtin’s experiment of playing the youngest defense in Major League Soccer history. The record was set in the March 31 game at Colorado, when Real made his debut. The same four players started again against San Jose, this time seven days older. That was enough to take second, and they’ll take third too if they line up again against Orlando on Friday in Chester (8 p.m., ESPN).
(They might take many places in the ranking by the time they’re done. The new record low average of 21 years, 115 days smashed the previous mark of 21 years, 284 days set by D.C. United in 2000.)
Real, a Drexel Hill native, is the youngest player on the Union’s back line at 18. He knows he’s part of a soccer science project, and is impressively self-aware about his game.
“I feel like I’m adjusting more and more, and reading when to go and when to stay,” he said.
In particular, he admitted that he played conservatively against Colorado.
“I really wanted to kind of manage that space in a good way, because I didn’t want to push too high and leave a big hole to potentially run into the space in behind,” Real said. “The coaches felt that in the first game I was playing a little too safe, and I agree, because I kind of wasn’t completely playing [as] myself in the first game. I was kind of holding off on attacks when I had space to go.”
Opportunities came again against the Earthquakes, and this time Real took them.
“I did see a lot of space going forward, and the coaches told me not to worry about the [opposing] forward that I would be leaving, because I would have cover,” he said. “So I took advantage.”
Who provides that cover? Good question. Haris Medunjanin is part of the answer, as he sits deep and toward the left side of the field, but his lack of pace can be exposed. Centerback Auston Trusty plays a part too, but if he pulls out wide, there might be a hole in the middle.
By contrast, on the right flank, Keegan Rosenberry can go forth knowing Alejandro Bedoya will do the dirty work behind him. Picault also gets stuck in from time to time, and has the pace to cover lots of ground in a hurry.
That brings the spotlight back to Accam. It’s standard in a tactical playbook for a winger to drop deep when a defender goes forward. The Ghanaian does that, but when he moves centrally, it can take longer to get back.
Accam and Real are building chemistry. They clearly aren’t done yet, but there have been good signs — such as when they combined for a pretty goal in a preseason game against Montreal.
“When [Accam] does push into the middle, it leaves a lot of space for me on the outside … He knows I like to get forward as well, [and] he encourages me to get forward down the line,” Real said. “When he goes inside, I go [forward], and there are times when we can switch: I can go inside, which you didn’t see too much of tonight [Saturday] but we’ve been doing it a lot in training. It kind of confuses the defenses when we do that.”
As long as they don’t confuse themselves, the Real-Accam tandem should be a successful one. And if Real continues improving, it’s fair to think the U.S. youth national team regular could hear from the senior squad down the road.