Photo: Nicolae Stoian
After starting the season with a conservative lineup and a string of low scoring but positive-outcome affairs, Peter Nowak threw caution to the wind following a disappointing scoreless tie against Kansas City in late June. In the next match, against Chivas USA, Brian Carroll was the only thing vaguely resembling a defensive presence in front of the back four. Le Toux and Mapp were on the wings, Paunovic, McInerney and Ruiz were on the field together.
It took an incredible rally to win that game 3-2, and the Union scored multiple goals in two of their next three, as well (two ties and a win). The attacking lineup was here to stay.
Unfortunately, that lineup brought with it a seemingly unending string of poor results. From July 18 to September 17, the Union won exactly zero games. During that run the Union had only one shutout (Portland) and allowed the other team to score multiple goals five times (four in a row at one point).
After watching his team give up four to New England at home, then turn around and generate nothing against Portland, Peter Nowak knew something had to change.
In a year that has seen the Union jettison their only left back, play Seba Le Toux on the wing, put Freddy Adu and Roger Torres all over the pitch, and move their starting right back inside rather than using their reserve center back, it only makes sense that the solution to the team’s problems would be playing someone out of position.
Enter Michael Farfan. The winger/left back/right back was dropped into a holding middie role against Columbus. Partnering with Brian Carroll, Marfan gave the Union a sense of purpose coming out of the back. And he added a second responsible presence to the midfield, something the team had been sorely lacking.
But when Sheanon Williams was ruled out with a concussion, it was largely expected that Michael Farfan would be called up to deputize for The Sheanomenon. And he was. Eventually.
Nowak named Kyle Nakazawa the starter at right back, a move that would have been surprising if it wasn’t exactly the type of thing we have come to expect in our starting lineups. It was also a move that probably led someone around you to say, “I give ‘im five minutes before Nowak pulls ‘im!”
Nice guess, hypothetical barfly. Kyle Nakazawa lasted about five minutes and made about zero terrible mistakes, but Nowak had seen enough. Whether nobody told the Union that Kei Kamara was going to be attending this game or whether the Naka-in-back move was the result of a bet, it was over before it started. Marfan retreated to the back line and Naka was instructed to hawk KC playmaker Graham Zusi. Amobi Okugo, who had been playing with more freedom in front of Marfan/Carroll, dropped into a more structured role behind Naka and Torres.
The first five minutes actually proved quite instructive beyond the Nakazawa mess. In the second minute, the Union put together a five pass move through the midfield that saw Paunovic release Le Toux. It showed that the team, with Paunovic dropping off, had the numbers and personnel to string together passes instead of going over the top. KC did well to cut out most vertical play, so the Union would need their passing game to put any pressure on the home team.
In the third minute, KC put the first of 21 crosses into the box and Zac MacMath came out to claim it. MacMath is proving to be incredibly aggressive. Or maybe it just seems that way after watching Faryd Mondragon operate with the (understandably limited) range of a 40-year-old. MacMath only waved at one cross all night, coming out to claim a corner only to see Kamara cut in front and slice his header wide. If there is one word that characterizes the rookie goalie’s play this season, it is “fearless.” On breakaways, crosses, and even in a three goal hole, MacMath has stood tall and given his team every chance to win games.
Okugo and Carroll combine well
A final note from the first five minutes: Amobi Okugo made the first of his five tackles. A soccer statistician once said that people started to realize tackles was a troublesome stat when Paolo Maldini would go two games and only make one tackle. Maldini was so good at reading the game that he never needed to make tackles to close down his side of the field. Brian Carroll has that kind of ability to close lanes and play angles; Okugo does not. Which isn’t to say he won’t have that ability one day, just that he is 20 and rarely gets ninety minutes on the pitch.
So what does Okugo do instead of picking perfect angles? He tackles. Hard. Five tackles, two interceptions, one blocked shot and five ball recoveries? Them be some gaudy stats for the young center mid.
But the most encouraging part of Okugo’s play was how it improved as the game unfolded. Easily beaten twice early on, AmoBeast showed much more confidence on the ball and off in the second half. Guess what it feels like for a midfielder to see Okugo bearing down on him as a pass arrives? I bet it’s kinda scary. Okugo’s closing speed is impressive, and he earned more minutes down the stretch with his play in a tough environment Saturday.
Despite numerous strong individual performances, the Union remain a team without an offensive identity. Re-establishing their defensive toughness is a good first step towards finding playoff-worthy form, but relying on Michael Farfan to pull Marfantasticness on the opposition’s goal line is no way to go through life.
Roger Torres was doing it by himself at times, asked to find options where none existed. Torres’ best pass, a through ball to release Marfan down the right in the 16th minute, led to an opportunity for Veljko Paunovic that Chance Myers did well to block.
But when your playmaker has a 3:1 pass success ratio and you only muster two shots on goal? Something’s got to give.
Jack McInerney had the other shot on goal and made a strong case for increased playing time. McInerney has the touch to play a more recessed role, and if the coaching staff can get him to sit in behind Le Toux, he could be an ideal short-term replacement for Pauno, who was clearly not in 90 minute shape following his injury layoff.
Still a ways to go
What I am advocating is more possession and off-the-ball movement. What I am not asking for is a return to the 4-1-3-2 formation that was the late-June answer to a struggling O. Giving Brian Carroll a mobile partner with an offensive skill set has greatly improved the Union’s defense and, in time, it should translate to more possession. The focus of the next few matches should be continued improvement of a transition game.
Because if this team makes the playoffs, they are going to be playing some big and nasty Western Conference teams that, unlike Kansas City, know that every chance to cross the ball isn’t a good chance. And the Union have to be ready to defend, defend, defend… then make like Nic Cage and Counter Angry.
Zac MacMath – 8
Four saves, including one on an odd break stemming from confusion about the ball being out of bounds. What else can get thrown at MacMath? He’s had to come in at halftime, take four first half gut punches from the Revs, earned a pair of shutouts, and earned the trust of his back line. It’s like he knows all of our fears and is determined to allay them one by one.
Kyle Nakazawa – 5
I’m still unclear about what forced Naka out of the right back role. But something happened and he spent the rest of the match in midfield. Invisible on offense, the 2010 second rounder was told to stick like glue to Graham Zusi and he did. Do I have a soft spot for role players? I do.
Carlos Valdes – 9
That, my friends and amigos, is how you own your box. Valdes and Califf were masterful all evening. With Carroll and Okugo running interference through the middle, the centerbacks were asked to help their wing backs without leaving the middle open. Not as easy as it sounds, but there were two good reasons Teal Bunbury and Omar Bravo barely made a sound until Bravo beat Gabe Farfan to score. Valdes and…
Danny Califf – 9
Do you know how many off games Danny Califf has had this season? None. Nada. Zip. Remember this season, because it is going to be a long time before any Union defender has a better one. Everyone in MLS, including Califf, knows he is a step off where he once was speed-wise. Being able to adjust to that and become an even better player? Dadgum, Bearfight. You good.
Gabe Farfan – 5
It’s hard to give a player who had such a solid match (and who is finding his form again) a sub-six score for one bad mistake. But soccer is about what happens in front of net, and Garfan got beat. It really is encouraging to see him double-down on his defense since returning to the starting eleven. He is another beneficiary of the restructured Union midfield.
Brian Carroll – 7
Carroll had trouble playing with a holding partner early in the year. The more mobile Okugo and Marfan have worked well with Linguine, though. One suspects it’s their willingness to leave the middle of the park that helps, as this allows Carroll to hold the central area and avoid getting sucked wide and isolated. For all Carroll’s skills, one-on-one defending isn’t at the top of the list. He much prefers to force the other team into bad decisions with good pressure. The space he gave Kamara on the KC goal was way too respectful.
Amobi Okugo – 7
When players and coaches say the only way to get better is to play, they mean it. And Okugo is a shining example. He arrived in the second half of this match, stamping his mark on the midfield after a hesitant first half following being moved back into a holding role. The jury is still out on Okugo, but he certainly has the skills to make a big splash in this league. I’m not a big fan of telling players to find a mean streak, but if Okugo even discovers a slightly more inconsiderate one, he’s going to make some playmakers think twice before taking him on.
Roger Torres – 8
Everyone who tells you “Danny Mwanga and Freddy Adu are the biggest offensive threats on the Union” is wrong. Torres is the only second year player (Sheanon aside) who has made big, big strides this season. The decision-making is not nearly what it should be, but with what the team is asking of the young man his accomplishments are impressive. The Torres we see now is definitely not the same player who disappeared for long stretches and made decisions based on how much pressure was on him rather than having the confidence to dictate the game to the other team. What an impressive second half from a guy who is being asked to do it all offensively. Stand and cheer when you see him.
Michael Farfan – 9
Goodness gracious. How many second round picks have made an impact in MLS this season? The Union saw Anthony Ampaipitakwong for San Jose and Stephen McCarthy has two goals for New England. Those guys are playing because their teams suh-huck. Michael Farfan has been the best winger on the Philadelphia Union this season. And he hardly ever plays there. He has filled in at both outside back positions, he scored while playing center midfield, and he returned to the middle of the field to marshal the team to their first victory n two months. Oh, and did you see what he did Saturday against KC? That was good. The guy never knows when he will be in the lineup, never knows where he will play, but he competes and makes a fair many defenders look like first timers in an advanced yoga class along the way. Michael Farfan: I want your jersey. Let’s set up a trade. I’m putting everything I own outside of my Luis Suarez jersey on the block. My girlfriend would kill me if I let that one get away.
Veljko Paunovic – 4
Two very sweet passes to set Le Toux free, but Pauno looked like the calf was slowing him down. He didn’t have the movement he needs to be an effective outlet and he wasn’t the aerial presence we are used to. That said, the guy continues to play calm soccer when he gets the ball.
Sebastien Le Toux – 7
Sebastien Le Toux’s runs were made for Roger Torres’ passes. And if anybody thinks that losing Carlos Ruiz hasn’t helped Le Toux they are just defending views they took a month ago and can’t back down from. Le Toux spent the first half of the season making runs to the corners because there was no space in the middle (Ruiz actually had mail delivered to the center circle during injury breaks). Now, Seba can start wide and curl through the middle, causing confusion among the center backs and getting a step behind the defense. This is not to knock Ruiz! He was just doing what he does. But there were clear adverse effects to Le Toux’s game when Ruiz was his partner and those effects are gone now. Still, Seba has to work on his finishing.
Jack McInerney – 7
Aw yeah. Jack got that swagger back! Two fine chances in a short run out showed just how much McInerney can influence a match when he is on. What about teaching him some patience and slotting him in behind Le Toux? He will drag the center backs all over the park.
Zach Pfeffer – 4
He is super duper talented. Keep getting him late minutes and you will be rewarded. That said: Not so good on Saturday.
Stefani Miglioranzi – 6
Welcome to the perfect role for the role player! Late in games, coming on to add height to a short lineup. If he’s going to be an option, this should be it.
Peter Nowak – 6
Brilliant move to put Marfan in the midfield. Very quick hook for Nakazawa. Great work getting Pfeffer into the mix again. At times this season it has seemed like Nowak was not making adjustments as teams figured the Union out. The past two games have shown us a coach who is willing to live on the edge and put out an experimental lineup. But we have also seen a coach who is willing to admit his tinkering went awry and returned his team to the fundamentals that earned them early season success. Humility? Hmmm, not quite. Let’s settle on “more progressive mindset”.
Kyle Martino – 2
I gotta admit. Taylor Twellman has made some big strides as a Union broadcaster. This was made obvious to me by how weird it was listening to Kyle Martino speak in somewhat random generalities for 90 minutes. On Le Toux’s scoring: “He’s playing further up the field.” What does that… what? p.s. Dear JP: Let the game breeeeeathe. If nothing is happening, that’s fine. Don’t change the subject to someone’s past. We are watching a live event, not the first hour of the season finale of American Idol.
Livestrong Sporting Park – 8
Thassa nice-a park-a
Livestrong Sporting Park fans – 3
Not impressed. Kansas City Chiefs games are loud. I expected more.