Photo: Nicolae Stoian
Video: Daniel Gajdamowicz
Saturday’s home game against the depleted West Conference leading San Jose Earthquakes should have been a chance for Philadelphia Union to jump on their weakened guests and claim a third consecutive victory. Instead, the Union started tentatively, conceding possession and territory in the first half and looking tremendously disorganized in the process.
What are you afraid of?
In his postgame press conference, stand-in manager John Hackworth discussed a halftime adjustment that pushed the midfield higher up the park, creating improved pressure on the ‘Quakes and allowing the Union to dictate the pace of the game. That’s all well and good strategically, but why did it take so long for the Union to try and seize control of the match? At home and on a win streak seems the perfect time to attack an opponent, especially one that had to travel across the country to play. Add to that San Jose’s injury tally, with speedsters Shea Salinas and Marvin Chavez both missing from the starting XI, and the ‘Quakes attack shouldn’t have struck fear into the hearts of the Union coaching staff.
But the Union, as they have done in recent wins against Columbus and Chivas USA, allowed their opponents the lion’s share of both the ball and the field. San Jose is a much better team than either of those two sides though, and Frank Yallop’s men have the confidence that comes from their recent excellent run of form. Given 90 minutes to run at the Union defense, it was only a matter of time before they found the breach, because the Union simply spent too much time defending and chasing the game.
The coach may deny it, the players do not like the sound of it, but the Union are beginning to develop an identity. And it’s not a good one. After being forced to sit deep and defend valiantly for the majority of matches, the Union attackers have begun to treat every spell of possession as a mandatory time to sprint headlong up the pitch in search of a look at goal. While it doesn’t necessarily sound bad to take an all-out attacking mentality, the Union are attacking at the expense of controlling the match and ball. Simple square passes and the switching of fields have been foregone in recent weeks, with the likes of Freddy Adu and Michael Farfan preferring to drive every ball down the heart of the pitch, powering forward like a bull in a china shop.
With the defense in dire need of chances to regroup against the unceasing San Jose attack, ball possession became paramount. Yet the entire Union midfield was guilty of treating every touch too preciously, as if it would be their last and therefore must lead directly to a goal. While San Jose was content to play catch deep in the midfield between Tressor Moreno and Sam Cronin before they launched their attack, the Union enjoyed few such periods as they chose to go it alone, attacking one-on-the-house, trying to create a moment of individual brilliance at the expense of team cohesion.
Get your head on
This could have waited for the player ratings, but it seems worth mentioning sooner than later. Gabriel Gomez’s goal-scoring celebration was cringe-worthy on so many levels. When he equalized in the 83rd minute, the game was not won. No points had been secured. Nor was his effort one of particular individual magic. Latching on to the excellent work done by his teammates, Gomez put the ball in the back of the net. It was quite utilitarian in fact.
At first, it appeared he would make the correct statement, peeling away from teammates to grab the ball, bringing it back to half where the Union could get after the business of riding their momentum to a match-winner. Instead, he vaulted the signage, tore down the Panamanian flag and went for a pointless jog with it wrapped around his shoulders. True, it is an Olympic year, but those type of celebrations are best reserved for an athlete who just conquered the world, not one who tied a very winnable game with ten minutes still to go.
The fact that referee Baldomero Toledo somehow forgot to card Gomez is the only silver lining to come from this situation. For a player who is only two yellow cards away from a mandatory suspension, Toledo made a blatant mistake in not cautioning the Panamanian. Philadelphia fans can rejoice that his seemingly inevitable suspension has been delayed at least by a week, but Gomez should have known better.
Zac MacMath -6
The shutout string was eventually going to come to an end, and MacMath said all the right things after the match: “No, not really worried about that. I’m more worried about not getting the result tonight; that was the most frustrating thing.” Still, it is hard to not feel for the young goalkeeper, who was well up for the occasion, especially in the first half when San Jose was directing one-way traffic towards his net. In the end, neither goal (nor the Opara effort that was incorrectly ruled out) can be pinned to MacMath, as Lenhart evaded the attention of multiple Union defenders to bury both of his goals.
Ray Gaddis – 4
Not the best night for the rookie, as Simon Dawkins proved a handful. It was especially hard for Gaddis, because he was offered very little by way of midfield support, forcing him to cope not only with Dawkins, but also the continuous attacking forays of fullback Justin Morrow. Still, he will be disappointed in some of his own positioning and decision-making, not to mention some poor turnovers playing the ball out of the back. No doubt he will be keen to shake off this result and get back after it against Seattle. This performance was not his best,but there is nothing in it to suggest the Union should make any defensive changes in Gabriel Farfan’s remaining two matches away.
Danny Califf – 5
Back from injury, Califf wasn’t having that bad a game until the Lenhart-Chavez substitution gave San Jose an extra gear. He’ll receive criticism for being beaten by Lenhart in the air for the crucial match-winner—and rightly so—but having been forced to defend so doggedly for the entire match with very little let off, there’s no sense in making too much out of it.
Carlos Valdes – 6
It’s the same week in and week out from Mr. Consistency. Valdes and Califf kept Chris Wondolowski at bay for 90 minutes, which is no small feat. He seemed bemused by the Gretzky-esque treatment Wondo received from referee Toledo but still got his shots in on the dangerous San Jose hitman. With a goal in demand, he was able to spend a few minutes happily foraging up front for goal-scoring opportunities, though none came his way. Another solid effort in a growing string of them for a player not being talked about enough on the national stage.
Sheanon Williams – 4.5
Williams gave a lot of effort in the Union backline but was exposed for his extreme right-footedness. For a player with Williams speed, that doesn’t matter too much, but he did turn the ball over too many times and looked slightly out of his depth playing his fourth position in 2012.
He had a hand in trying to defend both goals and while he threw his 5’8″ frame around admirably in two matches at centerback, Steven Lenhart proved a different animal. With Gabriel Farfan suspended for two more matches though, the Union do not have a better option at left back, as Porfirio Lopez no longer seems viable and Cristhian Hernandez’s conversion is far from complete.
Amobi Okugo – 6
The only midfielder who looked remotely interested in ball possession, Okugo did his best to knock the ball around, trying to control the tempo and bring players into the match. Still, he could not get enough touches with his teammates only having eyes for attack. As he matures into the role, must do more to demand the ball and take ownership of the midfield, but that will come with time and experience. Once he was allowed to roam higher in the second half, he had more influence and nearly put Pajoy away for the opener with a deft chip that the striker somehow failed to corral.
Defensively, he got stuck in and patrolled the center of the pitch well, breaking up San Jose’s possession and quickly distributing. The Union should be in no rush to get Brian Carroll back into the team if Okugo continues to play like this.
Freddy Adu – 3
Dancing Freddy beat out passing Freddy on a night where Adu appeared to feel the need to turn every single touch into a goal. It’s an absurd notion, but whenever the ball made it’s way to Adu, he took it as a one-way ticket towards the San Jose net. If Adu was playing as a striker, like the Union lineup card suggests, his desire to create and score goals would be welcome. But where he is playing on the pitch, as a midfielder, he must begin to take part in the possession game if the Union are to find their feet and keep hold of the ball. At this point in the season, his game is entirely one-dimensional, with defenses unimpressed with his step overs and no support needed for his defender because there’s only one direction he is going with the ball.
Additionally, it was extremely disappointing to see Ray Gaddis working so hard to get up the pitch, only to see Adu time and again go a different direction, failing to reward Gaddis for his positivity with a ball played into the corner.
Michael Farfan – 4.5
Frustrated throughout, Farfan seems to be growing annoyed with the lack of chemistry between himself and Pajoy. Still jinky as ever, he was unable to use his skills on the ball to fashion clear cut chances on Saturday night. Along with Adu, he needs to take his foot off the pedal and calm the match down with simple passes, rather than always going for goal. He worked hard on defense to try and get up up the pitch to pressure the center backs and holders for San Jose.
Kai Herdling – 5.5
A strong debut for the Hoffenheim loanee, Herdling showed an excellent work rate and was eager to get on the ball. He did force the issue a little too frequently when a simpler option would have been better, but its hard to fault the German for wanting to impress on debut, as he also worked hard to track back on defense. With Keon Daniel due to return from suspension in Seattle, Herdling could be deployed more centrally, giving the Union another well-cultured pair of boots in the middle of the park. As he adjusts to MLS, Herdling will need to work harder on keeping his feet and fighting through challenges, as he took some theatrical tumbles that were never going to earn a call from Toledo.
Gabriel Gomez – 6
Up and down from Gomez, who is becoming a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde player. When he is on, Gomez is quick to the ball and quick to release it, but when he is off, as he was for much of Saturday’s match, he is clunky and ponderous in possession, lingering too long on the ball, seeking out the perfect pass rather than simply keeping the ball moving. When it mattered though, Gomez delivered, coolly slotting home the equalizer in the 83rd. The celebration that ensued, as mentioned above, was premature and looks even worse in light of the events that transpired in the match’s dying moments.
Lionard Pajoy – 1
It has been three matches since Pajoy has put an effort towards goal of any kind. Additionally, with only 2 shots on goal to his name, Pajoy is averaging 1 SOG every 307 minutes (or 3.4 matches). This simply is not good enough from a striker who can no longer claim to have inadequate service. While it is true that he does beat a lonely path up top for the Union, a target striker has two very basic jobs. First, he must hold the ball up, allowing his midfield to advance, providing support. Second, he must make runs and find space in which to receive the ball, whether that is in the creation of a goal-scoring opportunity or tracking down a ball he can deliver to a teammate. If he ever finds himself running alone against a pack of defenders, his job is simple. Stop. Step on the ball, and wait for the support to arrive.
Right now, Lionard Pajoy is failing at the basic tasks that make up his job. Offensively, he still has found no chemistry with his teammates. Even when they read each other, he lacks the pace to chase down a through ball. With his back to goal, he cannot win the ball in the air, and defenders have no difficulty in taking the ball when it is at his feet. On the other side of the ball, Pajoy retreats to the center circle, forcing Gabriel Gomez and Michael Farfan to race past him to provide defensive pressure.
His lack of work rate, pace, quality angles of running, and touch are more glaring with each passing match, and it is becoming clear that Pajoy must be sacrificed if the Union are to try and shake off their offensive woes.
Jack McInerney – 3
Playing as a withdrawn striker rather than high up the pitch where he’s most comfortable, McInerney looked very unsure of himself with the ball at his feet. Staring down the San Jose defense, his decision-making left a lot to be desired, as did the crispness of his passing, which failed to find its target or put a teammate under unnecessary pressure.
A telling moment of his lack of chemistry with Pajoy came as he streaked into the area from the right flank. Looking for Pajoy to initiate a run, McInerney delayed, waiting for his partner to announce his intentions. His eventual service went straight to Jon Busch. While it would be easy to look at the play as a poorly struck pass, which it was, it must also be remembered that at no point did Pajoy’s “run” take him closer to Busch’s goal than the penalty spot.
Danny Mwanga – 6
Mwanga did more to help his team score in 8 minutes than Pajoy has done in the last four matches. He:
- Gathered and possessed a ball out of the air when he trapped Sheanon Williams cross on his chest.
- Showed physicality to hold off defenders in the box.
- Did not panic and try to go it alone.
- Found a teammate in a better position and provided the perfect ball.
The only question is whether that will be enough to earn Mwanga a start to Seattle. The answer should be yes.
Cristhian Hernandez – 4
Pulling Gaddis definitely sent the wrong message, as the rookie has worked his socks off in proving that he can be a player in MLS. Hernandez is not a left back. His inclusion in this match did very little to forward the Union cause, and his positioning (debatably in defense or midfield) did more to destabilize the Union than it did to improve them.
Baldomero Toledo – 4
The two biggest mistakes by the refereeing team, the completely incorrect offside call on Ike Opara’s goal and the failure to card Gomez for his celebration, both favored the Union, yet Toledo’s performances always leave a sour feeling behind. With Wondolowski getting superstar treatment while Michael Farfan was being kicked up and down the park, consistency was lacking in a big way. Additionally, Toledo’s belligerent, Geiger-esque demeanor only serves to add fuel to any fires started amongst the players, and there is simply no reason for it to be that way.
Preferred Lineup for next week in Seattle
This formation can work. All that’s needed is a little more pressure, a little more composure, and a lot more Mwanga.
MacMath; Gaddis, Califf, Valdes, Williams; Okugo; Gomez, Herdling, Marfan, Daniel; Mwanga