After grabbing their first two victories of 2012, the Union have lost two on the trot and are back to square one. Against a makeshift Sounders lineup on Saturday at CenturyLink Field, the Union were completely outplayed. For the second straight match, the defense was under siege throughout, and were it not for some dreadful finishing from the hosts and the intervention of MacMath’s crossbar, the scoreline would have more accurately reflected Seattle’s supremacy.
Midfield? What midfield?
A week after taking a similar midfield beating against San Jose, the same analysis holds true:
“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.”
Without a player like Brian Carroll or Amobi Okugo to make a quick pass to keep the ball moving, against Seattle, 100 percent of the Union midfield lingered on the ball and proved slow in possession. Gabriel Gomez appeared to refuse to take fewer than three touches whenever he had possession, and the midfield ground to a halt, with Osvaldo Alonso winning what seemed like every challenge he attempted.
Tasked with operating in the defensive midfield role, the coaching staff probably would have told Gomez to win the ball and start the attack, spreading the field and bringing his teammates into the game. Instead, Gomez tried to do it all by himself, dribbling into trouble and completing a shockingly poor 61% of his passes.
With Gomez struggling mightily behind him, Michael Farfan turned in his worst shift of the 2012 campaign. The two had no communication and rarely found each other. It was expected that with an extra striker in the mix, Farfan would have more options to search for, but with Herdling dropping deep into Farfan’s space and Pajoy doing very little to make space for himself, Farfan looked flustered. Sometimes he simply disappeared. Other times, he took too much on his shoulders, running at players and trying to make the perfect pass on every play, rather than locating the simple outlet so the team could keep the ball.
The performances of both Gomez and Farfan made easy pickings for Alonso and the Sounders, who enjoyed complete control of the center of midfield, with the Union scrambling to string together more than a pass or two.
Seattle’s forwards—Fredy Montero, David Estrada and Eddie Johnson—combined to complete 71 passes out of 79 attempts, an incredible accuracy of 90 percent. While blaming the defense for the defeat is unfair, 90 percent accuracy is an alarming statistic. Part of the problem comes down to Gomez ranging too far up field and forgetting that, on the day, his primary responsibility was keeping a lid on Rosales and any of the Seattle forwards who dropped into midfield looking to find space.
Califf and Valdes must also shoulder some of the blame because, in their efforts to contain the play in front of them, they sat too far off of their marks. This allowed Montero and Estrada to turn, square up to the goal and make themselves infinitely more dangerous. Additionally, the defense found themselves stretched by the continued insistence of the fullbacks to get too high up the field. Sheanon Williams is at his best when he explodes forward on a surging run, not when he tries to play in the midfield. Seattle’s goal came when Gomez, Califf and Valdes were all sucked over to the right flank covering one of Williams’ runs. Montero switched fields and found the overload, playing Rosales in on goal.
On the other side of the pitch, Freddy Adu’s positioning had Ray Gaddis playing catch-up all night. As if taking on Rosales in his first ever match at left back wasn’t enough for the rookie, Gaddis also had to race up and down the field attempting to link up with Adu. In return, Adu failed to provide him with either adequate defensive cover or a consistent outlet pass from the back. While Gaddis is one of the fastest players on the Union, if not in all of MLS, he is a rookie. He needs support from his teammates to continue to develop good habits, rather than always relying on his pace when he gets exposed.
Fighting the formation
Just when the Union seemed settled into their 4-1-4-1 formation, the coaching staff changed to a 4-4-2.
It couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
Taking a body out of the midfield, on the road against a Seattle team featuring both a top-shelf playmaker and arguably the league’s best ball winner simply made the home team’s job too easy.
And while Kai Herdling did his best to create space and move the ball, he was the wrong player to deploy as a second striker. Herdling failed to hold a high enough line and looked like he wanted to run the midfield rather than run off Pajoy up top. As a result, it was more like second striker lite. If the Union want to play aggressive attacking soccer, deploying two true strikers with Herdling as the attacking center midfielder would make a lot more sense.
With the match falling further and further into Seattle’s control, the substitutions came far too late. When Brian Carroll entered the match, it was as a stop-gap measure to preserve a road point rather than a move designed to snatch the attacking impetus from Seattle, and it was never going to be enough to hold off the high-flying Sounders. Once the goal was conceded, stand-in manager John Hackworth should have rung the changes immediately. Instead he waited 13 minutes before introducing Danny Mwanga. When Josue Martinez finally entered the match with only 8 minutes to play and Lionard Pajoy moved to left midfield, it was clear that the Union were out of options and ideas.
Zac MacMath – 5
MAcMath cannot be blamed for Seattle’s goal as Rosales had an age to pick out his shot. Nor can he be faulted for either effort that clanged off the wood work: Rose’s header was from point-blank range, and Montero’s chip was well taken after he was allowed too much time to turn. With Seattle pressing so high up the pitch, the opening goal seemed inevitable, and the only mistake MacMath will have to improve upon was spilling Montero’s late blast into the path of Eddie Johnson. The fact he made the second save (and was aided by the offside flag) does not make up for the fact that he allowed an extremely juicy rebound. If a shot is too venomous to hold, MacMath must do more to parry it away from the danger area in the future.
Sheanon Williams – 5
There’s a big difference between pressing high up the field to mark an attacker—using that advanced position as a platform for attack—and simply holding a high line, far above both centerbacks, and so adding another body to the midfield. On Saturday, it was clear that Sheanon Williams was being asked to do the latter. Rather than use his explosiveness to burst up field, he is lingering too long in midfield and consequently being forced to scurry back in recovery.
Williams clearly has the defensive chops, but his orders appear to be attack first and defend second. One need only look at Seattle’s goal to see the entire Union formation shifting in to cover the space behind the advancing Williams. With the formation so lopsided in only took one ball, admittedly a beautifully struck cross from Fredy Montero, to expose the entire Union back line. Williams is a very good defender, but he needs to be allowed to assert his defensive dominance in matches before he goes bombing forward to join the attack.
Carlos Valdes – 5
Valdes held down the fort admirably alongside his fellow defenders but was equally guilty of running around at times. He didn’t hand out enough of the rough, physical treatment that Union fans have grown to expect from him, leaving Montero and Co. too much time on the ball in the final third. With the Union defense absorbing what feels like multiple games worth of pressure during each outing, it is hard to imagine how they can possibly sustain their form throughout an entire season without wearing down.
Danny Califf – 5
Califf showed veteran savvy to maintain position on the speedier Montero, though at times his lack of pace was a major concern. It is still unclear if what we are seeing is Califf continuing to make his way back to full fitness or whether, at this point in his career, this is the player he has become. Whatever the answer, Califf needs to continue providing veteran leadership to the back line and keep his teammates and himself from falling too deep in the face of the unrelenting pressure they have lately been forced to endure, inspiring his team to hold their nerve and find their form so that they can return to winning ways.
Ray Gaddis – 5
Handed the monumental task of taking on Mauro Rosales in acres of space, Gaddis coped about as well as the coaching staff could have hoped. He needs to continue improving his defensive positioning because living and dying by his pace and ability to recover is a dangerous game. With Gabe Farfan due to miss one more match, Gaddis should get the start against New York, setting up an intriguing matchup against Dane Richards for what could be the foot race of the season. His goal line clearance in the 7th minute may have kept the floodgates closed.
Gabriel Gomez – 2
An absolute stinker turned in by the increasingly less impressive Gomez, who looked slow in defense and lingered too long on the ball, frequently being dispossessed while failing to catalyze the Union attack. In what had been previewed as an enthralling battle between him and Alonso, the Sounders man proved that he is one of the premier defensive midfielders in MLS, at the expense of the thoroughly beaten Gomez. Even his typically dangerous set piece delivery was off target on Saturday. To cap things off, he earned his fourth yellow card of the young season, placing him one caution away from a mandatory suspension.
Keon Daniel – 4.5
Calm, cool, and collected Keon Daniel was not what the Union needed on a night when the entire side lacked energy. He was still more efficient and industrious than his teammates, but Union fans are losing patience waiting to see Daniel turn his strong, smart play into consistent offense, whether by putting his teammates through or creating chances for himself.
Michael Farfan – 2.5
With Gomez faltering behind him and Herdling dropping into his space, Farfan looked frustrated and failed to assert any influence on the match. Still learning the ins and outs of the attacking central midfield position, the biggest concern about Farfan’s game is that he simply disappears for long stretches. Completing 16 out of 26 passes over 76 minutes of work will simply not get it done for the Union and one begins to wonder whether the hustle and bustle of the center of the pitch might be too much for Farfan this early in his career. Arguably the best Union player in terms of attacking a defender one-on-one, the space afforded to a wide player would give him more opportunities to create in the attack.
Freddy Adu – 3
A bystander for much of the match, Adu again treated his touches too preciously. Rather than work with his teammates to build a sustained attack, Adu tried to go it alone, over-dribbling and crossing aimlessly when he had a simpler option available to him. If the Union are to continue using him in this manner, he must either be deployed as a striker or more centrally on the pitch because the glaring gaps forming behind him simply make too much work for whichever fullback is tasked with covering all that extra territory. He snatched at his one shooting opportunity, lofting it harmlessly over the bar. Adu does not need to shoot more, nor does he need to take players on one-on-one. He needs to pass, and pass, and pass, and pass. It is the best part of his game and unfortunately the part that he has been the least focused on in recent weeks.
Kai Herdling – 5
Herdling worked his socks for the cause even if he couldn’t help the Union find a breakthrough. He deserves credit for taking the initiative to make runs to the corner and in behind the Seattle back four, stretching an opposition defense in a way no Union player has in quite some time. Less positive was how deep Herdling dropped into the midfield, showing that his true comfort zone is as an attacking midfielder, not as a full time striker. His eager attitude stood out, and with a few more weeks of training, some of his more ambitious passes will begin to find their target. If he continues to go to ground so easily, though, Herdling will begin to develop a reputation.
Lionard Pajoy – 1
Finally broke his shooting duck, registering the Union’s only shot on goal, a slow dribbler that Sounders goalkeeper Bryan Meredith could just as easily have trapped with his foot. And that was about the only positive in Pajoy’s match, which shockingly played out over the full 90 minutes. He brutally misplaced his first touch on too many occasions, failed to hold up the ball adequately, and looked a statue when contrasted with the effort and movement of Kai Herdling. For the Union attack, it is Pajoy, and not the support that he receives, that is the problem.
Brian Carroll – 5
Settling the game when he entered, Carroll made the simple one-touch passes that Gomez refused to. Had the Union been able to hold out for a few minutes, rather than concede almost immediately upon Carroll’s entry, his calming presence might have pervaded the side, helping them to find the control that was sorely lacking in the previous 60+ minutes of the match. Gomez’s lackluster performance at the defensive midfield spot will further cement Carroll’s stalwart position in the starting XI when healthy.
Danny Mwanga – 4
Fans will remember Mwanga’s performance for his one run up the center of park, delaying too long and failing to play in Pajoy. It was the type of play made by a player lacking in confidence, which is hard to blame Mwanga for considering he has now played only 23 minutes in the last 5 matches. Whatever his past accomplishments, 14 minutes is not enough time for such a young player to be expected to change a match. With the Union struggling mightily in the final third, Mwanga should have been given at least 30 minutes in Seattle. Mwanga needs to start against the Red Bulls to find his confidence and give Pajoy a break.
Josue Martinez – N/A
Only had a few minutes to affect the result, but squandered his only real chance. Driving up the left wing following a Sounders turnover, Martinez failed to get a cross into the box with both Pajoy and Mwanga lurking. Still, there is not enough information of the young Costa Rican to form any sort of opinion about what kind of player he is. He needs more time on the pitch.
Ricardo Salazar – 3
Generally, Salazar called a good game, but when he had a real decision to make, he was found wanting. When debutante Andy Rose took Freddy Adu out from behind, Salazar should have shown the Sounders player a second yellow. The decision, which would have altered the course of the match, needed to be made, but Salazar choked on his whistle. Also missed Leo Gonzalez’s late stamp on Sheanon Williams, though it is unlikely the MLS Disciplinary Committee will.
Preferred Lineup for this Sunday’s match against NYRB
MacMath; William, Valdes, Califf, Gaddis; Daniel, Carroll, Herdling, Marfan; Mwanga, Martinez