Photo: Earl Gardner
There was a moment in the Union’s 2-1 US Open Cup win Tuesday that crystallized just how brilliant Philadelphia Union midfielder Michael Farfan can be — and why we don’t constantly see it.
In the 75th minute, he took the ball from a deep-lying central position, dribbled through three defenders, and sent a low through ball long to his brother, Gabriel, who was cutting down the left wing. Gabriel Farfan picked the ball up in stride, played to his left, and curled in a perfect cross toward goal.
No one was there to connect with it.
The recipient probably should have been forward Lionard Pajoy or Chandler Hoffman, but neither was to be found. A goal chance went lost. But it was brilliantly created.
Few see what Michael Farfan sees
It’s about time we came out and said it: Michael Farfan is the best and most important (remaining) Union player.
He creates most of his teammates’ chances by seeing passing and cutting lanes before anyone else. He holds possession well and is daring in front of net. Without him, the attack stagnates.
The problem is his teammates seldom take advantage of his vision. Like opposing defenders, they don’t see what Michael Farfan sees. For example, there was his beautiful 50th minute pass through a cloud of DC United defenders that found Pajoy’s feet like an arrow hitting a bullseye. Even Pajoy seemed surprised the ball reached him, and he muffed what could have been a turn-and-shoot opportunity.
Those few who see what Michael Farfan sees offer the Union’s rare glimpses at beautiful soccer. Gabriel Farfan has the vision to see what his brother sees. So too does Antoine Hoppenot.
The key is running to space, not running to defenders. Pajoy doesn’t latch onto Michael Farfan’s through balls because he doesn’t see the openings. Give Hoppenot or Gabriel Farfan that opening, and they’ll time their run to burst past the defense for the pass they know Michael Farfan can make. They did it Tuesday.
Pajoy has the look, but …
In American football, scouts often get excited over a player who has all the measurables: The right height, weight, build, etc. They say a guy looks like a player, so he must be a player.
Pajoy fits this too. He has the perfect build for a target forward. He just doesn’t have the skill set.
He has one clear on-field talent that surpasses most others: He’s very good in the air. Like Freddy Adu and most of MLS, he’s also impressive when Rafa Marquez is keying the opposing defense (by not playing any).
Otherwise, Pajoy is ordinary at best. As he showed again Tuesday, he doesn’t have the touch to provide adequate holdup play. He has good ideas with the ball on the wing, but too often he loses the ball while trying to dribble free. When given space, he can find the net, and he has the instincts of a legitimate professional soccer player. But as some pointed out after his brace against the Red Bulls, he had so many open looks at goal that game that he could have netted one or two more. His wide open miss in the 33rd minute Tuesday only confirmed the assessment.
After two good seasons in the Colombian league in 2006 and 2007, Pajoy scored five goals in 65 games over the next three years. He resurrected his career last year while on loan, scoring 10 goals in 17 matches to boost newly promoted Itagui Ditaires to a surprising second place in the opening tournament of the 2011-2012 season. That’s probably when he caught Union sporting director Diego Gutierrez’s attention. Was it an aberration? Maybe. But apparently Pajoy will get plenty of time to prove otherwise.
Amobi Okugo belongs on the field — somewhere
Meet your new starting center back. Okugo made play after play Tuesday, whether covering for right back Ray Gaddis or winning contested header after header on DC goal kicks. The third-year UCLA grad rarely put a foot wrong throughout the game. As usual, his passing was clean, but it was his command of the center back role itself that stood out most. Okugo rarely found himself out of position, save for United’s goal.
Okugo has had a tough time cracking the starting lineup, despite playing well in midfield. With Brian Carroll and Gabriel Gomez entrenched there, that’s unlikely to change.
Absent a true center back, Okugo is a better option there than Sheanon Williams, and Williams is better at right back than Gaddis. Gaddis is a talented player, but he’s very raw. His blazing speed often makes up for him being out of position, but Gaddis still routinely puts himself in spots to be pressed heavily by opposing forwards, leading to adventurous (and entertaining) moments.
Should Okugo go back to the bench, chances are MLS clubs will make inquiries. By now, teams know they can acquire Union players for a song, a dance, and allocation money. This may particularly go for Generation Adidas players like Okugo. Once Danny Mwanga’s contract expired and the league stopped picking up his salary, the Union chose not to keep him. Jack McInerney appears on his way out too. Okugo will likely graduate Generation Adidas after this year, leaving the Union on the hook for his salary. If he’s not starting, he won’t be staying. He’s too good.
The great view at the Maryland SoccerPlex
Knock DC United all you want for playing Tuesday’s match at the Maryland SoccerPlex. You won’t hear me complain.
Even from press row behind all the bleachers, my view of the game was excellent. It’s like you bought prime seats along the sideline, and everything is that much clearer. You could read Marfan’s eyes when he saw an opening. You could hear the crack of Adu nailing Hamdi Salihi but not getting called. Was it PPL Park? No. But it was a good place to watch a game.
DC United missed Dwayne De Rosario
Anyone who questions just how good Dwayne De Rosario is should have watched Tuesday’s match, when he was away on international duty. Simply put, United had no attack. Branko Boskovic is a good player, but at the club level, he has not typically been a central playmaker, which is where United plays him. De Rosario is truly the league’s most valuable player, and he is certainly United’s. No discredit to the Union, but had he played, it would have been a different match.
Zac MacMath – 7
MacMath wasn’t challenged often, but when he was, he answered the call. He showed he hasn’t lost his aggression when he charged and stonewalled a Maicon Santos second half shot from high in his box. His tip of a Hamdi Salihi blast may have prevented a game-tying goal. He was a step slow on United’s goal, but it’s hard to pin that defensive breakdown on him.
Raymon Gaddis – 5
United challenged Gaddis early and often. He got beat on several long balls, but he recovered or had help from Okugo each time. Part of this is due to Peter Nowak playing his fullbacks so far upfield that they’re sometimes level with the forwards. (Not an exaggeration.) But Gaddis also gets out of position on his own too. When Nick DeLeon headed across the goal mouth to set up United’s lone score, Gaddis was the defender he beat to the header. Separately, Gaddis sometimes seems like a mass of flying arms and legs, and it’s hugely entertaining. Tasmanian Devil? Plastic Man? Coin your own comic reference. It’s easy to like him for his hustle and speed, but it’s also important to keep his performances in perspective.
Amobi Okugo – 7
See above. Good match. His grade would be higher, but he was partially complicit on the defensive breakdown that let in the United goal. He didn’t track back enough from his high mark to pick up goalscorer Josh Wolff after the defense rotated away from Wolff. Otherwise, very active, with good positioning and cover for his teammates.
Carlos Valdes – 5
Decent match, but it should be noted that it was his mark that scored the goal. Valdes rotated to Hamdi Salihi after Michael Lahoud slid off him toward the ball. That left Wolff open. Chalk that up to a lack of communication between Valdes and Okugo. His ejection means he’ll miss the Harrisburg match, again leaving the Union without a single true center back. The Union will miss him. His first half free kick blast nearly created an early goal.
Gabriel Farfan – 6
Garfan was typically active both ways, making a few good runs down the wing and showing his usual excellent ball control. He was caught flat-footed, however, when Najar sent in the cross that created the goal. One can only wonder what he’d do if assigned to midfield full-time.
Michael Lahoud – 5
Lahoud put the effort in, but he was playing his third position in four games since joining the Union. Is it any surprise he seems a bit lost at times? On the goal, Lahoud hustled back to defend in the box, to no avail. He has some talent, and he hustles. There’s a lot to like about him. He’s just not comfortable yet. If he keeps bouncing between positions, he may never be.
Brian Carroll – 6
Yes, the goal was a fluke deflection, but you can’t make a shot if you don’t take a shot. It was a smart play from the veteran, who otherwise had his typical quietly strong match, both in defense and distribution under pressure from United.
Michael Farfan – 8
If all the forwards saw what he sees, the Union might score three goals a game.
Freddy Adu – 5
Adu spent most of the match diving, juking, dribbling into traffic, losing the ball, and only occasionally tracking back on defense. There were times when his opposing winger, Josue Martinez, was back on defense, and Adu was up past midfield. Is that by design? Still, he created the game-winning goal with a beautiful pass, and his corner kicks are consistently good. That summarizes Adu in a nutshell. When he plays simply, he plays well. But too often, he looks like a prima donna.
Lionard Pajoy – 3
Pajoy’s best contributions were on set piece defense. To his credit, he seems to care much more than Carlos Ruiz did.
Josue Martinez – 6
Martinez showed terrific burst off the dribble, twice beating defenders down the left side to create chances on goal. He also nearly scored off a loose ball in the box, with his shot saved by a goal line clearance. Otherwise, he didn’t see the ball a great deal and was invisible for extended stretches. An odd night, but a tantalizing one.
Chandler Hoffman – 5
Hoffman was active upon sliding in at center forward, and that may have helped create space for Hoppenot’s runs. Could have set up the game-winning goal to Hoppenot, but blew a 2-on-1 in the penalty area.
Antoine Hoppenot – 9
Brilliant game. Hoppenot scored the game-winner and nearly had a hat trick in just 26 minutes of play. His 104th minute 20-yarder off the crossbar was a missile that beat Bill Hamid. His sliding shot in second half stoppage time might have netted had he kept his feet and hooked the shot toward the near post, but the run was perfect. He made great run after great run. Hoppenot had shown this fearless opportunism before, but on Tuesday, he made it count. His exit between overtime periods was disappointing, but Nowak had a fair case for it, considering Hoppenot’s game is based on runs to goal, while Kai Herdling’s is based on possession.
Kai Herdling – 5
Didn’t do much once he came in, but he didn’t have much to do. Helped kill the clock.
Jose Carlos Rivero – 5
DC United coach Ben Olsen ranted about the officiating after the game, and in a sense, he was right. The game got out of hand in the second half. But whose fault is it? The ref for not handing out enough yellow cards to toss guys, or the players for getting overly aggressive? It depends who you’re asking.
A Union fan might say Rivero showed admirable restraint for not giving a second yellow card to Michael Farfan for shoving Perry Kitchen or to Carlos Valdes for a hard, thoughtless foul in the second half that would have sent him off much earlier than Rivero did. Likewise, Union fans might criticize Rivero for letting Kitchen mark Farfan so physically all game.
A United fan will be infuriated Farfan and Valdes weren’t sent off in the second half and that Adu wasn’t booked for his diving or hard contact with Salihi.
To his credit, Rivero rarely fell for Adu’s flopping, and it seems clear he wanted to preserve the integrity of an 11-on-11 game. (It would have been an injustice if United went a man down after the Union could have but didn’t.) Credit to Rivero for that. But the players didn’t make that easy for him.
Preferred lineup for June 16 vs. DC United
MacMath, Williams, Okugo, Valdes, Garfan, Carroll, Gomez, Marfan, Martinez, Hoppenot, Mwanga