Photo: Earl Gardner
Talk about a reversal of fortunes.
At this time last week, positives were taken from a losing performance. The Union had played well, just not well enough. Despite controlling the match against DC United, the visitors had stolen a late goal, and three points, at PPL Park.
Not this week.
Inside of a minute, the Union answered their critics, scoring an all important early goal and leading the 18,207 fans at PPL Park to breathe a sigh of relief as Jack McInerney repaid his manager for the faith he showed in the teenager.
Back the Hack
Whether it was opening up practice to fans, doing the media circuit giving candid interviews, or boldly and specifically outlining the style and attitude he wants to see from his players, John Hackworth has made all the right moves in the early days of his head coaching tenure for the Union.
And that’s all before his team takes the field.
Once on the pitch, Hackworth has made all the right moves, as well. Tactically, his 4-3-3 is working, and his players have bought into the attacking, positive-thinking approach that does a 180 on his predecessor’s reactionary, negative tactics. On personnel issues, the inclusion of McInerney in both of his starting lineups is most obvious, along with handing Amobi Okugo successive starts in central defense. Hackworth has instilled confidence in his players. Against Kansas City, they finally got a result, breaking a six-game winless streak.
The Union can finish
After showing his ability to stretch defenses and get in behind against DC, Jack McInerney finally did the thing that all strikers must do: He scored. Both goals came from that instinctual place every striker must have: To read play and arrive at the right time, ready to pounce. For the first, he delayed at the top of the box allowing Pajoy to make his run to the back post. Streaking in behind the play, McInerney was on the scene just in time to power home the opener after Pajoy had done the hard work of keeping the ball in play. From start to finish it was a beautiful move, yet one that Union fans have seen go uncompleted so many times this season.
Given the dearth of size across the Union’s roster, they will never be a side that dominates in the air, and under John Hackworth, they are beginning to play like they know it. Long balls from Okugo and Michael Farfan are played not to a body, but into space, allowing fast players like Ray Gaddis and Antoine Hoppenot to chase down the ball, losing their defender in the process. All four goals were built with a long pass, yet none required a Union player to attempt a header. For Hackworth and his staff, it is a positive sign that unlike in past years, or even earlier this season, the players have a strong grasp of their own strengths and how best to create chances for their teammates.
What a pair
Carlos Valdes finally has a real partner. No disrespect to Sheanon Williams, one of the elite MLS fullbacks, but each match he deputized at center back looked like a struggle. The physicality of the position, his lack of size, and his clear desire to stretch his legs made the Union man always look a little out of sorts in the center of the park.
In Amobi Okugo, the Union have a player with the speed, technique and vision to ably partner with Valdes, leaving William to maraud on the flanks when healthy. With the Union on the front foot against DC, Okugo played the game as if it was a two-touch passing drill. His quick distribution kept the ball moving and kept United chasing. On the day, it was exactly what was needed. Against the consistent, high pressure from Kansas City, something else was needed, and Okugo adapted.
Rather than look to play quick, short balls at every opportunity, Okugo turned his eyes up field and shredded that aggressively advancing Sporting back line with pinpoint through balls. First, he set Gaddis loose on the right to set up the Union’s opening goal. Later, his pass to Hoppenot allowed the striker to earn the penalty for the Union’s third. It was a display full of confidence from a young player who, despite attempting so many seemingly speculative long balls, retained his passing accuracy through the air (83%).
While Okugo dictated play going forward, Valdes did everything else for the Union back line. Great defenders have the positional awareness to be in the right place at the right time, and Valdes is one of those defenders. At times, he looked effortless in swatting away four, five, six consecutive Sporting crosses into the box. It was a master class in positional defending. Whenever Kansas City hooked the ball into the Union box, it seemed a given that Valdes would be there to intercept. Nothing fancy, nothing flashy, just textbook field and player coverage by a man who carried himself like a true leader.
Zac MacMath – 6
Despite Kansas City’s long spells of pressure, MacMath faced only 3 shots. Sporting did pump in an impressive 30 crosses from open play, which kept the young keeper on his toes. He batted the ball away when required, but his defense did the heavy lifting in clearing the box. MacMath must tighten up his distribution out of the back, however. Too frequently, MacMath looked to alleviate pressure by bombing the ball up field, essentially turning it over.
Ray Gaddis – 5.5
Fought hard for the full 90 minutes against both Sapong and Kamara, though he is still learning the ropes as a professional fullback. Got rounded more frequently than he would have liked, but against such stiff competition it was always going to be a tough task for Gaddis filling in for the injured Williams. Kept his composure in a chippy game despite picking up a first half booking for a crunching tackle on Roger Espinoza. His run in the first minute to set up the first Union goal was of the highest quality, and Gaddis consistently showed that while he is still inexperienced, he has no fear of playing against the best MLS has to offer.
Amobi Okugo – 7.5
He may still be learning his positioning at the center back, but what Okugo lacks in defensive experience, he more than makes up for with his quality and vision out of the back. As mentioned above, did well to read not only situations, but the game itself, swapping out his typical quick passing game, for a more-probing, long ball approach.
Defensively, he threw his body around well against Teal Bunbury and made some vital interceptions, but he still needs to tighten up his man marking to give forwards less time to turn and run at him.
Carlos Valdes – 9
In the 17th minute, Valdes went on one of his typical, ill-advised runs forward and was promptly dispossessed, forcing Brian Carroll into a professional foul and a yellow card.
It was the only mistake Valdes made all night.
As mentioned above, Valdes was a colossus in defense for the Union both on the ground and in the air. He limited Bunbury’s influence on the game all while tidying up the scraps left by his fellow defenders. Valdes marshaled his back line with authority and even got forward for the Union’s second goal. Kansas City failed to track his late run, allowing him the touch that jarred the ball loose for McInerney to pound home.
Valdes led by example on Saturday. He did not need an armband to let everyone know he was the captain. He bossed the game for 90 minutes.
Gabe Farfan – 7.5
Not as sharp with the ball as he was against DC, Farfan made up for it in his heavyweight battle with Kamara. He showed tremendous composure to keep up his physicality without resorting to dirty tactics against the cheap, violent Kansas City forward. Despite giving away four inches, Farfan took Kamara out of the game, to the point where Peter Vermes was forced to switch his strikers, sending Kamara to do battle with Gaddis just to get away from the rough treatment he was receiving at the hands of Philadelphia’s best coiffed player.
Michael Lahoud – 5
As full of running as ever, Lahoud struggled to recreate his performance against DC United as he was pinned back by Kansas City’s pressure. Lahoud is at his best playing quick passes and moving to support his teammates. On Saturday, he dallied on the ball too long and failed to find the sharpness he will need to hold off Gabriel Gomez for a starting spot once the Panamanian returns to full fitness. Lahoud must find something he can contribute to the offense, because too often he falls into a purely defensive mode.
Brian Carroll – 5.5
Carroll simply didn’t get on the ball as often as Union fans have come to expect out of him. He dropped too deep at times in the center of the park, granting Zusi and Espinoza the time they needed to comfortably move the ball through midfield.
Michael Farfan – 5.5
Another night where the Union playmaker was less than his mercurial best, though he always shows flashes of the quality that has the coaching staff so high on him. Should have had an assist on Hoppenot’s first chip, only to see the striker balloon the chance over the bar, but did pick up an assist on a nearly identical play when Hoppenot finally did get on the score sheet. Covered a lot of ground in midfield, but does not seem entirely comfortable with his positioning as the Union look for him to line up more often on the left side of midfield, rather than centrally, above Carroll. With Roger Torres nearly at full health, in the coming weeks Farfan will need to ratchet up his energy level to become the sharp, combative attacker Union fans know that he can be.
Lionard Pajoy – 7.5
With McInerney occupying both center backs up top, Pajoy was freed up to do the kind of work he enjoys, cutting in from the left flank. It was a deft touch on the opener that kept the ball alive, and he looked more eager to join in the attack and make runs towards the goal that in past weeks. Still, Pajoy spends too much time stationary and directing traffic rather than making himself available to receive the ball. He dispatched his penalty with a veteran cool and calm. Pajoy deserves praise for his defensive effort on the night, not just for tracking back into the midfield, but for the handful of times he rose highest to win a header in his own box, clearing the danger in support of his defense.
Jack McInerney – 8.5
Now that McInerney has a brace under his belt, there’s no telling what the young Union striker can do. Add to that Pajoy’s comfort on the left and Hoppenot’s emergence as an impact sub, and McInerney’s place in the starting lineup seems assured for the immediate future. Despite being the smallest player to occupy the center forward berth for the Union in 2012, McInerney caused the most problems for Collin and Olum not only with his lines of running, but also his physicality.
By the time he was replaced, McInerney was exhausted, having run himself ragged. He is still working his way back to full match fitness after his time in Nowak’s wilderness. As he gets his legs under him more and more, there’s no reason to believe his performances will not continue to improve, a welcome thought for the Union.
Freddy Adu – 2
An absolutely terrible showing from Adu, who struggled to connect on his passes (53%), lost the ball on the dribble and powered crosses to no one in particular. Hopefully, Adu can shake off this performance, because with the Union strikers rounding into form, they will need a constant supply of chances to finish and Adu must be one of the primary providers.
Antoine Hoppenot – 8
“Live wire.” “Spark plug.” “Super sub.” What more can be said about Hoppenot? In what was an excellent move from Hackworth to introduce the electric rookie into a stretched match replete with tired legs, Hoppenot took his chances well and killed off the game for the Union. His audacious chip minutes after entering nearly put the final nail in Kansas City’s chances, but when it flew over the bar, Hoppenot was undeterred. Hoppenot offered pace, presence and strength on the ball with which a tired Aurelien Collin and Lawrence Olum simply could not deal. He also did a great job of staying onside, not a strength of some of his other teammates, for both the run that earned the penalty and his own goal. If the Union need a goal late in a game, expect to see Hoppenot pop off the bench.
Keon Daniel – 5
Brought on to help the Union kill off the game, Daniel added another big body to counter Kansas City’s physical superiority. He struggled to catch up with the speed of the game, however, and was not his usual calming influence in midfield. Fortunately, the third and fourth Union goals were timely in arriving, as the Union continued to struggle to possess the ball through the midfield. In the Union’s new 4-3-3, Daniel might be in for a long spell on the bench, with Carroll a consistent starter and Lahoud and Gomez both higher up the pecking order for the spot next to Carroll. Roger Torres’ return further muddies the water for Daniel, as the young Colombian will likely share some of Michael Farfan’s minutes, leaving even fewer to go around.
Terry Vaughn – 0
This rating is not for any particular call, rather for the entire performance. Terry Vaughn simply is not capable of officiating MLS matches. He was equally incorrect for both teams on Saturday. Whether it was his inability to read deflections, follow the play or understand what constitutes advantage, this match could have easily boiled over into chaos were it not for the level heads of certain players. When it comes to interacting with players Vaughn has it all wrong, whether its being casually chatty with a player who nearly injured someone on the most recent play or brandishing his yellow card like a Spanish bullfighter trying to win the crowd. His performance wire to wire smacked of an amateur trying to keep up with professionals.
Preferred lineup for Saturday’s match in Houston
MacMath; Williams, Okugo, Valdes, G. Farfan; Gomez, Carroll, M. Farfan; Pajoy, McInerney, Adu