What: Union at Houston Dynamo
When: Saturday, June 30. 8:30pm EST
Broadcast: CSN, MLS Direct Kick, MLS Live
When a team is struggling, a coach can make all the changes he wants. If they work, he’s a genius. If they don’t, they probably didn’t make things that much worse. But when a team has its mojo back? Now every change can be scrutinized and picked apart.
Which is to say: John Hackworth has some big decisions to make.
Talking over tactics
What Hackworth engineered last weekend was as overdue as it was unexpected. The frustration that has poured forth from Union fans over the past six months came as much from the differential between the team’s talent and performances as it did from their place in the standings. That Jack McInerney could be a regular contributor surprised few; that Amobi Okugo could slot in as a central defender was no revelation either.
Perhaps Hackworth’s true genius is less in his tactics than in his ability to communicate the need for changes without making anybody feel demoted or unwelcome (though Kai Herdling might disagree). Lionard Pajoy has clearly been given a new role that, while suiting his skill set much better, could be seen in a negative light by a selfish center striker. To his immense credit, Pajoy has not taken it this way, and instead has provided his teenaged replacement with all the support he needs to lead a new, potent attack. It’s the same change Sebastien Le Toux had to make last year when Carlos Ruiz arrived, and Pajoy has made the adjustment with the same defensive energy and positive attitude that makes a great team player.
But while Pajoy’s adjustments, McInerney’s emergence and Okugo’s success have contributed to the Union’s improved play of late, the more open system Hackworth has put in place is made possible by the incredible play of Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud.
Masters in the midfield
Playing alongside Gabriel Gomez this season, Carroll was often higher up the pitch than the Panamanian and it was a role that did not suit him. While he manages the ball well, Carroll’s vision is lacking, and his ambition is more often forced than impudent. This is to take nothing away from a player who has adjusted brilliantly to the Union’s faster pace of play over the past two matches. There had to be questions about BC’s ability to move the ball with the speed required to maximize the effectiveness of such an offensively talented center back pairing. There are no questions any more. Of Carroll’s last 70 passes, only 9 have not found their intended target. The midfielder has allowed Okugo to provide depth in the attack, and few would argue with the results.
Lahoud has been similarly strong. He completed 52 passes against DC United and has created a niche in the midfield by matching Carroll’s work rate but using his tactical freedom to chase playmakers out of their normally safe deep-lying positions.
Time to tinker?
But against a Houston team that is strong and big up the spine, John Hackworth may be tempted to tinker with the spine of his own team. A three-man midfield tends to leave space on the wings, and Houston will take advantage of those gaps. While Lio Pajoy has done admirably tracking back, Freddy Adu cannot be expected to do the same. (Well, he could be expected to do the same, but only if you also expect your dog to clean up the house instead of basking in the sun all day.)
A more conservative lineup would introduce Keon Daniel to track Brad Davis on the wing, though this would require the sacrifice of a striker. In short, it would be reactive. This is nothing new for a road match in MLS, but it would create a boundary condition for Hackworth’s confidence in his team’s ability to control a match.
And Houston’s trademark crossing game has been a problem for the Union in the past. With a newly signed (but MLS-seasoned) 6’4″ defender on the books, Hackworth may be tempted to pull Amobi Okugo from the first eleven. It is, without doubt, an easily defensible decision. But it would also go against the culture Hackworth is trying to cultivate. A guy like Okugo should have to play himself out of the starting role.
System is one word, but a team has eleven players
Peter Nowak treated a team like a collection of individuals in a system; each piece was replaceable. Under Hackworth, the philosophy has been to call a system what it is: A reflection of the eleven minds on the field and nothing more. A coach can put ideas into heads, but to assume that you can replace without change is either naive or the result of incredible hubris. Even Spain, the definition of a “system” team, struggled to find a rhythm when Alvaro Negredo, an undeniably talented player, was introduced as the point man. How can the best international team in history be thrown off by the introduction of a single new player? It’s soccer. Every little thing matters. That’s why we love it, hate it, and shake our heads at the blowhards who claim to understand it.
There is little subtlety to the Houston game plan. The most interesting question will be how they adjust to life without Adam Moffat, who is suspended after picking up a red card in the Dynamo’s 4-2 loss to Montreal. That nightmare game was the third time in the last four matches that Houston has given up at least three goals.
Luiz Camargo is likely to replace Moffat in midfield and track Michael Farfan. Marfan has yet to fully adjust to his central role, but his distribution will be key on Saturday. If he can free himself from Camargo, Marfan can drop balls behind the Houston defense. Sanna Nyassi’s speed gave the Dynamo back line trouble, but unless Jorge Perlaza starts up top, the Union have nobody with the same engines under their wings. Instead, it will take the exact same approach that has made Jack McInerney so effective in the past two matches: Strong runs from the middle to open space, paired with smart balls in behind. If the Union can pull off a few of these early and keep the Houston back four from playing a high line, the resulting space in the midfield will make Camargo’s job a lot tougher, and Michael Farfan will find the space he needs to unleash his creative side.
Overall, the prescription is to make few changes. With Ray Gaddis suspended, the health of Sheanon Williams becomes an enormous factor. Few would blink an eye if Porfirio Lopez (or even Okugo) found themselves in an outside back role on Saturday. Along these same lines, Nowak’s willingness to play Michael Farfan in the back was always questionable, and Hackworth’s willingness to do the same would open the possibility of Freddy Adu playing in a central distributor role, with Josue Martinez returning to the first eleven on the wing.
So beyond the change he will be forced to make, Hackworth should stick with the team that left Kansas City’s vaunted 4-3-3 scattered in the winds coming in off the Delaware River. A road match against the team that knocked them out of the playoffs? This match was a must-win long before the Union anchored themselves to the bottom half of the Eastern Conference table.
Nothing has changed.
- GK: MacMath
- DEF: Garfan, Okugo, Valdes, Lopez
- MID: Gomez, Carroll, Marfan
- FWD: Pajoy, McInerney, Adu
- GK: Tally “The Wall” Hall
- DEF: Corey “Smashe”, Hammerin’ Geoff Cameron, Robert Boswell, Esq., Andre “Heynow!” Hainault
- MID: Luiz “Marfan’s tail” Camargo, Brad “Jude Law Lite” Davis, Brian “Own me” Ownby, Boniek “DP” Garcia
- FWD: Will “The Bear” Bruin, Brian “…” Ching
- OUT: FW Chandler Hoffman (L big toe fracture); FW Krystian Witkowski (concussion symptoms)
- DOUBTFUL: DF Sheanon Williams (R big toe avulsion fracture)
- PROBABLE: DF Gabriel Farfan (lower back/pelvis contusion); DF Chris Albright (R groin strain); MF Gabriel Gomez (L knee contusion/patellar tendonitis)
- OUT: DF Alex Dixon (concussion); MF Calen Carr (L hamstring strain)
- DOUBTFUL: DF Oscar Recio (concussion); MF Je-Vaughn Watson (L adductor strain)
- QUESTIONABLE: DF Jermaine Taylor (R hip flexor strain)