Photo: Nicolae Stoian
Well that wasn’t the start John Hackworth would have been hoping for in his first match leading the Union away from PPL Park.
But it was only one match. Amid a regime change and congested fixture schedule, it’s hard to read too much into one less than sterling performance.
Saturday’s loss to Houston did however make one point loud and clear.
The midfield needs work.
When he took over for Peter Nowak, Hackworth, to immense credit, publicly laid out his plans, promoting an attacking brand of soccer, featuring high pressure and a focus on getting numbers forward with an aggressive 4-3-3 formation. It produced a strong, if losing, debut against DC United, followed by comprehensive victories over Kansas City and Harrisburg in the Open Cup.
Heading on the road to Houston’s new BBVA Stadium knowing that Dominic Kinnear’s side would pack the midfield, spread the ball wide and look to hook balls into the box, it was natural to wonder if Hackworth would alter his approach slightly by adding a fourth or fifth midfielder to the fray in an effort to tip the midfield scales towards the Union.
The answer was a resounding “sorta.”
While Keon Daniel scored the Union’s lone goal on the night, his positioning as a forward in Hackworth’s 4-3-3 left a lot to be desired. A methodical, composed midfielder, Daniel rarely shows the drive to goal and instinctual aggression required of a striker. For much of the 90 minutes Sunday, he floundered in between his normal position and the role into which he had been cast.
Further confusing the issue was Houston’s captain and most dangerous playmaker, Brad Davis. Had he been deployed in midfield, Daniel would have offered cover on Davis, providing constant pressure on the Dynamo skipper, rather than having to race back, chasing the play from behind.
Gomez or Carroll. Pick One.
By electing to play a 4-3-3, the Union have decided to fight for midfield supremacy with only three midfielders. Given the personnel at their disposal, they cannot thrive using two players who have failed to gel over the first 14 matches of 2012. For whatever reason, most likely that they want to occupy the same space, Brian Carroll and Gabriel Gomez still have not found the chemistry that would inspire hope of them creating a consistent, dangerous midfield for the Union. When the Union was playing their best against DC United and Sporting Kansas City, Michael Lahoud was motoring around the midfield, leaving the deep, center of the pitch for Carroll and tidily picking up the scraps everywhere else. Both players played quickly, deferring to the advancing fullbacks and playmakers to push the ball forward, starting the build up with short, simple passes.
With Gomez on the pitch, the Union midfield is simply too slow. While Carroll covers a lot of ground, he is certainly no speed merchant. Gomez is even slower, lumbering around midfield looking for the ball. With Geoff Cameron leading from the base of Houston’s midfield, the Dynamo easily picked the Union apart by keeping the ball moving and regularly switching the point of attack. The Union’s inability to keep up with the play in Houston will have worried the coaching staff. The question now is whether they will consider fielding a fourth midfielder in Los Angeles.
Mysterious Missing Marfan
It has been nearly a month since Michael Farfan had the kind of match Union fans have come to expect from him. After excelling on the right flank for the Union in his rookie campaign in 2011, his play has yielded mixed results as a central midfielder. Starting the season in the attacking center midfield role for Peter Nowak, it took Farfan time to settle into the position, understanding his responsibilities and picking up the tempo of the game to deal with the increased hustle and bustle in the center of the park.
Under John Hackworth, his role has expanded even further and Farfan has yet to completely grasp the role he is being asked to play. Rather than play an advanced midfield role, sitting in front of Carroll and Lahoud/Gomez, the Union have cut the field into thirds with Farfan loosely split out to the left. As the primary playmaker, however, Farfan is required to come central to dictate play. On a night when possession was hard to come by, Farfan was forced to drop into his own half, receiving the ball directly from the back line, more than 30 yards deeper than he would prefer.
Zac MacMath – 4.5
Appears short on confidence following his return from concussion symptoms. His second minute flap at a Houston cross would not have filled him with self-belief, despite Gomez saving his bacon on that occasion. Rushed out quickly to cut down Davis’ angle, but failed to set his feet and was leaning so far towards his near post that the Houston captain had an easy time picking out the far post.
Sheanon Williams – 5
Fought back well to recover enough to earn the start with Ray Gaddis unavailable to deputize due to suspension. Looked less than 100 percent, though he still fully committed to the cause. Got forward when he could but was wary of the threat posed by Davis. Guilty of allowing Kandji too much time and space to turn before putting Davis in for Houston’s opener. Should have had an assist after sticking with the play early in the second half and picking out a wide open Pajoy at the back post, only to see the striker fluff his finish with the empty net begging. With Gaddis available against LA on Wednesday night, it remains to be seen whether coach Hackworth will choose to rest Williams before Sunday’s important showdown with Eastern Conference bottom dwellers Toronto FC.
Amobi Okugo – 6.5
Like many of his teammates, Okugo lacked the overall sharpness he had showed in past matches. Looked frustrated with a midfield that failed to offer a consistent outlet, forcing Okugo and the rest of his defensive mates into more long balls than they would have preferred. Struggled with the size and physicality thrown at him by Kandji, but was still on the scene to make a number of vital tackles to keep Houston from stretching their lead in the first half. Always shows a willingness to play quickly, setting an example that even some of his veteran teammates should follow.
Carlos Valdes – 7
Entering the match, the Union’s game plan would have centered around stifling Brad Davis’ creativity and limiting Will Bruin’s touches on the ball. While the midfield failed in their attempts to put a lid on Davis, Valdes single handedly took Bruin out of the match, using a calculated mixture of smart positioning and physicality to put the young striker off of his game. His defensive work cannot be questioned, but as the captain of the Union, it would nice to see Valdes step into a more verbal role. Right now the Union are missing a player who is willing to do whatever it takes to shake his lethargic teammates back to life on a night when they come out flat as they did on Saturday. Valdes needs to be that voice.
Gabriel Farfan – 6
Does not lose points for his alleged foul on Brian Ching in the box, considering that putting a body on a player in the area to take them out of their rhythm is exactly how a fullback should play. That Ching crashed to earth as if he was rear-ended by a Buick is hardly Farfan’s fault. If Freddy Adu can be booked, and subsequently red carded, for a perceived dive in the box, then Brian Ching, US national team service and all, should receive similar treatment.
Brian Carroll – 4
On days when the Union midfield is running well, Carroll is only required to play simply. The problem comes when the Union struggle, as they did against Houston, and Carroll’s deficits on the ball are exposed. Not only was he sluggish in possession, but as the deepest lying midfielder, he must do a better job of providing an outlet for his defenders. Throughout the 90 minutes on Saturday, each member of the back four could be seen waving their arms in frustration, looking for anyone to offer a short relieving option. When nothing presented itself they were forced to play over the top, pumping the ball up field. Carroll needs to be that option with much greater consistency.
Gabriel Gomez – 4.5
Chasing the shadows of Davis, Camargo and Cameron, Gomez is clearly still working his way back to fitness and struggled to keep up with the pace of play in the midfield. Did reasonably well with the ball at his feet but did not move well to create space for himself and was confined to playing the ball out of his own half, rather than pushing forward. It seems ages ago when he burst onto the MLS scene as a top rated set piece taker. On Saturday, few of his deliveries into the box causing the Dynamo concern, and most failing to beat the first man.
Michael Farfan – 3.5
As mentioned above, Farfan again struggled mightily in the role of primary playmaker, and it didn’t help matters that the rest of his midfield trio turned in poor performances. For Farfan to grow into the position, he must demand that his teammates do the work in their own half to advance the ball, because his vision and guile are required in the offensive half of the pitch to play his strikers in on goal. Farfan must also maintain his focus on keeping the ball on the deck because too frequently he tries to loft a perfectly weighted cross over the defense, often with poor results. Creating an attacking fulcrum can take time, especially in a new system, but if Farfan continues to flounder he might find himself looking up the depth chart at Roger Torres before too long. Perhaps a move to the right forward spot would give Farfan the space to stretch his legs and challenge defenders while looking to slice dangerous, angled balls in from the wing.
Keon Daniel – 5.5
Took his goal well when the opportunity arose, but otherwise looked lost in the advanced right forward slot. The left-footed Daniel prefers to control the tempo of the game through the midfield. Asking him to perform a similar role to Freddy Adu, cutting into the field to distribute and attacking players on the dribble really isn’t his game. He found himself on the ball more than the other Union forwards, but failed to drive play forward with a striker’s mentality, often holding the ball up to maintain possession rather than seeking out a forward option when the break was on.
Lionard Pajoy – 3
Pressed back into center forward duty with Jack McInerney out due to illness, Pajoy slumped back into old habits. His first touch let him down on a number of occasions and he was frustratingly slow to move the ball, preferring to dribble himself. Did well to set the table for Perlaza early in the match, but such moments of smart distribution were few and far between. With the Union needing an outlet up top to relieve the pressure on the defense, Pajoy offered little. And with the Union pressed forward in search of a winner, and then an equalizer, in the second half, Pajoy could be seen dropping so far into midfield that he was not a part of the attack at all. True, the service was not what he would have wanted, but his disinterested and sluggish play reminds Union fans that it is not he, but the 19 year old Jack McInerney who is better suited to lead the line. Missed an absolute sitter that should have put the Union in front in the 49th minute courtesy of a great look from Williams.
Jorge Perlaza – 2.5
Outside of being quick, Perlaza showed very little to suggest that he is more than a squad player for the Union. Was played in by Pajoy for the Union’s only first half scoring chance and rather than pick out the back post with his finish, struck the ball with all the venom he could muster, smashing it wide of the near post. Had one brief moment of promise in the 49th minute when his first time return pass set Michael Farfan up for a shot on goal, but was generally out of sync with his teammates and showed a heavy touch when he did get on the ball. Perlaza’s lacking performance asks further questions about what is happening behind the scenes to keep Josue Martinez from earning consistent minutes for the Union.
Antoine Hoppenot – 5
Moved well and looked lively coming off the bench, but with Pajoy dropping off and the Union midfield overrun, Hoppenot failed to have the same effect as in past matches. Had his leaping, spinning flick of Gabe Farfan’s cross found the back of the net, it would have been a goal of the year candidate, though it was never likely. The surprise contributor of the season, Hoppenot continues to earn his minutes and as he continues to improve in front of goal, just might turn into a consistent goal scorer for the Union.
Michael Lahoud – 4
Ran around in place of Gomez, providing fresh legs and little more as his passing was less than sharp and he failed to offer a credible attacking presence. Until he can find a modicum of offensive productivity to go along with his unquestioned hustle and effort, there will be doubts as to what value Lahoud really offers to the Union lineup.
Freddy Adu – N/A
Only had 6 minutes plus stoppage time to impose himself on the match, but failed to offer a threat and looked no fresher or more dangerous than any of the weary players already on the pitch.
Fotis Bazakos – 0
Did the main thing that referees aren’t supposed to do: Bazakos decided the game. It was a dive from Brian Ching, a big, tough player who, like the Mark van Bommels of the world, can dish it out, but cannot take it. With the emphasis always, allegedly, on stamping out simulation in the game, it remains odd that officials are so easily taken in.
Otherwise Bazakos seemed to want to do everything possible to keep the play moving, which is laudable, except for when its not. Twice Carlos Valdes and Gabe Farfan were bowled over in dangerous positions and with the referee waving play on, Houston nearly had goal-scoring opportunities on both occasions were it not for the Union’s scrambling defense.
The issue then is inconsistency. Something that’s a foul 10 out of 10 times for Salazar, Toledo or Geiger also needs to be a foul for Bazakos and on Saturday, it simply was not.
Bob Rigby – 0
Another week, another howler from the Union color guy who just can’t get it right. From a disarmingly unprofessional familiarity with players to downright inaccurate analysis, Rigby would have Union fans across the Delaware Valley scrambling for their mute buttons if waiting for his next on-air gaffe was not so enjoyably humorous.
Preferred lineup for Wednesday night against LA Galaxy
MacMath; Williams, Okugo, Valdes, G. Farfan; Carroll, Torres, Lahoud; M. Farfan, McInerney, Pajoy