Photo: Nicolae Stoian
What: Union (Road: 1-5-1) at LA Galaxy (Home: 4-4-1)
Where: The Home Depot Center
When: 10:30pm EST
Why: Because nobody has kicked a ball at an injured Philly player in a while.
Watch: CSN, MLS Direct Kick, MLS Live
People generally like to keep what they already have. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is actually an accurate description of human behavior.
The Union, however, have rarely followed this pattern. Leave aside all the trades, transfers and odd substitutions of the past six months, and you are still left with tactical decisions that just don’t seem to add up. While John Hackworth made a few immediate changes, he also left a few square pegs in round holes.
As Eli pointed out in his analysis of the Houston match, Michael Farfan is the clearest example remaining of a player who needs a jumpstart. Calling Marfan the Union’s most talented winger implies there are other options to choose from. There are not. At least not in his league.
But for most of the season Michael Farfan has been asked to play the central creative role, and while he has hardly been a complete failure, he has not been the dynamic force that pushed CJ Sapong for Rookie of the Year honors in 2011.
Luckily, there is a simple solution. In the Union’s newly preferred 4-3-3 formation, a winger who can take defenders can have a huge influence on a match. Midfielders are more willing to abandon the center against a 4-3-3, assuming a diminished threat from the middle. A few runs at the outside back, and Marfan will have the regular double-coverage that Lio Pajoy and Freddy Adu have rarely forced opponents to resort to. After the disappointing step backward the Union took against Houston, putting Michael Farfan in a position to find his form is hardly a bold move. (The bold part is sitting Freddy Adu for the second straight match.)
The Los Angeles Galaxy are in disarray. David Beckham’s childishness and the pettiness that has always characterized a team expecting special treatment for the man in the middle have made the Galaxy something of a carnival this season. But for all the criticism heaped on Beckham (and there hasn’t been nearly enough) and his teammates, one can hardly accuse them of listlessness. Poor play? Check. Disorganized, star-guided tactics? Check. More excuses than a group of kids around a broken window? Check. But nobody is taking the Galaxy lightly.
Tighter in the middle
Using the Houston match as a measuring stick, how should the Union approach change against LA? The primary improvement, as was clear to everyone who watched and elucidated by Eli in the match report, must come in the midfield. Eli noted that certain individuals did not play well together, but above and beyond that, the team’s defense was desperately uncoordinated in the middle third. Michael Farfan was chasing the ball to both sidelines while Lio Pajoy only dropped back to pressure the ball after it had been played to the middle.
This highlights a common problem for the Union: They pressure the first man well but rarely offer the kind of coordinated support required to force other teams to dump and chase. Dump and chase, by the way, is the strategy you see Philly resort to moments after Sheanon Williams throws his hands up in frustration after trying to find someone—anyone!—out of the back.
Midfield defense is not an easy sell, especially in MLS. It’s understandable why Gabriel Gomez would think he can sit back and wait for the opposition to make a mistake. That’s often what happens. But inviting pressure for 90 minutes is like inviting a three-year-old to go antiquing: Something’s going to break.
LA’s tactical approach
Midfield pressure will be especially important against LA, a team that doesn’t ask its central midfielders to get far up the pitch. Why would they? An immobile Englishman with an Olympic marksman for a right foot can run the offense from any spot on the pitch.
And instead of pushing forward through the middle, LA allows wingers like Mike Magee to flood the box while tireless outside backs push forward on the wings. At their best, the Galaxy appear to be on a constant counterattack. When they are forced to hold play up and search for options, they become much less dynamic.
Using the fullbacks
If the Union’s own outside backs are not involved in the offense, expect trouble. When Sheanon Williams is pushing forward, it forces the opposition’s fullbacks to stay at home. Gabe Farfan has put in three crosses in the three matches under John Hackworth (one successful). While this stat sounds disappointing, it shouldn’t. Blasting crosses is a less than fruitful exercise with the Union’s limited height, particularly from Garfan’s side since it’s likely Pajoy will be providing support rather than getting his block in the box.
What is disappointing is this: 2, 1, 6. Those are are Garfan’s completed pass numbers in the final third against DC, KC and Houston respectively. Against Kansas City, this is understandable. After the first few minutes, it hardly made sense for the Union to push forward. But to create solid chances with any regularity, Philly has to be able to establish a rhythm around the opponent’s box, and this means getting the fullbacks forward and moving the ball around with speed. Not only does this create gaps in the defense, it allows the Union to rest and let the ball do the work.
In the end, what LA offers the Union is a real test of fortitude. San Jose had the last laugh against the Galaxy on Saturday, and that laughter will still be ringing in the ears of the southern California squad when they meet Philadelphia. The Union, on the other hand, have rarely shown the kind of fire that would imply they can handle a motivated team on the road.
John Hackworth has made the players believe in themselves again. But believing in yourself and believing in your team are wholly different concepts. When the Union beat DC United in the US Open Cup, Michael Farfan showed the type of fire that rises from the heart and passes through the crest on the jersey. For many reasons, the 2012 Philadelphia Union have worn that crest as a burden. Tomorrow they must wear it with pride.
- GK: MacMath
- DEF: Williams, Okugo, Valdes, Garfan
- MID: Lahoud, Carroll, Torres
- FWD: Martinez, McInerney, Marfan
- GK: Saunders
- DEF: Dunivant, Lopez, DeLaGarza, Franklin
- MID: Magee, Juninho, Stephens , Jimenez
- FWD: Keane, Donovan
- Beckham (hee hee) – yellow card accumulation