Photo: Earl Gardner
It was a night to remember for the Union.
And that’s putting it mildly.
Outplayed and outclassed for the majority of the match at the Home Depot Center, the opportunity to steal their first victory against Los Angeles Galaxy would have never been a possibility were it not for the tenaciously scrambling Union defense and Zac MacMath’s best showing of 2012.
On any other night, Robbie Keane would not have failed on each of three individual one-on-one chances against MacMath in the first 25 minutes of the match, but the Union finally got the bounces and breaks that have gone against them so frequently in 2012.
As fair warning, to analyze this match is to focus on the negatives, because despite the two goals — for which there are barely enough superlatives — John Hackworth’s side turned in a second straight lackluster effort.
In the end however, the timeliness of the goals and victory itself is more than enough to fire the Union forward into the densest portion of their 2012 calendar.
Oh, Freddy, where art thou?
Dropping deeper than the club’s published 4-3-3 formation would suggest, Freddy Adu and Keon Daniel were expected to help maintain the ball, control the pace and keep the Galaxy from gaining total control of midfield. One player was successful in his task. The other was Adu. Daniel hustled up and down the left touchline, working hard to keep possession and recover on defense while completing a tidy 28 of 29 passes. His bookend, Adu, was a liability not only on defense, but in the attack as well.
Adu has never been known as the type of player to defend his position, and Union manager John Hackworth has recently turned to the industrious Michael Lahoud to sit behind Adu and clean up his messes.
Now, the problem for Hackworth and the Union is that Adu has stopped offering even a modicum of offensive potency to justify his selection. Surrounded by players who have bought into Hackworth’s high-paced, attacking plan for the club, Adu still prefers to go it alone. Whether that means dribbling into traffic, slowing down the play to attempt a series of fancy but ineffective stepovers, or attempting the most improbable of through balls, Adu is not playing to the greater good of the Union. Add in his lack of desire to engage in physical challenges and propensity for going to ground at the slightest contact, and the Union have a player on their hands who simply is no longer deserving of a starting spot.
A Union stalwart ever since his arrived before the start of the 2011 campaign, the book on Brian Carroll is pretty clearly written. In a traditional 4-4-2 setup, he thrives as the defensive midfielder, sitting behind an attacking fulcrum and winning back the ball for the Union. When the Union have switched to a formation favoring two holding players, Carroll’s impact has waned the further he has been pushed from the direct center of the pitch.
With the 4-3-3 the Union are currently employing comes the need for Carroll to show more range than ever before. Pajoy has been better at tracking back defensively in recent weeks, but in partnership with Jack McInerney and Adu, they will never be a trio with a strong defensive rate. That puts more pressure on Carroll to stray from the comfort he enjoys in the center of the pitch to fill the opponent’s passing lanes and make tackles. On the offensive side of the ball, with three forwards awaiting service and Michael Farfan endeavoring to stay higher up the pitch where he can create consistent havoc, the onus for linking the back line to the attack falls on Carroll more than ever before.
Against the Galaxy and Houston last weekend, Carroll was badly exposed on both accounts. He was not quick enough to get to his spots defensively. Going forward, one need only watch the Union defenders throwing their arms up in frustration when they were unable to find a simple outlet pass and were instead forced to pump the ball up field.
Fortunately for the Union, they have a ready-made replacement in Amobi Okugo. When Bakary Soumare is fully fit, Okugo should slide forward to take Carroll’s place. Okugo offers the greatest defensive range of the Union’s midfielders and has shown his ability to play both quickly with the ball at feet and seek out his teammates at range with precise long balls and timely switches of field.
Good to have you back, Michael
It had been a long time coming, but after a month of mediocre performances in which Michael Farfan struggled to find his place in John Hackworth’s system, the mercurial Union playmaker both created and scored a goal against Los Angeles.
Dropping too far back to serve as the defensive outlet in recent matches, Farfan had been relegated to knocking the ball around deep in midfield. It’s an essential task that must be filled on any possession oriented team, but not one for a player who excels in one-on-one confrontations high up the pitch, using his skill on the ball to beguile defenders.
With Adu and Daniel playing through the midfield Wednesday, Farfan suddenly found himself with a license to plunder forward, pressing up alongside Jack McInerney to pressure the Galaxy back line.
When Farfan finally earned the chance to face down a defender, he took it decisively. Having drawn David Lopes out to the touchline just before halftime, Farfan pounced, twisting and turning the big defender before beating him to the endline, serving up the perfect ball for McInerney to tuck home.
This is the game the Union need from Farfan. Most of his work will be utilitarian as he quickly and efficiently moves the ball through the midfield, seeking out his forwards and putting his fullbacks into space. But it is just that consistency that will free him up to take his chances when they arrive. Where he, Adu and Roger Torres have been guilty of forcing the play in the past, Farfan’s consistent influence in midfield will bring the chances to him.
Zac MacMath – 7
A tremendous response from the young Union keeper after a shaky outing in Houston. Put any issues with confidence in the rear view mirror with his aggressiveness off his line and in the air. Even though he was unable to stop Robbie Keane from rounding him twice, he managed to put the Irish international into a spot where his defenders could make the goal line clearance. Commanded his box well and showed good decision making when choosing between claiming the ball or punching/tipping it to safety.
Sheanon Williams – 5
Still looks less than 100 percent fit and, at times, struggled with the pace of the game. With LA turning up the full court press, Williams was unable to get forward with his regular volume of surging runs, but he threw his body around with reckless abandon for the Union’s cause. Is unlikely to see any threats quite like Donovan, Keane and Magee when Toronto and Montreal come to town.
Amobi Okugo – 6.5
Had a nervy first 10 minutes with Keane besting him with the ball at his feet, but recovered well and put in a strong shift alongside Valdes in the heart of the Union defense. Clogged the passing lanes, won the ball in the air and put in a number of savvy, important tackles that speak to just how quick a study the young converted midfielder is. As mentioned above, when Soumare returns to full fitness, Okugo should slide forward, giving Carroll a break because the third year man has both the defensive range and passing acumen that Carroll lacks.
Carlos Valdes – 6.5
Was in the right place at the right time to make the night’s first goal line clearance, but endured similarly nervy moments to his fellow defenders. Lost Keane in the 25th minute, but was fortunate to get bailed out by MacMath’s excellent breakaway save. Did well to stay disciplined after receiving an early yellow card for hacking down Donovan after he had turned the ball over. Will be hoping for more midfield support on Sunday so that he can turn his complete attention to his battle with the red hot Danny Koevermans.
Gabriel Farfan – 5.5
His regular combative self, Farfan still needs to improve on being physical without the use of clutching, grabbing, swinging arms. Did extremely well to get his body in the way of Keane’s effort on the goal line early in the match and combined well with Keon Daniel up the left flank as the Union looked to solve the Galaxy’s pressure. Like Williams, he was pinned back for most of the match, with Jimenez and DeLaGarza coming forward in waves. He’ll be eager to stretch his legs in the coming matches and be more of an aid to the attack.
Brian Carroll – 4
See above. A step slow in defense and unavailable to take the first pass from the Union defense, Carroll did not look up to speed as the anchor of the Union’s three-man midfield. With Soumare still weeks away from fitness, Carroll will have more chances to prove his worth in this setup before Okugo is freed to challenge for his spot. He must be more aggressive on both sides of the ball. Defensively, he must stop the ball rather than slow it. When the Union recover possession, he must put himself in the best position to receive the ball and start the attack.
Michael Lahoud – 4
Returning to the starting lineup for Gabriel Gomez, Lahoud did what Union fans have come to expect from him: He ran around. Too much of his running was aimless and put him into positions where he had to chase the play. Nearly as complicit as Brian Carroll in failing to screen the defense, allowing the Galaxy to stroll through the midfield on their way towards goal. Outside of one dangerous turnover in the second half, did not do anything egregiously wrong in his play, but was never up to the speed of the game and found himself chasing throughout.
Michael Farfan – 7.5
As mentioned above, Farfan stepped into the spotlight for the Union as he finally looked comfortable running the Union midfield. No great playmaker can play a deadly ball with each touch, and as Farfan grows into the role, he is learning to take his chances when they come, rather than force them. He showed great recognition to attack David Lopes, with the big centerback too far from goal, to set up McInerney’s tally, and he picked out his forward run smartly for his own strike. His finish was of the cool, calm and collected variety that reminds Union fans that Farfan has the big game temperament to shine when the going gets tough.
Keon Daniel – 5.5
Were Daniel to be playing as a full time midfielder, his efficient, methodical performance would have earned higher marks. But, lined up as a forward for John Hackworth, he failed to get forward and create the kind of danger the Union needed to keep LA from maintaining their all-out onslaught on the Union box. A central midfielder by trade, Daniel’s smart passing, strong dribbling and defensive work rate might offer a third answer to the Lahoud vs. Gomez question.
Jack McInerney – 7
The goal was a thing of beauty, but McInerney offered much more for the Union on Wednesday night. He took to the challenge of playing alone up top with energy and strength, never shying away from contact against the enormous pairing of Omar Gonzalez and David Lopes. He also widened his angles of running to pull the center backs away from the middle of the pitch and worked hard to lay the ball off with his back to goal. Good strikers make the most of whatever service they get, and on a night when quality chances were few and far between, McInerney deserves plenty of credit for getting on the score sheet.
Freddy Adu – 2.5
As mentioned above, it was another below par display from Adu, who at times looked disinterested and at other times downright poor. He clearly wants the star treatment that Landon Donovan enjoys, but he does not create the consistent danger to merit any special indulgence from officials. With Roger Torres nearing full fitness and plenty of other players hungrier for minutes, it will be hard for Hackworth to keep trotting out Adu without seeing a significant change in attitude and effort.
Gabriel Gomez – 6
Brought a calming, veteran presence to the Union, but unfortunately, was unable to help his side find their feet until after they had conceded the equalizer. Clearly has more quality in attack than Lahoud, but questions linger about his ability to mesh with Carroll in the center of the pitch. The Union show no signs of changing their formation, however, and with Carroll far more entrenched, more of the burden to make the partnership work falls on the Panamanian.
Antoine Hoppenot – 6
Could have bagged the winner himself when he proved too quick for the LA backline, scampering between DeLaGarza and Lopes, only to be denied by the onrushing Josh Saunders. As he refines his game and becomes a better finisher, Hoppenot could quickly become the best “12th man” in MLS, if he isn’t already.
Lionard Pajoy – 7
Was given a quarter of an hour to spark the offense to life after LA’s equalizer and did his job well, setting the table for Michael Farfan’s heroics with a backheel that wouldn’t be believable were it not recorded on video. Showed incredible vision to spot Farfan, as well as precise technique to pull off the move. Pajoy looks more and more confident in the left forward berth for the Union with each passing match.
Armando Villarreal – 3
Taking charge of only his third MLS match, Villarreal was seeing the stars as he showed the Galaxy the respect and reverence usually reserved for fans seeking autographs after a match. Despite being berated and assaulted by Donovan, Magee, DeLaGarza and Juninho all match, the only player to go in his notebook for dissent was Zac MacMath, who tired of the perceived favoritism and was immediately censured for his comments.
Giving Donovan the Gretzky treatment sets a dangerous precedent considering how quickly the Galaxy captain goes to ground.
In the end, the Union likely benefited from the Villarreal’s desire to placate the home side when Michael Farfan took advantage of the exorbitant six minutes of stoppage time to steal all three points at the Home Depot Center.
Bob Rigby – 0
Hit all of his typical rhythms with respect to misnaming players and speaking as if he was a member of the starting XI or, at the very least, a team spokesperson. Added a new alarming trait to his repertoire when he began to predict how the match would play out as it wore towards conclusion. Letting viewers know that LA was tired and the Union could hit them on the counterattack came moments before the Galaxy leveled. A broadcaster who works to hone his craft through self-awareness of his performance would quickly realize the error of his ways. Rigby won’t. Luckily, the next set of home games will give many Union fans a respite.
Preferred starting XI for Sunday’s match vs. Toronto FC
MacMath; Williams, Okugo, Valdes, G. Farfan; Carroll, Daniel, Torres; Pajoy, McInerney, M. Farfan