Photo: Paul Rudderow
It sure wasn’t pretty, but the Union will take it.
After the surprising victory in LA and dominant display against Toronto, the Union never looked fully focused against Montreal. More like the team who succumbed to Kansas City’s negative tactics in midweek, Montreal had the better chances on the night. But the Union seem to have turned a corner and the bounces are suddenly going their way.
It’s a good thing too, as Carlos Valdes’ stoppage time heroics fired the Union to a third successive victory for the first time in team history and sent the Union captain to the All-Star Game.
A blueprint to defend the Union
While the loss of midfield fluidity can be partially attributed to Michael Farfan’s absence, the Union’s recently anointed playmaker failed to provide the breakthrough against Kansas City in the Open Cup semifinal either, as a deep-sitting, disciplined Sporting side limited the Union’s chances. In order to keep the wins coming and the attacking soccer flowing, the Union must prove that they have the quality to break down even the most well-organized sides, maintaining their patience and movement and drawing out their opponent, rather than forcing passes and conceding on the counterattacks.
Missing top players on both sides of the ball, Jesse Marsch took the defensive route, packing his team into their own half, with only Felipe Martins sitting beneath Marco Di Vaio as out and out attackers. Rather than look to possess the ball, Montreal waited for the Union to make mistakes. A more clinical team would have punished the Union for their sloppy build-up play.
Fortunately for the Union, they travel to New York this weekend to take on a team that is unlikely to play bunker ball, instead trusting their own attacking prowess to win the day. Still, Kansas City’s and Montreal’s performances could provide less adventurous MLS sides with a plan to frustrate and defeat the Union’s run-and-gun 4-3-3 formation.
Keep your shape
One of the biggest problems the Union faced in their approach to Montreal’s defensive posture was maintaining their shape in the face of tough defensive pressure. Recalling how the Union of 2011 struggled to get adequate numbers forward into the attack, it is hard to imagine that less than a year later, the same team would be struggling with the opposite problem.
With too many bodies pushed forward against Montreal, that is exactly where the Union found themselves. With Freddy Adu tasked with controlling the midfield in the first half, center backs Carlos Valdes and Amobi Okugo repeatedly looked upfield only to find five of their teammates testing the Impact’s defensive line. All three forwards, Adu and the far side fullback were pushed so far up field that the only options left for the defense were the short outlet to Brian Carroll or Michael Lahoud, pump the ball forward, or play catch amongst themselves, waiting for movement up front to open up an option.
For all their defensive work, Carroll and Lahoud are both dangerously ineffective when it comes to build-up play. Both can take a quick pass, returning it to its sender, but when the ball is coming from a defender, constantly putting the onus back onto Valdes, Okugo, Williams or Gabe Farfan is too negative. Unless either midfielder proves that they can help the offense get forward and can cut down on the turnovers from bad passes and being caught in possession, one must be sacrificed if the Union are to succeed with a three man midfield.
Not that they had much help.
Wingers Josue Martinez and Keon Daniel were outplayed and outhustled by Zarek Valentin and converted midfielder Jeb Brovsky. Both Union players were stagnant up front. When the ball did eventually come their way, they were reluctant to show for it, allowing the Impact defense to step into the passing lanes and cut off play.
With so little quality in the attack, the Union owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Valdes and Okugo for once again keeping them in a match where the midfield and offense underperformed. With Carroll masquerading as a deep seated playmaker in the first half, he was pulled away from his main role of being a screen for the back line. Felipe Martins and Marco Di Vaio thus had time and space to run unchallenged at the back line, but time and again Valdes and Okugo rose to the occasion, pulling off a vital interception when an Impact player looked certain to race in behind.
Additionally, the comfort shown on the ball by the two last men in defense limited the damage done by the clumsy midfield, keeping possession and finding the outlet up the wing, or over the top, often passing up the midfield entirely.
Zac MacMath – 6.5
Was on his way to the performance of the season when a simple communication error nearly cost the Union dearly. Must stay fully focused for the full 90 minutes. If MacMath wants the ball at the near post — and in that instance he should — everyone in PPL Park should hear it. Otherwise, he was excellent in keeping the Union in the game as long as he did, denying both Mapp and Di Vaio from close range.
Sheanon Williams – 6
Still looks slightly below his best after returning from a toe injury. Justin Mapp tormented his former teammate, getting in behind Williams on multiple occasions to create Montreal’s best opportunities, especially in the first half. While he failed to find consistent chemistry with Keon Daniel up the wing, Williams continues to look dangerous whenever he gets forward. He served up the perfect ball for McInerney’s diving header. Were it not for his cannon of a throw-in, the Union would likely have let a full three points slip through their fingers.
Amobi Okugo – 8
Another immense showing by a player who is now consistently one of the best in the Union side. Since taking over at center back he has dramatically improved his aerial game, which was on full display against Montreal, winning header after header in the area. Only allowed Di Vaio behind him once and can thank MacMath for coming up with the save on that occasion. Otherwise, Okugo barely put a foot wrong, emerging from his strong tackles with the ball to start the attack for the Union on many occasions. Now that he has been given the minutes to show off the quality of his distribution and vision, Union manager John Hackworth should be looking to move him back to his natural position as soon as Bakary Soumare is available for selection.
Carlos Valdes – 8.5
It’s fitting that, after another dominant defensive performance, Valdes would finally score a goal, given how the Union’s captain loves to get forward whenever possible. He rose well to flick Williams header off of Shavar Thomas before turning to pounce on the rebound. Commissioner Don Garber’s selection of Valdes for the All Star Game is a just tribute for the Union’s best and most consistent performer. Valdes will certainly represent his team and city well on home soil next Wednesday.
Gabriel Farfan – 7.5
Did well to keep the shackles on Davy Arnaud, a well-known practitioner of the dark arts of diving and referee badgering. Farfan offered just enough physicality to throw Arnaud off of his game without giving the referee cause to listen to the Impact captain’s dramatic pleas. Going forward, Farfan showed off his entire bag of tricks, dancing past defenders and proving the catalyst for some of the Union’s finest attacking moves. His work to set up Lionard Pajoy for a free header deserves recognition, as does his work for the shot that forced Ricketts into an awkward save and resulted in a juicy rebound at Pajoy’s feet.
Brian Carroll – 6
Recovered from a very disappointing first half to help lead the Union in the second. Needs to remember his strengths and play within himself for the Union to be successful. In the first half, he allowed himself to become stretched, trying to play too aggressively and forgetting his main duty to occupy the center of the pitch and protect his back line. When the Union brought on more creative players in the second half, Carroll quickly fell back into his traditional role, where he was far more effective.
Michael Lahoud – 4
The final 15 minutes of the first half were full of cringe-worthy moments for Lahoud when he unintentionally launched a handful of Montreal counterattacks with wasteful, dangerous passing. Chugging around the midfield, Lahoud has more than proved his merits at maintaining possession with short lateral and negative passes, but when required to press forward, he has been found wanting. His teammates did little to help him on the night, but his days as a starter in Hackworth’s three man midfield may be numbered with Gomez nearing full health and Bakary Soumare’s imminent debut offering Okugo the chance to return to his natural position.
Freddy Adu – 4
His performance is unlikely to have convinced the coaching staff he is capable of operating in the center of the park. Showed poor decision making when picking out his passes and dribbling opportunities. Gets credit for showing energy, at least in comparison to his sluggish teammates. Did not put himself in the positions necessary to help his team, playing almost as a withdrawn striker, which left Carroll and Lahoud to get pummeled in midfield. While Adu might thrive in the CAM role in a four-man midfield, his positioning, lack of backtracking and wastefulness on the ball make him a far less useful option than Michael Farfan in a three-man set. Not a good sign that the Union were more dangerous after his departure.
Keon Daniel – 4
Another match in which the Trinidadian was given the opportunity to prove himself and failed to bring the goods. Looked slow and downright disinterested in the first half as Jeb Brovsky beat him to nearly every ball with Daniel slow to react or check back to his teammates. Improved slightly when he was allowed to drop into the midfield in the second half, but with Gomez, Carroll, Lahoud and Okugo all on the roster, Daniel must prove he can offer more than strong dribbling for the Union. The emphasis must be on his attacking game if he is going to continue to earn minutes at any position. Caught in two minds on the own goal, Daniel must commit to clearing his lines if there is any uncertainty. As it was, he shrank from the ball, so allowing it to glance off of him into the back of the net.
Jack McInerney – 6
Offered the best option of the starting forwards. Despite occupying the center channel, was forced to drop into midfield and into wide areas looking for work. Got himself into a great position for his diving header, bringing the best out of Ricketts on the stop. Earned a clear penalty, only to see referee Juan Guzman miss the call and incorrectly caution him for simulation. With Adu departing due to injury and other players struggling around him, played a rare 90 minutes, looking less than comfortable in the withdrawn role behind Hoppenot. Given that attacking reinforcements will always be brought on late in the game to secure an equalizer or winner, McInerney must improve this facet of his game if he hopes to become a consistent 90-minute player.
Josue Martinez – 3.5
Started the match well and, in the first 10 minutes, was involved in the build up and looked menacing up the left flank .But after that early flurry of activity, Martinez faded badly and offered little by way of attack or possession. Failed to make any of the dangerous runs of which he is capable. Preferring to hold the high line, he isolated himself from his struggling midfield and ended up watching McInerney run around him, waiting for a through ball which ultimately would not come. Will continue to be an infrequent participant for the Union until he shows considerably more in terms of work rate and quality going forward.
Lionard Pajoy – 7
A mixed bag for Pajoy, but in the end, he found the target. On one hand, he wasted a glut of golden chances to put the Union into the lead. On the other, he continued to put himself in good spots up until he finally finished in the 82nd minute. Earns high marks for thrusting the Union into the lead in a match where they were not the better side, but it seems clear that at some point, his missed chances will hurt the Union.
Antoine Hoppenot – 7
It’s hard to say enough good things about Hoppenot’s continued impact on the surging Union. Used all the tools at his disposal to set the table for Pajoy’s opener, showing strength, speed and skill on the ball. After holding off multiple defenders to give his teammates time to get forward, Hoppenot picked out Gomez with a quick pass. Continuing his run, he again shielded the ball before firing his cross into the danger area, where Pajoy could pounce. Showed more veteran headiness late in the game when he broke off his streaking run to goal in favor of running down the clock in the corner.
Gabriel Gomez – 5.5
Brought maturity and composure to the Union attack, adding creativity that was lacking from Lahoud. Clumsy defensively, Montreal passed around him all too comfortably, though the game was stretched. Popped up smartly to play in Hoppenot for the Union’s opener. Looked to be laboring tracking back. Despite playing less than half an hour, he seemed about as gassed as those who played the full 90, calling into question his match fitness.
Juan Guzman – 0
Guzman turned in such an inept performance that it teeters on the edge of throwing his integrity into question. After a first half in which the Union had 60 percent of the ball and notched nearly 100 more passes than their opponent, Guzman had whistled only a single foul against the visiting Impact. From inconsistency to downright inaccuracy, it’s shocking that MLS can review this performance and allow him to referee another match any time soon.
While his failure to see Camara’s handball on McInerney’s diving header was understandable, his decision to yellow-card the Union’s center forward for a dive is not. Not only is there clear contact between McInerney and Camara (see 38 seconds into the video where Camara’s leg moves in the collision, eliminating any notion of a dive), but the fact that the Impact defender even challenged McInerney’s body when the ball was played to his other side is enough to earn a penalty for the Union. Additionally, from Guzman’s position trailing the play, there is no way for him have seen a dive. He could have given a penalty, or waved play on, but to show a yellow card on a play where he was poorly positioned is an error in judgement bordering on incompetence.
Guzman also needs to take a refresher course on the advantage rule. Simply maintaining possession of the ball does not constitute advantage when a player has been hacked to the ground and the ball has been played laterally or backwards. Advantageous situations occur when an attacking team can continue their forward momentum regardless of the player who has been fouled. And that’s about it. Guzman’s reluctance to blow his whistle was consistently to the detriment of the team his ruling should have aided, whether it was the Union or the Impact.
Preferred lineup for Saturday’s match @ NYRB
MacMath; Williams, Okugo, Valdes, G. Farfan; Carroll, Gomez, M. Farfan; Adu, McInerney, Pajoy