Photo: Michael Long
There goes that winning streak.
But after securing nine points from the three previous matches, there’s no reason to start sharpening the pitchforks and lighting the torches just yet. It always stings to lose to a rival, but when that particular rival is at the top of the Eastern Conference and undefeated at home this season, it’s hard to get too worked up. While the Red Bulls are built to win now, the Union have finally put their faith in the youth on whom the club was founded.
The Union are not legitimate title contenders for 2012. In fact, the Union look more like what fans and pundits expected from the inaugural 2010 team than from a seasoned MLS side. But in order to come good on a youthful roster with a dynamic core including Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo, Michael Farfan, Gabe Farfan, Sheanon Williams, Zac MacMath, Roger Torres, Antoine Hoppenot and co., there will be losses.
So how can this team get better?
Play faster, cover the middle and stay on your feet. Easier said than done in MLS.
The chemistry was missing from the Union attack Saturday; that much was obvious. Lionard Pajoy seemed tasked with a one-man mission on the wing, while in the center, Jack McInerney just couldn’t stay onside. It’s important to note that the fault for these infractions does not lie with the Union’s teenage striker, however.
Since his insertion into the starting lineup, McInerney has shown an ability to make heady runs and get in behind defenders with a quality and frequency generally reserved for players with a decade more experience. Yet, despite playing against Markus Holgersson and Wilman Conde, two center backs not known for their quick feet, McInerney fell pray to the offside trap time and time again. With New York holding a high line, McInerney should have been able to burst through with regularity. Despite delaying his runs as long as he could, the service simply did not come.
Whether it was Michael Farfan, Brian Carroll or Michael Lahoud in midfield or an advancing wing back in Gabe Farfan or Sheanon Williams, the Union simply delayed too long on the ball. They must move the ball faster if they are to keep teams from putting the clamps on them in a similar fashion.
Michael Farfan in particular must find the next gear if he is to run the Union attack with any consistency. He has all the tools for the job — vision, awareness and excellent skill on the ball — but at times he simply seems to be managing the tempo of the game, methodically knocking the ball around when a sharper, more aggressive tactic is required.
It’s an enormous burden to be thrust into a playmaking role on a team where that means being one of the sole attacking catalysts, but that’s where the Union and Farfan find themselves. Neither Carroll or Lahoud appear capable of bringing any offensive potency to the table, a deficiency John Hackworth must address. But in the short term, the pair can help their team by helping Farfan to raise the speed of play. Reducing their number of touches and moving the ball more quickly will decrease the number of turnovers, especially those where they are caught in possession in dangerous areas of the pitch.
With the ball moving faster and the extra, unnecessary touches eliminated, the Union can begin to take better advantage of an attacking core with the speed and smarts to get in behind any defense in MLS.
Cover the middle
One element of Hackworth’s 4-3-3 that the Union have yet to solve is finding a consistent defensive shape when the opposition attacks. At times Michael Farfan joins McInerney up top, with the two wing forwards dropping into the midfield, while at others, all three forwards fail to retreat, leaving the Union to scramble in midfield, chasing after the ball with whoever is closest.
Against New York, the lack of defensive work rate from the wing forwards simply left too much ground for Carroll and Lahoud to cover. Carroll is best when he can retain his central positioning and direct traffic around him, but with the Red Bulls advancing up the flanks through Sebastien Le Toux and Connor Lade, he was forced to stray too far in his duties. Once Carroll and Lahoud were stretched, the most important real estate on the pitch became free for the taking. Thierry Henry, Joel Lindpere and Le Toux all took turns dropping into the void left in the center of the pitch to collect the ball and attack the unprotected back four.
Yes, a 4-3-3 is an aggressive, attacking formation, but it can also be a strong, well-organized defensive set up if players are willing to do the hard work to track back on defense. As currently constituted, Lahoud and Carroll should sit deep on defense, aligned next to each other, splitting the field in half, with Michael Farfan patrolling the area above them. Both wing forwards must work to get behind the ball so that when the attack comes, the near side winger can work with his fullback, with one of Carroll-Lahoud sliding out to support. With one central midfielder vacating his post, one always remains to protect the vital pocket of space in the center in front of the back four. Doing the hard work to get back allows the Union to hunt in packs defensively, bringing two and three players to the ball and making it easier to win it back.
Stay on your feet
It’s official: The Union have a reputation as divers. Whether it’s warranted or not (it’s not; just look around the league), officials now look at the Union and expect simulation. More than the embarrassment of such a label or the racking up of yellow cards, these perceived dives are biasing officials against the club, and it’s costing the Union not only penalties, but also fouls and other goal-scoring opportunities.
To be clear, Hilario Grajeda was correct to show Gabe Farfan a caution for his flop at Red Bull Arena. And Farfan should think long and hard about the consequences of the call on the game. Minutes later when the Union had a clear goal-scoring opportunity denied when Jonathan Borrajo intentionally and cynically pulled down McInerney, Grajeda showed his bias. As the final defender, Borrajo could have easily seen red for the foul, yet Grajeda turned a blind eye on the blatant transgression.
Less than a minute later, Kenny Cooper scored New York’s second goal.
Zac MacMath – 4.5
Despite being blameless on both goals, MacMath struck a nervous figure in the Union box. Flapped at an early cross and juggled the ball on too many occasions, MacMath must project the confidence to inspire his side, not the other way around. Showed quickness and bravery to take the ball off of Le Toux’s feet late in the match.
Sheanon Williams – 4.5
Williams looked slow to accelerate up the pitch on Saturday and did not close down play in front of him with his typical voracity. New York’s aggressive, homegrown talent Connor Lade got the better of him on more occasions than would be expected. Williams will benefit more than any other player from a week off to return to full fitness.
Amobi Okugo – 6
Unlucky to be caught ball-watching on Cooper’s first goal because he put in a strong shift around the rest of the park. Very strong in possession, especially with Cooper draped on his back. Showed his positional inexperience at times when he was unsure whether to step up to engage Red Bull players when they had a free run through the center of the midfield. Still won a number of important headers and put in some vital tackles. Limited Henry’s chance as much as could be hoped for given the circumstances.
Carlos Valdes – 6
Battled hard against all comers, but was undone by one of his trademark runs up the center of the park. Easily dispossessed in midfield, Valdes never fully recovered, leaving Cooper with the space he needed to head home the insurance goal. Like Okugo, it’s hard to call out the center back for one mistake, considering the defense was under siege all afternoon, but playing for a team that is still working to develop a consistent attack, it’s a fact of life. Will enjoy his well-deserved trip to the All-Star Game this week before trying to right the ship again on Sunday.
Gabriel Farfan – 3
The third Union player to be cautioned for simulation, Farfan’s dive was the most blatant. Had time to square the ball into the box after he easily skinned Borrajo, making his decision to go to ground even more surprising. Caught rooted to the ground on both goals, though other than throwing his body into Cooper, there was little he would have been able to do against the powerful striker. Expect the fiery fullback to come back against the Revolution with renewed focus and a desire to get forward and atone for his mistake.
Brian Carroll – 5.5
Forced to do a tremendous amount of work as he hustled sideline to sideline. This is not the game Carroll wants to play, nor is it the one for which he is best suited, but the Union’s most experienced man led by example on Saturday. As mentioned above, he must receive more defensive support from his forwards so he can stay central, cutting down the passing lanes and winning the ball in the center of the park. Must do a better job closing down players on the flank, as he left Henry with ample time to pick out Cooper for New York’s second goal.
Michael Lahoud – 4
Having two out and out defensive midfielders in a three-man setup negates the potency of having three men up front in the forward line, making the Union easy to defend going forward. Yet while even Brian Carroll has tried to raise his offensive game, Lahoud continues to be content to knock the ball sideways and backwards rather than looking to advance play. Did well to get out of pressure on a few occasions, though often they were self-created situations. Must cut down on the times he is caught in possession, because sooner or later, those mistakes will prove deadly.
Michael Farfan – 5.5
As mentioned above, Farfan teased Union fans on Saturday because he was so close to putting it all together against the Red Bulls. While not the virtuoso performance the Union would have needed on the afternoon, Farfan still was at the heart of everything that was good for the Union. Played in Martinez with the perfect pass and was the only thing holding the Union attack together at times. Must continue to get sharper and quicker with his passing if he wants to ascend to an elite level. He may not be ready for prime time just yet, but if the Union keep with with him, he will reward them very soon.
Josue Martinez – 4
Despite the occasional bright attacking foray, Martinez was inactive for large stretches on Saturday, creating defensive breakdowns and costing the Union when they got forward. Must work harder on both sides of the ball. Should have scored in the 40th minute when Michael Farfan played him in, but his poor touch took him too close to Gaudette. Still very raw with his passing, Martinez rarely strikes the ball cleanly.
Jack McInerney – 5
Caught offside on too many occasions, it ‘s still hard to blame McInerney for doing his job and making the correct runs on an afternoon when the service was virtually nonexistent. Held Conde’s line and ghosted in behind his defender with regularity only to see the pass delayed when the move was on. Showed his age and lack of experience late in the match, giving way to frustration and taking himself out of the match too often after he saw run after run missed by the sputtering midfield.
Lionard Pajoy - 3.5
A tough day at the office for the Colombian who was asked to spend time on the opposite wing, with Martinez also preferring to play wide left. Seemed intent on going it alone as he put his head down and set to the task of taking on the Red Bulls defense with the ball at his feet. When he was unable to beat his defender and could not get on the ball as much as he would have wanted, he reverted to unnecessary pouting and arm-waving. Better leadership is required from the 31-year-old with the Union’s young strikers looking up to him.
Gabriel Gomez – 4
It is probably a fair assumption to say that if Gomez was fully fit, he’d be in the starting XI. In the final 30 minutes on Saturday, he looked far from it. Lumbering heavily around midfield, Gomez failed to inspire his side, and his performance asked more questions about his current conditioning than it answered.
Antoine Hoppenot – 6.5
One of the few Union players to do his job on Saturday, Hoppenot worked tirelessly to get in behind and create some sort of threat on Gaudette’s goal. Was able to get behind Conde with ease, but in a match where the Red Bull defender was allowed to clutch, grab and outright tackle the speedy Union winger, Hoppenot was left holding his arms over his head. Kept fighting and did well to tuck in Williams’ back post ball in the final moments of stoppage time, only to see the mistake from the assistant referee deprive him of his third MLS goal.
Roger Torres – 4.5
With the damage done and the Union throwing everything forward Torres found space to operate in the midfield. New York remained organized however and the diminutive Colombian was unable to stamp his authority on the match.
Hilario Grajeda – 0
It was a performance that might have been more shocking had he not turned in an equally appalling one in the US Open Cup semifinal against Sporting Kansas City. When Grajeda is the referee, it is nearly a different sport, as every manner of clutching, grabbing and tackling becomes acceptable.
Correctly disciplined Gabriel Farfan for a dive, then completely missed Borrajo’s takedown on McInerney. Whether it was Kenny Cooper gripping Okugo, Dax McCarty mugging Michael Farfan, or Wilman Conde utterly manhandling Hoppenot, Grajeda simply chose to not see the obvious.
And were that not enough, one of his assistants threw in a howler in stoppage time, depriving the Union of some well deserved consolation.
This man has no business being a referee at this level.
Preferred formation for Sunday’s vs. New England Revolution
MacMath; Williams, Soumare, Valdes, G. Farfan; Carroll, Okugo, M. Farfan; Pajoy, McInerney, Adu