Photo: Michael Long
Before Peter Nowak was fired, the Philadelphia Union seemed to be playing with little heart and even less tactical discipline.
Under John Hackworth, they’ve had plenty of heart. The tactics remain a work in progress.
Bend but don’t break
With center striker Marco Di Vaio in Italy practicing his “Who me?” face, Montreal turned to rookie Andrew Wenger to lead the line. Combined with Matteo Ferrari’s debut as a hybrid center/left back, the Impact should have found it difficult to threaten the Union.
And, at first, it did.
But the Union’s midfield is a bend-but-don’t-break model, and it can be unlocked with two good passes and a striker who checks back to the ball. As Wenger gained confidence, he moved Carlos Valdes and Amobi Okugo around with all too much ease, allowing Felipe to make runs and receive the ball deep in the Union third. Luckily, Felipe harbors a dream of a combined gymnastics-diving gold medal, and rather than create for his teammates, he created a false reality in which everybody around him was wearing cleats that inflicted direct injury to his soul.
Brian Carroll, Michael Lahoud, and Michael Farfan may be the best combination the Union currently have in the middle, but their defensive organization remains lacking, and when one of the three is pulled wide by a good run, the space through the center looks so large Peter Nowak’s ego could dribble through it untouched.
They got this
But the Philly centerbacks, as they have done most of the season, played intelligent soccer on Saturday. Montreal was forced to play wide once they established themselves in the final third, and Justin Mapp and Davy Arnaud put their arsenal of wild crosses on display. So while it was troubling that a Montreal team with very few ideas was able to play a style that forced Sheanon Williams and Gabriel Farfan into deeper coverage roles, there seemed little threat of Montreal breaking down Philly’s defenses.
More set piece shenanigans
But oh, those set pieces. Patrice Bernier has proven all season that he is a man to whom space should not be granted. So if you were one of the many participating in the sharp intake of breath when he looked up unmarked on the Impact’s short corner late in the first half, PSP was right there with you.
The headed finish from Wenger left MacMath little hope, so questioning the goalie’s shot-stopping ability is off the table here. What must be determined is: Who is organizing the defense on set pieces? Too often the Union end up with the other team’s top offensive options covered by mediocre aerial defenders, and why is Patrice Bernier uncovered in the final third? Some of the blame must fall on MacMath, but it’s also clear that the Union know they are vulnerable in dead ball situations and spend so much time thinking about where they should be that they get caught ignoring the developments of a fluid situation. Thus, when Bernier pops out and receives a short corner, he has more empty space around him than a NASA rover and chaos breaks out in the box as adjustments are made on the fly.
Bakary Soumare will undoubtedly help the team’s set piece defense, but the real step forward will come when MacMath or Valdes or Okugo single-handedly takes over dead ball organization and players are quickly given straightforward roles to play; make everything a one-on-one battle and hold people accountable when they lose them.
Stuck in neutral
Jesse Marsch must have been thinking, “Just like I drew it up in practice.”
When the Philadelphia Union’s center backs got the ball, Andrew Wenger stepped up to pressure. Justin Mapp and Davy Arnaud took away the angled balls to the outside backs while Felipe made sure that Brian Carroll was an easier option than the Michaels Farfan and Lahoud.
And so it went. Time and again, the Union gathered a loose ball and looked to start an offensive move forward, only to spend thirty seconds inventing new ways to move the ball laterally.
Ball movement should be a positive, but it requires purpose. With the fullbacks forced to come back square to receive passes from Okugo and Valdes, there was often but a single option once Sheanon Williams and Gabriel Farfan picked their heads up and scoped out the midfield. And that option was usually a half-hearted check from Freddy Adu.
From the way Montreal set up their defense, they must have seen how willing the Union are to accept a meandering build-up pace. And while Philadelphia smartly avoided the long ball tactics that typified their first half performance against New England, they also failed to make Montreal pay for their overzealous ball pressure and a defensive system that kept three men high.
Of course, there were chances. Carlos Valdes poked a gaping hole in the Montreal defensive plan with a lengthy and languid run that set up Lionard Pajoy for a shot that barely retained the striker’s impeccable record of not hitting large targets guarded by smaller people. The Union did not seem to recognize that disrupting the Impact defense was going to take this type of foray—though perhaps a less extreme version than Valdes’ full field run—to create opportunities.
And why were the Impact so successful? The answer starts with Philadelphia’s ineffective wing play. Both starting wingers have fallen into consistent grooves that are more frustrating than rewarding. Lionard Pajoy has developed a solid defensive streak, but he is involved in the offense about as often as Freddy Adu plays two-touch soccer.
Pajoy’s involvement, at least, seems to align with positive offensive play. At this point, most fans would probably settle for Adu acting as though he attended the tactical meetings prior to the match. Playing against an out-of-position center back, Adu never ran at Matteo Ferrari. How… Why… Really!?
There are basically two places Adu can be on the field at any time: Position A is where Freddy Adu should be if Freddy Adu wants the ball. Position B is where Freddy Adu should be if he’s helping the team. Unbeknownst to Adu, who inevitably chooses Position A, these two positions will eventually overlap! If you make an off the ball run, open space, then look to pull off of your man, voila: Freddy Adu gets ball in good position, teammates make runs, good things happen.
But maybe Adu thinks he should always have the ball. Or maybe the coaches are telling him to go get it. Or maybe Freddy tunes in for Bob Rigby’s keys to the game, which almost always inform us that Freddy Adu should get involved early and often. Whatever the case, Adu either remains an uninterested observer on the wing or seeks out the ball like LA’s David Beckham. The difference, of course, is that David Beckham has made a singular career out of his ability to pick apart defenses with long passes while Adu returned to MLS seeking the career he once thought his birthright.
On one telling play in the second half, Adu received a ball from Gabe Farfan, looked crossfield to Sheanon Williams, then inexplicably cut the ball back to the left. Williams skidded to a halt, Brian Carroll almost fell down trying to reposition himself, and Gabe Farfan whipped his head around to get his bearings, unclear why the ball appeared to be headed back his way. It was indicative of an odd lack of understanding between Adu and his teammates.
Great playmakers force those around them to make smarter runs, play faster, and move better. Rarely, however, do they actually have to tell teammates what to do. Instead, it’s the playmaker’s style that dictates movement around him. Michael Farfan is learning this dark art, just as Graham Zusi learned it a year ago.
Teaching Freddy Adu to make play run through him not by going to the ball but by moving and creating his own space off the ball will not be an easy task. But if John Hackworth is going to stick with a 4-3-3, his wingers have to threaten the opposition a lot more consistently than they have over the past few matches. Lio Pajoy’s defense and occasional bursts of creativity may keep him in the lineup, but defending Adu’s selection on a weekly basis is only getting tougher.
Rivas: Red card. What else is there to say? A horrific, dangerous move by a giant child who must enjoy playing the bully role.
Additionally, Rivas’ clown move drew attention away from the truly spectacular match played by his defensive partner, Alessandro Nesta. Suffice to say, he lived up to the hype. From guessing where Antoine Hoppenot was going before he went there to coolly clearing his lines and cutting out every aerial throughball sent his way, the Italian forced the Union to play the ball smartly and on the ground to create chances. It’s a good lesson for a young Philly side, and though their finishing let them down, they should see the clear benefits of a quick, ground-based build-up against even the most cerebral defenders.
The great debate this week will center of punishment for Jack McInerney’s response. Some will say McInerney only deserved a caution. And that’s a fair, defensible argument. But the reason you don’t get involved in an on-field scuffle, particularly in retaliation, is that the second offense always gets punished. It’s not written in the FIFA rulebook, but it’s the way of the world as long as human beings hold the match whistle.
McInerney came in late, Rivas went down. Even if all McInerney did was flick an earlobe, he was likely to see red, because Rivas knew he was gone. All he was thinking about was taking someone with him.
Does anyone remember the final day of the EPL Premier League? Joey Barton was already ejected, so he kicked at another player as he left the pitch. What were they going to do, red card him twice? All he needs is one person to get close enough to appear dangerous and the match is ten on ten.
What Rivas did was incredibly stupid and dangerous. And the best way to punish him would be to score while a man up. The Union never had that opportunity, and that should be a lesson learned.
The take-away point is that while Hackworth has brought heart to the Union side, this squad remains a playoff outsider until their tactical—and mental—discipline matches the enormous drive and desire that has reconnected the team to its fans.
Not as bad as Rivas, but bad
The mark of a great leader should be his ability to speak the tough truths and maintain the respect of his players. Jesse Marsch failed that test on Saturday. The “I didn’t see it” defense is the coach’s equivalent of a politician saying, “I don’t recall.” It’s so insulting to the collective intelligence of your listeners that you might as well squeeze our cheeks and tell us we’ll find out what you saw when we are old enough to understand. And Philly would know: That’s basically how Peter Nowak spoke for much of his time in charge. Have the intestinal fortitude to stand up and say when something is wrong.
It’s hard, but that’s why they put you in charge.
Bob Rigby. I hope you’re a nice guy. But this announcing thing just isn’t working out.
From directly describing replays (we can see them!!) instead of offering insight to calling some players by their first name, others by their last name, and still others by some odd combination of syllables vaguely similar to their real name, Rigby has made Union broadcasts downright intolerable. The strangest call of the night was describing a head butt as “one of the most lethal plays” in soccer, though that barely topped an uninformed discussion about Hoppenot going down in the box and a call for coaching that results in “literal adjustments on the field.” Quite the ground-breaker.
Zac MacMath – 6
Did all that was required. Still waiting for the leader to emerge back there.
Sheanon Williams – 6
A strong defensive effort (can we really criticize him for the Felipe goal?) and his continued involvement in the offense signal that The Sheanomenon is either approaching full health or adapting to the level of banged-up he has likely been dealing with all season. The Union are still too willing to let Williams get trapped in a corner instead of offering him options out of the back.
Amobi Okugo – 7
Beaten by Mapp once and slid in too early another time, but Okugo played epic defense on the edge of the box, poking away and covering whenever the Impact poured forward. His distribution continues to be fascinating and spectacular, with an array of low chipped passes added to his arsenal when easier options failed to present.
Carlos Valdes – 6
Hardly a poor performance from the captain, but not one of his more noteworthy ones of late. That said, his forays forward were (finally) necessary as the Union ran up against another defense specifically designed to push the ball away from Michael Farfan.
Gabriel Farfan – 5.5
Farfan played smart defense, recognizing Davy Arnaud’s shortcomings and forcing him wide. Garfan’s offensive involvement continues to show up in fits and starts. He gets in very good positions, but retains a careful uncertainty that prevents him from playing one-twos with the forwards a la Williams on the right. Additionally, playing behind Freddy Adu means he doesn’t have anyone opening up space for his runs.
Brian Carroll – 5
BC was tight on Felipe and pocketed the creator for most of the match. Unfortunately, he often did it by straying from the center, and the Union seemed unprepared for this eventuality. Carroll’s offensive play remains too slow. The main benefit he should give the team going forward is quick decisions, and right now that isn’t happening.
Michael Lahoud – 5.5
Lahoud offers a little of everything and not enough of anything. He was more dynamic offensively but never seemed a threat. He was everywhere defensively but didn’t seem to be working with the other midfielders. Unless he markedly improves in the near future, Lahoud should become a useful substitute once a stronger midfield pairing can be found.
Michael Farfan – 5
The bar is high for Farfan. If he isn’t sweating from the heat of the spotlight, he should be after this match. Montreal knew that he was the key to the Union offense and they forced him to make quick decisions and push play when the angel on his shoulder was telling him to play simple. As a central player, Marfan shows the confidence he harbored on the wing only in fits and starts.
Lionard Pajoy – 4
Good defense. Do more.
Jack McInerney – 3
Turned a difficult header on net, though right at Ricketts. McInerney is still making good runs to relieve pressure when Williams has no other options out of the back. It’s hard to judge McInerney when his wingers are playing so poorly, but that just means he has to continue to grow. Coming in late was valiant but dumb. The brave warrior in me (he’s in there somewhere, I’m sure) applauded. The guy who actually wanted to win the battle shook his head.
Freddy Adu – 2
His turnover directly led to the second goal. And it was far from the low point of his night.
Antoine Hoppenot – 6
Good running, potential penalty. You know what you get from him at this point.
Josue Martinez – 4
Has never made his mark as a sub.
Gabriel Gomez – 2
Please try. For the kids.