Photo: Paul Rudderow
Last weekend’s road loss at Montreal was easy to write off. The Union still had a four match home win streak to fall back on.
After looking sluggish in the face of a rampant Chicago Fire attack, the Union are back to their losing ways, all but eliminating them from 2012 playoff contention. With Sunday’s road trip to DC United followed by Real Salt Lake’s visit to PPL Park, the Union could find themselves officially playing for 2013 sooner rather than later.
Wrong day for experimentation
“It’s not the kind of performance that’s acceptable to us in any way shape or form,” said John Hackworth after the game. “That being said, you know, I think I would take some responsibility for that result as well.”
At least Hackworth was willing to admit that the beating his team took on Sunday night was largely due to some questionable coaching decisions. Moving Gabriel Farfan into the midfield seemed an inevitability given the struggles of both Michael Lahoud and Gabriel Gomez, but on a night where a less than fully fit Bakary Soumare debuted for the Union, Farfan’s defensive tenacity would have been valuable from the opening whistle. Ray Gaddis is still a rookie, after all, and a very aggressive, very right-footed one at that. Gaddis’ timing going forward and his propensity for the occasional mistake on an attempted interception left Soumare ruthlessly exposed for pace on Chicago’s first goal when he was forced to stray too far from the center of the pitch and MacDonald beat him to the endline before cutting the ball back for Rolfe.
Up front, swapping Chandler Hoffman for Jack McInerney seemed a logical decision. Leaving Hoffman alone as the only recognized striker on the pitch was not. Not only was Hoffman returning from injury, he was also making his first ever MLS start at striker. It is probably best for all parties to forget his only other start, when Peter Nowak deployed the highly-rated goal scorer in a wide midfield role. But while the Union’s most recent first round draft pick is older than the player he replaced, McInerney’s two years of professional experience cannot be discounted and Hackworth should have taken some of the pressure off of the MLS rookie.
It’s a 4-5-1 not a 4-3-3
With Keon Daniel and Freddy Adu playing the wide roles in Hackworth’s 4-3-3, the formation so commonly associated with free-flowing attack never quite resembled more than a jumbled five-man midfield. Chandler Hoffman already had enough on his plate, earning his first start at center forward, but playing him in isolation was downright unwise.
Regardless of the formation’s name on paper, one thing needed to happen that simply did not: The wingers needed to provide outlets for the fullbacks and central midfielders, and in both instances they failed. On the right, Adu was stagnant and disinterested in the team game. Preferring to make solo runs forward before falling to the ground in search of a penalty that was never coming, Adu was a nonfactor for the Chicago defense.
Similarly sloth-like in the first half, Keon Daniel neither attacked nor defended as the offensive effort seemed to move around him. Generally a strong, confident midfielder, the move to forward has destabilized the Trinidad international, whose best qualities have never been those of a goal-hungry striker. Once he dropped into his preferred central midfield role in the second half, Daniel was far more influential, proving yet again that the attempts to push him forward are in vain.
Take our collective finger off the panic button
Yes, in all likelihood, the season is over. Over if you consider a successful season a legitimate run at MLS Cup. For most established programs around the league, this is all that matters, though it is an unrealistic goal for the Union in their current makeup.
Thank Peter Nowak for that. Nowak deserves the majority of the credit for the Union’s woefully thin roster, a group of players and club that is still in its childhood with respect to both individual and team development.
Thank John Hackworth for dragging the Union into what will hopefully prove an inspiring adolescence. This is the Union team that should have featured in 2010. Not the same personnel, obviously, but a group of inexperienced yet talented professionals trying to learn the ropes in MLS. And make no mistake, this season was always coming. The stopgap veterans and nonexistent system and tactics that were the hallmarks of the Nowak era brought on this crash.
But this is MLS, and there will be a new season in 2013. Were this Europe, we would all be feeling the lump in our throat growing as we awaited relegation day.
With players having little more than pride—and a place on the 2013 roster—to play for, Union fans, coaches and the front office can finally properly evaluate their team. No longer must our conversations be only about the projected abilities of players now that Hackworth has opened up the roster, putting deserving players on the field and rotating his squad based on merit. Sure, Zac MacMath, Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo, Michael Farfan, Gabriel Farfan, Sheanon Williams, Antoine Hoppenot, Chandler Hoffman and Ray Gaddis are far from the finished product, but the future for the Union is far brighter now that they are all being given the opportunity to work out the kinks and develop their game through playing time.
Player Ratings (4.1 overall)
Zac MacMath – 2
Directly responsible for the second and third Chicago goals, MacMath has regressed from the look of a stoic competitor of 2011 to the appearance of an insecure rookie, prone to lapses in concentration and effort. He needed to get his hands to the ball ahead of Arne Friedrich, and the fact that he failed to even make contact with the German international proves just how badly he was beaten. On Rolfe’s second, MacMath was playing the cross, despite having four defenders back in support. If he stays patient and holds his ground, he catches the ball comfortably, yet he guessed, giving away his position and allowing Rolfe’s tame shot to beat him. With the Union’s playoff hopes circling the drain, Hackworth must hope that continued faith in his young keeper leads to the rediscovery of his confidence and aggression.
Sheanon Williams – 5.5
Marco Pappa, arguably the Fire’s most potent attacker, had an extremely quiet night after he had the clamps completely put on him by Williams appears to have shaken off the lingering effects of his toe injury in getting forward on more of his traditional dangerous forays up the right flank. Still must improve his crossing accuracy into the box, though it is hard to pick on the fullback considering how few dangerous runs were being made into the area by his teammates.
Amobi Okugo – 5.5
While still strong and composed in the back, Okugo looked more frustrated than in games past and was forced to play long balls forward rather than complete the short one- and two-touch passes that are his preference. Did well to combine with Williams in keeping Pappa at bay while convincing the Chicago attack that the Union’s right flank was not an option on the night. With Soumare still rounding into form, Okugo needed to lead the defense in a way he has not yet been asked to do and while he made no serious in judgement, he appeared to be thinking the game too much, rather than just playing. With Valdes likely to return in time for Sunday’s match in DC, Okugo’s stint in defense could be nearing its conclusion.
Bakary Soumare – 5
Showed plenty of promise, but also a lot of rust, in his debut for the Union after recovering from knee surgery. Was done for pace by MacDonald on multiple occasions and will have to continue to improve on his agility and quickness in the coming weeks as he regains full match fitness. Could have used the more seasoned Gabriel Farfan in defensive support, allowing him to stay more central. If Union fans had ever taken their captain for granted, Sunday proved just how strong and consistent a performer Carlos Valdes is when it comes to covering for an attacking, aggressive fullback.
Still, the Union’s newest member put in an impressive shift, especially in the second half, blocking shots, sliding in with timely challenges and keeping the scoreline from being even further lopsided. His skill on the ball was also impressive even when his legs began to tire. In Soumare and Valdes the Union have two centerbacks with excellent feet, inevitably freeing up Okugo to prowl higher up the pitch.
Last but not least, the Union finally have a proper target in the box, and Soumare showed he was more than happy to mix it up. With Chicago funneling their defense toward the Malian center back, Gabriel Farfan was left alone at the back post where he nearly opened the scoring early in the first half.
The best is clearly yet to come from Soumare and while it is obviously speculation at this point, there is no reason not to believe that he and Valdes will not eventually form an elite pairing.
Raymon Gaddis – 3.5
While it was good for Gaddis to get back on the pitch after a prolonged spell on the bench, the rookie defender took too many chances and left Soumare exposed at the back. Obviously the top reserve fullback ahead of Lopez and Albright, it will still take time before Gaddis poses a legitimate threat to either starter. Chicago quickly picked out his flank as the weaker side with Rolfe and MacDonald both choosing to attack Gaddis’ territory. Mix in new signing Alvaro Fernandez’s attacking prowess, and it was always going to be a tough assignment for the rookie.
Brian Carroll – 5.5
Still a dead weight in the offensive game, it is hard to fault Carroll’s effort in terms of covering ground and keeping the ball moving with short, simple passes. Nearly leveled the score in the 50th minute from a free header inside the box, only to see the glancing strike spin across the face of Johnson’s goal. Perhaps could have done more on Chicago’s third, but from the corner of the box, Carroll would have assumed MacMath had the shot under control. Deserves credit and appreciation for his tireless hustle in a match that was broken open by Chicago’s busy, talented midfield.
Michael Farfan – 6
Quietly turned in a very impressive performance, covering more ground than any Union player as he looked to ignite the offense. Working touchline to touchline to provide an outlet, Farfan also ran alongside Hoffman to provide the young striker with support before dropping into his own half to offer an outlet for the back line. He may not have packed the highlight reel with impressive dribbling or dangerous scoring chances, but rewinding nearly every Union cross and attacking foray, it was a pass from Farfan that put the Union on the front foot. These are the kind of performances the Union need out of a player who now looks capable of running the offense. Whether that is the best place for Farfan remains a cause for debate, but looking up and down the Union roster, there is currently no player with better vision, composure and technique in attack.
Gabriel Farfan – 4.5
After making the left back spot his own in 2011 and then winning the job back in 2012, Farfan struggled to find his offensive tenacity after being officially restored to the midfield. That is not to say that the experiment is not without merit, just that it will take the aggressive Farfan more time to settle back into midfield. One certainty, however, is that he has the technical abilities for the job, something that can be questioned of both Lahoud and Gomez far too often. Still, as Soumare continues to settle in as the Union’s left-sided centerback, Farfan should drop back into defense because he offers far better defensive positioning and strength than Gaddis.
Freddy Adu – 2.5
Just when Adu’s season seemed to have hit rock bottom, he suffered the ignominious fate of being pulled at halftime following a selfish first half display. It’s never a good sign when your team looks immediately improved once you’ve been removed from a match, yet that was exactly the case on Sunday night. Choosing only the direct route forward, Adu’s numerous stepovers served only to slow play down and allow recovering defenders time to muscle him off the ball. He threw himself to ground too often and protested too loudly as even the home crowd had seen enough of his antics. Did well to put in the cross that resulted in the Union’s goal, though that was hardly an adequate return for the otherwise uninvolved Adu. With Hackworth still unable to find a consistent spark out of his front line, Adu should be next on the chopping block.
Chandler Hoffman – 4.5
Timid and a little slow going forward, Hoffman showed he is a different player than McInerney. Rather than stretching the defense in behind, Hoffman chose to play with his back to goal, showing into midfield to work with Michael Farfan and lay off play. In a true three forward set, this would have resulted in acres of space for both wingers to challenge the defense every time Hoffman pulled the centerbacks forward, but with Adu and Daniel stagnant in midfield, Chicago was largely untroubled. Must continue to sharpen up his forward runs, not only making runs to where he wants the ball, but also crashing the net to provide space and options for others. Did well to get a touch to the ball on the Union’s goal, doing just enough to put off Johnson before Anibaba bundled it home. Also reacted quickly in tandem with Michael Farfan on a quick, second half corner, banging his shot off of Johnson and the post. While there is certainly plenty on which to improve, two quality goal-scoring chances is nothing to scoff at, especially on this Union team.
Keon Daniel – 3
Followed up an absolutely miserable first half of play with a slightly more energetic performance once he returned to the center of midfield. Still, his shooting was miles from impressive as he cranked shot after shot off target. Whatever the coaching staff is seeing in training that leads them to believe Daniel can help the Union attack, it continues to elude the Trinidadian come game day. A valuable member of the passing game, Daniel is far more comfortable knocking the ball around the midfield, though when he is deployed in the front line, his lack of attacking desire kills forward momentum. A player who has yet to figure out his exact place within Hackworth’s 4-3-3.
Antoine Hoppenot – 5
Another outing in which Hoppenot proved lively, dangerous, yet very unpolished in front of goal. Made the wrong choice in a two-on-one with Hoffman before rushing his shot into the near side netting when a shot to the far post was a better option. Continues to earn his minutes and appears set to work out his finishing issues on the pitch because he offers not only more energy, but also more quality than any other Union striker off of the bench.
Lionard Pajoy – 3.5
Another match with a negligible, offensive contribution from Pajoy, who now has 1 goal in his last 8 outings over 426 minutes of play. Should have at least forced a save from Johnson with his free header in the 78th minute but got the contact all wrong. Seems unlikely to regain his consistent starting spot, or even overtake Hoppenot for first man off the bench, until he can raise his energy level and rediscover his drive to score goals.
Josue Martinez – 1.5
21 minutes is more than enough time or a striker to stamp their authority on a match, but Martinez was unable to produce any quality. Straying offside with poorly timed runs, putting himself in the wrong places and generally working against the flow of his teammates, Martinez is proving to be one of the player’s Nowak benched with cause. Should have gone in the book for a cynical foul late in the match.
Fotis Bazakos – 7
Bazakos certainly likes the rough stuff, but fair play to a referee who displayed consistency throughout 90 minutes on Sunday night. This should not come as news to the Union considering the type of physical game Bazakos allowed when Houston last visited PPL Park.
At times it seemed as if the aggression might boil over, with Bazakos losing control of proceedings, but the referee smartly whistled a couple of minor fouls to calm proceedings, allowing the match to continue without incident. It is sad that simply not escalating conflicts is a laudable trait in an MLS referee but such is the state of officiating league-wide.
All in all, a strong performance by a referee who let play flow and forced players to compete up and down the pitch.
Preferred formation for Sunday’s match at DC United
MacMath; Williams, Soumare, Valdes, G. Farfan; Carroll, M. Farfan, Okugo; Hoffman, McInerney, Pajoy