Photo: Michael Long
Another must-win game. Another non-victory.
Against an exhausted foe who was forced to fly across the country in an effort to break their own league funk, the table was set for the Union to earn three valuable home points.
Yet, where was the intensity, the drive, the aggressive nature that gives fans the hope that this team does indeed still believe it has something to play for in 2012?
That was not a 4-3-3
After the demoralizing 0-0 draw with Real Salt Lake, Union head coach John Hackworth maintained that the cautious looking lineup that began the game on Friday night was no different than the 4-3-3 formation the Union had shown in prior matches he had coached.
“We really didn’t go away, it was still a 4-3-3,” Hackworth said. “It was just Gomez on the left where Freddy usually is. We wanted Gomez to come in and add a little bit more into our midfield. So we dropped him back and he showed up high and back, and when he did run a player forward. We were trying to operate on the same system just a change in personnel, change in tactics.”
Arguing the numbers in MLS formations is generally a fool’s errand, but in his decision to deploy Gabriel Gomez, Hackworth made a tactical error. Jack McInerney has repaid the faith his manager showed the forgotten striker when he took over for Peter Nowak, and McInerney’s rebirth spurred the Union to a brief spell of good form. But as Hackworth has elected to play fewer and fewer true strikers in the front line alongside him, McInerney’s production has waned.
The failed experimentation with Keon Daniel up front is just one instance where the now 20-year-old McInerney was asked to do too much up front. Surrounded by players whose instincts are those of a midfielder, Union fans have seen a propensity for wingers to drop back to receive the ball, cut into the center of the pitch and ultimately fail to partner with or take advantage of the space created for them by McInerney. Worse still, Daniel, as well as Freddy Adu and most glaringly Gomez this past Friday, failed to draw defensive pressure to themselves, further isolating McInerney, who was forced to contend with the entire focus of the RSL backline.
With a stable of young strikers eager to succeed, giving minutes to Chandler Hoffman, Josue Martinez or Antoine Hoppenot might have made more sense as each player would have demanded a minimum of one defender to keep tabs on them at any moment. Gomez’s lack of pace and attacking instincts allowed Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert to leave him until the last possible moment, knowing that he could do them no harm racing up their flanks.
Gomez did have some time in the middle of the pitch however, as did Danny Cruz and Michael Farfan, as Hackworth rotated the attacking threesome in a move that hearkened back to the days of his predecessor. Yet, with Farfan and Cruz operating out of their preferred positions from the opening whistle, the move only served to provide the plodding Panamanian with a respite from his runs up the left flank.
Is Michael Farfan the Union’s acknowledged playmaker, or not?
That is the question the Union coaching staff must ask themselves. On Friday night, the majority of what little good came through the Union midfield ran directly through Farfan, and when he was pulled out to the right touch line, the attack stalled. Farfan ran at defenders, spread the field and played his teammates into space. In each match, the attributes of a full-fledged playmaker seem to flow more visibly from the young No. 21. With 2012 all but lost, giving Farfan every opportunity to grow into perhaps the most challenging role in soccer is essential.
As for the rotating of players during a match, it was a non-starter with Nowak and a change in coach does not make it a more viable option. With Cruz still developing chemistry with his new Union teammates and Gomez already well out of his comfort zone higher up in the attack, it was the Union, not Real Salt Lake, who was destabilized by the constant swapping of fields. Whatever formation Hackworth adopts, consistency and chemistry will prove the difference between a cohesive attack and what the Union showed Friday night.
No place for Lahoud
Over the past four winless matches, the Union have scored two goals. Against Chicago, a Jalil Anibaba own goal proved the club’s only tally, while a week later a game of pinball inside the six-yard box ended with Brian Carroll bundling the ball over the endline in DC. These are meager offensive days, and that is putting it mildly.
In Brian Carroll, the Union have not only one of their most consistent performers, but also one of their only veterans, and his position appears secure as the safety blanket in front of the Union back four. Yet, in Michael Lahoud, John Hackworth has a very similar player. Defensively focused and quick to knock a short pass around the midfield, it is hard to see what qualities Lahoud brings to the starting XI that are not already well covered by Carroll. Especially considering their lack of attacking instincts, the continued usage of both players is not only redundant, but counterproductive for a team that needs to move the ball up the field with purpose.
Following his transfer from Chivas USA, Lahoud has been given ample opportunities to earn his place in the starting lineup, yet he is proved prone to dangerous, ejection-worthy tackles, as shown in DC, while being erratic and careless in possession. Not only was he considerably off the mark when he tried to push the ball forward, Lahoud’s passes were too often poorly judged in terms of weight, playing his receiving teammate into trouble, rather than space.
Zac MacMath – 4
Did well to stop Jonny Steele on the break in the final minutes of the match, but was guilty of giving away the chance as he failed to come off his line to claim the ball before the RSL substitute could get onto it. Made a hash of a number of clearances, as his distribution continues to struggle. Seems to be rushing in just about every aspect of his game at the moment, and the coaching staff will need to work with him to slow the game back down.
Raymon Gaddis – 7
No one intimidates Ray Gaddis. Be they big and strong or small and technical, Gaddis has impressed with his ability to face up any foe without fear. His most recent opponent, Javier Morales, learned quickly that Gaddis is more than just a backup for Sheanon Williams. Gaddis played 90 strong, aggressive minutes as he not only mixed it up with Morales, but worked his way forward to take part in some of the Union’s more promising moves. Led the team in passing and took part in the occasional scintillating triangle with Michael Farfan and Cruz up the right flank.
Amobi Okugo – 6
Another steady performance from the strong, confident Okugo. Had a few early hiccups as he got the measure of Morales, but quickly became comfortable and stepped up to deny the ball. Showed fire to go after Morales after the RSL playmaker went cheaply to deck for what seemed like the dozenth time. Very unlucky not to have won the match for the Union when he did well to volley Adu’s late free kick on target, only to see Kwame Watson-Siriboe arrive at the final moment to clear it to safety.
Carlos Valdes – 6
Dealt well with the gamesmanship and tactics of Alvaro Saborio, keeping tight pressure on RSL’s lone striker without giving away more than the occasional foul. Like his partner Okugo, Valdes was too casual on occasion, creating trouble where there was none to begin with, but in the end, the clean sheet, and a barely tested MacMath, speaks for itself.
Gabriel Farfan – 5.5
Quietly went about his business on the left flank. Pressed forward well to try and stoke the attack but struggled to find chemistry with Gomez. His attempts to play a high line were often negated by how compressed the match became in midfield. Must do better to understand the match and work himself into a position where he is more easily located by his teammates. For someone who has become a left back out of necessity, Farfan has done extremely well to make sure any talk of defensive frailty does not include a discussion of his side of the pitch.
Brian Carroll – 5
Did what he does best, taking up space in the middle of the park, cutting off play and stepping into the passing lanes, making life difficult for RSL. However, his consistency in defense is nearly matched by his inconsistency when the ball is in the Union’s control. Given his positioning on the field, being caught in possession is unacceptable, yet Carroll’s slow distribution resulted in some tense moments on Friday night and he will be thankful that Okugo and Valdes spared him his blushes. Carroll excels at matches where he can pick out a single player and play them out of the game, but in a match with so much traffic rumbling through the midfield, he struggled to assert his authority.
Michael Lahoud – 4
Failed to convince with his distribution, giving the ball away cheaply and putting his teammates under pressure with poorly timed passes. With the Union in dire need of some offensive spark, Lahoud should be sacrificed against Columbus in favor of a midfielder with more attacking intent. While Lahoud does nip in to pick off passes and works his way through the midfield at a high rate of speed, he simply does not offer the Union enough consistency to justify his inclusion in the starting XI.
Michael Farfan – 6.5
If it was creative and dangerous for the Union, it came directly from the feet of Michael Farfan. Showed a renewed verve to take on defenders, skipping by them with an ease that is unmatched by any other player on the roster. Must be handed the central midfield reigns officially as he is growing into the role Peter Nowak seemed to shoehorn him into early in 2012. As he continues to develop, his patience and pass selection will become even sharper and he will try to force the final ball less frequently. Still, in a side with very little attacking intent, seeing Farfan doing everything possible to press play forward is a promising sign.
Gabriel Gomez – 3
Woefully miscast on the night as he was asked to pick up part of the offensive slack while simultaneously aiding the midfield in possession and defensive stability. Pressed into service away from the center of the pitch, Gomez’s lack of pace was exposed on a number of occasions when his teammates would play him into space, only to see the defense recover at a canter. Also remains one of the few players on the roster who has not picked up on Hackworth’s desire to keep the ball on the deck. Especially facing an aerial presence of the quality of Nat Borchers, Gomez’s insistence on flighting hopeful balls into the RSL box seemed an extremely poor approach.
Danny Cruz – 4
Hustle and effort can only get you so far in MLS, and while Cruz’s enthusiasm was one of the few bright spots on Friday night, the end product must be better. Obviously, he would like to have a second crack at the first time ball he ballooned over the cross bar at the end of the first half, but was similarly imprecise in other areas of his game. Whether it was the final dribble to beat a defender, or a ball played through to spring a teammate, Cruz was lacking. Hopefully it is only the rust that comes from being a bit player in DC, rather than a starter, and his sharpness will soon return.
Jack McInerney – 4
A frustrating, yet teachable moment for the young Union striker. Tired too quickly of seeing his runs go unspotted and began to drop deeper into the midfield looking for work. With 10 other players already fighting for ground in the middle third of the pitch, McInerney’s presence was extraneous. While he had a number of smart touches in possession, his presence was missing up front and allowed RSL to compress the midfield even more than they had sought out to do at the opening whistle. Retaining focus for 90 minutes will come with experience, but having a veteran striker on the roster to help McInerney, and all the other young Union strikers, with their patience and development will be a critical addition for the Union going into 2013.
Antoine Hoppenot – 4
Will be angry with himself for not having done better with his 80th minute volley, as he had the goal begging. Otherwise, a fairly anonymous performance from the substitute. Showed minor improvement in dashing up the wing rather than cutting to the center with every opportunity. If he is to break into the starting lineup or play consistently with McInerney in any capacity, Hoppenot must prove that he can consistently be more than just a long threat.
Freddy Adu – 5
The worst and best worst of Adu in 10 minutes. Following a surging run from Michael Farfan—and some lucky bounces—Adu found himself teed up at the top of the RSL box. Rather than shoot, or make space to shoot, Adu brought out his dancing shoes. Racing into a packed box, his attempted stepovers did little to fool the Salt Lake defense which held firm, stripping the ball from the Union substitute. Adu nearly redeemed himself on the stroke of full time when his swerving free kick sliced into the box, picking out Okugo’s run for the Union’s best chance of the match. The more Adu passes the ball, the better he is: It’s that simple. With Michael Farfan suspended against Columbus for yellow card accumulation, Adu may get his chance to prove that he can be the offensive catalyst the Union require.
Jair Marrufo – 5
Despite a few flare ups, Marrufo did well to keep play moving. RSL stall tactics might have appeared more egregious were the Union more aggressive in their efforts to take all three points, and with both teams sluggish, it is hard to fault the referee for not penalizing them.
Marrufo deserves plenty of credit for waving away Morales and Saborio for their constant theatrics, but Union fans were rightfully distraught that where their players have seen yellow cards in the past for questionable incidents, Marrufo showed leniency to RSL despite the blatant and obvious nature of their simulation.
It grows wearying to mention that the only way to stamp diving out of the game is to properly discipline the offenders, yet it will remain the rally cry until officials step up to the task.
Preferred lineup for Wednesday’s home match vs Columbus
MacMath; Gaddis (RB), Okugo, Valdes, Williams (LB); Carroll, Adu, G. Farfan; Cruz, McInerney, Hoffman