Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz
When Eddie Gaven pounded in the match-winner for Columbus on Wednesday, he firmly drove home the final nail in the Union’s 2012 season.
A common expression sure, but apt nonetheless, in that a coffin short only one nail was already well and truly shut.
Despite managing a team that mustered a paltry three goals in August’s five league matches, John Hackworth had the interim tag removed from his title following a match in which the Union lacked cohesion in every facet of their game, looking confused and sloppy long before Gaven broke their hearts in stoppage time. With Hackworth’s immediate future now secure, the Union’s new manager must spend the rest of 2012 learning about what he truly has in his locker room before entering into a third straight season likely to be replete with personnel changes.
Going, Gomez, Gone
Following a week of heated debate over the future of the Union’s central midfield playmaker position, Hackworth answered the question of Freddy Adu or Michael Farfan with Gabriel Gomez. With Farfan isolated on the wing and Adu relegated to the bench, the lumbering Panamanian took the field and turned in one of the least compelling 90-minute performances in the Union’s nearly three-year long history.
Dreadfully inaccurate with his passing, Gomez looked less the midfield general and more the assistant referee, as he consistently raised his arm, apologizing for an errant ball, of which he played 21 on the night. Going forward he cannibalized Jack McInerney’s space, occupying the center forward channel and leaving his back line without an outlet.
The quick delivery that is required of a player in Gomez’s role was nonexistent, though the same could be said of his midfield partners Michael Lahoud and Brian Carroll. If the defense was not set up when any of the Union’s trio received the ball, they were by the time the Union midfielders had their heads up and were finally ready to pass. But Gomez’s lethargic ball movement stood out as he was dispossessed an alarming 24 times.
Against Real Salt Lake, Hackworth tucked Gomez inside more frequently as the match progressed, acknowledging that the Panamanian’s extreme deficiency in pace was exacerbated given the fast lane that exists up and down either flank. When the Union sneaked out of PPL Park with a draw against the West Conference powerhouse, it seemed inevitable that Gomez would be sacrificed in favor of either a more dangerous distributor, Adu, or a more dangerous goal-scoring threat, Hoppenot, Hoffman or Martinez.
The shocking move to grant Gomez more responsibility was a massive miscalculation. It was only compounded by the decision to allow the clumsy holding/attacking midfielder/forward to complete his 90-minute shift and fail to get around on two massive chances for the Union to earn a late winner.
Speaking of outlets
It’s time for the Union to rethink their “wingback” philosophy, a staple under Peter Nowak. Both fullbacks pressed perilously high up the pitch, in theory to stretch the field and force opposing defenses to have more attacking numbers with which to contend. In practice, however, the tactic has served to do just the opposite.
When Carlos Valdes or Amobi Okugo look up field to begin the build-up, they rarely find their respective fullback closer than 30 yards away. With the tight angle and heavy weight required to fit the pass up the line, both center backs generally (and correctly) prefer to play catch between themselves. No defender should ever have only one passing option (other than the goalkeeper). Yet, with Gomez up field waiting for an aerial fight, Carroll and Lahoud struggling for clean possession and distribution in the midfield, and Sheanon Williams and Gabriel Farfan hightailing it towards the River End, that is exactly the case for Valdes and Okugo.
Were either fullback to drop back to aid their teammates, the three, or even four, could play catch. Not only would this open up better angles to play the ball into the midfield, but it would also succeed in stretching the field for real. With Williams and Gabriel Farfan high, the opposition can stay compact, with the entire Union midfield, fullbacks and strikers all compressed in a tight portion of the pitch. One striker can work between the centerbacks while the other nine field players can take their defensive shape, waiting to pick off a pass, or more likely win back possession from a punted clearance. The moment either fullback retreats, the opposition must use more players to defend the Union’s back line higher up the pitch, drawing them out, while taking bodies out of the midfield and creating space for the Union’s creative players to operate.
Chad Marshall is a big man
Chad Marshall is one of the premier defenders in MLS. In 2008 and 2009 he won MLS Defender of the Year. The best part of his game is in the air, where he can use his unique combination of extreme size and exceptional positional awareness to get his floppily coiffed head to just about anything that enters his box. With Gomez the only player in the Union’s front six who can claim six feet in stature, the game plan should have been simple. Not only is Marshall weakest against the darting runs of quick forwards, something the Union has in spades, but he was also partnered on the night by the combative midfielder, Danny O’Rourke, a player whose penchant for aggressive play could only have been amplified with Robert Warzycha asking him to play out of position.
Lofted crosses were out, slicing through balls and low driven service was in, yet somehow the only two Union players to understand the message failed to make the starting XI. Late in the match, Ray Gaddis and Freddy Adu put on a clinic when it came to driving deep into the final third before either cutting back a pass to an onrushing runner or powering an ankle-high ball into the box where the slightest touch from either side could have put the ball in the back of the net. Prior to those substitutions, every outfield Union player was guilty of peppering the Columbus box with high lofted balls, meat and drink for a player of Marshall’s caliber.
It comes down to match preparation. It’s an oddly timed show of confidence from the Union front office to label Hackworth as their guy following two successive dismal performances in which his side was out of sync and struggling for ideas over the majority of the 180 minutes.
Zac MacMath – 4
It grows increasingly troubling to watch MacMath stand, helplessly rooted to the ground, as a ball flies past him into the back of the net. Williams’ opener for Columbus was well-placed, but from the time the ball was served into the area, MacMath moved only his eyes, failing to put himself into a position to even make a play on the ball. It’s hard to ladle too much blame onto the young keeper though, especially on the winner, where he made the close range save on Meram before the rebound found Gaven lurking at the back post. Still erratic and frantic with his clearances, MacMath rarely picks out teammates, instead shooting for maximum distance too often.
Sheanon Williams – 4
Got up and down his flank with his regular verve for attack, but failed to create much by way of service and will need to continue in the development of this one weak part of his game. Forced to play most of the second half at centerback, Williams adapted well enough but was then caught out on the Columbus winner when he failed to pressure Higuain, leaving the Argentine with time to play in Meram. With Ray Gaddis nipping at his heels, Williams will be eager to get back after it against New England, hopefully with a clean bill of health for Carlos Valdes allowing him to remain at RB.
Amobi Okugo – 4.5
Did a lot right for the Union, but was undone by two defensive lapses. First, it was Josh Williams rising to head home Columbus’ first while Okugo did little to put him off his jump, before his awkward reverse header started the play which led to Columbus’ goal. It was bad luck for the first year center back, who got about a lot of work aside from his two aerial blunders. Led the back line well with Valdes off the field. Nearly got his first goal for the Union on two occasions, first directing his rebounding reaction strike just wide of the mark in the first half before stinging Lampson’s hands with a shot labeled for the back post, after some fancy footwork played him in on the Columbus keeper. As the match wore down, he pushed ever higher, looking to be of service to his team, and his smart, accurate distribution proved a rare bright spot in an otherwise drab and imprecise Union team.
Carlos Valdes – 4.5
An upper thigh injury cut short a fairly anonymous night for the Union captain. Appeared frustrated as he and Okugo were left to distribute from far too deep with the Union failing to show adequate movement in the midfield. Even went on a couple of his now infamous jaunts forward, only to be closed down on each occasion. Hopefully his removal from Wednesday’s match was more precautionary than not, allowing him to return to the fold against the Revs, as his young Union side will need his leadership to wrap up the final months of this frustrating campaign.
Gabriel Farfan – 4
Typically aggressive display from Farfan who will rue not being able to do better with a shooting opportunity at the back post late in the match. As mentioned above, his high offensive line takes him out of the passing game in the back. Were he to drop deeper, he would likely bring a defender with him. For a player so gifted at getting to the endline, Farfan must improve the quality of his deliveries into the box to keep them low at a level where the Union’s diminutive strikers can latch onto them.
Brian Carroll – 4.5
Kept Milovan Mirosevic very quiet over 90 minutes, as the Columbus No. 10 rarely found space to feed Higuain or Arrieta. Carroll’s consistency is impressive as he brings the defensive goods week in and week out, while remaining an offensive liability. The most useful man in a midfield trio marked for their inability to move the play quickly and build with an attack with confidence. Having more bodies around him to contend with just makes matters worse for Carroll, who prefers to work away from the play when the Union are in possession, leaving others to handle the ball as the attack builds from the back.
Michael Lahoud – 3.5
More of the same from a player who is consistent in the basics, but offers little else. Played his typical high energy game, but when the Union needed a midfielder to step up and offer an outlet for the back line, Lahoud was found wanting. It sounds like a broken record to say it, but with Brian Carroll already cemented in the starting lineup, Lahoud brings little else to the table. He always chooses the safe pass, which is generally back to the defense, resetting the play even when the opposition is not pressing. He missed the target on two late game volleys, calling into question the decision to take out McInerney, while leaving both Carroll and Lahoud in the match down the stretch.
Gabriel Gomez – 1
As mentioned above, Gomez not only made a proper mess of everything he touched, but his inconsistent movement and erratic positioning made his teammates worse over 90 minutes on Wednesday. He tried his hand at center forward, where he was easily bested by Chad Marshall, but not before forcing McInerney out of his regular hunting grounds. Unavailable to receive the ball from the back line, Gomez’s midfield contributions were summed up with a series of poorly lofted crosses that failed to trouble the Crew. In the final third, the Panamanian was even more calamitous, as his dead ball delivery was miles off target, and his two shot attempts were skewed equally high and wide of the target. Combine his technical errors with a complete lack of pace, and Union fans should not be subjected to more torpid displays from Gomez any time soon.
Michael Farfan – 5
Returned to a wing role against Columbus, Farfan was forced to split time between both flanks and looked annoyed the he was not called upon to help drive his team’s offense. Looked effective cutting into the midfield, drawing the foul that set up the Union’s only goal on a surging run. Combined well with Cruz, McInerney and his overlapping fullbacks, but was again pressing too much, trying to shoulder much of the attacking burden. Surrounded by a raft of reluctant players, Farfan’s eager display was a bright spot for the Union, but he will need to continue to improve upon his mix of passing for possession, and passing to create goal-scoring opportunities. Had a good look at Lampson’s goal that was well saved, along with a few well blocked shots over the course of the match, as he stalked the Columbus box. Remains the Union’s most dangerous attacking weapon and would be better used in the midfield, where his eagerness to put in the work of providing an easy outlet was sorely missing.
Jack McInerney – 2.5
Frustration is visibly building for the young striker, and he needs to push Wednesday’s match from his mind as quickly as possible. He was completely put off his game by the bulldozing Gomez, who made forward runs directly into his space while lingering in the center forward channel long after the play had passed him by. As a result, McInerney spent the first half in midfield, hunting for possession, but his touch eluded him on too many occasions. For all his ability going forward, McInerney needs to spend the rest of 2012 and the offseason focusing on his composure on the ball. Too often he either looks for a first time flick, or carries the ball too long, ultimately laying off an unconvincing pass, which too frequently result in the end of a rush. By the second half, he had played himself out of the match and knowing the ball wasn’t coming through to him in any productive manner, he wore his displeasure on his sleeve. Maturity and poise are rarely traits used to describe a 20-year-old, and it is hard not to feel for McInerney, who has had the vast majority of the team’s attacking fortunes thrust on his inexperienced shoulders. With the playoffs in the rear view mirror, reestablishing the pipeline of service to McInerney and providing him with attacking support are both critical to his development and the Union’s chances of rediscovering even a modicum of offensive potency.
Danny Cruz – 3.5
Hard work and tremendous effort continued to yield few returns for the newest member of the Union. Initially deployed on the left, Cruz appeared uncomfortable and looked to cut into the center early and often. Once the call came to swap fields with Michael Farfan, he returned to his comfort zone. He looks like the type of player who needs to work himself into form. Cruz should continue to earn minutes as his excellent work rate makes him a prime candidate to exploit the large spaces created by McInerney’s movement.
Raymon Gaddis – 5
First the bad: Gaddis was caught out for the break that led to the second Columbus goal. In the final minute of a match in which his team was chasing a match-winner themselves, it’s a mistake that will happen. That one minor misstep — and it was minor because there were plenty of other players left hanging their heads for their part in the goal — should not detract from a second straight excellent shift turned in by the rookie defender. His positional savvy will improve with experience, but what is already sewn into the fabric of Gaddis’ game is an explosive set of offensive skills. As mentioned above, Gaddis preference for low, wormburner crosses had Columbus scrambling in a way that the Union’s myriad of high balls never did. If Valdes and Soumare are both unable to go in New England, John Hackworth will have no qualms about throwing the fearless Gaddis back into the mix.
Antoine Hoppenot – 3
Must return to fighting for the Union rather than simply fighting. There is no doubting the frustration inherent in being a smaller striker forced to endure a weekly manhandling at the hands of a clumsy behemoth, but Hoppenot must learn to keep his focus and composure, channeling his anger into his play. For a young player that can be very challenging, especially during a period where the Union have provided him with a paucity of quality service, but to keep his development from stagnating, Hoppenot must rein his emotions and get back to challenging defenders with his runs, not his hands and words.
Freddy Adu – 5.5
Finally, the Freddy Adu Union fans have been hoping for showed up. Smart with his passing, he nearly slipped in Hoppenot before setting up Gomez for his comical miss late in the game. One performance does not redefine a player, but if Adu continues in this vein, he can be a dangerous playmaker for the Union.
Yader Reyes – 4
Timid and seemingly overwhelmed by the moment, Reyes lacked the steely eyed composure of a big game referee. Failed to stamp his authority on the match as a number of bizarre incidents undermined his control. Failed to take any action either way when Valdes crashed into Lampson late in the first half, with both sets of players enraged by his indecision. Then compounded his mistake on the last play of the first half when, after blowing the whistle to speak with players on a corner kick, he failed to take any action when Columbus whipped the ball into and through the Union box while all the players were waiting for his whistle.
Ultimately, got the Williams red card correct, Whatever embellishment Hoppenot added, Williams was far out of bounds for such an aggressive, two-handed shove directly in front of the assistant.
Preferred lineup for Saturday’s match at New England Revolution at 7:30 pm
MacMath; Williams, Okugo, Valdes, G. Farfan; Carroll, M. Farfan, Adu; Cruz, McInerney, Hoffman