So, that’s about as bad as it gets.
With two weeks to scheme and prepare for Houston, the Union coaching staff somehow overlooked the likelihood that the Dynamo would come out like a team fighting for their playoff lives.
It is understandable that a team could get lost in the second or third match over a short period. It is a lot to ask of these players to put in 270 minutes over a seven or eight-day span. But to be completely overrun despite having two full weeks to focus on an opponent? That is unacceptable. While the players deserve plenty of blame for their lack of energy and abject performance, John Hackworth must shoulder plenty of the burden for his inability to instill an awareness among the players of the spirit and physicality in store for them from MLS’s most transparent team.
With Dominic Kinnear at the helm, Houston does a few things, and they do them well.
Whether it is their new look 4–3–3 or the 4–4–2 they showed against the Union (a minor shuffling of the same 11 players), the Dynamo will press high, foul hard, and look to win the ball through hard men Adam Moffat and Ricardo Clark. Will Bruin is the blunt instrument up top with Mac Kandji and Oscar Boniek Garcia both big, strong and willing to run at defenders from their respective flanks. Whether he is deployed centrally or on the left flank, Brad Davis provides the creativity, moving the ball with pace and delivering hooking, left-footed service with deadly accuracy. At the back, Boswell and Taylor look to hammer opposing strikers into the ground.
That is Houston. They play the same way every match. They are not hard to scheme against.
Give it to Jack
Five offsides seems like a lot for one match, but Jack McInerney saw the openings that his teammates did not. Houston’s high line made them extremely susceptible to the through ball on the deck or over the top, but Freddy Adu was simply too eager to keep the ball at his own feet rather than pick out his streaking teammate. McInerney’s angry gesticulation told the story. While he must learn to keep the cork in his bubbling annoyance and frustration, the passion he showed and effort he gave deserve praise.
Against New England, all five midfielders set about the task of feeding their lone striker. The delivery from Keon Daniel and Michael Farfan on either side of the pitch kept McInerney constantly working to fight his way into the position to score the Union’s opener. With Adu unable to pull the trigger, Cruz on his own little island, and Michael Farfan working to cover the rest of the midfield, the ball was never made available for McInerney, who nevertheless kept his feet moving, albeit in vain.
Move on, but do not forget
With a trip to table topping Sporting KC on Wednesday, the Union must move on.
But for Hackworth and his staff, there must be reward for the players who fought and a place on the bench—or in the stands—for those who did not.
The season is about winning the MLS Cup. That season is over.
All focus must be on creating an improved Philadelphia Union for 2013, and Hackworth has clearly endeavored to give minutes to players that are on the bubble. Some, like Keon Daniel against New England, have answered the bell (though he must still prove himself against quality opposition this final week). Others, namely the Union’s two most expensive players, Freddy Adu and Gabriel Gomez, have not. With two matches left to evaluate his players, make a statement to the league and prepare for what is undoubtedly another tumultuous offseason: neither of these players deserve to feature over the final 180 minutes of 2012. Their lack of effort and desire to help the Union become a better team is revealing, and for Hackworth to keep the team committed under his regime, he must hold all players to the same standard.
Chandler Hoffman has scored 5 goals in the last 3 reserve matches. Roger Torres has put in the work to make it back from a serious knee injury and shown well in reserve matches. Jimmy McLaughlin and Zach Pfeffer continue to improve with the reserves, lower division sides, and youth national teams. There was a point in 2012 where many saw playing these players as throwing away matches. Given the manner in which certain senior players seem to have given up this season, the opposite is now true.
Zac MacMath – 4
For the suddenly jittery MacMath, the chance to regroup in the offseason can’t come soon enough. Flapped badly at Davis’ cross and was let out of jail when Kandji ballooned his chance over the bar, before struggling with Boniek’s match-winner. Having gotten his entire palm to the ball, he needs to be able to push that shot around the post.
Ray Gaddis – 4.5
Did what he could to try and kickstart a stagnant offense, but the lack of outlets from Adu and Cruz limited his influence. Defensively, Gaddis was physically overmatched by the eager, in-form Kandji.
Amobi Okugo – 5.5
His typical, tidy self on the ball, Okugo could not do enough to make up for his struggling partner. Extremely active in his own box, it was an unusual reversal of trends, with the makeshift centerback having to cover for Valdes on numerous occasions.
Carlos Valdes – 2
Valdes’ display against Houston was poor enough to leave fans with concerns about his health. Not only was he badly exposed on three different occasions, (Kandji’s opener, Davis’ driving run before hitting the post, and the penalty conceded to Will Bruin) the Union skipper completed a pathetic 18 passes on the night in which he looked completely disinterested. Union supporters must hope this is a one-off, considering how heavily the side has relied on their central defense all year.
Sheanon Williams – 5.5
Wins extra credit for toughness as he essentially played his 64 minutes on one leg. Did extremely well to acknowledge Sarkodie’s defensive cushion, taking what was given as he hooked the ball into McInerney for the Union’s only goal. It is a sad state of affairs for Hackworth when a visibly injured Williams is still the Union’s best bet.
Michael Lahoud – 3
A shocking performance from the typically controlled Lahoud. Turned the ball over almost as easily as he was dispossessed. Completely unprepared for Houston’s high pressure and received little respite when he moved to left back to replace the injured Williams.
Brian Carroll – 2.5
Perhaps the doziest performance Carroll has turned in over the course of 2012, the Union’s most veteran player was overmatched in every facet of play. Never an offensive juggernaut, Carroll was below even his own meager par, completing 65 percent of a measly 29 passes. Defensively, Carroll was caught ball watching on multiple occasions, allowing Kandji, Davis and Boniek Garcia to ghost into the Union box unmarked.
Danny Cruz – 3
For all his hustle and bustle, Cruz’s lack of touch and reading of the game has become apparent. Not only was his touch made of granite, but he rarely made the run his teammates were expecting, whether it was Farfan, Gaddis or Adu trying to pick him out. Toughness is a laudable attribute in a soccer player, but Cruz did not look healthy for much of the match (in part do to some rough treatment during the contest). If he was not fit to play, he should never have been out there.
Freddy Adu – 2
Enough is enough. The Union cannot afford to keep running out Adu if he is not willing to give 100 percent effort to the cause. Never wanted the ball, despite playing in his preferred position in the center of midfield. It was no shock that once Houston revved up their physical game, Adu wanted no part of the affair, a fact strengthened by his paltry 18 passes attempted.
Michael Farfan – 6
Must be growing weary of seeing Adu and Gomez deployed in center midfield while he runs circles around them, playing both their position and his own. Did everything he could Saturday night to help his side, including, but not limited to, dropping into midfield to pick up the ball, running at defenders, spreading the ball, and looking to pick out through balls for McInerney and Cruz. Hackworth may be giving the others a chance to prove themselves before making personnel moves in the offseason, but it is clear that Farfan remains the Union’s best creative option. At this point in the season, it isn’t even a question.
Jack McInerney – 5.5
Took his goal extremely well as he slid into position quietly before cushioning a well-directed header past Tally Hall. Otherwise, McInerney’s performance seemed equal parts youthful exuberance and frustration. While more than half of his 5 offside calls were down to sluggish midfield distribution, McInerney must learn to either hold his runs or curl his lines in order to provide more time for the ball to be played.
Gabriel Gomez – 3
Slow, plodding and seemingly unaware that he was brought in to help inspire the Union to victory, Gomez’s continued selection is a mystery.
Antoine Hoppenot – 4
It was never going to be Hoppenot’s night with the Union midfield in such disarray. No amount of running up front can lead to goals when the ball simply isn’t getting forward.
Roger Torres – 5
It was bittersweet for Union fans to hear Arlo White speak so highly of Torres promise considering that the young Colombian has been completely buried under Hackworth. Unlike Gomez, Torres brought a spark to the match, aggressively driving play forward and looking to create.
Mark Geiger – 0
Bias, thy name is Geiger.
Geiger set about making sure Geiger was the focus of the match about Geiger. Rarely is a referee more visible than when Geiger takes center stage, and it is increasingly incomprehensible that he is regarded as one of MLS’s best.
He allowed Houston to physically pound the Union through tactics deemed unacceptable by every other official in the league—for example, his allowance of Bobby Boswell and Jermaine Taylor’s bulldozing through the back of any attacking player who had established position on a ball in the air.
In the end, Geiger wants to make the big call, and unfortunately for the Union, Valdes gave him the opportunity to dispense the kind of justice that would make sure that he was a post-game talking point. The fact that no other referee would have given that penalty does not excuse the Union captain for lunging in under the watchful eye of the spotlight-craving official.
Preferred Starting XI for Wednesday’s away match at Sporting KC
MacMath; Gaddis, Okugo, Valdes, Lahoud; McLaughlin, Carroll, M. Farfan, Daniel; Hoffman, McInerney