Photo: Earl Gardner
The good news: There is only one more match in this most painful of seasons.
The bad news: The Union are no closer to having a set formation, sound tactics or team chemistry, despite having played 33 of 34 matches.
Going into Livestrong Park against a Sporting Kansas City side that still had an Eastern Conference title to play for was never going to be easy. After taking it to Sporting with a 4-0 victory at PPL Park in June, Kansas City put the Union back in their place in the US Open Cup as Peter Vermes turned up the physicality, battering and bruising John Hackworth’s men to a 2-0 home defeat.
Kansas City clearly saw what worked and what didn’t against the Union, making the necessary adjustments in preparing for their penultimate fixture on the 2012 calendar.
As for the Union, not so much.
Sporting’s perilously high defensive line again won out over the impetuous Jack McInerney. The Union midfield failed to deal with the tough, bruising play of Julio Cesar and Peterson Joseph, while the defense had few answers for C.J. Sapong, Kei Kamara and Joseph Peterson.
What was the plan?
Looking at the gaping holes in midfield and Brian Carroll’s frantic running, it should be assumed that the Union were sent on the field with two defensive midfielders. The question then must be asked, was the other holder Michael Farfan or Gabriel Gomez? Gomez, as has become his M.O. in he closing months of 2012, simply went missing, loafing forward too close to McInerney and failing to take part in the team defense. Michael Farfan, though full of effort, was little more effective as he looked to catalyze an offense with only two, but usually one, option in front of him.
In this way, Hackworth has done painfully little with the midfield since taking over from Peter Nowak: It remains largely shapeless with players rotating seemingly at random. There is a place in soccer for players switching fields. If they are running against a well-drilled defense and struggling to produce, a shrewd change of flanks can open up new options, unlocking even the most staunch resistance.
That hasn’t been the Union way. Hackworth cannot be criticized for the roster he has been handed. He can however, be taken to task for entering the final match of the 2012 season with a midfield that has little more confidence and fluency than the unit that was hammered in Portland on opening night back in March.
Jack McInerney cannot shoulder this burden on his own. Not only is he too young and inexperienced, but the 20-year-old is simply t0o small to be the target forward in any offense. When Hackworth promoted a 4-3-3 look early in his tenure, McInerney made sense in a forward line that included two other options. As time progressed and the Union manager grew increasingly more conservative and dropping strikers for midfielders, the focus of the offense moved fully onto McInerney.
His youthful frustration and offside issues aside, over a 34-game season, McInerney simply cannot survive and remain effective, standing as he does at only 5-10, 150 lbs. That leaves Hackworth with only two options, and neither involves the 4-2-3-1 formation that has become the standard over the past two months.
With the addition of a large, target forward in a more traditional 4-4-2 (i.e. everything Lionard Pajoy was supposed to be but wasn’t), McInerney could shed some of the physical pressure put on him by two center backs. With a player to work off of, McInerney’s slicing runs would be even more effective for the simple fact that he would no longer be the sole focus of a defense.
The other option is to return to a 4-3-3. Spending the offseason improving the wide game of Hoffman and Hoppenot while adding more wing forwards to the roster, the Union could continue the small ball approach. With the ball on the deck and multiple bodies scurrying forward, the Union would become a far more difficult team to scheme against, forcing defenders to track the runs of 3, 4 and even 5 attackers.
These are the options for the Union. Surely there are altered versions of each option, but the main point must be two or three strikers, not one. Jack McInerney has proven that he will be a major part of the Union attack for 2013, but he cannot possibly do it alone.
Throw caution to the wind
With one match remaining in front of the PPL Park faithful, why not give the fans a show, treating them to the young/fringe players who will have a part to play for the Union in the future? If nothing else, they will come out of the tunnel with a commitment and excitement level far exceeding some of their unenthusiastic, downright dour, senior teammates.
Trotting out the same players for far too long has yielded roughly the same performances.
Win or lose, the Union have done little well. Relying on a stout, organized defense to hold down the fort while the offense clumsily looks to find its feet, the Union have stolen a few points but rarely been convincing of their quality.
With that in mind, Hackworth should offer an olive branch to the fans who have stuck with his struggling team, giving them something to celebrate, rather than having to endure the same old performance.
Zac MacMath – 7
Were it not for MacMath’s excellent shot-stopping, especially his late first half double save, things could have gotten ugly for the Union. Showed confidence under the high ball that has been lacking for much of 2012.
Ray Gaddis – 4.5
His untidy touch ceded not only possession on Kansas City’s opener but also played Okugo out of position, allowing Kei Kamara in behind him to set the table for Jacob Peterson.
Amobi Okugo – 4
For the most part, he did well to keep his composure despite picking up an early yellow card. However, his hard work was undone when he failed to track Sapong, who sliced across the pitch behind Valdes for the match-winner.
Carlos Valdes – 4
Caught in no man’s land on both Sporting goals, the Union captain looks as if he may be going through the motions to finish out 2012.
Michael Lahoud – 3.5
Michael Lahoud is not a left back. Lahoud’s performance did little more than remind the Union faithful how dire the need is for defensive depth.
Brian Carroll – 4.5
With Gomez and Farfan looking to create, Carroll finally got the lone defensive midfield role for which fans have been clamoring. Unfortunately he didn’t live up to expectations, leaving far too large a gap between the defense and midfield. In the decisive moment on Kansas City’s winner, Kamara brushed aside Carroll with ease. Carroll had only two options: Tackle or foul. He took neither.
Gabriel Gomez – 2.5
It’s never a good sign for a player when his removal ignites their team. Gomez cannibalized space in the middle of the pitch, turning the Union’s traditional launching pad for attack into a complete dead zone.
Keon Daniel – 3
After his performance against New England gave hope that Daniel might reverse a trend of meek, unimpressive showings, Wednesday night proved that it was just a flash in the pan, a bright moment against a brutal opponent.
Michael Farfan – 4
Drew six fouls and showed heart and commitment throughout. That said, both his pass selection and accuracy were well off the mark. And that penalty? Yuck.
Danny Cruz – 4
For 10 minutes, Danny Cruz, was Lionel Messi. Slicing and dicing, taking chances, shooting the ball. The ball seemed glued to his foot. For the other 63 minutes, he was ice cold.
Jack McInerney – 3.5
Getting no support is clearly weighing on McInerney, who saw his goal-scoring streak ended at 4. While so much blame must fall on the midfield, McInerney has strayed further and further offside in the last two matches, forcing things that simply aren’t there. His 17-yard-header off the post was a thing of beauty. If only it had been directed a few inches to the left.
Antoine Hoppenot – 5.5
Hoppenot’s ability to torture defenders comes from the fact that he never stops working. His goal in Kansas City was further proof of the work rate that his seen him ascend the depth chart, knifing into the box to bail out Michael Farfan with the simple tap-in.
Jimmy McLaughlin – 5
Congratulations to the homegrown, teenaged McLaughlin on his first MLS appearance. Showed a few nice touches on the ball, but looked timid on the big stage.
Chandler Hoffman – N/A
The Union had run out of gas by the time Hoffman was introduced and the rookie had little to do.
Ismail Elfath – 5
In a match between a team with something to play for another just looking to spoil their party, things could have easily gotten out of hand on Wednesday night. And as irritating and unsportsmanlike as Kansas City’s histrionics, card-waving and simulation can get, Elfath deserves credit for finishing the match with an even number of fouls between the sides.
Union fans will be aggrieved that no justice was dispensed for Sapong’s dirty elbow on Valdes late in the match, but hopefully that is a matter that, unseen by Elfath, will be handled by the MLS Disciplinary Committee.
Preferred Starting XI for Saturday night’s season finale against New York Red Bulls
MacMath; Gaddis, Valdes, Okugo; Cruz, M. Farfan, Carroll, McLaughlin, Hernandez; Hoffman, McInerney