Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz
What a difference a year makes.
In the corresponding fixture a year ago, the Union had plenty to play for. Bubbling with excitement at the franchise’s rapid ascension to a playoff caliber squad, Peter Nowak led his men into Red Bull Arena knowing that a victory would see his surprising young squad secure one of the top two places in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
The story gets worse from there, with Nowak rolling his lineup dice, as he often did, trotting out Zach Pfeffer to try and win a midfield battle against veteran players, the size and skill of which he would never have seen in any of his reserve or youth leagues. New York pounded the Union on that night, reminding everyone that they were the more physical, talented, committed side.
Fast forward a year and now the Union faithful are clambering to see their youngsters. In a meaningless fixture where Hackworth and Co. should have played for a win, showing spirit and proving to their fanbase that they were committed to building a team the right way, the only lineup change made by the Union manager was to bring in the club’s oldest player, Chris Albright. Hackworth’s allegiances to certain players have grown downright alarming and with three meaningless fixtures to wrap up the season, the Union manager learned precious little about the quality and readiness of much of his young talent.
Playing for 0-0
It is a tale as old as time for inferior sides playing against the top programs in their respective leagues: Bunker down and play for the draw and you will inevitably lose, since any mistake creates one goal, and on a team built to defend, recovering that tally can prove impossible.
The final two matches of the season prove the point perfectly, with the overly-cautious Hackworth had to completely reshape his team at halftime, bringing on a striker to try and score goals.
Why not press for a goal in the first half, one wonders?
The best form of defense is a good offense, after all. And attacking high up the field allows a team to gain in confidence, playing the match further and further from their own goal. But Hackworth gave too much respect to Henry, Cahill and the rest of the Red Bulls attack, parking his team too deep and allowing New York all the time and space needed to pick the Union apart.
Also, by including both Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud, Hackworth insured that his side would have little attacking fluidity since neither player can list “quality distribution” on their resumes. It was quite the opposite, in fact, with New York gladly accepting both players mistakes, turning them into their second and third goals.
Too far from goal
Another critical issue with Hackworth’s use of bunker ball is that even when the Union mount an attack, the whole apparatus is set into motion too far from the opposition’s net. Twice in the first half, Jack McInerney was played in behind the defense, but could not muster a shot. Should the young forward have done better on both occasions? Probably. But McInerney is a poaching, predatory finisher who needs to work into the box. On both instances against New York, the Union midfield was serving balls forward from within 10 yards of the center stripe. McInerney, subsequently was picking up the ball more than 30 yards from goal, making his job far more complicated than he would prefer. A touch to set himself before lashing past Luis Robles is all McInerney wants, yet when he is required to make up ground with the ball at his feet, too many things can and did go wrong.
Hackworth needs to pick a system.
And make it known.
He also must accept the harsh reality that the Union will struggle to be an offensive juggernaut with McInerney as the only striker in a 4-5-1 set up. Hackworth need only look to Eastern Conference foe Chicago Fire to see a properly built 4-5-1, with big, powerful Sherjill MacDonald at the center of the attack. While he may not be listed as a striker on paper, Chris Rolfe’s predatory instincts make him a constant goalscoring threat with Patrick Nyarko, Alvaro Fernandez and Dominic Oduro always lurking, looking to get into the box.
As they are constituted, the Union simply cannot make this formation work and whether it is a 4-4-2, a 4-3-3, or any combination there within, Hackworth must do a better job of getting multiple attackers on the pitch and in the box come 2013.
Zac MacMath – 4.5
MacMath is far too nimble and athletic a goalkeeper to continually get caught cheating, as he did on Cooper’s second. Patience will come with time, but for Union fans sick and tired of shipping soft goals, patience has begun to wear thin.
Ray Gaddis – 7.5
Man of the Match performance from the phenomenally composed youngster who barely put a foot wrong for 90 minutes on Saturday. Came up trumps against Lindpere, Cahill, Pearce and others who found out early and often that Gaddis is not a player to be bullied.
Amobi Okugo – 5.5
Distributed well out of the back and threw his body around with reckless abandon against Cooper. Had no fault in any of the goals and his physical late game challenges proved that he, unlike some of his teammates, was not content to be beaten up and embarrassed in front of the home crowd.
Carlos Valdes – 3
The last of three phoned-in performances from the Union captain to close out 2012. Between leading the faltering Union and earning minutes for Colombia in World Cup Qualifying, the captain may just be exhausted after the grueling season, but he must raise his hand and accept his blame on all three goals. After conceding the spot kick to Cahill, Valdes was crossed up and torched by Henry before failing to step up, holding Cooper onside for New York’s third.
Chris Albright – 4.5
Looked every bit the worn down veteran he is, but still managed to do enough defend his flank. Even got forward once or twice, nearly earning an assist on a well struck cross that McInerney flashed over the bar. It may have been his final MLS match, but with the Union light in the coaching staff department, Albright may have a part to play for the Union in the years to come.
Michael Lahoud – 3.5
Completely overrun in middle of the park, it seemed almost inevitable that Lahoud would turn the ball over in a costly situation. It is rare that a player runs so much, yet is still consistently in the wrong spot defensively. When Henry picked his pocket 35 yards out from goal, Lahoud compounded his mistake by prodding the ball past Okugo to give Henry a head of steam flying into the Union box. Mercifully substituted at halftime.
Brian Carroll – 5.5
Playing with the ineffective Lahoud in the first half and alone in the second, Carroll covered a colossal amount of ground in addition to dropping into the box to make vital interventions. While he remonstrated violently for handball against Cahill in the build up to New York’s third, he should have played a smarter pass, avoiding that outcome all together. It was the only blemish on a gutty performance from Carroll in which he gave himself entirely to the cause, on both sides of the ball, moving it quicker and more confidently than Union fans have lately grown accustomed.
Danny Cruz – 3
The biggest concern about Cruz is his lack of upside. His hustle will always be top notch, but his touch, especially when passing or shooting, along with his decision making are very, very poor.
Keon Daniel – 4
Another agonizing performance from Daniel, who at times looks ready to take on all comers, and at other times forgets what he’s doing and dribbles directly at the keeper, failing to even attempt a pass or shot. Looked sluggish for most of his 90 minutes and even when he finally pulled the trigger, got it all wrong. The tools are there, the question for Daniel is motivation and focus, which just might make his ineffective play even more frustrating.
Michael Farfan – 5.5
Did everything in his power to ignite the offense, playing a part in the majority of the Union’s best scoring chances. Needs to learn to pick his spots a little better as he forced too many balls, but with the Union so flaccid in attack, its hard to criticize a player so committed to creating chances.
Jack McInerney – 4
Had enough chances that he will have been furious with himself to not have come away with a goal. The sitter he missed in the closing moments was surely embarrassing, but had McInerney been able to pull away and finish any of his first half chances, the match might have taken a new direction.
Antoine Hoppenot – 4.5
Gave his typical effort, earning a slap from Pearce and a flattening from Marquez, but like his teammates simply couldn’t apply the finishing touch to his chances. Nearly poked a late consolation goal over Robles. There will always be a roster spot available for a player with Hoppenot’s workrate and ability to rile up an opposing defense.
Roger Torres – 5
Brought life to the Union attack when he came on to he share the midfield quarterbacking responsibilities with Farfan. It is a shame that Torres was never given enough meaningful minutes to work himself back into consideration because the Union could have used his playmaking skills down the stretch. As it stands, his future with the club appears tenuous.
Zach Pfeffer – N/A
Four minutes of garbage time was more a ceremonial gesture that Pfeffer is still in Hackworth’s plans.
Chris Penso – 4
If it is a foul on the Union, it should be a foul on the Red Bulls. If it isn’t a foul on New York, it shouldn’t be a foul for Philadelphia. Penso did little to convince fans there is no bias towards MLS’ big spenders.