Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union
The post-match comments from the coaching staff make it clear: The Columbus game was about supporting player assessment. No player that got minutes on Wednesday has a clear role in 2013, so the coaching staff was clearly looking to see who would stand out without the support normally provided by, well, anybody who had played Major League Soccer before.
Of the starters, only Michael Lahoud had seen significant minutes as a regular season starter for the Union in the past. He was deployed in a supporting role with clear instructions to allow Stephen Okai and Leo Fernandes to release forward and direct the offense.
But with Lahoud as a defensive stopper, the Union were clearly hoping he would be an anchor that controlled the pace of the game and established a consistent shape through the midfield. This was, to put it lightly, not the case.
Instead, Michael Lahoud played the way Michael Lahoud plays. He chased, he battled, he turned the ball over, and he generally raised the anxiety level of everyone from Greg Jordan to Mickey Mouse. By no means is Lahoud a bad soccer player, but he should be used the way you use scotch tape when you are all out of duct tape. It’s an alternative that will usually get the job done for a short time, but in no way should it be considered the best alternative.
Without midfield stability, the Union never established an offensive strategy. If you have a drink in your hand, you can still count on your fingers the number of passes the team completed in the offensive third.
Closer to goal is not always closer to goal
There could be a number of factors that contributed to the team’s offensive woes, but the clearest is a lack of comfort on the ball. Let’s define “comfort” as a sense that you are in control of the situation and a defender must react to you. By pushing play when you don’t have numbers, dribbling when you don’t need to dribble, or otherwise forcing things when they aren’t there, players betray a lack of comfort. The Union suffer from this problem all over the pitch. Instead of being content to knock the ball around, there is an unfounded urgency to move forward, to move march endlessly toward the opposition goal without regard for the current shape of the opposition. Modern defense is built on pressing high up the pitch, and most successful offenses get around this by committing to a short passing attack or a swift counterattack.
The 2012 Union offered a confusing hybrid offense that was, unfortunately, back for another go-around on Wednesday. The 4-3-3 formation suggests counterattack, but the conservative deployment of the fullbacks and the tight central trio in midfield suggests short passes. Oh, and the long balls over top suggest that I’m not the only one confused by the tactics.
Too often, Union players receive a ball and immediately drive down the wing, at goal, or otherwise, spurning the decision-making phase of possession in favor of a location-oriented approach to offense. In other words, they say: It’s better to be closer to goal than further away. This is not true.
Philly teams have never excelled at transitioning from defense to offense. The commitment to possession has shown through on occasion, but a sense of purpose in distribution has not. Against the modern high-press defense, a player in possession must know who his first two options are depending on where he receives the ball on the pitch. Without this understanding, defensive pressure will usually lead to a turnover or long, direct ball up the pitch.
Thus, a pass that moves the team up the field is not always as good as a pass that relieves pressure in a positive way. For the Union, relieving pressure has often meant playing the ball to the center backs, but this is a flawed approach. When the backs have the ball, it allows a defense to reset its shape. A foundational premise of a possession offense is that it pulls a defense out of position. If the primary outlet is always the center back, there is a deficiency in the tactical layout of the midfield and strikers. A short back pass or a square ball relieves pressure and allow the point of attack to shift with speed. A ball to the center back restarts the whole process of offensive creation.
Big picture, because a thousand words have already been said
This analysis has focused on major issues with the Union offense over the past few seasons. Why? Yesterday’s game showed that there is still no offensive identity that defines a Philadelphia team. An identity can be as broad as a style (Houston’s physical/free kick reliant modus operandi) or as narrow as a player (Los Angeles’ Landon Donovan-or-bust strategy). But no matter how it is defined, good teams show an identity on the pitch with their play and bad teams define their identity in preseason interviews and post-match pressers with their adjectives.
The Union coaches and players have always been very good with words. In 2013, the play on the field needs to speak for itself.