Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz
Alright gang. Raise your hand if you’re ready for this season to kickoff?
Maybe it is because we are only used to catching brief snippets of Union preseason based on photos taken through the camo net Peter Nowak had hung over YSC, but this year’s camp feels like it has lasted an eternity.
As of this writing we are little more than t-minus 24 hours until we pack PPL Park for the first time in 2013.
So let’s wrap this up.
It may be the formation Hack has referenced most frequently, but an out and out 4-3-3 just doesn’t seem viable for the Union. Given the current roster, it’s just too narrow. The Union have
six five forwards on their books, with each preferring to either operate out of the middle or work wide solely as a means to create space before cutting back centrally towards goal. Without wide players who want to beat people to the endline and cut balls back into the box, the Union would be too one-dimensional as defenses could pack the center of the park, easily nullifying the Union’s direct attack. That is not to say that the Union’s fullbacks do not have the chops to get into the attack and build width. But it is one thing to ask Williams, Gabe Farfan, Gaddis and Anding to overlap an attacking player. It is entirely another to expect these players to provide the entirety of the Union’s presence on the flanks. There is just too much ground to cover and relying on their pressure so heavily will inevitably create gaping holes directly behind the fullbacks, a location where the Union’s opponents thrived in 2012.
This is the formation the Union finished with in 2012, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. As soon as Danny Cruz, Keon Daniel and even Gabriel Gomez found themselves penciled into the starting XI as forwards, the thrill was gone. But for 2013, the 4-2-3-1 might not be the worst option. The issue of width will always be a problem as the buzzing, rotating three man attacking midfield cloud would likely be comprised of the likes of Michael Farfan, Roger Torres, Sebastien Le Toux and Cruz.
And then there is the issue of the striker. Three years ago, Conor Casey would be the obvious choice, but at 31, coming off a major injury, he simply may lack the mobility to lead the line alone. It is a mistake to think of the lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 as simply a big body, meant to knock down balls and hold up play. Those are certainly important attributes, but it is also critical for that player to stretch the defense with probing runs, making space for himself and just as importantly the floor of attackers following him into the final third. If Casey can prove his fitness, he may quickly climb the depth chart, but until that point he remains a role player.
With respect to forward movement, either McInerney or Le Toux could do the job. McInerney has a marginal advantage over Le Toux in the air and the Frenchman’s engine could do a lot of good for the Union’s midfield. A five man midfield of Brian Carroll and Amobi Okugo behind Mike Farfan, Torres and Le Toux would certainly be an interesting sight. Okugo’s desire to kickstart the attack would be a welcome improvement over Michael Lahoud’s lateral/negative passing game, and he would be tasked with quickly feeding Torres and Farfan, while keeping a watchful eye on the chance to spread the ball wide. With both Torres and Farfan on the pitch together, the Union would have two playmakers capable of opening up a defense and picking out either the forward, Le Toux, each other or even a fullback screaming forward into the attack.
It is definitely a compelling idea. Yet, it is impossible to ignore those strikers. Perhaps the Union could begin with a 4-2-3-1 and then deploy Hack’s kitchen sink style substitution approach where, down a goal, the Union manager makes three moves, finishing the game in a 3-1-2-4. Could work.
But the leading candidate for the Union’s opening day formation is the 4-4-2, the formation of which Hackworth showed two versions in preseason. Against Orlando City, Hackworth’s seeming “A” side began with Le Toux and Casey in front of a midfield diamond that featured Cruz and Daniel on either side of Carroll and Michael Farfan. Against a non-MLS opponent, though admittedly in the first game of training camp, it simply didn’t work. Brian Carroll is a fine ball winner and fully capable of keeping the ball in the possession game, but his most glaring weakness comes when he is asked to move the ball up the pitch to make any contribution in the attack. Farfan was thus forced to drop 10-15 yards into his own half just to get the ball and it took 35 minutes before he found his feet.
In the 2-0 defeat against DC United to wrap up the Floridian segment of the preseason, the Union returned to the empty bucket look which often caused the team so many problems under Nowak. Reactive in nature, both Okugo and Carroll manned the center of the midfield, but without a playmaker in front of them, play seems to have died out before the ball could be moved into the danger zone and chances were limited.
Given Carroll’s penchant to sit extremely deep, often just yards in front of the back four, the Union’s empty bucket look cedes the entire center of the park to their opponent. Okugo has all the potential to be a big time defensive, or even box-to-box, midfielder in MLS, but he is not a CAM. With the pair sitting back looking to clog up the passing lanes, there is no one to properly press the opponents holding midfielder and rather than launch attacks from within their own half, opposition can use the center circle as a base of operations.
If that was already not problematic enough, from a tactical standpoint, the Union’s desire to play their fullbacks high up the pitch often leaves gaping passing lanes out to opposing wide players, as mentioned above. Using four men to lock down the center of the pitch in their defensive third, there is still no way for the Union to prevent the simple diagonal ball out to the wing. Played behind the advanced fullbacks, teams too easily picked apart the Union flanks and were easy to get good service into MacMath’s box (looking at you, Houston).
There is a subcategory of the 4-4-2, which is essentially a 4-1-3-2. It involves the same three man attacking midfield as the 4-2-3-1 described above, but adds another striker. This is pretty much the most attacking look the Union could show, but with midfielders running every which way, too much defensive responsibility falls on the solitary defensive midfielder. In this look, that would be Carroll, who is far from his best when asked to stray too far from his home.
So, after all those numbers…
Gun to my head to pick a formation for Saturday…
I would have to expect a flat four/empty bucket 4-4-2. Hackworth has shown a proclivity for playing it safe during his tenure as Union manager. In 2012, the Union could be seen bunkering down for a draw, at home, long after the playoffs had slipped for their grasp. No one would question that the Union had an elite centerback pairing in Carlos Valdes and Okugo, yet Hackworth felt the need to protect them with two defensive midfield options. The additions of Bakary Soumare and Jeff Parke take the Union from strength to strength, but they will need time to gel, considering they played very little together in the preseason. Even if it is Okugo in defense, he will be playing with a new partner. Rather than take the game to Kansas City with a more aggressive approach, I expect Hackworth to focus his efforts on screening that central defensive pairing, whether they need it or not.
Predicted Starting XI: 4-4-2
MacMath; Williams, Okugo, Parke, G. Farfan; Cruz, Carroll, M. Farfan, Daniel: Le Toux, McInerney
Preferred Starting XI: 4-2-3-1
MacMath; Williams, Soumare, Parke, G. Farfan; Carroll, Okugo; Torres, M. Farfan, Le Toux; McInerney