Photo: Paul Rudderow
If there was any question about whether Sebastien Le Toux could bring the energy and excitement back to PPL Park, the returning hero answered doubters inside of 20 minutes. Not only was his finish of the highest quality, Le Toux’s pressure and work rate up front inspired Keon Daniel and the Farfans to follow his example, with the quartet absolutely hounding Sporting Kansas City’s every touch.
When considering this particular match, remember that it was this pressure and intensity, fueled by Le Toux, that created the Union’s first half hour charge, not Hackworth’s unexpected starting XI.
As the match unraveled for the home side, it suddenly seemed an even more ponderous move to break out an experimental formation and lineup in the team’s home opener. After all, Ray Gaddis didn’t play left back in the preseason. Neither did Gabe Farfan play any midfield. Nor did Le Toux ever operate as a lone striker. Nor did Keon Daniel man the center of midfield. And while Michael Lahoud and Brian Carroll know each other from 2012, the pair did not have an opportunity to work together before 2013 kicked off.
Repetition begets chemistry. While some might suggest that players should be able to just line up and play, that is simply not the way things work. After all, the opponents are also professionals. In Sporting Kansas City’s case, they are professionals who are well aware of, and practiced in, their specific roles within the team.
Get numbers forward
The 4-2-3-1 is not, by definition, a defensive formation. It can be quite aggressive, in fact.
But the fact that the Union’s three-man attacking midfield seemed oblivious to the notion that each player should have free license to attack Jimmy Nielsen’s box limited their ability to create chances. Perhaps it was due to their lack of familiarity with the setup or with each other as a unit. Also, it may been a coaching decision to play a high defensive line but maintain their positions outside the area where they could serve balls into Le Toux. If so, as the game wore on, it didn’t work out as planned.
The Kansas City fullbacks are unquestionably one of the best attacking duos in Major League Soccer, but the Union made it far too simple for them to attack when whichever two Union midfielders found themselves wide then failed to attack the final third. Cutting into the center of the park, but all the time staying in front of the Kansas City center backs, made Daniel and the Farfans far too predictable. If Hackworth is to persist with this system, each of these players must take turns charging into the box as forwards, both with the ball at feet and without.
A simple solution would be to drop Le Toux into an attacking midfield slot since his work rate will allow him to cover his defensive responsibilities while also accelerating forward to increase his goal tally. This would also get another striker on the pitch, allowing either Jack McInerney to stretch the defense or Conor Casey to hold up play for all three of his attacking supporters to run off.
But a change in personnel is not necessarily mandatory to improve the 4-2-3-1. Better support from Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud higher up the pitch would alleviate the need for the Union’s attacking trio to hang back, and they could try their luck racing forward as they pleased.
Keep Your Shape
Sporting Kansas City adjusted to the Union’s pressure, but the Union failed to react once the game had changed. As Collin and Besler sat deeper and deeper to deal with the pressure of Le Toux, Daniel and the Farfans, the Union front four pressed even higher. Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud, concerned with the potential break out, failed to follow. Suddenly, where the Union had spent the first half hour in a tight, organized shape, an enormous hole opened up between the attacking foursome and two defensive midfielders.
It was in that space that Feilhaber, Rosell and Nagamura took over the match for Kansas City. Without a player in their face to force their hand, the trio played a comfortable game of catch, keeping the Union focused on the center of the park while the fullbacks flew forward to create overloads on the flanks.
Left Back isn’t just the opposite of Right Back
In terms of one-on-one defending on the wing, Ray Gaddis turned in a strong performance against Graham Zusi. Gaddis however lost his mark when Zusi slipped inside for KC’s first. He, along with Daniel, also failed to deal with Zusi’s ball to Myers for Sporting’s third. When it comes to left fullback for the Union, Gabe Farfan is still the only real option the Union have at the position. This is not to take anything away from Gaddis, who is an excellent young right back, but he just isn’t a fit for the left flank.
It is too easy for a manager to suggest that to play left back, Gaddis need only reverse what he would do on his more comfortable side of the pitch. But, being as right-footed as the West Virginia product is, Gaddis is unable to play to Hackworth’s scheme on the left. His surging runs, though impressive, tend to take him into the center of the pitch, rather than overlapping his midfielder up the touchline. Also, his unusually high turnover rate against Sporting was in large part due to the fact that Gaddis still remains uncomfortable pulling the ball onto his left to make passes up the line. When pinched by defenders, he still tried to move the ball into the field on his right foot, making him far easier to close down.
Farfan should be expected to return to left back against Colorado and for the foreseeable future. And like it was before both 2012 and 2013, left back still remains the largest need for the Union, along with a veteran goalkeeper to push, mentor and perhaps even replace MacMathwhen required.
Zac MacMath – 3.5
Though none of the three goals was entirely his fault, MacMath must raise his hand for a mistake in each. On the first, Feilhaber’s shot came right into his gut from 16 yards out and needed to be held or parried away. While Gaddis deserves the majority of the blame on the winner, MacMath took a very poor angle to the ball, making things that much easier for Rosell. On the final goal, MacMath failed to move his feet into position, conceding half the net to Bieler. Additionally, top goalkeepers claim responsibility for organizing their backline. MacMath does not, yet.
Sheanon Williams – 5
Should have had on assist on what should have been Le Toux’s second, and did some industrious work on right flank. If the Union are to rediscover their defensive fortitude, Williams must do more to lock down his side of the pitch, as he left Okugo isolated on occasion.
Amobi Okugo – 5
Did well to keep Bieler in his pocket for the first first half but failed to track the Ecuadorian on his 83rd minute goal. Okugo was his usual confident self on the ball, moving it well and picking out smart passes to the front four, bypassing Carroll and Lahoud. He was in charge of much of the defensive organization with Parke still settling into the side. He’s probably still kicking himself for failing to direct his header on goal from a Le Toux corner kick.
Jeff Parke – 5
Steady enough from the veteran in his first match in a Union shirt. As his comfort level with the Union improves, he will become a more vocal and forceful leader. Parke could have done better to track down Bieler on SKC’s first goal, but with Union in disarray, it was a bit of a free for all.
Ray Gaddis – 3.5
The hardest part of Gaddis’ night was always going to be the one-on-one matchup with Graham Zusi, which he handled with veteran poise. The problem for Gaddis was his incredibly poor turnover rate once the ball was at his feet. In completing 33 passes, Gaddis turned the ball over or was dispossessed a shocking 26 times. Additionally, it was Gaddis who allowed himself to be picked on the match-winner, leaving Rosell with the free header that thrust SKC into the lead.
Michael Lahoud – 4.5
Failed to give adequate cover to the front four as he sat far too deep. Content to dink simple passes around rather than move the ball forward and support the attack. Completely lost his man, Feilhaber, in the build up to the first goal. Lahoud must improve his vision, his ambition and his overall desire to move the play forward if he is to keep his spot in the starting XI.
Brian Carroll – 3.5
Carroll’s greatest deficiency in his first match as captain was his impotency as a leader. The Union captain was a silent figure throughout, as he watched his team lose momentum and ultimately the game. Whether by design or choice, Carroll’s inability to play the game higher up the pitch cost his team dearly as Sporting Kansas City set up shop in the midfield during second half. Carroll and Lahoud’s deep positioning made things far too easy for Sporting. Also, needs to cut it out with the aimlessly lumped balls forward as they seem rarely aimed at a blue, or in this case black, shirt.
Keon Daniel – 5.5
The pick of the bunch in the Union midfield, Daniel’s delivery to Le Toux for the Union opener was sheer perfection. With the Union on the front foot and Kansas City chasing the game, Daniel was at his best, finding space and moving the ball crisply. When the visitors found their feet however, Daniel failed to raise his game, fading badly as the first half drew to a close. Daniel clearly has the skills to get the job done, giving the Union a powerful, steely presence in midfield. His lack of urgency and aggression, however, continues to stand in the way of his becoming a consistent performer.
Michael Farfan – 4.5
A disappointing showing from a player who can dazzle just as easily as he can fade from matches. There were moments of brilliance from Farfan as he shucked off defenders on the dribble and neatly picked out runners, but they were nowhere near plentiful enough. Kansas City’s plan to rough up Farfan succeeded admirably as the Union playmaker quickly grew frustrated with the treatment and failed to retain focus on the match at hand.
Gabriel Farfan – 4
Failed to capitalize on a fantastic double chance in the early minutes, putting his first effort too close to the keeper before panicking and lashing his second look over the bar. His fullback instincts kicked in far too often and Farfan spent too much time within 5-10 yards of Gaddis, organizing the defense on Myers and Zusi. If he is to continue at midfield, he must remember his responsibility to the attack and get himself into the box to aid his striker. As it stands, Farfan is still the Union’s best option at left back.
Sebastien Le Toux – 6
His goal was expertly taken, as he gathered and finished with aplomb. Missed an absolute sitter minutes later. With Nielsen beaten, Le Toux had time to trap and pass the ball into the open net, or even dribble by the stranded Kansas City goalkeeper. While his touch, outside of the goal, remained typically poor, his motion was excellent throughout. He is not to blame for the inability of the midfield to get themselves into dangerous positions in the box.
Jack McInerney – 5.5
The recently mohawked McInerney nearly bagged the equalizer the Union needed, pounding in a header from a Le Toux cross that Nielsen did well to keep out. Also put Besler under pressure when he flicked his header back across the face of goal.
Roger Torres – 5.5
Didn’t misplace a single pass in his brief cameo, looking lively in the process. Hackworth’s decision to wait so long to bring him on was a curious one.
Conor Casey – N/A
The bald-headed heavyweight bout that is Casey-Collin will rage all season, to the delight of all. On Saturday, Casey entered too late to have a meaningful impact on a match that was already over upon his arrival.
Mark Geiger – 4
Make no mistake, this loss was not down to the official, but Geiger seemed to have come into the match well short of midseason sharpness. His ability to keep himself out of the spotlight was laudable, considering what an impossibility that would have been in 2012. Yet both coaches had reason to rage at decisiosn and tug at their hair based on the shear inconsistency of the match official. The decisions favored neither team, with a clear foul going unwhistled at one end only to see an equivalent infraction called at the other. The Union may bemoan the physicality with which Sporting was allowed to play, but in Major League Soccer they must be prepared to accept such rough treatment on a weekly basis.
Preferred lineup for Saturday’s match at Colorado
MacMath; Williams, Soumare, Parke, G. Farfan; Okugo, Carroll; Le Toux, Daniel, M. Farfan; McInerney