Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz
Six points from three games is a fine accomplishment for this Philadelphia Union team.
That three of the team’s four goals have come from strikers is a comforting sign for anyone who remembers Lio Pajoy’s heyday, which archaeologists have dubbed The Clearmisstocene Era.
And, as a bonus, two set piece goals have changed the perception that the Union can’t compete in the air.
For all these positives, few would say that the Philadelphia Union have looked anything but woeful offensively this year. Whether it’s Danny Cruz taking off upfield with the forethought of Forrest Gump or Brian Carroll’s knockoff Nerf gun accuracy, there are a plethora of reasons that the Union’s success is down to defensive solidity and work rate rather than ball possession and intelligent movement.
One issue that stands out, however, is the way the Union technical staff seems to think that players should be able to adjust to different positions and tactics week to week. These are top of the crop athletes and soccer minds; they must be able switch sides, switch positions, change on the fly without losing a step, right?
Exceptions to the rule
But before we go too far, let’s note that there are always exceptions. Amobi Okugo has performed admirably as a central defender (though who knows how he would play in the midfield). Also, Freddy Adu played quite well in the midfield considering that his preferred position was Tom Cruise’s character from Days of Thunder.
Okugo’s success has been especially noteworthy because of all the failed experiments both before and after it. Gabe Farfan and Raymon Gaddis have been serviceable left backs, though neither looks particularly comfortable settling into the position long-term. Chandler Hoffman had an anonymous run as a winger in 2012. Sebastien Le Toux’s effectiveness took a major step backward when he slotted into a wide role in 2011. And let’s not forget that the 2012 season began with Josue Martinez as a winger and Porfirio Lopez out of position as a field player.
The point of all this may be a bit obscure, since we now turn to Michael Farfan.
Farfan was drafted and emerged on the MLS scene as a dynamic, dribbling winger. He took people on and created chances by isolating his defender and consistently beating him on the edge. In 2012, Farfan was moved into a central role and asked to be a more traditional playmaker. He dropped deep to pick up the ball, sprayed it wide, and tried to slot in Pajoy and, later, McInerney. Though Farfan’s improvement in the middle was slow, it was apparent that he was being tasked with a huge burden: Make an offense out of an ever-changing collection of new and used parts, including one part that thinks it has been mislabeled as something less than a superstar. (Haaaay Freddy! Can I crash at your place during the World Cup?)
The league noted Farfan’s improvement with an All-Star nod, and it looked like the Union had at least one place set in midfield, unless they brought in a proven veteran.
Instead, the Union brought in Keon Daniel… from the wing to the middle.
Daniel has been anywhere from fantastic to a failure depending on who you ask and at what point in the game you ask them. He has one assist and has been dangerous on set pieces. Against the Revolution, Daniel had perhaps his most complete game, with 42 of his 58 passes completed and seven second ball recoveries. Unfortunately, he also continued a trend of sitting quite deep for someone who has BC Insurance Ltd. backing him.
To compensate for Daniel’s deep positioning, the Union strikers have been coming deep to act as outlets. For some strikers, this is acceptable. But the Union’s system seems built to offer wingers as outlets, with strikers driving deep to stretch the defense and open space. With both Daniel and Carroll sitting fairly deep, the wingers and strikers also have to come deep to act as outlets. For the wings, this often means they are susceptible to high pressure and must boot or pass backward. For the strikers, this means they receive the ball with their back to goal and, too often, no clear way to advance the ball and no easy out pass.
So now, with Daniel adjusting to his new role, it is time to return to Michael Farfan. He simply has not been the same player he was in 2011 since he moved back to the touchline.
A major reason is that Farfan, like Freddy Adu before him, isn’t really sure what to do out there. He receives the ball too deep to regularly drive at defenders (he’s not Brek Shea, yet) and he rarely has a central option as an outlet. (The graphic below shows zero offensive-third passes from Farfan on the wing to a player in the middle.)
So Farfan has started playing simple. Very, very simple. He only takes people on when he gets below the 18-yard box. Otherwise, he looks up the line or back. His crosses have come from deep positions (often trying to chip in behind rather than send what you normally think of as a cross into the box).
Essentially, Michael Farfan appears to be playing afraid. He isn’t sure what he should be doing in the positions he receives the ball, and he isn’t getting the central support he needs to play an effective give-and-go that gets him isolated against a defender deep.
Though Marfan’s move to the wing isn’t solely responsible for the midfield’s slow start in 2013, it’s indicative of the odd manner in which the Union technical staff (under both Nowak and Hackworth) treat their players. A good analogy comes from American football’s offensive line. A talented right guard might be asked to move to right tackle or left guard to fill in for an injured teammate. Some make the transition better than others, but few are as good at the new position as they were in their original, comfortable spot.
While a player’s role on the soccer field is more amorphous than an offensive lineman’s, the point remains.
With Michael Farfan readjusting to his role on the wing and Keon Daniel playing deep, the Philadelphia Union midfield looks like a bucket. Farfan is currently too timid to fill in the space between midfield and attack, so that role is falling to Sebastien Le Toux and Jack McInerney. The result is clear: Most of the Union’s offensive play takes place in the middle third, with relatively little sustained pressure or offensive zone possession (which could lead to defensive mistakes and chances).
Though moving players around is only one reason for the current midfield malaise, it is one that has cropped up every season since the Union debuted. And it keeps happening with young players still learning their positions.
The most surprising success story of 2012? Antoine Hoppenot. His instructions were simple: Go up top, put pressure on the defense, stretch them deep.
A good coach simplifies the game for his players. Right now, the Union default to long balls because the simpler options aren’t there. Players don’t know where to be, and they don’t know where the next pass should go. They don’t know their roles in the offense.
Until this changes, there won’t be a cohesive offense. And the Union will come to rely, as they have in the past, on the absurdity that is MLS long ball defending.
Not a bad wave to ride, but also not a wave that will take you to the promised land.