Photo: Michael Long
People who know me would be able to tell you that I’m not exactly the most positive person in the world. “Pessimist” should be my middle name, but fortunately my parents weren’t so prescient.
With that all being said, I do think there is reason to have some optimism about the Union at this point. Yes, there have been some rather pedestrian performances that have dotted the first half of this season. The Toronto match a week and a half ago drove me to write a post leaving them out of the playoff picture. And I’m not trying to draw too many positives from the midweek disposal of a weakened Columbus Crew side. There are just some things that are bound to happen.
The midfield is showing signs of life
Brian Carroll spent a big part of the first half of the season looking out of his comfort zone. A big part of that may come down to having to help a guy, Keon Daniel, settle into their central midfield partnership. In the 4-1-3-2, it has been Daniel who needed to fill an attacking midfield role. There were two guys who appeared to have dibs on that position to start the season: Michael Farfan or Roger Torres. Farfan was good last year, but it always seemed to be Torres who would be angling towards that role entering 2013. With Torres’ lack of playing time, the prevailing wisdom has held that he lacks the defensive security John Hackworth wants in an attacking central creator.
So Daniel became the guy, and his struggles to adapt rubbed off on Carroll. Whether or not Torres’ shortcomings influenced Daniel’s decision-making to begin 2013 in that role isn’t clear. But the criticism had been leveled regularly about his inability to grab the offensive reins in the central midfield. Eventually the highly paid Kleberson jumped him on the depth chart. And maybe that was the spark Daniel needed; Wednesday’s match vs. Columbus saw Daniel improve greatly in his influence within the match, and hopefully is a sign that he’s getting there.
Learn from the Daniel situation and rotate your squad
Depth is important for any soccer team. The sport is demanding, but it is also cruel at times. With Daniel struggling in the early months of the season, perhaps some time on the bench would have helped him to sort things out. Instead, he started for six straight matches in central midfield, with confidence eroding in every match. He then started his seventh straight, this time wide left in the 4-1 loss to the Galaxy. In that match, he struggled in a position he excelled at in previous seasons, and John Hackworth finally gave him a match off.
The point is that players need to have competition within the squad. Kleberson challenged Daniel, and Daniel appears to have responded well thus far. Hackworth has introduced some much-needed consistency in comparison to the Peter Nowak days. With that being said, “automatic starters,” should be few for a team that’s not in prime contention for a Supporter’s Shield. Not only will a bit of squad rotation spell your most used players, it also shows a confidence that your bench can get the job done. That can come in handy when the injury bug strikes, or when players depart for, say, international duty. And speaking of which…
Aside from McInerney, the goals haven’t been there
The Union’s ability to ride the red-hot McInerney is looking very likely to come to a close for a few weeks in July. This could be a real trouble spot for the team, depending on the way Hackworth handles his absence. It could either mean a major dearth of goals, or it could spur them on in the latter months.
The Crew match showed that there can be goals from other sources, even though the forwards not named McInerney have been largely silent. Conor Casey has 2, Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Cruz each have 2 goals a piece, and Antoine Hoppenot’s lone tally came off a wonderfully failed cross. Le Toux and Hoppenot must take the opportunity left by the Jack Mac’s Gold Cup call-up by the horns and find their scoring touch. Le Toux has done it before, and if he heats up like he did in September of 2011, it can only help the Union in the run up to October this season.
So yes, this is a rather bright-and-smiley picture of what could happen for the Union down the road. I’m trying to learn in life that it’s rarely as bad as you think. And Philadelphia is one of those towns where things always seem to hit rock bottom, even when the team you follow is in solid playoff contention. Things will get tougher after this break, with New York, Dallas, and Salt Lake on the books. But the team has struggled and still finds itself in third place in the Eastern Conference at this moment. If they can gain confidence from their performance against the Crew, and show improvements like those above, November soccer may become a reality again at PPL Park.