Photo: Earl Gardner
Playing on the road is tough in MLS. So tough, in fact, that Real Salt Lake is the only team to carry a positive road goal differential into September (+2).
Few teams have struggled as mightily as the Montreal Impact on their travels. Only the Union’s next opponent, San Jose, has a greater difference in their home goal differential than their road differential than does Montreal (-26 for SJ, -24 for Montreal). The relative ease that the Impact has swept teams away in Montreal stands in stark contrast to their inability to find goals and results on the road.
Saturday night’s match at PPL Park seemed like a performance that was not far from the regular script. Despite coming off a five-goal performance at home against Houston, Montreal was sloppy, sluggish and downright disinterested against a Union side who was fresh off a five-goal defeat and sporting a back line missing perhaps its most critical piece.
Hello? Center midfield? Anyone?
At this point in the season, the book on the Union has been written. Brian Carroll and Keon Daniel will sit back, with both loathe to attack the space in front of them. Instead, they will feed the wings — fullbacks and midfielders alike — in an attempt to get behind the opposition’s fullbacks to create scoring chances from wide areas.
So Patrice Bernier and Hernan Bernardello needed to only step 5-10 yards higher than normal to claim all that extra space for the Impact, right?
Where Montreal’s ball-winning duo has done well to pin their opposition back at home, they were content to sit deep and control the play when it came to them. They showed very little desire, however, to stray from the confines of their own half.
Well, if Bernier and Bernardello weren’t interested in all that highly valued real estate around the center circle, Carroll and Daniel would certainly acknowledge the rarity of the situation and plant their flag in the heart of the midfield to the benefit of the Union, right?
Carroll and Daniel dipped their toes in the waters of the attacking half. When the fruits of their labors remained invisible on the scoreboard at halftime, however, they retreated to safety in the second stanza. It was then down to an awkward standoff, with both sets of enforcers eying each other up cautiously. Eventually, Carroll would stray from his stronghold only to chase after the withdrawn runs of Felipe, while Bernier and Bernardello’s On switches were flicked any time Conor Casey or Jack McInerney retreated towards their own half in a plea for service.
Hardly the recipe for flowing, fluent build-up play, right?
Midfield striker soup
Deprived of consistent service, Casey and McInerney have grown accustomed to volunteering for alternating trips into the midfield.
Against Montreal, their plan was no different, with the Union’s attacking tandem doing whatever they could just to get a touch of the ball. It worked insofar as it yielded a series of tight, attractive passing triangles in the first half. The problem for the Union was what arose after the successful completion of those moves.
Whether it was 3, 4 or 5 cleverly strung together passes, the result was always the same. Whichever forward ended up with the ball still found himself more than 30 yards from goal and could not deliver a threatening ball to his strike partner who, after taking part in said move, was nowhere near the Impact box.
It is easy to point the finger at Daniel, claiming that, as the more advanced of the center midfield pairing, he should be sitting higher, allowing the forwards to hold their ground at the last defender. But that is true only to a point.
As the match played out, the erratic, undisciplined runs of both Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Cruz created just as many problems as Daniel’s positioning. With neither player suited to a traditional wide midfield role, the pair roam free and loose up their respective flanks. When they play on the flank that corresponds to their dominant foot, they tend to stay tighter to the touch line. When they’re on the opposite wing, not so much.
Given that they are both deployed as attackers, when they drift centrally — as Le Toux in particular did against Montreal — they are not bunching up with Carroll and Daniel. Rather, they are running into Casey and McInerney, forcing the strikers out of their natural space. This is why Casey can often be seen serving crosses in from the wing and McInerney is forced to turn and deliver the final ball to a streaking player who is not himself. In deploying an aggressive looking 4-2-4, John Hackworth has taken his most efficient finishers and moved them further and further from goal.
In the past three matches, the Union have scored one goal. It came from a beautiful through ball played from Conor Casey into the streaking path of Danny Cruz.
It was a well-taken goal. But if this remains the Union’s attacking approach, they may find themselves hanging on for a few more 0-0 results before the 2013 season is done.
Zac MacMath – 6
It was a pretty quiet day at the office for MacMath, who kept things organized at the back and earned a morale boosting clean sheet.
Ray Gaddis – 7
Returning from injury and the left side of the pitch, Gaddis reminded everyone of just how good a right back he actually is. Throw a crafty player like Andres Romero at him, and Gaddis shuts the door. Mix in a little speed with Sanna Nyassi, and Gaddis shows him what true pace looks like.
Sheanon Williams – 8
Forced into deputizing at center back for Amobi Okugo, Williams failed to put a foot wrong. In addition to keep a watchful eye on the most prolific striker in MLS during the 2013 campaign, Williams also capably filled in as the more aggressive, high-pressing central defender, allowing Jeff Parke to organize and mop up at the back.
Jeff Parke – 8
Smart and savvy at all points, the Union needed their veteran defender to lead the reorganized back four against Montreal and Parke exceeded expectations. Whether it was Di Vaio or Felipe, Parke had their number and kept his defensive teammates in proper shape throughout.
Fabinho – 6
Still a danger to concede possession or get burned on any of his stabbing, aggressive tackles, Fabinho did enough to put off Justin Mapp for most of Saturday’s match. Getting forward, he continued to show just how lethal service can be when a left-footed player runs at left back, and he should have had an assist for the near post ball that McInerney failed to bury.
Danny Cruz – 6
Active and aggressive throughout, Cruz created both space and chances. Unfortunately, the quality of his final ball remains inconsistent at best, ranging from the excellent and clever cut back for Le Toux in the box to the unimpressive and badly mishit shot he fired well over Perkins’ goal after dispossessing Bernier.
Keon Daniel – 4
After looking primed to lead the Union offense early in the first half, Daniel slowly faded from view by the hour mark. As mentioned above, Daniel tried his luck in the attacking half in the early going, but despite having some success, retreated to his own territory as the match wore on. With Montreal bunkering down, Daniel completed only one forward pass in the attacking third. (He attempted only 1 other.) That’s just not enough.
Brian Carroll – 5
Carroll deserves some praise for the Union’s clean sheet as he chased Felipe relentlessly into his own defensive third. Still, with Montreal only pushing two players into the box at any given moment, Carroll’s time would have been better spent in the midfield, pressuring Montreal and helping his teammates to retain their shape as they moved the ball forward.
Sebastien Le Toux – 5
Had the best chances to give the Union the victory, but struggled badly with his touch in front of goal. As a left midfielder, Le Toux is far too likely to drift inside, leaving Fabinho on an island and gumming up the works for Casey and McInerney. His set piece delivery has dropped off considerably of late.
Jack McInerney – 4
Had he managed to get his head to Fabinho’s near post cross, the story would have been all about McInerney rediscovering his scoring touch at the most critical moment. Instead, the young forward remains snake-bitten, despite working very hard to create chances for others and nearly cannoning a shot through Troy Perkins midsection, a shot that would have resulted in a goal had Le Toux reacted faster.
Conor Casey – 4
For all of his work, the quality of Casey’s soccer has diminished in the three games since his brace against DC. With only one header won, as compared to three crosses attempted, the onus is on John Hackworth to get his big-bodied goal scorer back in the box where he belongs.
Antoine Hoppenot – 4
The Union midfield needed another creator, not a finisher, which put Hoppenot in a bad spot. He did very little to speak of.
Kleberson – 5
Showed effort and desire to drive through the midfield. Set himself up for a few half chances but shot off target.
Aaron Wheeler – N/A
Replaced Casey with very little time to make his mark. Remains a fairly clumsy figure on the ball, though he created a decent half chance when he cut the ball back from the endline.
Edvin Jurisevic – 6
Handed the Union the benefit of most 50/50 calls, but with Montreal not all that thrilled to engage in any physical confrontations, there weren’t many such calls to be made. No cards and only 16 fouls were appropriate for that match. It’s hard to imagine that the likes of Gonzalez or Toledo wouldn’t have thrown some out, just to make sure there were talking points to come out of an otherwise dull match.