Photo: Paul Rudderow
On Sunday night, the Union clashed with a team they closely resemble.
Up front, both sides boast a bruising forward (Casey for the Union, Gordon for San Jose), and a complementary, poaching finisher (McInerney and Wondolowski). Service is provided exclusively from the flanks because the central midfield is occupied by an almost full-time defensive midfielder (Carroll and Cronin) alongside a player who projects as more of a creative playmaker than he actually is (Daniel and Baca).
Sunday’s match even saw both sides missing defensive stalwarts, though the Union were down only Amobi Okugo, while San Jose was forced to cope without both Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez.
Yet, until Baca was sent to the showers after the first hour, the Quakes dominated the Union.
Wide midfielders Shea Salinas and Cordell Cato tore the visitors to ribbons and the Union never looked capable of mustering a reply. So while Fabinho and Ray Gaddis must be the first to raise guilty hands after struggling defensively all night, most of the danger actually began further up field.
There is little nuance to the game plans laid out by interim manager Mark Watson (or Frank Yallop before him, for that matter), and given the Union head man’s conservative tendencies, John Hackworth would be well served to heed the example laid before him on Sunday.
This is MLS: Line your team up and let them play.
Because while Watson put out his base 4-4-2 setup and attacked with consistency, Hackworth tinkered. He moved players around up front, which created a rotating system that not only wounded the attack but positively crippled the defense.
With Hackworth sending Casey on reconnaissance missions into his own half and wide on the left flank to see where the ball was, the big forward effectively swapped positions with Sebastien Le Toux, who pressed forward into a striker’s berth. Le Toux suddenly became the focal point of the attack, running wherever he pleased up front. This limited both Casey’s and Jack McInerney’s effectiveness (see the heat maps of both Le Toux and Casey in Figure A).
Casey worked with his back to goal in midfield and Le Toux streamed into the attacking third, but no link could be found between them. Accordingly, both players looked far from their comfort zone. Even worse, when the Union conceded possession, Casey held his ground in midfield while Le Toux attempted to make overlapping runs in reverse, racing back into his half to defend.
Searching for reasons
It is hard to conceive of a reason for this tactical decision. It not only took the Union out of their game, but it played directly into San Jose’s hands. Both Salinas and Cato took turns greedily running at the abandoned Fabinho, finding no resistance as they raced out of their own half at full flight.
The Earthquakes’ goal was the perfect example of the Union’s left-sided struggles. From the moment the ball was turned over deep in San Jose territory, the Union were in trouble. Figure B shows a triangle of the Union’s attackers at the moment of turnover, with Le Toux furthest forward. Cato received a square ball from Baca as San Jose looked to counter and, from that moment, about 20 yards inside the Quakes’ half until Cronin played Salinas through for the winner, not a single Union defender opposed the play.
Le Toux on the move
This is nothing new. Since Hackworth’s confusing decision to move Le Toux from the right flank, where he had ascended to the top of the MLS assist chart, the Frenchman has drifted to the center. If this was intended as a basic ploy to allow more space for Fabinho to attack the left touchline, it has not worked. The Brazilian has looked frustrated at a lack of passing options out of the back when the Union clear out and leave him to try and get forward by his lonesome. It has not been until the later stages in the match, when the game is fully stretched, that Fabinho has been able to get forward with the consistency necessary to become a threat.
Le Toux’s free roaming role has not only served to put off Casey and McInerney, but Cruz as well. Against San Jose, the right winger often found McInerney, and even Le Toux, pressed into his territory, leaving him nowhere to run.
A look at Cruz’s passing chart (Figure C) shows that all but one of his 14 attempted passes came from checking back to the ball on the right flank. Never a player that could be considered timid or conservative, Cruz tried to attack Jordan Stewart early on. But with the Union playing only in the right two-thirds of the attacking zone, the space simply didn’t exist and he was forced backwards. Too familiar with life as an out and out attacker, Cruz struggled to adjust to a midfield role and found himself stuck in a loop of racing forward only to be denied space and forced into checking back to his fullback.
Zac MacMath – 6
Made four saves, a couple of which were of the point blank variety. Could have stepped to Salinas faster on his goal, but given the awkward first two touches from the former Union man, it’s hard to lay too much blame at MacMath’s feet. And he cleared his lines with a flying, scissor kick, so there’s that.
Ray Gaddis – 3
A week after returning to right back with a vengeance against Montreal, Gaddis had a night to forget against Salinas and Cato, as he was turned inside out with regularity.
Sheanon Williams – 6
Played with heart and venom despite giving away half a foot to Alan Gordon. Nearly capped his gutty performance with a fantastic late equalizer, but was denied by the woodwork in agonizing fashion.
Jeff Parke – 6
Cleared the Union’s lines whenever a San Jose goal appeared imminent and fought hard to insure that the hosts early goal was all they would get.
Fabinho – 4
Overcommitted constantly and was frequently exposed against the first set of wingers who have truthfully attacked him. Like his teammates, Fabinho looked better once the Union went up a man, and he began to belt cross after cross into the Earthquakes’ box.
Danny Cruz – 3
A complete non-factor.
Brian Carroll – 3
Drew the assignment of keeping tabs on Wondolowski’s midfield runs and had a rough time of it. Whether he was chasing Wondo or trying to close down Cronin, which he failed to do on San Jose’s goal, Carroll was a step slow all night.
Keon Daniel – 4
Finally emerged from his shell following Baca’s sending off and even had a couple of shots. Outside of his effort that struck the post, they were of poor quality and in the end he chose to knock the ball around the midfield rather than push into the box to help his attack.
Sebastien Le Toux – 3
As mentioned above, Le Toux’s erratic and purposeless running was a great detriment to his team. Single-handedly changed the Union’s shape and when he did create shots for himself, the quality of his efforts was well off the mark.
Conor Casey – 4
Far too eager to drop into center midfield or slide to the wings, Casey has increasingly played to his weaknesses over the past month and is suffering from the dip in form that generally accompanies such a transition.
Jack McInerney – 3
Nearly latched onto a beaut before San Jose opened the scoring, giving Union fans some hope that he would finally find the back of the net. But struggled afterwards as chances dried up and he did little with what he saw. His coach continues to do him no favors by pulling him from matches early, rather than allowing him to fight on and feast on the scraps that always exist late in MLS matches.
Michael Farfan – 4
Created a couple of dangerous chances and nearly buried his volley late in stoppage time, but it took Farfan far too long to get engaged, nearly 20 minutes from when he entered on the hour mark.
Antoine Hoppenot – 3
In a match that needed more midfield creativity and guile or the earlier introduction of Aaron Wheeler as a battering ram, Hoppenot brought very little to the table on Sunday.
Aaron Wheeler – 5
Did exactly what he was asked to do, just didn’t have enough time to make a real difference. Came close once though, and might have found an equalizer with a few more minutes.
Fotis Bazakos – 6
Called the match with an off-putting cadence that seemed to favor one team, and then the other, but got the big calls right throughout. All three of the Union’s yellow cards were completely justified, as were San Jose’s 3 yellows and a red.