Photo: Earl Gardner
Entering into the five-match run-in following a bye week, the Union have begun with a possible 6 out of 6 points. While the quality of the soccer has hardly been of the caliber to merit replay on NBC’s inevitable “MLS Classic” channel, 6 points is 6 points.
This most recent victory was snatched at the death after the Union appeared to have squandered an opportunity to beat up on a struggling Eastern Conference foe. But fortunately for the sellout crowd at PPL Park, Fabinho’s ejection for a kick landed into Alvaro Rey’s back proved a galvanizing moment for the remaining 10 players on the pitch.
Direct, straight, linear soccer
The shortest route between two points is a line. That geometric truth has become a guiding soccer philosophy for Antoine Hoppenot’s brand of soccer, among others on the team. When the going got tough and the Union’s cluttered and clumsy, flat front four of Fabinho, Conor Casey, Jack McInerney and Danny Cruz bore no fruit, John Hackworth took a different approach than he has deployed in matches past.
There was no Aaron Wheeler.
Nor was there a panicked late flurry of crosses.
Instead Hackworth’s insertion of Hoppenot and Sebastien Le Toux signaled a desire to run at the heart of the defense, rather than try to cross over it. Perhaps Hackworth saw something. Doneil Henry’s awkward, dangerous tackles, for example, were on display for all to see throughout the match. And where McInerney’s nuance and guile had failed, Hoppenot’s storming, linear runs succeeded. Were it not for his inaccuracy in front of goal, Hoppenot might have grabbed the Union a goal or two, and the frustrated crowd would not have had to sweat the result until the final seconds.
Yet despite his inability to finish, Hoppenot changed the game. For all the times he beat his man into the box, it was the final run, when Henry cut him down at the knees, that proved decisive.
The first hour
Considering the glorious manner in which Kleberson got the Union out of jail, the immediate response would be to forget about the first 60 minutes of play where the Union proved the better side but ground to a halt in the final third. But that would be to deny the problems that are so obviously plaguing the Union and keeping them from finding the back of the net on a more consistent basis.
As soon as possession is won, both Fabinho and Cruz take off up field. It has been a running theme for Cruz throughout the season, yet with Fabinho casually sauntering up the left touch line, the problem is exacerbated. The potential chaos caused by runners slicing in behind failed to materialized as the pair of wingers broke off their runs at the Toronto backline.
With four men in a flat line, the providers beneath them — i.e. Michael Farfan, and Michael Farfan alone — not only have few passing outlets, but also limited targets to pick out going forward. From this condition, the result was, as it has been for the last two months (and most of the season), the same. Feeling pinched and crowded out, either Casey or McInerney would drop into midfield looking for a touch of the ball and some fresh air, taking the Union’s best goal scorers further and further away from Joe Bendik.
That is not to say that there weren’t were moments in which the Union wingers, or just Cruz, looked capable of altering his game to help his team win, but they were too few and far between. Unlike Fabinho, whose play since his move to midfield has been largely toothless, Cruz remains a player who can cause havoc at any moment. While his forward runs were nothing to write home about, on Saturday it was his defensive work rate and positioning that helped him to create some of the Union’s few quality chances. Whether it was bursting through and winning a challenge in midfield to set up Hoppenot or scrapping with Ashtone Morgan and sending Sheanon Williams up the line, Cruz proved that when he puts his mind to it, he can really help the Union’s midfield cause. He just needs to put his mind to it more often.
The red card
Throw out the fact that Alvaro Rey reacted to Fabinho’s kick as if the Brazilian had a dagger duct-taped to his boot. Also throw out the manner in which Rey wrestled him to the ground, which earned him a deserved yellow for the challenge. Fabinho’s reaction was not only out of bounds, but also occurred with both the referee and assistant referee close by and perfectly sighted. There was no subtlety to the action and once the whistle was blown, there was only one outcome forthcoming.
With one less body clogging up the attack, however, Fabinho’s early shower seemed to come as a relief to his teammates. Space appeared where before there was none. With Kleberson taking over for Cruz, the Union had a second player intent on spreading the ball, finding the final pass and pushing the attacking agenda from the midfield, rather than the forward line. While the goal came by way of a set piece, it was the Union’s fluid, attacking pressure that created the late chances and ultimately won them the foul they needed.
Praise should be lavished on the Union for their fight to final whistle, especially down a man. But it should not be forgotten how much better they appeared once Fabinho had been removed from the match. He will miss this weekend’s match through suspension, but following that, it is hard to see how Hackworth can continue to include him once he is again available for selection.
Zac MacMath – 7
It seems like just weeks ago that questions about MacMath’s quality and readiness were a major talking point. All the Union keeper has done to quiet his critics is pitch 5 shutouts in his last 8 matches.
Sheanon Williams – 7
Put a hurt on Bobby Convey whenever the local product tried to get the better of him. Benefited from Cruz’s more central running, as he got up the wing with great frequency, serving in a number of very dangerous balls.
Amobi Okugo – 7
Beat up on Dike in the early going and was able to move higher up the pitch to shut down Osorio after Toronto’s lone striker shifted his focus to Jeff Parke. Okugo’s comfort and confidence on the ball at the back continues to take some of the load for basic distribution off of Brian Carroll.
Jeff Parke – 5
Had a poor night by his standards, as he lost out in a number of physical encounters with Dike. Fortunately for the Union, none of his mistakes cost them, and Parke often manage to clear the danger, recovering from his own mistakes.
Ray Gaddis – 8
Without Gaddis’ perfectly timed challenges late in the match, the Union not only don’t get three points, but they don’t get one either. Having the pace to chase down an attacker is one thing. Having the poise and body control to dispossess an opponent without conceding a foul is entirely another. Gaddis has both in abundant supply.
Danny Cruz – 6
Perhaps Cruz’s most complete match of the season, the Union winger did more of the little things that help teams win. Chased back to help his defense, played quick one and two-touch passes and looked for Williams on the overlap. Could easily have had an assist had Hoppenot buried the chance Cruz served him up on a silver platter.
Michael Farfan – 7
Another player who gave a consistent, all-around effort, Farfan was the driving force in the Union’s midfield. Spreading play quickly, he kept his wing backs involved even when the Union’s wings had abandoned the midfield cause. Based on the confidence he showed in taking players on and pushing his side forward, it would be hard to see him lose his place in DC.
Brian Carroll – 5
Against an inferior opponent, Carroll was unable to raise his game above the status quo and he sat too deep and lumped too many aimless balls forward.
Fabinho – 2
Even before his well deserved red card, Fabinho was having a second straight shocker. Completing only 50 percent of his passes, Fabinho also continued his habit of being dispossessed far too easily. When he became more active in the second half, it was ill fated as he took space and touches from his teammates and lacked the quality to create. As for the red card, it was the right call. Rey got his yellow for wrestling Fabinho to the ground, but the reaction to kick out at him was foolish, selfish and could easily have hurt his team. Had the Union lost, this could have been a one.
Conor Casey – 4
Not too long ago, Casey was consistently lauded for having impressively nimble feet for a player of his size. Recently though, whether through fatigue or not, the softness of his touch has left him, leaving the Union with a clumsy target man, prone to sloppy turnovers.
Jack McInerney – 4
What a different story it might have been had he managed to get on the end of Fabinho’s cross when the Union countered early in the first half. Yet again though, McInerney could not find the finish and he struggled for space up front as he was crowded out by Cruz and Fabinho’s aggressive positioning.
Antoine Hoppenot – 6
It’s pretty rare that a substitute forward would come on, brick three gilt-edged chances and still change a match. Hoppenot is that kind of player, and he showed Doneil Henry no mercy as he ripped the clumsy defender to shreds, with the last foul setting up Kleberson for the matchwinner.
Sebastien Le Toux – 3
If Le Toux’s most recent pair of substitute appearances are at all representative of his current form, it is hard to argue with John Hackworth’s decision to remove him from the starting XI. Whether it is injury or a loss of confidence, the Union attack is far from what it was when Le Toux was prowling the right touchline.
Kleberson – 8
To get his free kick up, and then down, from as close as he did was simply sensational. To do it after sitting on the bench — or in the stands — for most of the season is even more impressive. He may not become an automatic starter for the rest of the run-in, but it would be surprising if he was not a more consistently used substitute.
Armando Villarreal – 7
Got all the important calls right, which is about as much as can be hoped for from an MLS referee at this point. The Union will feel aggrieved to be deprived of both Williams and Fabinho for their trip to RFK Stadium, but Villarreal made the right call in both instances.