Let’s get it out of the way:
Oof. What a gut-punching, painful way to end a match.
First, the team’s most veteran presence in Brian Carroll launches an all-too-familiar hoof forward when better, simpler options were available. Then he tries an unnecessary side volley when the prior straight-ahead hoof would have done the job. Cue Gaston Fernandez standing along next to Zac MacMath while Fabinho and Ray Gaddis ambivalently jog towards other marks and Antoine Hoppenot trots in far too late.
It was a very bad moment for a number of players that cost the Union two points on the night.
Ok. Enough of that.
Pretty performances abound
Enough of that, because there was some serious quality on display from the Philadelphia Union, both individually and collectively. Considering the brief amount of playing time the team had in preseason, the collective cohesion that developed during Saturday’s 90 minutes should be applauded.
But the individual efforts are what have fans giddy going into this Saturday’s home opener.
While there are still spacing bugs to work out in the Union’s three-man midfield, Maurice Edu and Vincent Nogueira took no time in showing that there will be no period of acclimation required for either. Edu dictated play in the middle of the park with a rare mixture of toughness and physicality. He seems to always know the precise moment to swoop in and assist a teammate, and he puts himself in ideal spots to make plays.
As for Nogueira, the Union have a player who, while never having been an attacker in the past, has all the tools to push forward in MLS. Coming in fully match fit and flying after spending the European season with Sochaux, his dynamic dribbling and passing was matched by his intensity. Often seen chasing center backs up alongside Jack McInerney, Nogueira looked equally comfortable popping up 25 yards from his own goal, looking to collect a pass and start forward.
And when Nogueira did start forward, Cristian Maidana was waiting to get in on the action. Speaking of tremendous technical ability, Maidana has all the qualities the Union were looking for in a creative player and seems equally comfortable playing left, right and center.
With quality and support oozing out of the midfield, McInerney looked engaged and eager to find space for himself and connect with his teammates. Watching him pick his spots to poke and prod at the Timbers defensive line, it would have been easy to forget that, while entering his fifth professional season, McInerney is still only 21.
With questions looming about his consistency and ability to be a prolific MLS scorer, getting off the mark was the best thing the could have happened, from both McInerney’s and the Union’s perspective. With Maidana, Nogueira, Fabinho and Williams (once he is back on the pitch) all looking to pick out McInerney, a confident early start to 2014 could easily lead to some high goalscoring totals.
For all the good on display from the Union in Portland, John Hackworth’s decision to swap Maidana and Le Toux, and later Cruz, was a curious one. Not curious in that Maidana struggled — he certainly did not — but curious in what it did to the Union’s overall team shape.
With Nogueira finding the center of the park crowded between Carroll and Edu, he slid out to the right, as he did in the preseason. This proved helpful in supporting Gaddis, but once the wing swap occurred, space became hard to come by. (See Figure 1.) Le Toux’s natural inclination is to slide centrally, while McInerney seemed more intent on attacking Norberto Paparatto, Portland’s left center back.
In 2013, the Union attacked via the right flank almost exclusively, barring Fabinho’s solo forays forward. In 2014, they simply do not need to. That’s a lot of offensive firepower limited to a small area of the pitch, especially once Sheanon Williams returns from injury.
The fact that Hackworth could field a left-sided triangle of Maidana and Fabinho with Edu supporting play and a right-sided trio of Le Toux (or Cruz) and Williams with Nogueira supporting is an ideal situation. Saturday’s match certainly showed how much ability the Union boss has to work with, but too often the play had to be so good because there was so much congestion on the right side of the pitch. Leaving Maidana to operate on the left/center should open up even more space, making the Union more dynamic and dangerous.
Zac MacMath – 5
Barring one unfortunate flap at a cross, MacMath didn’t have much to do. Punched well a few times and was clearly wary of trying to catch the ball in the wet conditions. Still, not a performance brimming with confidence.
Ray Gaddis – 4
Struggled to balance attack and defense and was forced to scramble towards his own endline on numerous occasions to clean up the space behind him. Added very little going forward and seemed out of his depth exchanging short, quick passes with Nogueira and Maidana. Still a very good defensive cover option, but not yet up to Sheanon Williams’ level.
Amobi Okugo – 8
Coping well with all that he faced, Okugo looked very much the assured veteran next to the jumpy Gaddis and the acclimating Berry. Made a number of critical interceptions and pushed well into the midfield to put a body on Fernandez and Urruti.
Austin Berry – 7
A tad slow to read his teammates, Berry still made a big impact on the match with his prowess in the air. He was on the scene on several occasions to both track a dangerous runner and then rise above him to win a powerful header. The chemistry with Okugo and Fabinho will continue to develop, which should result in the Union becoming a pretty solid defensive outfit.
Fabinho – 5
Given a sympathy point for being left on an island, Fabinho struggled to assert himself in the game. The Union clearly wanted him pressed high up the field, which Caleb Porter quickly recognized and sent Nagbe to attack him. For what he offers going forward, which is roughly one good cross out of about three, Fabinho remains a defensive liability, too often lunging into tackles. Until he cleans up his defending, the Union coaching staff must allow him to sit deeper for protection.
Brian Carroll – 4
Worked well with Edu in the first half to put the clamps on Valeri when Portland came through the center, but he abandoned space far too readily when Nagbe got the ball on the right flank. Lost himself too often in the second half as the speedy Timbers’ attackers often proved too much. At times, it looked as if Edu and Nogueira were both working around him, rather than with him. Then there were the two costly mistakes at the end of the match, both plays that a team leader should not make.
Maurice Edu – 8
Edu is as cool as the other side of the pillow — if you keep your pillow in the freezer. Late in the match, Edu had the presence of mind to take a cutback cross down off his chest, facing his own goal with Timbers players streaming in behind him. Not only did he take the ball down, he turned up field and started the break. Possesses the unique trait of being able to go 100 mph while still maintaining full control of himself. While he looked a hair off of full match fitness, Edu looks every bit the difference maker the Union are expecting him to be.
Vincent Nogueira – 9
Brings a tenacity and skill set that has never been seen in the Union midfield. Will only improve as he takes over the center of the midfield and develops more chemistry with Maidana and McInerney. Nearly played in the perfect ball for the Union striker on a few occasions. Some of his build-up play, both personally and in tandem with Maidana, was simply dazzling.
Sebastien Le Toux – 4
Now that the Union have acquired such a quality batch of technical, savvy players, Le Toux looked out of place among their ranks. He also failed to show the discipline required of a winger. When he cut into the heart of the pitch to get on the ball, he was betrayed by his chronically heavy first touch.
Jack McInerney – 8
Did about as much as could be asked of essentially the only forward in this Union setup. Showed well for the ball before peeling off to make support runs up both wings. Exchanged passes well with Maidana and Nogueira and the pair began to look for him after an opening half hour in which his runs went unspotted. While Edu would have liked to open the season’s scoring for the Union, he will probably admit that it was far better for the team to have McInerney get off the mark. (Also, the defender on the far post may have had a play on the ball without McInerney’s touch.)
Cristian Maidana – 9
The Union have always needed a creative, clever, attack-minded midfielder. In Cristian Maidana, they now have him. He showed off the full range of skills both in the middle and attacking third and will clearly be on both the scoring and assisting sheets before too long. While he showed well individually on the right, the Union should still look to keep him on the left, where he can combine with Fabinho going forward and slide into the center of the pitch to create havoc.
Danny Cruz – 5
Brought a directness that Le Toux lacked but did not find his way into the match with respect to gelling with his teammates. If he delayed slightly on his bursting run through, McInerney’s ball might have found him onside for a goal.
Antoine Hoppenot – 4
Went from ruthless, effective time-waster, to last-second goat when he failed to get back into the box in time to either cover his post or put a body on Fernandez. As a late game substitute with fresh legs, that simply cannot happen.
Aaron Wheeler – 4
The Union quickly learned that bigger doesn’t always equal better when it comes to maintaining possession. Wheeler threw himself around for the final few minutes but eventually deferred to his more technically skilled teammates.
Ioannis Stavridis – 6
While he may have missed a shirt tug here and a foul call there, how nice was it to watch an MLS match without seeing a referee strutting around like a peacock, trying to steal the spotlight? I salute your efforts, Mr. Stavridis.
Preferred Lineup for Saturday’s Home Opener vs. New England
MacMath; Williams, Okugo, Berry, Fabinho; Carroll, Edu, Noguiera; Cruz, McInerney, Maidana
New England laid an egg against Houston this weekend, looking terrible in the process. Scott Caldwell looked particularly suspect, which plays right into Nogueira and Maidana’s hands. If Le Toux were more disciplined, he’d be ideal against the talented but slow Chris Tierney. He’s not though, and thus the linear running of Cruz would offer the Union a direct route up the right flank. Pressing New England high up the right flank could be enough to drop their defense deep into their own box, allowing Nogueira and Maidana the space to dictate play.