Photo: Earl Gardner
It is officially a trend. Going into Saturday’s match with Real Salt Lake, most fans would have probably accepted a draw against one of the truly elite teams in MLS, despite being at home. Yet in the end, once all was said and done and the draw was officially recorded, it was hard to not want for more. And unlike past weeks, in this one, the Union were the side scoring just before time was called.
Rewind a week and a draw on the road in Chicago also probably sounded a reasonably appetizing proposition. But when a team proves that they have the goods to get the job done and then fall short, the sinking feeling is natural.
At this point, after only 6 games, that sensation has become alarmingly commonplace.
The Vincent Nogueira problem
John Hackworth has a problem. It’s a good problem, but it is a problem just the same. He has gone out and acquired a player who, if the first 6 matches are any indicator, will be in the conversation with guys like Bradley, Zusi and Valeri for the best midfielders in MLS. When Nogueira sits deep, he is the perfect relief valve, constantly available for his teammates and eager to quickly return the ball and keep play flowing. When he drives forward into the attack, as he did on Saturday when he served up Andrew Wenger’s first Union goal on the most silver of platters, his inch-perfect service can leave defenders with no hope.
But, he is only one player.
And he is playing two positions.
Looking at his heat map from Saturday, it is clear that Nogueira makes himself a presence all over the field. While his boundless energy and his optimal positioning make him an enormous asset to the Union, he is not proving to be the answer in the advanced, attacking midfield role that the Union so desperately need filled. Take nothing away from Nogueira, because it is not due to a lack of ability. Rather, it’s the fact that, while top-tier playmakers are carving out space for themselves in the attacking third, Nogueira is off somewhere else doing work.
Whether he’s offering Ray Gaddis a partner in a defensive double team or helping Sheanon Williams cleverly pass out of trouble, Nogueira has proven to be a selfless, committed teammate, but he is not in the proper space, from an attacking standpoint, to be the guy who’s running the show. He is playing as a box-to-box midfielder. And he is playing it beautifully.
Given the amount of territory he covers and number of plays he makes on both sides of the ball, it would be hard to imagine that if he dropped back a level, where Maurice Edu currently resides, his game would look any different.
Smart passing, tons of movement, defensive support, and a few surging runs into the final third where he could set up his forwards would remain the hallmarks of his game.
So back to Hackworth’s problem. Does he drop Nogueira back to the box-to-box role and slide Edu into the DM slot (where he has looked most comfortable, both for club and country)? Or does he work with Nogueira to focus his play, changing his positioning so that the presence and involvement he has shown all over the pitch can be concentrated into the areas where he can have a more consistent and potent offensive impact?
While Nogueira’s versatility creates a positive conundrum for his coach, the Union’s current predilection for falling asleep at precisely the wrong moment will have Union fans tearing out their hair almost as fast as their team is currently giving away points. And for the record, Kyle Beckerman’s 85th minute tally is a far more egregious example than Luke Mulholland’s opener.
The opener was down to a very clever, extremely well-timed burst on Mulholland’s part. Could Austin Berry, Amobi Okugo and Ray Gaddis have reacted faster, sprinting into the box to clear their lines on the small chance that Zac MacMath pulled of some PK heroics for the second straight week?
Absolutely they could have. But credit must also go to Mulholland for having the wherewithal to drift away from the pack of defenders, time his run to match Javier Morales’ run-up and arrive in the box just in time to bury the rebound. Sometimes a good play makes a goal, and as excruciating as it was to watch after MacMath did manage to pull off yet another save from the spot, it is hard to point too many fingers.
However, on Beckerman’s goal, much like Gaston Fernandez’s equalizer in Portland, there is plenty of blame to go around.
This time it was Berry who, like Brian Carroll in Portland, took a casual swing and got a lot less of the ball than he would have hoped. Why neither player made the simple play and booted the ball into row ZZ is still up for discussion. But what was done was done. Hackworth and his staff will have to sort out the mess that comes from having players quit on a play, far too comfortable in the expectation that mistakes won’t happen.
At some level, having that kind of confidence in your teammates must be a plus. However, continuing to work until a safe clearance has been made and making sure everyone is supported on the off chance that something unexpected happens is what makes a good team.
Sebastien Le Toux, Edu, and Gaddis were all guilty of coming to a complete standstill at the top of the box, while Carroll was so focused on Morales that he failed to see Beckerman right in front of him.
With tough games coming up against Eastern Conference rivals New York, Houston and Montreal, both of whom are beginning to warm up after slow starts following playoff seasons last year, Hackworth must make immediate adjustments or risk finding his team looking up at the at the rest of the table come May.
Zac MacMath – 9
Not only did he make 5 important saves (one being a penalty), but MacMath commanded his box in a manner that Union fans have never before seen. Quick off his line, strong in the punch and secure in his handling, the Union goalkeeper on Saturday afternoon bore little to no resemblance with the timid, quiet MacMath of this time last year.
Sheanon Williams – 6
While his wayward crossing may have been the tip-off that Williams was making his first start in 2014, his positioning and passing interplay were exactly what the Union needed. One of the busiest Union players on the afternoon, Williams got stuck in early, driving up the field and pinning Chris Wingert back.
Amobi Okugo – 6
Covered an immense amount of ground, allowing Williams the freedom he needed to press forward and nearly connected on a few well-aimed long balls. With Carroll collapsing into his lap, Okugo has not had the same effect with the ball at his feet of late and will need to take more leadership of the backline and demand his midfield either find a mark, or push their entire line higher.
Austin Berry – 4
Clearly targeted in his first game back from injury, Berry was unfortunate to see two glaring errors cloud what was an otherwise productive day at the office. His 2 tackles won, 5 interceptions, 14 clearances, and 11 recoveries are pretty stellar numbers for a defender, but in the cruel world of the centerback, any major mistakes can wash away all that good work. And Berry made two such mistakes on the day, first clobbering Olmes Garcia to concede an early penalty and then going too casually into a challenge with Morales, which resulted in RSL’s second.
Ray Gaddis – 5
Like Berry, Gaddis was largely impressive on the afternoon, but he will be frustrated that the two times he switched off, joining the gaggle of Union onlookers to both of RSL’s goals. Gaddis is turning into an extremely talented defender, capable of taking an opposing winger out of the match, yet he is still often guilty of ball-watching. Despite still looking a bit clumsy on his left foot, he represents a large upgrade over Fabinho.
Brian Carroll – 4
Carroll’s afternoon was a maddeningly inconsistent display which slid back and forth between cheap turnovers, smart marking, and negative play. The Union captain deserves plenty of credit for keeping Morales from having his typical effect on the match, yet he must also accept some blame for unsettling his teammates by dropping deeper and deeper and unleashing a consistent barrage of negative passes that put his back four into unnecessarily tight spots. Okugo in particular was put off his stride as he ended up taking Williams’ spot at right back, with Carroll retreating into his position. Now that the Union midfield has been stocked with quality, Carroll must improve the quality of his distribution.
Maurice Edu – 5
Spent most of the game looking out of sorts and frustrated. With RSL in their traditional narrow diamond, Edu struggled to assert himself and find spaces with Carroll, Nogueira, Le Toux and Fernandes all in such tight quarters. As the game opened up in the second half, Edu found happier hunting grounds and capped off his late surge with a perfectly headed goal to steal a point for his team. It is clear that Edu has yet to completely decipher his role. With Carroll sitting where he prefers to play and Nogueira popping up in front of him, Edu’s game on Saturday was far too lateral.
Vincent Nogueira – 8
As mentioned above, Nogueira did a little bit of everything. Even when he went missing offensively, he was active in helping the Union to win the ball and maintain possession. His assist to Wenger for the Union’s opener was a true thing of beauty, but for him to continue to set the table in that manner, he needs to commit himself to staying higher up the pitch.
Sebastien Le Toux – 3
RSL’s narrow alignment was no secret — there was always going to be space out wide for the wingers to exploit and, as Adam Cann mentioned in his preview, “the Union need to be able to play quick balls into wide areas and follow the play.” Unfortunately for the Union, as has become his habit, Le Toux was all too eager to switch places with Fernandes. And rather than work the left flank, where he could find space to run at Tony Beltran, he drifted into the almost comically-overcrowded center of the pitch where his presence was more detriment than benefit.
Andrew Wenger – 7
After having a very Jack McInerney first half — i.e. smart running that resulted in good chances that ultimately went begging due to a lack of clinical finishing ability — Wenger got off the mark beautifully in the 55th minute. Nogueira’s ball may have been out of a dream, but Wenger had plenty of work left to do, taking the ball smartly down off his chest before lashing home with his second touch. Continued to press hard on the wing until he was ultimately replaced.
Leo Fernandes – 6
Continued to show the quality that has seen him force his way onto the pitch, but he was physically outmatched and went missing for extended periods before again running out of steam late in the match. Still, Fernandes’ guile on the ball is ideally suited to the partner with the likes of Edu, Maidana, and Nogueira, and as he continues to feature more frequently, Fernandes should only grow stronger and more consistent.
Conor Casey – 5
Introduced perhaps too late to get a true foothold in the game, Casey managed to make life interesting for RSL despite struggling to find the pace of the match. Whether he was blazing his shot over the bar, or heading just wide of the near post, Casey seemed a step slow in reacting to his chances to find the back of the net. While neither chance could be categorized as simple, Casey likely would have buried at least one of them in last season’s form.
Cristian Maidana – 7
Like Casey, Maidana was hardly given enough time to make an impact, yet the Argentine exploded off the bench to inspire an impressive late surge from the Union. Operating from his preferred left flank, Maidana looked likeliest to set up either the winner, or the equalizer, from his first touch. Hopefully this impressive cameo can spur him back into the form he showed in Portland.
Antoine Hoppenot – N/A
Hopped on the field just in time to join in the celebration of Edu’s equalizer.
Alan Kelly – 6
In the eyes of many Union fans, Kelly’s night was about the three penalty decisions with which he was confronted. And to the referee’s credit, he probably got about two and a half of them correct. The easiest was the 4th minute decision that went against Berry. As unfortunate as it was to concede a spot kick so early, Berry certainly fouled Garcia, and being as the foul occurred in the box, Kelly acted appropriately.
Nat Borchers’ late clip on Fernandes’ ankle seemed little more than incidental contact, but Fernandes’ first claim after he appeared to have his foot/ankle stood on by Luke Mulholland was the most difficult to decipher. While it seems clear that Fernandes was clipped and probably deserved the penalty, the manner in which he exaggerated the contact, flailing his upper body and arms before hitting the deck, might give some insight into Kelly’s decision to wave away the claim. Given the unnecessary simulation, Kelly gets half credit.
Preferred starting XI for Wednesday’s trip to Red Bull Arena
4-2-3-1 (Let’s call it what it really is)
MacMath; Williams, Okugo, Berry, Gaddis; Edu, Nogueira; Wenger, Fernandes, Maidana; Casey