Commentary

Let’s try this formation

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

John Hackworth has looked a lot like Peter Nowak in recent weeks.

We’ve seen the experimentation, with Danny Cruz and Fabinho starting on the road, a converted forward playing center back, and a system that looks like a 4-3-3 but plays more like a 4-5-1. Two proven defenders are sitting on the bench with a DP midfielder. Neither first round draft pick has played. It’s almost like watching Nowak start a teenager (Zach Pfeffer) at Red Bull Arena in October or tinker with the best Union defense of all time to play Stefani Miglioranzi at sweeper.

I understand what Hack was trying to do on Saturday afternoon.

Going into that game, Montreal had the worst defense in the entire league. Their back line had conceded a league-worst 14 goals, and Frank Klopas had made some incredibly poor decisions, starting players like Eric Miller and Maxim Tissot while leaving guys like Jeb Brovsky on the bench. Cruz and Fabinho would theoretically be able to run at the Impact’s young fullbacks and press high into the Montreal half.

But Klopas wised up and decided to go with Hassoun Camara at right back and Brovsky at left back. With Matteo Ferrari and Karl Ouimette at center back and Patrice Bernier finally starting, it was probably the strongest look Montreal could offer.

When you haven’t scored a goal from the run of play in a long time, you’ve got to try different things to kick start the offense, and that’s what I believe Hack was thinking in Quebec.

I said from the beginning that I didn’t feel like this was a 4-3-3 team. I think the personnel is better suited to a 4-4-2 or any kind of system that ditches the center forward for two outright strikers.

Here’s a lineup I’d like to see:

MacMath (GK), Gaddis, Berry, White, Williams, Maidana, Okugo, Edu, Nogueira, Someone Who Can Score, and Another Person Who Can Score.

Let’s go back to front.

Goalkeeper

Andre Blake hasn’t played a single professional game. MacMath probably could have done better on the Montreal goal, but he’s been the least of the team’s problems this season. Let’s get Blake into some friendlies and Open Cup games before passing judgment.

Defense

It’s time to end the Aaron Wheeler experiment.

I think Aaron has done a good job at times this season, but he’s making a difficult transition from offense to defense. You see the mistakes that have popped up as a result of that, like the ball-watching on Montreal’s goal. He was put in a very tough position by the technical staff and didn’t get enough minutes at forward in 2013.

Austin Berry and Ethan White have more than 100 combined MLS appearances at center back. Berry was the 2012 rookie of the year (an apprentice to Arne Friedrich that year), and White started and played 90 minutes in the 2013 U.S. Open Cup final, a 1-0 D.C. United win at Real Salt Lake.

At fullback, whatever Fabinho gives you going forward as a left-footed player isn’t enough to make up for his defensive shortcomings. Let’s put Gaddis on the left, where he can use his speed and lockdown ability to help Berry at LCB. The faster White can be put at RCB and we’ll just hope that Sheanon Williams snaps out of whatever funk he’s in.

Midfield
This formation pairs Ethan White and Austin Berry in central defense, allowing Okugo to move into the central midfield with Maurice Edu

This formation pairs Ethan White and Austin Berry in central defense, allowing Amobi Okugo to move into the central midfield with Maurice Edu. The 4-3-3 is scrapped for a flat 4-4-2, similar to the shape of the LA Galaxy.

Let’s get Amobi Okugo back into the middle.

He doesn’t want to play on the back line, and as good as he’s been there, it’s time for him to replace Brian Carroll.

I’m a fan of Carroll’s game, and I think he gets a lot of unfair criticism. He plays a simple game, breaks up attacks, and distributes horizontal balls. He’s won a couple of MLS Cups, and he was rock solid on those Columbus Crew and D.C. United teams.

But the defensive midfield position has evolved in MLS. You look at guys like Kyle Beckerman, Osvaldo Alonso, and Matias Laba, and you see players who add offensive and box-to-box qualities that Carroll simply doesn’t have.

That’s why I’m pairing Okugo with Maurice Edu in the central midfield. It is the most athletic pairing this team can put together, and both players have a great balance of offensive and defensive capability. Edu looks lost in the 4-3-3.

I don’t really like moving Nogueira to the right, and Maidana on the left isn’t ideal, but they both need to be on the field. You can play a flat 4-4-2, like the Galaxy, and let these guys operate on the flanks. Or, you can let them sink inside and operate out of an “empty bucket” 4-2-2-2 with the fullbacks pushing up into the vacated space. The empty bucket is sort of a joke in Union media circles, but the 2011 team was actually somewhat successful using that shape.

The issue with the 4-3-3 is that Maurice Edu doesn’t know where to position himself, due to Carroll sitting deep and Nogueira getting the bulk of the touches. Nogueira’s movement is fine, but he displaces Edu when he drops too deep to receive the ball. That’s why I’m starting Nogueira wide and giving him license to move centrally with Williams filling the gap.

Forwards

Just give me two people who can score.

Maybe it’s Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey. Maybe it’s Leo Fernandes and Andrew Wenger. Let’s go back to the two-striker system that was successful for the first half of 2013.

The lack of movement in the final third has been incredibly poor, and you see how Portland has similarly struggled with a young player like Urruti in the center forward position. Bulldog-style forwards like Dom Dwyer don’t come along very often, and you see how well he fits into Kansas City’s high-press system. Jack McInerney wasn’t a 4-3-3 striker, but at least he could finish scoring opportunities and knew how to position himself inside the box. Andrew Wenger works much harder but doesn’t have the sharpness that Jack has in the final third.

Bench

Give me Andre Blake, Pedro Ribeiro, and five other guys.

The Antoine Hoppenot sub doesn’t work anymore. Fernandes is a good option off the bench if he’s not starting. I’d also like to see Carroll in this position to provide a defensive alternative.

Summary

This formation puts your eight most athletic, mobile, and capable players into midfield and defense. The key is to get two strikers on the field, scrap the 4-3-3, and allow your offseason acquisitions to shine in the middle of the park.

51 Comments

  1. I would like to see Le Toux play striker

    • murphthesurf says:

      Thanks Jake.

      He should have been put in as Striker
      the second the team got him back from NY.

      Give him another chance up front, it is
      his natural position – the Goals Will Come.
      He is better than Jack the Poacher will ever be.

      Or keep trying to make him a midfielder, Wheeler at defender, Santa Claus the Easter Bunny, etc.

    • Agreed. In a two forward set, I’d like to see what he could do paired with Wenger for a few games. Let Le Toux make runs off of Wenger. And those two would be very capable of providing high pressure on opposing backs.

  2. The Black Hand says:

    I really hope that we can snag the WhoCanScore brothers. Those two are nasty!!!

  3. Danny Bauder says:

    Hack out, Kinkead in

    But seriously, Kevin, you hit the nail on the head with this piece. The 4-4-2 is the best formation for these players and the two forwards should be named “Guy Who Scores Goals” and “Other Guy Who Scores Goals”

  4. I think this would be a mess. The center back pairing is completely unproven and the wide midfielders are both guys who almost certainly won’t actually play wide. People would be tripping over each other in the center part of the pitch.

    • Unproven? A former ROTY and younger player who has started in the past would be unproven?

      Maybe you mean in terms of starting for us … but you know what? At this point I don’t care. They can’t be any more “unproven” than a former Swedish Second division striker turned CB and a natural DMid who’s honeymoon period is now over.

      • I meant unproven as a tandem.
        ..
        But White wasn’t able to start regularly last year on a historically bad DC team that gave up 59 goals. One good game, no matter how highly publicized, does not make a player. There is little to no evidence that White is an MLS caliber starter.

        • +1. This lineup overall is intriguing, and I too believe the Union need 2 strikers to maximize runs and opportunities. But there is ZERO evidence that White-Berry would work in the center. Plus, if they do need time to gel, you’ve removed Carroll’s defensive-minded work in front of them.

          Also, while Edu and Okugo are very high-caliber players, how do we know that they would work well together?? Would they get in each other’s space? Again, this is intriguing, but unproven. So the sum total of this formation could as easily make things worse as make them better.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Haven’t both CB’s played CB in the MLS, in the past? Austin Berry is two years removed from winning the “Rookie of the Year”, and has played in 62 matches for the Chicago Fire. Ethan White has played 38 matches for DC United.
      .
      Okugo and Wheeler are looking shaky…and it’s not all on Wheeler.
      .
      I think that Okugo and Edu could bond well in the middle. Both can benefit the attack and provide defensive coverage. One goes up, the other falls back. Both would have no trouble explaining to Chaco, that he needs to stay wide. A guy like Hoppenot (as striker) could swing out, when Noguiera works centrally.
      .
      The ‘who can scores’ are the tough part. I think Wenger has shown well and definitely should be ‘Who can score #1. Casey has looked like he aged seven years, over this past offseason. Until he can find some kind of fitness level, a look at LeToux/Hoppenot/Fernandes as ‘Who can score #2″ should be experimented with. I, personally, think that Hoppenot could play that role. He’s very fast and (sometimes) crafty. He just needs to stop going down so easily.
      .
      I like this lineup, Kevin.

      • +1 on Hoppenot not going down so easy… it’s embarassing. He did well drawing fouls and cards in his rookie season, but this year, he is going down at the slightest contact looking for a foul and the refs aren’t buying it. He needs to stay on his feet.

      • I also think that while it is good to know that Wheeler can play center back (to some extent at least), his role should be as the backup center back to Okugo and Berry

  5. Overall I would like this. Though I agree with “hobosocks” that width would be an issue. But that can be solved by Hackworth being a coach and telling Maidana and Nog to take with whenever possible.

    As for the two strikers … this may be more experimental than you would like…but how about something like a 4-4-1-1 with Pfeffer underneath and Casey up top?

    I am stil intrigued by Pfeffer … I think he must have been progressing well and he seemed to be in great form for the U20 team recently.

  6. Not working. If you are going to a 4-4-2, you already got two box to box guys in Nog and Edu, no reason for Okugo to be in that mix- keep him at center back.
    /
    That puts Maidana and Fernandes/Le Toux/Cruz on your wings, and then up top you got Wenger and ? not Casey right now. You don’t have a line up with natural wingers. It doesn’t look good to me. Our back line is exposed to the counter attack.

    • Re: Your first point. True, but in this case its a matter of trying to get our 3 best players on the field at the same time in as close as possible to their best positions.

      I would be much more forgiving if Hackworths issue was this – trying to get his best players together.

      The problem is … Wheeler at CB? Okugo at CB? Carrol at CDM? HAckworth is making too many compromises with his choices. At least kevin here isnt trying to be too cute.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Okugo and Edu look like pretty nasty box2box/DM candidates. Amobi could stay more centralized, while Edu shifts out towards the flanks (helping us keep our shape). One of the top two would go to the wing, when Nog heads to the center. Maidana MUST be told to stay on the wing or play center bench.

      • Nog? Nog said the only thing he cares about is playing centrally, deep or high, and he’s your best player. Pushing him wide is the kind of thing that Nowak would do and that Hack, at times, has done.
        /
        I agree with the critique of Wheeler at CB, I’m just saying I dislike this implementation of the line up, and it probably is not the way to get our best eleven on the field.

  7. With the Okugo/Edu pairing, I was sort of picturing a Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho combination, where both players are essentially playing a box to box role. They interchange well and they are given license to go up and back as necessary. I think Okugo and Edu have the athletic ability to do that.

    Maidana wide and Nogueira wide…

    I think they will both tend to pinch inside. Theoretically, that would let Williams and Gaddis get forward. If they don’t we’re looking at a very narrow midfield. You can counter that with Okugo and Edu covering deep, but then it looks like a 4-2-2-2 empty bucket.

    Still, the Union did pretty well with the narrow shape at the beginning of 2011. The defense was very good, and the lack of width didn’t really seem to lead to counterattacks. Of course, you had Jordan Harvey and Carlos Valdes on that team.

  8. I have been wanting to see Okugo moved in to Carrol’s position all year. This allows Edu more offensive freedom. The forwards need to learn where to be to receive service. Maidana and Nogueira will deliver the ball to where the forward should be. The problem all to often is our forwards waiting instead of making runs and trusting that the ball will be there. Noe of this happens as long as Hackworth is calling the shots

  9. Murphthesurf says:

    Kevin-

    Thank you. Are you Available to Coach ?

    Please put this formation out, with Le Toux and Casey as the the front two, and sub in Leo and Wenger as the two older guys get tired. “The French Connection” should be made apparent, and Maidana will connect with Casey easily.
    This is the Formation we should have had all season.

    Aloha ~

    Murphthesurf

  10. I agree with your assessment, but it will NEVER happen. Hackworth made it clear when he took over in 2012 he wanted to move to the 4-3-3, and he went out and got personnel to do it and now it’s now working. Ironically I think the personnel he got fit perfectly into some form of a 4-4-2. I would personally rather see Okugo stay on the back-line with Berry in favor of a Edu-Nogueria spine and Maidana & Le Toux on the wings in a 1- flat-3 midfield. Wenger/Casey, Wenger/Fernandes, Wenger/Le Toux, Casey/Le Toux, Casey/Fernandes, Le Toux/Fernandes, really an combination up top that can score is fine with me.
    —-
    I still don’t see Hackworth making a change though, and that means if the team continues to struggle, he has to go.

  11. I love this lineup. The obvious biggest argument you will get is that Nogeuira isn’t a wide player. You can say Maidana isn’t either, but we area already playing him there so it wouldn’t be a compromise. However, really, is Nogeuira out wide any worse than a Forward at CB? A Mid at CB? Fabinho at Forward? a RB at LB?
    .
    My point isnt to say that any of these are excellent, it’s just that we are already making some compromises places. Why not try this?

  12. The part that concerns me most in this article is the line about Okugo: “He doesn’t want to play on the back line.” Is that based on first-hand (or second-hand) knowledge? I’ve always been okay with Okugo playing in the back because I thought *he* was okay with it. If Okugo at CB is preventing the Union from putting out the best XI, *and* making players unhappy, then that’s a serious problem.

    • It’s based on both first-hand and second-hand knowledge. Now, he hasn’t told me personally that he wants to be a midfielder, but it’s pretty common knowledge in Union circles that he wants to be in the midfield.

      Of course, Amobi is a total professional, and he’ll never publicly say that he prefers playing as a CDM.

      Some background though:

      His favorite player growing up was Claude Makalele. That’s why he wanted to be a holding mid. That’s also the reason he’s a Chelsea fan. Amobi played that position at UCLA and played the position for the U20 team as well. That’s what Nowak drafted him to do, and it’s unclear if it was really Nowak or Hack that suggested the move to CB.

      If you read between the lines in certain interviews and radio appearances, you can pretty easily decipher that he’s still a midfielder at heart.

      • Thanks for the reply. This is one of the great things about this site — the ability to interact with the people with the actual information, but who are allowed to be honest. Of course, now I’m mad about Okugo being stuck at CB …

  13. OneManWolfpack says:

    Again, another fantastic article, full of great ideas that needs to emailed IN MASS to Hackworth directly.
    .
    Kevin, I just have to ask, exactly what strain of marijuana do you smoke that would make you think Hackworth would actually field a lineup like this?!? Haha!
    .
    I know you didn’t advocate that Hack WOULD actually field it, rather you just gave your opinion. I guess I’m just frustrated that an educated fan like yourself can see the fixes that need to be made but the guy getting paid to run the club cannot. Great read though.

  14. Kevin, Makes a lot of sense to me. That would be playing established defenders in defense and utilizing skillsets of other players to our advantage. My vote for strikers playing with 2 would be Casey and Wenger with Wheeler as a sub if we need a late goal or Antione for Casey to chase the ball everwhere if we have a late lead. Fernandez can sub for Maidana or Noggy, and Carrol for Omobi if needed. Danny Cruz can ready himself for expansion draft and find an apartment in NYC.

    Go the U
    Rupemaan 119

  15. Silly question but, is it ever up to the players to say to the coach/staff, “I’d like to play in the Midfield/as a Forward again.”? Or are they just told what to do until told otherwise?

  16. I still think a Berry/White center-back pairing would be smooth.

  17. The Chopper says:

    Okugo to midfield makes theoretical sense, but he is an unproven commodity there and remains the teams best center back. If the goal is to improve the offensive output from the CDM position by removing Brian Carroll, better to do it with Maurice Edu, a proven top player in that role. Then you can add one more player from the LeToux, Cruz, Wenger Casey, Fernandez mix to pair in with Noguria and Maidana.

  18. The main problem with this team, as I see it, is that we are essentially playing with 4 DM’s on the field at the same time(Okugo, Carroll, Edu, and Nogs). Frankly, we need to bench / trade at least one of these players (so I totally agree with the Carroll benching). Personally, I think Nogs and Edu are our two best players on the team and I would construct my team to maximize my best players skills and put them in their most comfortable positions. Thus, I would play Edu and Nogs as my central midfielder pairing. Or I could even live with a three man midfield with Okugo and Edu at the base of the triangle with Nogs in a more advanced role. However, Maidana needs to be on the field too and I think he operates best as a central playmaker and not as a left midfielder, where his lack of pace is a big negative. So my ideal formation would be a 4-2-3-1, as follows:

    MacMath; Williams, White, Berry, Gaddis; Edu, Nogs; Letoux, Maidana, left winger with pace who can take people on 1v1 (maybe give Riberio a shot here); Wenger

    Bench: Okugo (who could easily also start at CB or a DMF role too), Cruz, Casey, Blake, Carroll, Fabinho, Fernandes

    -In such a formation my first sub would probably be Okugo for Chaco and move Nogs up to the CAM role. Okugo as DMF.

  19. The Chopper says:

    And as state previously we can change tactics and formations all we want, but at the end of the day, the problem remains that no matter what kind of chances this team generates, no one seems capable of finishing them right now.

  20. Kevin this is the most commonsense piece I have read with respect to the Union and I completely 100% agree with you.
    It is possible that White just isn’t quite up to snuff at this point to be a starter on a decent MLS team, but it makes a heck of a lot more sense to try with an experienced CB on this level than to try and convert a forward who has been given no opportunity to even learn the position first.

    Great read!

  21. Just got word the entire team is being converted to CB’s so as not to give up any goals in the future. Even Blake.

  22. What is Hackworth talking about re cultural differences in Argentina? Is he nuts? Most high school teams in Argentina could beat the Union 5-0. He’s probably trying to disguise the fact that he signed a slow poorly-conditioned DP. Maybe someone should ask Bernadello, Rosales, and Valeri if the culture in Argentina inhibits futbal training. This might be the most idiotic thing Hackworth has said yet. Fire him!

  23. Idk but who would agree on a 4-3-1-2 system? :)

    Looking something like this:

    ————-Casey———–Hoppenot

    ———————-Maidana

    LeToux——–Nogueira——–Cruz/Leo

    Fabinho—-Gaddis——-Okugo—-Williams

    MacMath/Blake

    Edu can come in around 60′ or whenever Nogueira gets tired…& put him and Carrol(if necessary) in 4-4-2 formation as the 2 CDMs to close out games?

    Maidana can feel free to move between the midfielders & forwards & create plays for us :) Cruz & LeToux on the wings (Mid) for speed/hustle & Stability…. LET’S GO!!!

    Add any susgestions or what u would doo

    • You lost me at Casey and Hoppenot.
      .
      Especially, Casey. He is so far from his 2013 form that I wonder about his place in the 18 right now.
      .
      When Ribeiro recovers from his hamstring injury, I’d bring him up and send Hoppenot to HCI.

  24. Empty Bucket, Empty Bucket, Empty Bucket
    —-Wenger—–Letoux—-

    Maidana————–Nogs

    ——Edu—–Okugo——

    Gaddis-White–Berry–Williams

    lets give Nogs and Maidana the freedom they search for by allowing them to cut centrally.

  25. The one small problem with trying this is our coach, who enthusiastically vouched for the personnel on this team to play 4-3-3 again yesterday & who has declared the Wheeler experiment such a success that the 2012 ROY he signed will not be starting ahead of the converted F (did someone say we need another striker?). Oh, and to prove that they hear us, his boss just said he’s doing a great job & we should get on board because our luck is about to change. Maybe. After we lose big in Seattle.

    • So Big. They are going to fuck us up. I am near close, drawing nigh I dare say—- to hoping for defeat —as I see the steward of our ship is a man with one good eye, a hook for an arm and a piece of wood for a leg.

  26. jlockerbie says:

    since nick was overseas maybe he’ll bring back sum 1 can score 1,and 2

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