Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz
So maybe the 4-3-1-2 wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Fast forward one week from when Philadelphia Union found space and time against a Seattle side whose mission was to get forward at all costs, and the Union were back to looking ponderously slow and uncertain in the face of DC’s defensive organization.
Of course, conceding within six minutes was never going to make the task easier for the Union. Chris Rolfe’s early strike afforded DC the ability to sit back and defend their lead on the road. Outside of Andrew Wenger’s superb turn in the 64th minute (a chance that developed through a DC turnover rather than Union build-up play), the Union rarely looked capable of finding a breakthrough.
A major cause of this lack of threat comes from the fact that the runners from midfield simply never arrived. This is a larger concern of the system rather than a direct criticism of Maurice Edu or Vincent Nogueira, the ersatz wide men in the Union’s narrow 4-3-1-2 look.
Both of those players are what, for a lack of a better term, can be called “fourth runners”.
Both have made their careers by sitting deep, spreading the ball and only arriving at the top of the 18 when the play has already advanced into the box. And they are both good at it.
However, with Wenger and Conor Casey each individually marked by Jeff Parke and Bobby Boswell, respectively, the Union desperately needed one of the four midfield players to commit to the barnstorming run that destabilizes defenses and gives Cristian Maidana more to aim for than two completely covered forwards.
Think Lee Nguyen, Shea Salinas, Marvin Chavez, Justin Mapp, or Lloyd Sam.
For all the talk that has surrounded Edu’s arrival in Philadelphia and his ostensible ability to burst forward and join the attack, he has not occupied a role anything like those players who can both push midfield play directly into attack and create the kinds of havoc with their off-the-ball runs that require defenses to always know where they are. Edu’s offensive contributions, much like Nogueira’s, will always come from being the late man into the play, whether they were the one who made the critical pass forward or not.
It is why Danny Cruz was able to provide such an immediate impact in the second half and why John Hackworth has some serious decision-making to do going forward. The fact is, Brian Carroll, Nogueira, Edu, and even Maidana, to a certain extent, prefer playing behind the ball. None of them show the natural instinct to make runs into the attacking third without the ball. Thus, whether it is Maidana or Nogueira standing in possession just inside the attacking half, the options in front of them will always be limited.
While there was some justification for playing, Carroll, Edu and Nogueira together in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 when there were at least three dedicated attackers in front of them, that logic falls apart when the team switched back to a 4-4-2 with Maidana dropping into essentially the fourth central midfield role. In the short term, with Carroll dealing with a minor groin injury and Edu likely to head off to pre-World Cup camp, the Union will be able to rotate their squad around this dilemma. However, this will eventually have to be addressed if the Union want to start scoring goals.
Moving center backs
While the issue of numbers getting forward is the main problem facing the Union, the inability of their forwards to create much sense of danger for an opposition back line is likely next in line.
When the Union parted ways with Jack McInerney, they found themselves lacking a player who can truly play on the back shoulder. The threat that McInerney would get lost in center back’s blind post was constant. True, the young forward was not burying the chances he created by playing in this manner, but he was still creating opportunities for himself and opening up space for his teammates.
With the more static figures of Wenger and Casey lining up against DC on Saturday, Parke and Boswell faced no such threat. Thus, they walked as high up the pitch as they chose, never fearing that the Union had the ability to run beyond them. Despite his recent stutters in front of goal prior to the trade, McInerney’s presence on the back shoulder of defenders and his willingness to drop into midfield from that advanced position kept the players marking him from finding their comfort zone.
Presently, the Union find themselves with both Casey and Wenger, who are far more inclined to back into a striker, rather than run behind him, and Sebastien Le Toux and Antoine Hoppenot, who are most effective running either onto a ball or with the ball, respectively, from depth.
If, as John Hackworth suggested in his post-game press conference, the Union are indeed in the market for a new striker to help with their goal-scoring woes, finding a forward who can replicate McInerney’s ability to play on the last shoulder and keep opposing defenders pinned deep will be critical for opening up more space in the truly dangerous parts of the field and creating the higher-quality types of scoring chances that result in goals.
Zac MacMath – 5
Was left with no chance on Rolfe’s goal and had little else to do the rest of the match.
Ray Gaddis – 6
Enjoyed his return to the right side of defense with another strong showing as a man-marker. Will be frustrated to have been sucked in too easily on DC’s goal. Had he held his ground outside, he likely heads Arnaud’s cross away before it can fall to Cristian.
Amobi Okugo – 6
Reveled in the return of a more stay at home partner in Austin Berry, turning in a sharp, confident performance, despite swapping to the left side of central defense. Marked Eddie Johnson out of the game with consistent physicality and was crisp and deliberate with his passing, completing 31 of 33 passes. Showed leadership as an organizer out of the back and was constantly imploring his side to get forward.
Austin Berry – 5
Outside of one nearly very costly bobble against Espindola, Berry made the most of his opportunity to reclaim his starting spot. Played with a calm and simplicity that had been lacking in the back line and nearly grabbed an equalizer on the attacking end, with only the slightest flick from Boswell keeping him from burying his back post header.
Fabinho – 4
Did well to get forward late in the match, but was guilty of two more defensive lapses in the first half that could have seen his team behind by two goals. First, he was caught ball-watching on DC’s goal, when he drifted casually towards his own net, failing to mark Rolfe or anyone for that matter. Later, he allowed Johnson to get inside of him, and only an incorrectly raised offsides flag kept him from being left blushing again.
Vincent Nogueira – 6
With the Union rotating their midfield, Nogueira was back covering all corners of the pitch on Saturday. And his performance was again as consistent and forward-thinking as Union fans have come to expect from the dynamic Frenchman. The look that has become etched onto his face is one of bitter frustration at the lack of his teammates who are willing to join him in energetically searching for space and running lanes.
Cristian Maidana – 5
With very little motion in front of him, Maidana struggled to impose himself on the match, turning to crossing too frequently as he had few options to look for on the deck. Even though he connected on only a paltry 2 of his 18 crosses, Maidana was still the most dynamic in the Union attack, registering 3 key passes. Lacking the speed to beat defenders on the dribble, Maidana’s effectiveness will rise and fall with the options he has around him. On Saturday, they were lacking.
Brian Carroll – 6
Asked again to control the center of midfield with Edu and Nogueira deployed wide of him, Carroll did that and more, as he was always the first man to slide over to protect Fabinho against Espindola. Had he not suffered a minor injury, it would have been interesting to see if Hackworth would have made the Cruz sub to begin the second half.
Maurice Edu – 4
Continues to look miscast slid out to the left and struggled to have an influence on the match. Joined Fabinho in focusing too intently on Cristian’s volley rather than tracking Rolfe’s run into the box for DC’s goal. Whatever the reason, be it positioning (not an excuse in the second half), midfield chemistry or his own inability to find the game, Edu has not looked sharp since he distinguished himself with a few quality performances early in the season that raised expectations.
Andrew Wenger – 4
Made the play of the match, at least from a Union perspective, with a stunning turn that left Parke clutching at air. Aside from that moment, one that Wenger was still unable to finish, the striker was thoroughly controlled by the DC backline, as he was too willing to play with his back to goal far too deep in midfield. When he has able to get the ball in the final third, aside from the aforementioned turn, his touch let him down frequently.
Conor Casey – 3
After being such a critical player for the Union in 2013, Casey has yet to show the quality, aggressiveness, or hustle that led to him being a double digit goal scorer last year. With the Union in need of a player to keep central defenders pinned deep in their own box, Casey has been too comfortable exchanging simple passes in midfield and not challenging for balls in the box. Should never been kept on the field as long as he was.
Danny Cruz – 6
Brought on to add a spark and give DC something new to think about, Cruz did just that. Whether he was pinning Cristian back inside his defensive third or pulling Boswell and Parke around more than they had in the first 45 minutes, Cruz’s pressure brought a different dimension to the Union attack.
Sebastien Le Toux – 4
With the Union in dire need of energy and quality through the middle, Le Toux was able to bring the former, though not the latter.
Leo Fernandes – 4
With the Union launching everything into the box, they were in need of a finisher, not another creator. Fernandes’ inclusion was an odd choice.
Geoff Gamble – 5
Handled himself reasonably well considering both sets of forwards took alternating turns falling theatrically to the ground. Did well to both allow play to go on when Perry Kitchen mugged Edu, and then come back and caution the DC midfielder. Gamble could certainly stand to call the game with more conviction, but considering the standard around the league, it could have been a lot worse.
Preferred starting XI vs Sporting Kansas City
MacMath; Gaddis, Berry, Okugo, Williams (I’m finally on board with putting him at LB for a stretch); Edu, Nogueira; Cruz, Maidana, Fernandez; Le Toux
This is largely based on a guess that given the short turn around, Carroll will be rested with the coaching staff fully aware that he needs to heal and be 100 percent should Edu head off to USMNT camp.