Photo: Earl Gardner
Who: Philadelphia Union at LA Galaxy
What: Regular season game
Where: StubHub Center, Carson, CA, USA
When: 8:00 pm, Sunday, May 25
Watch: CSN, Univision Deportes, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, SiriusXM FC
Whistle: Jorge Gonzalez; Linesman: Jeff Hosking, Jason White; Fourth Official: Kevin Stott
An eventful week for the Philadelphia Union saw them gain three points, score five goals, shut down the Eastern Conference leaders, and top it all off with a home performance that would make David Moyes proud.
So while it remains true that this is a team that can be competitive, that truth is locked inside the reality that after offseason moves made under the auspices of building a team to fit the manager’s plans, the Union are in late May with nothing resembling a cogent team identity.
And the biggest of those offseason moves may be absent for quite a while.
Keep Okugo in midfield
On the bright side, Maurice Edu’s absence gave Amobi Okugo the chance to shine in midfield. And he did against Sporting Kansas City. By moving the team’s vocal leader into a holding role, John Hackworth suddenly had an organized and mobile base to the midfield. Sporting huffed and puffed, but Okugo and Nogueira dominated the central area in much the same way Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani controlled space for Columbus against the Union. But while Tchani has revitalized his career by recognizing that anything more than a five yard pass is beyond his abilities, Okugo and Nogueira added speed and range to the Union’s buildup, making KC’s overcommitments on offense viable attacking opportunities for the goal-shy Union.
Benefits, but also costs
The priceless benefits that Okugo brings to midfield were on display again when the Union welcomed New England to PPL Park. Well, perhaps ‘priceless’ is the wrong word. Because there was a heavy price to pay. The Austin Berry/Aaron Wheeler combination deserves its own paragraph on the Wikipedia entry for “Hapless.” Wheeler’s run of starts was made possible by his consistency. He made mistakes, but he rarely did anything destructive. With Berry injured and out of form, and Ethan White hanging with the Loch Ness Monster, Wheeler held his place with a series of, “Okay, that works” performances.
Not so on Saturday. And Berry was no better. Both players appeared completely unaware that they could communicate with each other using vocal chords and hand gestures, relying instead on the assumption that good things would happen if they chose to ignore each other and tackle anything that moved. Wheeler had four fouls by the 31st minute. Berry rarely got close enough to anyone to foul them.
While Wheeler’s struggles are understandable — the Revolution have the best offensive movement in the east, if not MLS — Austin Berry’s are less forgivable. The player who was supposed to make Union fans forget about Jeff Parke has instead brought Porfirio Lopez and Shavar Thomas to mind.
But, as Eli pointed out in the post-game analysis, the players cannot take full responsibility for Saturday’s showing. The team that stepped on the field appeared unaware that New England’s second week loss to the Union had spurred a series of changes that turned a stuttering offense into one that thrives on space in front of the defense.
At halftime, Heather Mitts noted that Hackworth wanted his defense higher to close the space in front of them. However, he also wanted Danny Cruz to stay higher to pressure the New England back line. The results of those changes came quickly. While there was less space between midfield and defense, there was ample room for New England to operate in front of the midfield. The space was simply transferred deeper, not taken away. And giving Lee Nguyen space to look up and pick out a pass against a very high back line (with two center backs that would not be part of the “track” half of track and field) remains a bad proposition.
Cruz and Leo Fernandes, who played out his own nightmare of a match, were out of shape and chasing the ball, leaving huge gaps for Okugo and Nogueira to cover. The Union coaches must now realize what many others saw as soon as the second half began: Philly experienced both the frying pan and the fire on Saturday.
Positives? We got ‘em!
Philadelphia’s offense looks much improved with Okugo and Nogueira at the base of the midfield. In the first half, many of the team’s best chance came from the central players’ ability to get the ball out of a tight space and switch the field quickly. The absence of that speed of play has been the subject of many a PSP preview this season.
Further upfield, Cristian Maidana — though technical and talented — was overshadowed by the incisive and aggressive play of Zach Pfeffer. The homegrown player demanded the ball and wanted to make plays, and he tracked back to the middle to give the team shape. Pfeffer and first rounder Pedro Ribeiro need to get very close looks in the next few games if the Union want to put a coherent offense together. Teams across the league (Vancouver, LA, and Chicago, for instance) are integrating homegrown and young players into their teams with more regularity. The Union have had several players dancing around the fringes of the 18 for a few years now. Are those players not improving? If not, how come?
But the best reason for using more youth in the first team is not Zach Pfeffer’s performance on Saturday. It’s a simple question: What could go wrong that isn’t already going wrong?
A Galaxy of issues
The Union’s opponent on Sunday is dealing with their own set of problems. Landon Donovan and his… zero (!?) goals are at the US training camp, but the bigger loss is Omar Gonzalez in the back. LA has looked an awful lot like the 2013 Union so far this year. If they get a result, Robbie Keane (6 goals) probably scored. If they don’t, the rest of the team (4 goals) probably let one in.
Bruce Arena has done a typically solid job addressing the most pressing issues on his team. Until Wednesday night’s game, he stuck with a diamond midfield to give his back four more protection, trusting that the goals would come from Keane and Donovan and the defense just needed to remain stout. Trusting Landon Donovan to score goals has never been a risky maneuver in the past, but this season it hasn’t paid off.
Accordingly, Arena has gone to the spice cupboard and tossed in a little bit of everything to see what melds together best. Young guns Gyassi Zardes and Raul Mendiola have earned increasing minutes at the expense of veterans Samuel and Rob Friend. Arena’s message is clear: Veteran status means nothing if you are not consistent. That consistency is what should separate the pros from the kids still learning the game.
The Sarvas show
After finally earning a win on Wednesday, the Galaxy get another boost with the expected return of Marcelo Sarvas on Sunday. The midfielder’s absence led to a reshuffle that saw Donovan, and last week Keane, in a midfield role. Sarvas’ return should re-balance the Galaxy and allow Keane the freedom to switch between a spearpoint and false nine role as he reads the game.
Can the Union handle the Galaxy?
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Will they? …Um…
Coming into the season, a midfield of Nogueira, Edu, and Carroll suggested the Union would be able to handle teams that attacked up the gut. That has not been the case. The Union do not get into shape quickly or effectively when they lose the ball, and they leave acres of space in the middle of the pitch when they move forward. Teams like New England and Columbus that bring players from the wings into the middle in attacks have been difficult opponents. Sporting Kansas City and New York, on the other hand, tend to attack up the wings. Ray Gaddis’ high standard of play and Sheanon Williams’ good defense have helped the Union compete with teams that prefer to go outside in.
Los Angeles won’t go outside in, but they will seek to spread the Union out by utilizing the pinpoint passing of Juninho to release wide players. This should create gaps for Keane — and perhaps Sarvas — to get possession deep in the Union half.
Philly simply needs to re-learn how to track runners, something they completely abandoned against New England.
How to start
If Brian Carroll is healthy — and John Hackworth said he was in Wednesday’s press conference — the likely change sees him return to midfield and push Okugo back to defense.
The Union have given up goals with Okugo in back, and they’ve given up goals with Okugo in midfield. The player simply adds more to the team in the middle than he does in the back. And if it means moving Sheanon inside or dropping Carroll to the back, that is what should happen. Philadelphia’s counterattack looks neutered without Okugo in midfield. And on the road, they will need an effective counter to succeed.
Second, the offense needs to get back to basics. In other words: Le Toux up top. A Galaxy back line without Gonzalez is more susceptible to pressure, so let them have it. Pushing Le Toux high means the Union can drop Andrew Wenger into something of a false nine role. Wenger’s touch was more trampoline than first overall pick last game, but his workrate should put pressure on Juninho and keep the Galaxy playmaker from having time to survey the field.
Prediction: Galaxy 1-1 Union
Philly is not out of the woods yet, but the past week has shown that changes are better than holding steady when your strategy is fundamentally flawed. Okugo should stay in midfield, the center backs need to improve in almost every area, and Nogueira needs to remain in a more central role so he doesn’t get stranded on a wing.
And Zach Pfeffer needs to walk on the field with 10 other starters on Sunday.