Photo: Earl Gardner
Rare is the match where the positives and negatives weigh out so equally that they genuinely seem to reflect the goalless scoreline.
Philadelphia Union bracketed Kaka beautifully, defended efficiently, and grew into the match rather than fading down the stretch as they have done so often this season.
Orlando City played into Philly’s hands by sending out a flaccid, uncreative midfield that lacked width and movement. But let that not take away from this one important fact: Put any ten MLS players around Kaka and he still has a fighting chance to beat you. Brian Carroll and the returning Michael Lahoud made sure that didn’t happen, and it made a porous Union defense look impregnable.
Sometimes playing defense is about finding your zone or finding your man. Sometimes it is about knowing when to press and when to stay put because you don’t have support. Brian Carroll may not be the best at defensive pressure (though he is far, far, far from the worst), but the man can still play a cover role in midfield as well as anybody.
As expected, Orlando had no width and took an “all roads lead to Rome” approach, with Kaka as the embodiment of the ancient city. This is less than ideal, but it can work. All Kaka needs is balls into his feet that allow him to run at goal and he can collapse a defense and give players around him the time they need to look a lot better than they are.
OCSC’s one shot on goal came from Kaka (accidentally?) making something out of nothing. In the 30th minute, Cristian Higuita strode forward in the left channel, ignoring his wide options and focusing on Kaka. As if to demonstrate precisely how poor Orlando’s midfield shape was, Higuita found Lewis Neal sitting in the passing lane to Kaka and had to drive past a defender to find the Brazilian’s smart run away from Michael Lahoud. Kaka was instantly surrounded and only managed to find Cyle Larin’s feet with an absurd no-look, outside of the foot precision pass through Brian Carroll.
Throughout the whole move, Orlando never looked to their wide open fullbacks. And Philly had done their homework, collapsing centrally around the dense Lions midfield and allowing the fullbacks to trounce about harmlessly on the wings. This calculated gamble worked because Adrian Heath’s team does not have the personnel to attack through the wings, so leaving the fullbacks alone only lets them put in crosses. And as dangerous as Larin can be, he’s the only danger from the air. Let me know when Kaka, Neal, Darwin Ceren, and Higuita start making darting runs through the box so I can check my window for the flying pigs.
That Higuita-Kaka-Larin move was the notable exception for Orlando. The rest of the day, Kaka either found no service or found no options around him. The Union’s success controlling Orlando’s main threat was surely a joint function of smart defense and a poor midfield setup from the home side, but it was heartening to see Carroll and Lahoud execute the pregame plan with such consistency. Orlando’s counterattacks were noticeably slow, but that was partly due to the fact that they had to play through Neal or Ceren before finding Kaka, who was constantly locked in a closed off passing lane behind a Union midfielder.
That weird balance
Tranquillo Barnetta’s first extended run in the center of the park produced mixed results. On the positive side, Barnetta provided an extra body in the midfield, slowing Orlando down and adding a second vertical layer to the Union defense that is largely absent when Chaco Maidana is off wandering. The Swiss midfielder is a far more mature defender than Zach Pfeffer and played to force the home side backward rather than pressing without support. Along with basic positioning knowledge that has surely come from many years of high level soccer, this defensive contribution was the standout part of Barnetta’s game. In other words, the new signing was less than a revelation offensively.
Jim Curtin said he would not change his formation to suit Barnetta. Instead, he changed Cristian Maidana’s role and, essentially, modified the purpose of the formation without changing its shape. So the formation-as-shape remained the same, but the formation-as-tactic was quite different.
Barnetta spread the field well when he had time, but his vision for the outlet pass is wanting compared to the Argentinian he replaced in the middle of the park. Maidana is an ambitious passer, and when he is confident he turns bad situations into chances with quirky, unexpected looks across field or through mazes of defenders. A former winger, Barnetta played offense like he was back on the touchline with time to receive the ball and look up before a defender arrived. That sort of time is rarely available in the middle of the park, and it showed in Barnetta’s passing choices, which were largely conservative.
This is not problematic in and of itself, but in the context of Philly’s practiced transition offense, it tended to take the speed and bite out of counterattacks. Curtin has said Barnetta could take some pressure off the defense by helping the Union hold more possession. However, Philly struggled to possess the ball against a packed midfield and the Swiss man’s bigger defensive contribution was, as noted above, just remaining in the middle and not overcommitting to the press.
It will certainly be interesting to see how Barnetta develops as a central player, but Maidana’s changing role may be even more intriguing.
Maidana has been the centerpiece of Philly’s offense since Curtin installed him in the middle of the park. For all of his flaws (e.g., leaving the center, mediocre defense), Maidana is an incredibly dangerous passer and the unquestioned lynchpin of the Union counterattack. Shuttling him off to the wing is risky because he becomes one-dimensional when unable to drift between the lines at will.
The value of Maidana — and the cost of leaving him wide — was clear to see Saturday after Barnetta left the match. On the right, Maidana was minimally involved and only the narrowness of Orlando prevented him from being a defensive liability. Back in the center, the Argentine could drift into his favored left channel, opening the right wing for Ray Gaddis to get further forward (which he did exactly never with Maidana ahead of him) and turning Philly into much more dangerous attacking unit.
Of course, it helped that Adrian Heath was busy emptying his midfield when Maidana was granted his freedom from the wing. Heath’s decision to remove Neal and Carrasco for the pointless Carlos Rivas and the creaky Adrian Winter left gaping holes in the channels that the Union exploited with relative ease. After producing only two reasonable chances in the first 65 minutes, Philly was suddenly generating shots from the center of the box once Maidana was roaming and Orlando was changing offensive tactics midstream. As expected, the Higuita-Ceren pairing in midfield was an excellent matchup for Philly’s playmaker, as the two midfielders galloped about, leaving space as they sought to close down the ball.
That was nice, real nice
Finally, props must be given to a Union defense that rarely looked uncomfortable in a difficult road atmosphere. There were problems, to be sure, but overall the back four looked unruffled by Orlando and played as more of a unit than in recent weeks. Questions about Steven Vitoria’s speed will understandably persist, but paired with the absurdly athletic Marquez, the Portuguese man was never exposed.
Furthermore, Vitoria astutely managed the space Gaddis left behind when pressing. It certainly helped that Orlando had nobody looking to take that space — Kaka was staying central and neither Ceren or Neal seemed to have the foggiest idea how to attack space in the final third — but the notion that the Union can let Gaddis go on his upfield missions without penalty feels really good.
The one defensive issue that remains is how deep the defense tends to sit after initial clearances or recycled play. This problem was made salient by the start of the European club season this weekend, in which strong defenses could be seen inching forward from their box to maintain touching distance with the midfield as soon as the ball was pushed out of the final third.
This may seem a minor gripe, but the ripple effect can be very meaningful. To understand, look at the first five minutes of the Union-Orlando match in which Philly played the ball into CJ Sapong’s feet three times. Sapong had the space to check back to the ball because Orlando’s back line sat deep and allowed space between them and the midfield. Once Aurelien Collin pushed his back four closer to Carrasco, Sapong had more difficulty influencing the match (the striker had only two touches past the center circle between the 10th and 40th minutes).
Overall, the Union’s improved defense was a major plus, but the dearth of offensive chances with Barnetta in the center is a worrying sign.
Furthermore, Barnetta’s lack of creativity — which may simply be a function of getting up to game speed and learning MLS play — highlights how Philly continues to make odd buying choices. Barnetta is certainly a very good player, but adding him in the middle forces one of the team’s other very-good-players into a less effective role. Solving this positional dilemma will be one of the storylines to watch going forward as Philly seeks to establish an identity that they can carry into the 2016 season.
John McCarthy – 6
Well, that was (relatively) easy.
Ray Gaddis – 6
A good match from Gaddis, as Orlando played to the defender’s strengths. Once the home side inserted the just totally, incomprehensively pointless Carlos Rivas, Gaddis was gifted the perfect partner for an athletic showdown. Rivas settled for terrible crosses and Gaddis looked confident.
Richie Marquez – 7
Do you feel that? It’s calmness. Tranquility. It’s a much more common feature for Philly defenses when Marquez is part of them. The athletic defender matched up well with Cyle Larin and was not bullied around by the big rookie striker.
Steven Vitoria – 7
Vitoria does not pass the eye test, looking slow and uncertain on the ball. But the big man showed some aerial backbone and attacked the ball much better than he did in his previous run out in back. A positive match.
Fabinho – 6
With hilariously little to do, Fabinho played a solid offensive match. Though he was only halfway involved, the Brazilian had to be smart about going forward, and he was.
Brian Carroll – 8
Just because you only have one job to do it is no less impressive when you do it well. Brian Carroll’s defensive sweeper role may be a bit anachronistic in modern soccer, but Philly’s roster requires just such a player. The captain of the day made certain that even when Kaka received the ball in dangerous areas, he would have to take his second best option. Additionally, working with Lahoud in a double-pivot proved to be no problem for the man who is at his best when he is unnoticed. Also: Only four misplaced passes all match? Stellar.
Michael Lahoud – 7
Four misplaced passes, Mr. Carroll? How about zero? Lahoud’s perfect passing day coincided with a decisiveness borne from knowing that he was going to give the ball to a) Maidana, b) Barnetta, or c) Carroll every time he could. That simple progression allowed Lahoud to play a contained match that highlighted all of the positive attributes he brings to the pitch. Whereas Carroll plays passing lanes brilliantly, Lahoud closes down the ball extremely quickly and takes good angles. Combined, they snuffed out everything Orlando threw at them. It will be interesting to see how Jim Curtin moves forward with Lahoud and Carroll since, for all the good defensive work they do, it would be hard to find two less ambitious passers.
Tranquillo Barnetta – 6
A quiet match from the new boy. The defensive work was spot on and the offense showed glimpses of the technical skill and fluidity that make him such an enticing signing. Barnetta had a noticeably better relationship with Le Toux than Pfeffer did a week ago.
Sebastien Le Toux – 7
That shot off the post! Oh, so close. It was indicative of Le Toux’s game, which was as close as it has been all season to the top form he showed in August of 2014.
Cristian Maidana – 6
Though Maidana seemed a bit neutered on the wing, he remains an intriguing wide prospect, with the ability to serve balls into the box if anybody should decide to join CJ Sapong on his lonely forays into dangerous zones.
CJ Sapong – 5
Sapong’s rating may be low only because he was isolated for extended stretches of the match. Going toe-to-toe with the physical Collin got the better of Sapong, who ended up in more of a personal war than part of the team. That said, the striker’s work rate remains a huge boon and continues to prove that he belongs in the first eleven.
Eric Ayuk – 5
Not the most influential match from the teenager, but he did provide a much-needed vertical element to the Union offense that was missing with Maidana on the touchline and Luke Boden pushing forward from the back.
Fernando Aristeguieta – 6
Good fight and competitiveness as usual from Aristeguieta. With only 17 minutes on the pitch, he was able to quickly get involved which is a very positive sign.
Warren Creavalle – 6
Put into the match to charge around once the midfield opened up, Creavalle showed plenty of energy and smart decision making. That said, Orlando had largely given up on going forward by the time he entered so it was difficult to get a handle on how he would perform under more offensive pressure.
Geiger counter – 5
Allan Chapman is not a great referee, but he was consistent on the night. Sapong and Collin were allowed to huff and puff all night, and both sides got away with their fair share of borderline cautionable offenses.