Photo: Earl Gardner
The final match of the 2015 season could have been a drab coda to a dark season. Instead, it felt much more like peek into the future.
So while it is tempting to pull out hair and ask, why couldn’t they have played like this all season!?!? Let’s use the last ninety minutes of a rough season to paint some hope onto the 2016 picture. After all, isn’t that what Earnie would (probably) want us to do?
Changing the angles
Nothing is certain in the offseason, but it is quite likely the Union will line up in March 2016 with CJ Sapong and Tranquillo Barnetta working together. Sapong fought his way through a facial injury and some personal issues to secure the starting role up top. And the Union have the perfect guy on the bench to help their offensive centerpiece become a more complete player (that would be Casey, Conor Casey).
Sapong’s performance against Orlando highlights both his current strengths and weaknesses. The movement, the competition for every ball, and the workrate all put Sapong in good positions to turn long balls into midfield recoveries and crosses into opportunities. And, increasingly, the striker has been looking to get involved in build-up play, allowing the wingers to push beyond him.
The issue for Sapong is that he is so athletic that every space seems like a good one to move into, every open man a good one to press; these actions take little away from the player’s endless stamina. And while the occasional mistake makes this constant kinetic movement seem like an overall positive, it ends up separating Sapong from the rest of the team. Additionally, looking for the cross (which, in fairness, is what the Union wings usually deliver) means Sapong often forgoes an earlier run that would put him between the central defenders as either an option for a pass or just to draw both the defense together to open gaps.
Yet there is some context needed here: Sapong has rarely had any runners to work with. Cristian Maidana certainly isn’t making that cutting run between the fullback and central defender, and the Union have struggled so much in transition that the fullback overlaps required to free up a winger to cut inside haven’t developed with any regularity. It would be foolish to criticize Sapong without acknowledging that he is also a product of the players and tactics around him.
The conclusion to draw here, then, is that while Sapong was by far the most effective striker on the Union roster, he was also the one with the most room to grow positionally. It is a classic case of a player who can do everything trying to actually do everything. In 2016, the Union will want to see Sapong’s passing chart include a few more connections deep in the opponent’s final third, around the top of the box. Acting as a central hub from that area will pin a defense deep and allow Barnetta more space to operate.
Barnetta is not Maidana… as you well know
Tranquillo Barnetta was never going to play like Cristian Maidana in a central role. But Sunday may be the first time fans got to see how the Swiss international plans to interpret what will likely be his regular position next season. Maidana is in a constant search for space, and that search can operate independently to the rest of the team’s tactics. The Argentinian, at his best, reacts to the shape of the game and slips into holes near the touchlines, gaining an extra moment or two with which to pick out those passes that only he can see.
The benefits of this strategy show up on the stat sheet: 14 assists and many, many chances created. But the drawbacks are more subtle. Without a box-to-box player in midfield, nobody takes the spaces Maidana leaves behind. Often, this means the Union have a gigantic hole in the center of the pitch when they are building to move forward. If the transition develops quickly, no problem. But if it does not, suddenly a jumpy defense is short on options and stuck with every clearance coming right back at them.
At times, Barnetta would flow in from his wide position to fill that central space when Maidana drifted. This was effective, but it created predictable defensive issues against any team that pushed fullbacks forward and overloaded the Union fullbacks (usually Fabinho).
On Sunday, Barnetta showed that he sees the central role as a flexible spot where he can sit in the middle to occupy midfielders and keep them from crowding Vincent Nogueira, but once the ball gets wide, he becomes a vertical option, hitting those gaps between the defense that Sapong must learn to open with early decoy runs.
In the 14th minute, Barnetta showed his intent by darting between Aurelien Collin and Brek Shea, leaving Cristian Higuita in his wake. Le Toux’s ball found Barnetta, but Collin was already on top of the Swiss midfielder. As the play developed, Sapong occupied Seb Hines, but a quick move toward Collin early on would have drawn the Frenchman to him, widening the lane for Barnetta and providing additional space to turn a half-chance into something more. That sort of coordination will take time to develop because Sapong is not used to having a central player pushing vertically behind him.
Lahoud locking it down
Michael Lahoud was the unknown quantity Philly received in the rushed, ugly deal that sent Danny Califf to Chivas when Peter Nowak was in full power-consolidation mode. The Sierra Leone man has developed into a capable if inconsistent presence in the Union midfield, with his upside looking quite a bit larger now than it did when he arrived.
And Sunday was one of Lahoud’s better performances.
Similar to Sapong, Lahoud can get by on the fact that he can close down space faster than most. This means he does not have to read the game as quickly as a Brian Carroll, or coordinate his play with a midfield partner as efficiently. If he is out of position, Lahoud can make up the ground. But the waterfall effect of this approach is difficult to see until the ball is already in the back of the net. Closing down the ball is often less important for a defensive midfielder than preventing the passes that force the defense behind you to twist and move in ways that leave them without the tight J-shape characterizing a compact back four.
On Sunday, Lahoud showed positional poise, pressing Kaka before the ball was played into the Brazilian so either a) the ball or b) Kaka himself would have to go wide. The key here is that while Kaka is more than capable of creating from a wide area, the Union’s defensive setup is more prepared for such an eventuality (well, with a caveat).
Philly plays with such aggressive fullbacks that they would rather force the playmaker into a wide area where Gaddis or Fabinho is prepared, willing, and, honestly, cannot be prevented from sprinting forward to press. While this leaves a hole behind the fullback, Lahoud can step over to help if he has not already chased the playmaker into a wide area. In other words, what has often looked like a bunch of players chasing wildly around the middle third can quickly resemble an actual strategic plan if all the players with good intentions stick to the script. Lahoud played his position well on Sunday, and the results were positive.
That aforementioned caveat, though? It is Ethan White’s positioning. The Maryland product had a fine afternoon, bodying up with Cyle Larin (who seemed to prefer challenging Marquez for some reason) and generally playing a safe, mistake-free game.
But White remains tied to the idea that he must play the striker first and the space second. All season, this has meant that White is too central when Gaddis moves forward, leaving a gigantic hole on the wing. Anything played into the space directly behind Gaddis can be covered by a well-positioned Lahoud. But when Carlos Rivas comes bursting out of midfield up the wing at top speed, it should take a perfect ball to find him in enough space for the excitable winger to create real opportunities.
Too often, White does not shift the 4-5 steps over to cover that wide space, and teams have exploited this issue all season. Getting into the final third should be difficult, yet opposing coaches have discovered that White leaves a highway into the attacking zone when Gaddis moves forward. The result is not always a direct threat, but providing such a consistent route behind the defense is always going to create more risk than necessary.
A mixed bag on the wings
Sebastien Le Toux spent the season learning that this Union squad just was not going to be dragged into a successful transition team, no matter how much he wanted it. When the Frenchman finally accepted that he would have to be a larger part of the build-up, he became a better weapon and attacked from deeper positions instead of getting stuck against the backline with no forward momentum. However, Le Toux still shows the tendency to stay forward and leave his wing unprotected. It went unpunished on Sunday because Brek Shea’s career has taken the darkest timeline, but it is something to develop going forward.
On the other side, Eric Ayuk flashed all the potential and problems that have characterized an intriguing first season. Ayuk is fearless and faulty, a player that can produce chances where others would recycle the ball, but also a player that becomes enamored with the first idea that comes into his head when he gets the ball.
On the Union’s penalty, Ayuk should have played the ball into the center far earlier, but he dawdled. It was a play that stands out because of Seb Hines’ foolish foul, but it was hardly the only time Ayuk passed up clear opportunities because he felt the need to take multiple touches before moving the ball.
But hey, he’s a teenager. He can grow. As Philly moves into a new era as an organization, one thing fans will be looking at is how players like Ayuk move from raw talent into fully formed soccer players. Philly was forced to use Zach Pfeffer all over the pitch this season, and it certainly seems as though the player’s development stalled along the way. That cannot continue to happen if the Union want to compete with teams that are now forming cores around in-house talent like Matt Miazga, Wil Trapp, and everyone in Dallas and Vancouver.
Shout out to Andre Blake
Not much to say here, but I wanted to make sure praise for Andre Blake does not get buried in the ratings. Peter Pappas noted that Blake was probably a bit out of position at times on Sunday, but the young goalie’s athleticism made up for it. Injuries and absurd resource misallocation have kept Blake from hitting the development curve many expected when he was drafted first overall. But the past few matches have made it clear that the Jamaican stopper has all the tools to be as good as anybody in MLS.
Blake finally got his opportunity and he has taken it, looking brave on crosses and quick off his line.
Welcome to the starting lineup, Andre. May you stay a long time.
Andre Blake – 7
One half-punch still kept the ball off of attacking heads, and Blake was stellar for the rest of the match. His kicksave on Adrian Winter in the first half was a great read, and he continues to get touches on shots that he has no right getting near.
Ray Gaddis – 7
Gaddis was quick to attack and benefitted from Orlando’s inability to bring Luke Boden into the offense. The fullback still needs to try and read the game a bit more so he is not being aggressive without support, but it was one of his better showings in the latter half of a long season.
Ethan White – 6
Those positioning issues aside, White was composed and efficient with the ball. None of the booting-it-long-because-I-sat-on-it stuff that has characterized his anxious performances in the past.
Richie Marquez – 6
Marquez is big and fast. Cyle Larin is big and fast. Watching Marquez run down — and then haul down — Larin was a lot of fun. Marquez is a long-term player for the Union, which means he needs to start taking more control of the defense when Mo Edu is off the field.
Fabinho – 6
Look, Fab is never going to be a great defensive player. But he is no longer a liability. Now if he could just develop a bit more patience in the offensive half instead of looking to cross or go wide whenever he has space…
Michael Lahoud – 8
Orlando has some good weapons, and they were in form. Lahoud was all the more impressive because he did his job without being noticeable. That’s Brian Carroll approved.
Vincent Nogueira – 7
An efficient, capable showing from the guy that keeps things moving whenever the Union are playing well. Nogueira’s biggest knock is that he just seems totally unwilling to push forward with any regularity. Look back at that play in the 14th minute again: Where is the midfield support?
Eric Ayuk – 5
Pick your head up!
Sebastien Le Toux – 7
13/13 on penalties is just delightful.
Tranquillo Barnetta – 8
A stellar showing that showcased the Swiss as a real difference-maker who turned the Union’s oft-static offense into something more when he picked good runs and drove into the final third. It was an element that was missing most of the season, and portends a weird, difficult offseason for Cristian Maidana.
CJ Sapong – 6
Solid and unspectacular, Sapong still made his own chance and forced the Orlando defense to play faster than they would like.
Fernando Aristeguieta – 6
Not much for the striker to do as the Union entered a more defensive phase of the match when he entered.
Warren Creavalle – n/a
Geiger counter – 4
Chris Penso won’t be getting any invites to those infamous Heath family get-togethers, that’s for sure. A bigger issue was how long Penso allowed Higuita and Ceren to play like hockey enforcers without greater penalty. Ceren committed three more fouls after being booked with no additional penalty. Combined the two midfielders committed as many infractions as the entire Union squad. Yet it took Higuita completely losing his cool to see red.