Featured / MLS

Beware the Blob! The Union’s lack of formation and shape

First off. A win is a win. And a road win is better still.

HOWEVER…

Once the Union nabbed the early lead in last night’s season opening clash they spent 85 minutes hiding from the game and were completely overrun by a Houston team who were, quite frankly, bad.

No Mwanga?!?!

Nowak was going to throw us a curveball. That’s what he does. In this instance, leaving Danny Mwanga on the bench was an absolute travesty.

Last year Mwanga handsomely repaid the Union for taking him with the first pick in the draft by scoring goals, winning games and building excellent chemistry with Sebastian Le Toux. Short of showing up to preseason camp 20 lbs overweight or tying Nowak’s shoelaces together during a press conference (which would have been totally worth it!) there is NO WAY that you deprive this player of a position in the starting XI as the Union begin their second season. From last year’s side there are only three player’s who covered themselves in enough glory to have earned definite starting berths for this season, Sebastian Le Toux (duh), Danny Califf (2010 captain) and Mwanga.

Of course, we didn’t see any of the team play in the preseason, but we must assume that Carlos Ruiz was in such seductive form that he had simply forced the coach’s hand. Clearly not the case for anyone who watched the match and saw a slow, lumbering forward tripping over the ball and diving time and again in an obvious and embarrassing fashion.

When Mwanga came on, he immediately went to work with Le Toux, almost poking a pass through a defender’s legs into the Frenchman’s path and later providing a cushioned touch that required an excellent defensive intervention from Houston to keep the lead at one.

If the Union start with two forwards, they MUST be Le Toux and Mwanga.

Glory Men

I, admittedly, was initially skeptical of the Faryd Mondragon signing. Given his age and the manner in which he was cut loose from his German side, I was unconvinced that he was the man to right the ship here in Philadelphia. A day after the Union recorded a clean sheet on the road during the first match of the season, I am left to happily eat some crow. While he did not make any superb, acrobatic, or even mundane saves in Houston, Mondragon was a model of consistency and strength from the back. He made no mistakes, claimed every ball with confidence and organized the defense around him.

Speaking of that defense, both centerbacks earned their keep last night. In his MLS debut, Carlos Valdes lived up to the lofty expectations set by the Union coaching staff. Calm and composed under threat, Valdes played a strong positional game and came to the rescue on many occasions, treating fans to an unexpected plethora of foot speed.

Despite being relieved of his captaining duties, Danny Califf still looked an assured leader. While he will make the headlines for scoring the match-winning goal, his defensive qualities shone through as he tracked Jason Garey and Will Bruin, stepping up on multiple occasions to block shots and stifle attacking play.

What on earth happened to our midfield?

When Europe’s major international clubs deploy two holding midfielders, they do so to support a creative central midfielder and, usually, two speedy wingers.  Saturday’s edition of the Union saw Brian Carroll and Stefani Miglioranzi holding deep, with Justin Mapp on the left, and Kyle Nakazawa on the right.

Maybe.

It is hard to say because A) the Union could not get or keep the ball at any point of this match, and B) no one stayed in a particular position long enough to follow them. While you could call this “formation” amoeboid at best, on the pitch it was an absolute shambles. Migs and Carroll spent the entire evening less than ten yards in front of the defense, dropping WAY too far off of Houston’s playmakers and allowing the game to be dictated to them.

Once Philadelphia finally won the ball, the chemistry and understanding were so utterly poor that no more than two passes could be completed in a row.

Preparation

The Union were not prepared to start the season. Chemistry is one thing, but heavy touches and poor positioning take it to another level. If you asked Brian Carroll what his role was when the Union gained possession and he answered anything other than, “Run forward a bit, assume the worst and return to a defensive posture,” he would be lying to you.

Houston did not exert excessive pressure on the Union’s midfield, but watching the match you cannot rule out the possibility that a team of annoying ghosts was harassing the Philly players into rash and visionless decisions. The width was supposed to come from Mapp and Williams. Houston’s push up the Union’s right kept Williams’ pinned back, and as a result the ball never made it out to the right wing. The few times the ball did cross the field, it landed on the foot of Ruiz, who seemed wholly unaware that the guys wearing similar shirts were of the friendly, pass-receiving variety.

There was no comfort level with the ball from any Union player until Mwanga entered the fray. Rarely has a team with a lead acted so convincingly like they were behind by three. Only Mapp seemed to want the ball at his feet, and he just seemed to think that dribbling away possession was a more efficient route than passing it away.

The Union’s shortcomings can be seen clearest by the dearth of late game opportunities. With strikers as fast and talented as Mwanga and Le Toux, it only takes one smart pass to get them off to the races against a team pushing forward for a goal. Only one ball in the final thirty minutes fits this bill, and it forced an amazing scrambled clearance from Houston.

We criticize because we care

The real reason these issues are so acute is that they are the same issues from last season.

Fixing the mental mistakes is a big step forward. The mental fatigue that so often plagued the Union late in games last year was absent on Saturday, and that was the difference between a 1-0 away win and a tie.

Well, that and Oduro’s atrocious finishing.

But there was no evidence last night that Philadelphia is any different from the team that rode Le Toux’s otherworldly form to as many points as the Frenchman could earn. Grinding it out with your center midfielders so offensively uninvolved that they might as well be on a foosball pole will only get you so far in a deep Eastern Conference.

Maybe this is only Nowak’s plan for away matches. Maybe this was just like The Big Fat Secret Greek Preseason, a strange idea designed to disguise the team’s true talents from future opposition. Maybe Mondragon is such a calming, charismatic leader that the team didn’t want to get too far away from him by venturing upfield. No matter the reason for the tactics employed in game one: The Union have a lot of growing to do before they can stake a claim as a playoff contender.

9 Comments

  1. I get what you are saying Eli, but I’m not quite as concerned as some of the guys on here.

    I really think we saw the Union take what Houston was giving them. They had to defend a lead for 85 minute on the road. That tends to lead to more conservative play. Mapp was forced to defend more because of Houston’s attack from the wings. So that affected shape and the game plan.

    Ruiz may have been the biggest problem. He was in position to do some things, but wow his first touch was brutal. If one of those balls didn’t clang ten yards off of his foot, it could have been a different game. Also, I was hoping for some more from Kyle. That may have been a product of the “formation”, but he seemed unsure of what his positioning was supposed to be.

    But, it was a stalwart defensive effort. Except for a couple adventures from Williams, the back line looked very solid. And doesn’t Mondragon just look the part?

    I think we will see a different lineup and stragedy on Saturday.

    • I have inherent problems with trying to defend a lead for 85 minutes. Basically, you should NEVER do it. Especially with this team, its history and the way MLS refs make crazy decisions, often completely at random.

      They should have pushed for second and a third. Again, this was not the Energy Drinks or the Galaxy. The Union were clearly the more talented team, but didn’t play like it.

      If we have the ball, they don’t have it. And on saturday, we couldn’t get it or keep it and that was very worrying.

      And Mwanga. He needs to be on from the opening whistle. I can’t think of a single argument for leaving him out of the team.

      • The difference when Mwanga hit the field was almost instant. I was surprised as anyone he was on the bench and he probably would have made a difference.

        Yes they should have pushed for a second. If Ruiz could have pulled down one of those balls sent his way a second goal could have happened. I’m not saying this was a perfect game. The flaws were there for all to see.

        What is maddening to me is they still play without a guy pulling the strings in the midfield. Carroll is not that guy. He is a defensive midfielder first. When know that Migs isn’t the guy. Kyle, I thought, would pick up that position but he looked a man without a role.

  2. I feel that maybe I was being harsh after just watched Barcelona earlier in the day but after watching some of the other MLS action this weekend, I don’t think we played well at all. Lucky to get a win. Our touch was horrible & our passing was even worse. We turned the ball over so easily & couldn’t hit wide open men with a little bit of pressure. Ruiz was either really nervous or he is not very good. Nakazawa needs some more reserve game time before he gets on the field again. I liked Carol & the back line played well (Even Harvey!). I know Coudet was old but at least he was able to keep possession & orchestrate some offense. I didn’t see that Saturday night. Who is going to be the person who orchestrates the offense?

  3. Captain Thunder says:

    Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmore Mwanga!

  4. For the most part, ELI’s POV on the game is very accurate…..

    Ruiz’s big name signing clearly pushed DannyM out of the line-up.

    What about moving Letoux further back into a CAM role and start Ruiz and Danny W up front ? Having two holding midfielders on the pitch really does a disservice to optimal linkage and you end up defending for most of the game…..Carroll looked strong in the back and I he can handle things while we look to push more forward.

    Either way…..3 points in Houston on their home opener is a lovely start …….W/ the expansion club coming in, 6 point start seems awfully realistic.

    WE JUST NEED TO KEEP RIDING THE WHITE DRAAAAAAAGON!

  5. Eli, thank you for that slap right in the face that i needed to get out of the first win of the season/on the road drunkiness. I was so happy that the Union got a win on the road and for the opener i missed what actually happened. You are exactly right, there was NO one conducting the midfield, there was no structure at all, from the back line to the front, well there was a little bit of structure on the back line, if the line was squiggly. I think Nowak was lucky he didn’t kill Mwanga’s confidence by starting Ruiz. I still do not understand how Ruiz got into the starting 11 with a touch like that it was terrible. I mean as soon as Mwanga came on we actually made it past midfield in the second half. What is even more disappointing, in my opinion, is that with all of our talent on the field we played like there were cement blocks on our feet, it was just ugly to see. I sure hope that come Saturday that Mwanga starts and someone in the midfield can actually control the offensive attack like we know they can.

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