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Winning ugly is ugly…Time to get better

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Two weeks down, six points in the bank, two clean sheets and things are looking bright for the Union. Faryd Mondragon has the defense locked down like Fort Knox and Carlos Valdes and Danny Califf are getting on like a house on fire. Yet, in front of the newly-cohesive back three, the soccer has been downright drab. If the Union hope to return from their trip to the Home Depot Center with a favorable result, they will have to SEVERELY up their game when they face Golden Balls and the Galaxy this weekend.

The Whitecaps we saw were a reserve team — AT BEST

In week 1, the Union got the job done.

Sure it was ugly, cluttered, unimaginative soccer, but they went on the road and secured a clean sheet. That is no small feat for any club, and certainly nothing to scoff at. Questions lingered about the evident lack of offensive chemistry coming out of preseason camp and how a Houston side with only Brad Davis as a legitimate attacking threat could have been so dominant, but a result on the road is one in which we should all revel, tuck in our back pocket and be psyched about.

Fast-forward to this past Saturday for the home opener at PPL Park.

While Vancouver had ridden the momentum of the franchise’s first match to victory over Toronto, the team that faced the Union was not the same team. Missing on international duty with the US and New Zealand, respectively, were veteran center back pairing Jay DeMerit (Vancouver’s captain) and Michael Boxall. Vancouver was forced into four total changes (the other two due to injury) from the team that throttled their hapless countrymen a week earlier.

Securing a road victory following such an emotional opener was always going to be a hard ask and, given the real possibility of a letdown, the ‘Caps came prepared to ruin a perfectly good game of soccer.

As is so often the case with a team on the road, they were chippy, incredibly prone to diving and theatrics and ready to do nearly anything possible to throw off the Union and earn an important road point. And for much of the match it worked. The Union looked content to play for a draw as they bungled pass after pass in the midfield, did not support each other going forward and generally looked thoroughly out of sync.

Eric Hassli, you’re a dirtbag. Thanks!

Fortunately for the Union, Vancouver’s first designated player, French striker Eric Hassli, could not cope with the rough treatment he received from Union defense and snapped like a rubber band, handing the Union a one-man advantage in the 57the minute. First, he lashed out at Califf in a challenge that could have earned him an early shower on its own, then he took a stab at Sheanon Williams off the ball, before finally his violent, late rake on Valdes saw him sent from the pitch.

(One quick note on refereeing: I’m not a professional referee, but I am an avid soccer fan and was a licensed USSF official for four years not that long ago. When a player lashes out the way Hassli did against Danny Califf, he should quickly find himself out of warnings. The yellow card itself is referred to as a caution and once given should represent that the player must be on their best behavior since their next serious infraction WILL result in ejection. So, if referee Yader Reyes did not feel that Hassli had earned his marching orders with that initial offense, he MUST issue the second yellow when Hassli cynically cut down Sheanon Williams well behind the play. Instead, he chose to chastise him, providing him a verbal warning AFTER he had received a yellow card. This shows very soft, poor judgment on the part of the official, and had Carlos Valdes sustained a serious injury from the eventual red card challenge, the Union would have had real cause to complain. But, since there is apparently no accountability placed on officials in MLS, and Valdes fortunately emerged unscathed. But I digress…)

Following the dismissal, Nowak announced his intentions to go on and win the match by bringing on Roger Torres and Jack McInerney for Jordan Harvey and the clumsy Kyle Nakazawa. A bold move towards scoring a goal, yes, but a perplexing one all the same, because what, pray tell, had the Union been trying to do before this point?

Obviously things had not been going as planned to this junction, and when the team was playing down to the level of an inferior opponent, why did it take a numerical advantage for the coach to try and grab the victory? For 60+ minutes it looked like BOTH sides were both playing for a draw, despite the Union being at home against a depleted expansion team in their first away fixture.

Playing three strikers does not necessarily equal more offense

With three strikers on the pitch, the goals will flow fast and furious, right?

Wrong.

I touted the benefits of the 4-3-3 in the preseason and still think it can work, but there must be some linkage connecting the backline with the forwards and that simply has not been the case thus far. With Peter Nowak pulling Nakazawa out wide right, he both canceled his ability to properly influence the attack and was effectively relying on Miglioranzi and Carroll to be the catalysts through the middle. This simply will not work. Not only will it not work for the midfield, with Le Toux dropping deep to try and find the ball and Nakazawa clearly leaning towards the right side of the field, but Sheanon Williams is buried behind them, without a clear lane to attack.

Given his offensive deficiencies, a stay-at-home defender like Jordan Harvey seems like the right player to protect in an asymmetrical formation, especially given that Ruiz’s rare forays into the midfield almost always yielded a turnover, making the left side of the pitch a wasteland of lost possession for the Union. True, Justin Mapp was unavailable through injury to occupy his normal post on the left side of the midfield, but injuries are an inevitability in sports, and the Union’s inability to reorganize caused them to unravel needlessly.

And before the villagers take up their pitch forks and torches and go seeking Jordan Harvey’s blood, I think we need to step back and take a collective deep breath. Harvey spent the first 45 minutes against Vancouver working the touch line and doing what he could to help the offense. He pressed forward, running hard to overlap the play and get into positive positions, but the right-handed shape of the team did not see his runs get picked up and he was forced to race back in defense without ever getting a sniff of the ball. With no creative midfielder capable of switching the point of attack, the deep runs from the left back were rendered useless as the ball remained trapped on the other side of the pitch.

Is Sebastien Le Toux Chase Utley?

Apologies for another digression, but does anyone else think Le Toux look like he’s still carrying that ankle knock?

As always, Le Toux worked his tail off, creating the goal that sealed the win and earning the love and adoration of the Philly faithful. But he appears to be struggling with the pace of the match, and his touch does not appear as cultured as we are used to seeing from 2010’s best man. I compare him to Chase Utley because, as an extraordinarily hard-working player, Utley will not pull himself when he is hurt, nor will he let on when he is injured (until recently), nobly soldiering on without making excuses when his numbers dip. While some would call that toughness, plenty of others regard it as foolish, and days before the Union’s opener in Houston, the Union let it slip that Le Toux was to undergo an MRI on an ankle that had taken a knock in the preseason.

Following last season’s output, it seems clear that Le Toux is no flash in the pan. His goals and assists came from hard work and excellent technique, and that effort is still the hallmark of his game in 2011. However, until he begins to rediscover his goal-scoring form—terrorizing defenses and looking more comfortable on the ball—questions will loom about that ankle. If indeed it is bothering him, the season is far too long, and he is far too important to this club, to risk serious injury. If he’s hurt, he needs to take the time to heal, though of course I hope that I’m overthinking this…

Torres provides threatening creativity

In the 66th minute, when Roger Torres entered the fray, the match changed definitively. It is pointless to argue whether Torres opened up the field or whether, with the sending off, the Union’s new number 8 simply entered a wide open match, but the fact remains that Torres provides a creative threat that few others in the squad offer.

Against Vancouver, he played with his head on a swivel and spread the ball to both sides of the pitch for the first time in the match, often endeavoring to play the kind of seeking through balls that give opposing defenses fits. Sure, there was some of the old Roger, dribbling too deep and giving up possession. But he is still 19 years old and developing before our eyes.  I would much rather live and die by a player who takes offensive chances and stretches a defense, rather than simply parking the bus with ANOTHER holding midfielder—we already have two on the field to start, for crying out loud. And before someone reminds me that I did prefer Nakazawa to Torres in my preseason formation, seeing how little Nakazawa has improved or developed has given me, and clearly many others, pause.

I miss Andrew Jacobson

If you took a T-Bone steak and put in on the grill for 45 minutes,watched it shrivel into an unrecognizable charcoal briquette, it STILL wouldn’t be as done as Stefani Miglioranzi looks after two matches. To overhit a hopeful through ball is one thing; to misjudge the weight or flight of a cross when a player switches fields is another. But to play soft, loose passes in the middle of the park and backwards towards your own defense is SUICIDE. Yet, thus far this season, it has been a completely commonplace occurrence for the veteran midfielder to do just that.

Fair or not, I have been chastised over my affection for Amobi Okugo, so instead I submit to you this: Why is Andrew Jacobson not on the Union’s roster?

With an expanded number of slots available, reserve league games to be played and the knowledge that Okugo would likely miss time for national team duties, how could a player of Jacobson’s quality be allowed to leave? And for a second round pick that the Union won’t see for another two seasons?  Some fans have argued that Jacobson turned the ball over too much. More than Migs? That’s not possible. It just isn’t. What people are also quick to overlook is that Jacobson was forced to spend most of 2010 playing out of position in an attacking role for which he clearly was not suited.

And let us not forget which team snapped him up—FC Dallas. Heard of them? You should have, they competed in the 2010 edition of the MLS Cup Final.

Upon signing Jacobson, Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman was quick to praise the versatile abilities of his new signing and brought him on in the second half of their home opener against Chicago as well as playing him a full 90 in a second week friendly against Mexican opposition Club Tigres. With Miglioranzi struggles in the early season, I struggle to understand how Andrew Jacobson could be anything but an asset for the Union at this juncture.

I tried to give Carlos Ruiz a pass…

I really did.

Score a match-winning goal and get a pass for the week. That’s usually the formula. Yet, after his shockingly lethargic opening day performance, I was primed to see the real, dynamic, clinical Carlos Ruiz I had been told all about.  Alas, Saturday was no different.

Sure, he put the final touch on Le Toux’s well-crafted setup, but for the majority of the match, he wasn’t even anonymous. He was bad.

His touch was heavy, playing the kind of overhit passes that occur when a player is laboring to even track the ball down, let alone do something constructive once they corral it. Contrast that with Danny Mwanga, who responded to being benched for the opener by brightly charging around the field early against Vancouver, picking up the ball, holding off defenders and making the kind of smart passes you would expect from a player many years his senior. Mwanga faded as the match ran on, holding the ball a little too much and because, as the target forward, no service means you’re on an island. Le Toux and Ruiz should be dropping deep all the time to support the midfield, given their numeric disadvantage. But as the main linkage between possession and attack, Mwanga must hold a high line and be ready to hold up the ball when or if it comes.

In Summary

Miglioranzi, Nakazawa and Ruiz have had a brutal opening fortnight. But with a road trip to Carson on the schedule for this weekend, very little is likely to change.

With six in the bag, why not throw caution to the wind and try to catch the Galaxy napping?

Omar Gonzalez is injured, and with Landon Donovan likely to feature for the US on Tuesday night against Paraguay, the Galaxy may not be at full strength. Perhaps if Justin Mapp can recover in time to make the trip, the Union could test out a more offensive formation, give a debut to the highly touted Michael Farfan and see whether Roger Torres can pull the strings against more solid opposition.

Exciting yes, probable no.  While that’s just a pipe dream, a return to a version of the 4-4-2 the Union played in Houston is likely on the cards. One thing is for certain though: confidence is flowing through the trio of Valdes, Califf and Mondragon. If they keep it up, the Union will be awfully hard to score against or beat going forward.  Now we just need to create enough chances and tally enough goals that the occasional conceit does not prove critical.

14 Comments

  1. i think you’re being too harsh on ruiz. for sure his early touches made me wanna scream but i thought he really settled in as the game went on. he scored his goal, had one slip by the tip of his boot, and had that beauty of a bicycle. he had chances, took his chances, and put one away. that’s exactly what he’s here for. i thought mwanga had a better feel for the ball but what did he accomplish? i saw him repeatedly run at defenders. it worked for a few seconds and maybe he’d get past one defender and then the ball was cleared over and over. i don’t think he had a horrible game but to call out ruiz while lauding mwanga seems a little off to me.

  2. Josh Trott says:

    Okugo hasn’t seen a minute yet? Comment on that, Eli.

  3. Im worried about LeToux. He looks only half as dangerous as last year And im with nick- thought ruiz settled in and took his chances well. He and Mwanga compliment each other up top.

  4. agree strongly about torres, but i thought ruiz was pretty good. we should set up with ruiz and mwanga up top and then a diamond in the midfield with torres, le toux, mapp, and carroll and then the same defense. One other note: Jack Mac looked fantastic last game. I wouldn’t mind seeing him for more time in ruiz’s role with the same formation I mentioned.

    • I agree wholeheartedly with Andrew’s optimal line-up, which basically preserves the three striker model by keeping Le Toux at the top of the midfield diamond. And for those situations where we want to stick with two holding midfielders, Okugo would replace Torres and Le Toux would line up on the right side.

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  6. We absolutely got LUCKY specifically in two ways…

    a) Valdes should have been sent off early in the first half when he took down Harris with a two footed challenge…Seen game four times now and without a doubt he should have seen red.

    b) Vancouver was without starting center backs…with them in we lose or tie. Our offence is limp and impotent.

    c) Hassli got red carded (BIGGEST FACTOR)…without this we tie or lose

    I do not believe Ruiz should start…Let Le Toux and Mwanga build off of the chemistry they developed last year…and bring Ruiz in off the bench (if at all)

    Yes Le Toux is absolutely still holding that ankle injury…it doesn’t just go away…he has still had a hand in both of our goals!!! Le TOUX!!!!

    I am very much anti Nakazawa…had two really bad games. For a free kick specialist, he has been way off…Migs not so great either. I think his confidence has probably been hit hard following the past two games. Shouldn’t start against Galaxy, could be bad for him.

    I was upset when Jacobson was traded…initially. He was a crowd favorite but looking at it objectively…we got a second round pick next year and he played a little bit out of control, no composure…only good off season move by union.

    Vs Galaxay

    ……………..Mondragon………………..
    ….Williams….Valdes….Califf….Harvey….
    ……….Carroll……..Miglioranzi……….
    ..Torres…………………………..Mapp..
    ……….Mwanga……………Le Toux……..

  7. I agree that you were too tough on Ruiz, Eli. I understand he’s a veteran but he is trying to work his way back into MLS and prove he can be a formidable striker again. He should be afforded some time to fit in. Maybe not as much time as the young guys you have such patience with but more than the first 2 games. I was stunned at how out of step Ruiz seemed in the Houston game but I saw substantial improvement at PPL Park on Satuday. Yes, he needs to work to regain his touch and fitness but based on the home opener, he is improving. If he plateaus and shows no signs of getting better, then by all means, let the Union’s youth be served but to make a move on him while he is still getting better is, I feel, premature.

  8. Ruiz clearly has talent, but his fitness dampens the offense. When Mwanga and Ruiz are on the field together there are essentially two hitmen because Ruiz can’t make those midfield forays. The issue is that while Ruiz will probably gain some of his fitness back there is a good chance he will never recover that extra pep in his first step. If Ruiz can not recover that extra step I would much rather see Mwanga/JackMac/Le Toux out there. Jack came on Saturday and his quickness immediately started making a nuisance for the Whitecaps defenders. We all know Nowaks system is built around conditioning so until Ruiz recovers his fitness I would like to see JackMac out there.

  9. It would be fun to see Torres go for a longer period, but I think you have to sacrifice one of the strikers to get him on the pitch. We can find all the problems we want with the Union’s midfield through two games, but it’s not the back line alone that’s getting these clean sheets. Messing with a successful formula for a west coast trip to play a good team? Are we really that tired of winning already?

  10. I have to agree with everyone on Ruiz, He is an older player, his job is sit in front of the goal and finish someones cross or score off a rebound. And Eli you are not over thinking Le Toux, he is carrying a knock. Le Toux is just not being Le Toux. He is still out working everyone on the field but he usually out works them even more than he is now. JackMac (liking the nickname Mike!) needs to get more time, perhaps even start against LA for Le Toux or Ruiz, with Mwanga as the other striker. Yes they are young but they have so much more energy on the field than Ruiz and they would be better helping the ball get though the midfield. Our set pieces are terrible, period. Naka should not be taking them. And I think Torres should start; he is the only midfielder that actually wants to possess the ball and then distribute with a purpose. and Yes it is somewhat hard to go on the road and get 3 points. But if the players get the mentality of attacking instead of settle for a point on the road, it would not be so hard. Everyone should get that its hard to win on the road crap out of there head. The visiting team does not have to wear weighted jackets when they play a home team. Yes the crowd helps the energy of the team but there is nothing physically unequal when a team is visiting. starting eleven for me on Saturday

    ……….Dragon…………..
    .Williams.Valdes.Califf.Harvey
    ………..Carroll…………
    Le Toux…Torres…..Mapp…..
    ….JackMac….Mwanga………

    I was liking the new third kit that they played in as well!

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