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Player ratings and analysis: Union 1-1 Sounders

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

Sigi Schmidt was happy with the result. That says it all.

MLS is not afraid of PPL Park. Confused? Yes. But not scared.

Confused

Unless your name rhymes with Yawn Bagojello, you haven’t figured out how to break down the Philadelphia defense. And even young Juan left empty-handed. It is not uncommon to see a manager alter his formation depending where he’s playing. Usually this means playing a more conservative game away from home.

But this is not the case at PPL. Seattle deployed O’Brian White up top with two wingers pushed far up the pitch in support. Even with this attacking set up, the Sounders were playing with fewer flat-out attackers than New York used a week ago. Clearly, the Union’s defensive record has opposing coaches reaching for solutions. Just as obvious, however, is the lack of respect being shown to the Philly offense.

There are definite positives to take away from Saturday’s tie. Possession numbers were up while kick-and-chase was used as a last resort rather than a plan of action. Passes were completed in bunches instead of frustrating pairs. The young midfielders played well.

But if the opponents are confused by the Union’s defense, the fans are equally baffled by the absentee offense.

We were better

Even as the leaders in the East, the Union have not garnered a ton of respect in the MLS rankings circles. Even hardcore fans would have trouble arguing that the team’s early season tightrope walking should place the Union anywhere beyond one-dimensionally elite.

Saturday was the first match where the home side was clearly superior to the opposition. Unfortunately the faster ball movement exposed the true and disturbing limits of the offense’s creativity. Keon Daniel and Kyle Nakazawa found space on the wings but had nowhere to go with the ball. Carlos Ruiz’s hold up game was vastly improved but he does not check in as a foil to Le Toux’s stretching runs.

With two holding midfielders, one of the strikers has to show for the ball when it goes wide. Le Toux has been well short of his best in 2011, but turning him into a holding player is not the answer. The burden falls on Ruiz, who has shown neither the interest or the confidence on the ball to play the role.

Montero the magician

New York is obviously enemy #1 for the Union. Freddy Montero cannot be close behind.

The man who makes Carolos Ruiz look like an amateur diver has been a thorn in the Philadelphia side since the franchise began MLS play with a loss to the Sounders last year.

Montero highlights the type of player who will ask the most questions of the Union. Big strikers? Valdes and Califf have been dominant in the air. Speed players? Don’t let them iso Danny and the top class organization of the back four will keep them at bay. Wide players? Not so scary when they can’t get inside.

Playing between the lines but preferring to distribute rather than attack the defense, Montero gave Seattle a defined point of attack. Certainly the Union did not look likely to relinquish its lead, but without an insurance goal a fluke or minor mistake (a “Ream” if you will) can turn the entire match.

Sticking by his (misfiring) guns

It seems wrong to criticize Ruiz after his best match. But here we go: Ruiz is not better than Mwanga. Maybe he is a more potent finisher in front of net, and maybe that’s useful on a team that creates a lot of opportunities.

Ruiz and Le Toux have no chemistry right now. It was less of an issue when the defense was unbreakable, but Alvaro Fernandez shattered that illusion with one soft, seeing-eye header. Now the Union need to know why their starting strike force has combined for two scoring opportunities in four matches.

Last year, Philadelphia seemed cursed by poor luck and bad bounces. A shot off the crossbar falling at Califf’s feet? A deflected shot falling into Le Toux’s path to set up Ruiz’s first goal? A windy free kick beyond a flailing Keller? The karma is good with this team. It is also far too prevalent. Philly can sneak into the playoffs on a combination of great defense and good fortune. But that’s as far as they will go.

The other issue is Stefani Miglioranzi’s continuing poor form. The fact that nobody has scored on the Union from open play with Migs on the field is a badge of honor for a defensive midfielder. However the question must be asked: When do you sacrifice a defensive presence and inject life into this uninspired offense?

Player Ratings

Faryd Mondragon – 6

Nothing he could do about the goal. Nothing he could do about the result. An overlooked aspect of The Dragon’s game this year is his distribution. He has been looking to spring the offense from the back with regularity. It created a few breaks on Saturday although they ended up being 1-on-2s.

Sheanon Williams – 7

Sheanon Williams received a lot of the credit for turning the team’s defensive fortunes around last season. Was he a one-hit wonder, or could Goose continue to cover the wing without sacrificing defense? So far it looks like Williams will make an extra visit to Red Bull Stadium this year for the MLS All-Star game. Opposing teams are very conscious of the Union right back’s offensive talent and take pains to push their midfielders high to pin him back. This hasn’t stopped Williams’ forays into enemy territory but it has made them less frequent. With Peter Nowak’s penchant for playing center middies as wingers, it’s important that the Union figure out how to free Williams up to become a part of the offense. Until then we should all just enjoy seeing a player full of confidence playing at a high level individually and as part of the back line.

Carlos Valdes – 7

Here’s the thing. MLS strikers are often very big or very fast. Technically superior? Eh, not so much. Go ahead and argue with me if you like. Then watch how strikers in the Colombian or Brazilian leagues make space for themselves or finish ambitious long-range or difficult efforts. Carlos Valdes treats MLS strikers like what they are: Less cerebral and less adaptive than Carlos Valdes. O’Brian White was given no space to operate on Saturday because Valdes knew that White’s first touch would be tragic when pressured. The Seattle wingers were reticent to push the ball beyond Sheanon Williams because Valdes was in perfect covering position. Then there is the aerial play. Both Union center backs have made this a priority in 2011: The box belongs to us. The only thing Valdes needs to improve are his clearances, which must consistently leave the defensive third to relieve pressure.

Danny Califf – 6

Solid again. What more can you say? Califf is playing with confidence and control. He doesn’t have Valdes’ athletic gifts but the understanding between the two of them is what makes the Union’s defense great. New York exposed Philadelphia’s stuttering offense by pressuring the center backs and forcing Califf and Valdes to play faster than they wanted. Seattle aped this idea and the Union adjusted by letting the offense move through Okugo rather than start in the back and go immediately wide. Teams will continue to pressure the backs until Philly figures out how to get the ball upfield and set up shop in the final third.

Jordan Harvey – 6

Solid. Harvey knows where Keon Daniel will be and has proved more than willing to make the simple outlet ball. I had Harv pegged as a long ball specialist but it’s becoming clear that he’s an intelligent blue collar offensive player. Give him a better way to do things and he will embrace it. Whether it’s the Union’s more defensive-minded midfield or Harvey’s growth in the team’s system, the left back has rarely found himself stranded in no-man’s landed this year. A position that looked ripe for competition has Jordan Harvey’s named tattooed on it for the near future.

Kyle Nakazawa – 7

Naka gets the bump for earning the free kick that led to the Union goal. Even with the big strides he has made this season, I did not expect Nakazawa to be a player running at defenses on the wing. Yet there he was on Saturday, taking on his defender when Le Toux created space with a good run. Naka also picked out Le Toux with a brilliant little lob that eked between two defenders. It was nice to see Le Toux on the same page with someone since he and Ruiz are still reading from different manuals. The other notable contribution from Nakazawa was his willingness to sit on the ball when closed down. Until a center midfielder is willing to make a gallop forward through the middle, the wingers are going to find themselves on an island more than once a game. Preventing these moments from turning into fast breaks the other way is key to creating an offensive flow.

Amobi Okugo – 7

Let’s start the debate: Is he ready for a full-time starting role? Okugo does not have the positional sense that Miglioranzi and Carroll bring to the field, that much is clear. His desire to nip an attack in the bud led him to vacate the middle too often for the conservative tastes of Peter Nowak and his preferred midfield arrangement. On the other hand, who likes a center midfielder that moves the ball with speed and confidence? Spraying it out to the wings, bringing the outside backs into play, looking for the (sometimes overly) ambitious through ball to Le Toux… Okugo gave the offense a new dimension from the center of the park. Certainly Amobi will watch game tape and ask for an option between the lines. Either one of the wingers has to cut through or a striker has to check back because the gaps between Okugo as a defensive middie and the strikers in front of him was too large for a quick counterattacking pass. Amobi can play that ball, someone just has to be there.

Stefani Miglioranzi – 5

I didn’t think he was as bad as past weeks. Some of you may disagree. Migs has been a presence in the air after ineffective performances against Houston and Vancouver. His work with the ball continues to disappoint though, and I had a chance to ask him about it after the match. Miglioranzi said that, quite frankly, his ball work has been lacking. His passes haven’t found feet as often as they should and he has not been as quick with his decision making as he should be. In other words, it’s a dip in form rather than a lack of ability. Whatever the case may be, Migs clearly has Nowak’s support and will keep getting chances to work through his struggles on the pitch. He also told me that he informed the coaching staff that he had a slight knock at halftime but he could play through, and it was likely that a combination of that and his yellow card that led to his substitution.

Keon Daniel – 6

Is Daniel getting a 6 because we’ve grown accustomed to his reliable play? Maybe. I do think that the tall, intelligent winger can scale even greater heights as he adds some creativity to his game. Daniel looks to play his position according to the coach’s instructions. This means he is often in the right position at the right time but that he isn’t taking chances that, with his speed and skill, can stretch a defense and open up gaps.

Sebastien Le Toux – 6

I have nothing new to say about the Union #9. His hard work used to be a part of the Union’s game, now it seems out of place. This is not entirely Le Toux’s fault. A good run, most of the time, creates space for another player. Too often, Le Toux is being served a ball that should be going into the space he leaves behind. Unfortunately, nobody is filling that space. Le Toux does not seem to have any idea what Carlos Ruiz is doing. Ruiz doesn’t move the central defenders out of position so Le Toux’s runs are very easily tracked. Until these two figure out a play for moving the defense around, you can expect the Philadelphia offense to continue surviving on a minimum of opportunities.

Carlos Ruiz – 7

This score is for his individual performance. His contribution to the team does not merit such praise. Ruiz scored a sweet goal and his touch was much improved. What he is not: An outlet, a threat when he receives the ball anywhere beyond the final third, active defensively. Ruiz lost possession with less regularity on Saturday but his movement was not improved. After laying a ball back to Daniel or Nakazawa, the striker would fail to open up any spaces, which meant that the already defensive-minded central middies had no space to run into. Yes, we’ve been harping on the offense all year. It all just seems that much more prevalent now that the 1-0 victory theory has been put to bed.

Danny Mwanga – 6

Mwanga didn’t get much time to make a difference. The disappointment in that statement is magnified by how the offense teetered on the brink of total breakdown throughout the second half. It is difficult to argue against Ruiz when he is scoring. It should be equally hard to argue for an offense that relies on good luck and wind to eke out points at home. Mwanga has yet to spend any significant time at his preferred position up top. When will the Union cease experimenting with tactics and begin testing out new blood in the starting lineup?

Justin Mapp – 4

Yeesh. Mapp has not been very effective this season, but he hasn’t been poor. Well, he was poor on Saturday. Dribbling into trouble, playing with his head down, costing the team possession with a slim lead… Mapp hit the trifecta of mistakes for a late game substitute.

Weather vs fans

Fans by fatality. Anybody who came out to PPL on Saturday knew what they were walking into. Kudos for the Keller taunts so loud that they carried through the wind and rain. Even at less than capacity, the stadium had an energy that speaks to the level of support the city is giving to its newest team.

7 Comments

  1. 2 things. i think your 7 for okugo is too much. he had a great game against ny for sure but he gave away possession more than he should have and wasn’t nearly the same player. i also don’t think he was all that great at pushing the ball forward. he wasn’t horrible but a 7 is too high. the other thing i disagree with if ruiz. i probably wouldn’t change your rating but you are missing his ball movement. he had a number a fine touches to push the ball forward but very rarely was a midfielder there to make a run or get into an attacking position for him. he can’t be that outlet you want if there is nowhere else for him to go with the ball.

  2. Sheanon Williams is a BEAST!

  3. Le Toux: 4…He had one of the cleanest looks at goal in the second half that he has had all year but failed to score. He needs to put the ball in the net!!!

    Nowak: 3…Poor subs and tactics cost us two points. Mwanga for Migs was a bad call at the wrong time.

  4. @ los – i completely agree on the subs/nowak

  5. For any of you reporters –

    PLEASE ask Nowak what is his infatuation with Migs. Seriously, just say to him “With his poor play, why does Migs continuously start?”

    After 5 games – and 5 player ratings, he has sucked every week. I really just want an honest answer from the coach.

  6. Pingback: The Philly Soccer Page » Union vs Sounders quick reference

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