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Analysis and player ratings: Timbers 1-0 Union

4-4-2. 4-3-3. 4-2-2-2. Much like a great set of instruments is only as good as the band, soccer tactics are only as good as the players on the field.

The Union have given serious minutes to a lot of players that were not in the rotation last year. The new defense is a winner. The new midfield? Fits and starts.

The offense… well, the striker brought in to replace Alejandro Moreno already has as many goals as the departed veteran. The two returning offensive leaders, Le Toux and Mwanga, have one goal between them. A penalty kick.

Finger pointing

So why does the blame for the Union’s stillborn offense fall on the shoulders of their leading scorer?

Start by placing the term “leading scorer” in perspective. A month into a season that has yet to see a two-goal game and it’s clear that there are no offensive leaders on this team. They have struggled to possess the ball, let alone create scoring opportunities. The bright spots are isolated, like stars that don’t form any constellation no matter how you look at them.

Friday night offered a perfect window into the front line’s most glaring flaws: Danny Mwanga works hard to hold possession and is improving his skills as a wider player. Sebastien Le Toux works hard all the time but he looks out of sync, a fact confirmed by his lack of goals. Carlos Ruiz isn’t really working. In short, you have two strikers putting in high-energy but often directionless efforts and one striker resolved to maintain a specific role, no matter the mounting evidence against the flawed strategy.

Get out of the way!

Space and movement. After goal, those are the two most important words in a striker’s vocabulary.

Movement creates space and space allows for movement. Good movement is not only about getting open. It also moves the defense around. Pull a defense out of position and gaps open up. With a player like Le Toux on the roster, you know someone will run through the gaps.

Carlos Ruiz stays in the central third of the field. No other player – midfield or striker – can use the middle third because Ruiz remains there in perpetuity. PSP can, with the full endorsement of obvious logic, make the following recommendations to remedy this situation: 1) Make a run to the left, 2) Make a run to the right. Once Ruiz gets out of the middle, he can do what he wants. The point is that space is not “space” until it is vacated. A striker who remains in one area of the field makes a defender’s job easy.

A brief comparative example: When Fernando Torres first arrived at Liverpool, he and Steven Gerrard were scoring with aplomb. Torres’ movement was the team’s greatest tool, as it opened the center of the field for Gerrard. The playmaking midfielder ran into that space and either drew defenders from Torres or allowed an offense to build from a more advanced position.

Is there anybody that thinks the Union’s center striker has done well creating space this year? Ruiz is the only cog of the offense that has yet to be tinkered with. How can this be?

Midfield maze

At Portland, the disorganized midfield did little to help the strikers. Okugo, Carroll and Mapp changed positions throughout, often giving more of a haphazard than an energetic impression. Mapp was less than the creator the lineup needed and his low influence in the final third shows up in the Union’s dearth of scoring chances.

Nowak has insisted that he intends to give the team every chance to play an open and unrestricted style of play. Yet the Union have shown no propensity for chance creation. In all honesty, possession in the final third has been about as rare as a Chris Agorsor sighting. And that’s not a knock on Agorsor. It’s about time a player like him got a look in.

A good time for a new face

In fact, this past run of matches would have been the perfect time for Agorsor and McInerney to see an extended run of action. Seattle, San Jose and Portland. These are not defenses that should trouble a team as good as the Union. And despite the rampant negativity of the preceding paragraphs, this year’s Philadelphia Union are a very good team. So good that they should be scoring multiple goals against bad teams.

Only two other teams are scoring less than a goal per game in MLS: New England  and San Jose. The Quakes are awful and the Revs have failed to score in 3 of their last 4. Neither team should finish high in the standings. The Union should.

A plan so secret it isn’t a plan at all

The real fear underlying all these questions is that the Union think they have a plan but the execution has been so poor that we, the pseudo-academicians who devote our time to Unionology, have yet to identify it. Is this a counterattacking team? If so, why is our slowest, smallest striker playing highest up the pitch? Is this a long ball team? If so, where is the midfield pressure when the ball is played deep? This certainly isn’t a possession team. If it was, Keon Daniel would not stand out like a rose among the ruins just for his ability to hold the ball and play to feet.

The truth that the Portland game exposed is that the Union did not know what they would be coming into the season. They made acquisitions and expected improvements. But the nature of the changes was unclear even to the coaching staff. The defensive unit’s stellar performances have resulted in a reluctance to address the team’s one-goal-is-enough mindset. And much like a gambler who stays on his hot table until long after the winnings have disappeared, the Union will find that the aggressive nature of most MLS teams means mistaking luck for tactics is a poor substitute for a true offensive rethink.

Player ratings

Faryd Mondragon – 6

The goal was beyond his control and he needed all of his leadership skills to marshal a Union defense feeling its way through the first major changes of the season.

Michael Farfan – 6

The more dynamic Farfan suffered when Justin Mapp was moved to the right side of the pitch. Whelp, there goes the space in front of you, Mike. If Mapp was on his game this might not be a problem, but without an offensive side to his game Marfan is only a serviceable defensive player.

Sheanon Williams – 6

Oof, it hurts to give Sheanon a six. He was forced into a central role and played admirably. Sticking tight on the shoulder of defenders, covering for his outside backs, and holding a tight line. The only flaw of Williams’ performance was the goal. He lost a header to a much taller man. It’s almost unfair to penalize him for this, but at Williams’ height putting off tall strikers is something he needs to do well.

Carlos Valdes – 8

The only member of the normal defense playing in his normal position, Valdes remained a rock. When Garfan lost possession up the pitch he had Valdes hitting sixth gear to cover him. Portland was forced to settle for shots from outside the box because Valdes held a strong line with a young and inexperienced defense around him.

Gabriel Farfan – 4

The poor kid was a late addition to the lineup. Coming off an injury and asked to contribute to the offense, Garfan had all the hustle but less of the polish. He gifted Portland the ball on a few occasions and he failed to get the ball into the box when he had opportunities. He isn’t a bad player but just because he looks like Michael doesn’t mean he has the dynamic skill set.

Justin Mapp – 4

Mapp was all over the field but never provided a spark. Watching him isolated on the right wing trying to turn crosses into the box with his right foot is not going to be the fun part of this week’s video session. He did not have the chances to run at people that make him effective. I’m not sure Mapp and Ruiz knew each other was on the field.

Brian Carroll – 6

Carroll was ostensibly handling the center of the field alone. Okugo often dropped in to help, but Carroll was the strong presence Nowak likes to keep up the spine of the team. BC tracked runs well and tackled hard. It would be great to see him explode at one of the offensive players. How many times did he look up and see people running away from him or just not running. This guy knows his limits and he isn’t going to float a Torresball over a defense with consistency. Instead he should have a simple outlet at all times. With three strikers in front of him Carroll has a right to be frustrated at the lack of good options when he looked up.

Amobi Okugo – 5

Okugo was below his recent form on Friday. He saw less of the ball and did not have a home base on the field. Was he supposed to force the Timbers wide or press on the wide midfielders? Nobody seemed to know. Okugo will gladly do both (he has the stamina), but watching him lose his comfort and confidence was a particularly distressing aspect of the Portland match.

Danny Mwanga – 6

After watching Mwanga develop in 20 minute spurts this year, it was fun to see him get a full 90. His first touch is vastly improved and his willingness to involve teammates is incredibly mature for a player of his experience. Mwanga remains a potential gamebreaker, not the real thing. And he needs veterans to show him the way. Le Toux’s poor form and Ruiz’s poor attitude won’t convince Mwanga that his strong play has him on the right track.

Sebastien Le Toux – 5

How many superstitious people think Le Toux’s late half volley goes in last year? The Union’s talisman has not had the chips fall his way this season. He hit the ball well but it struck Troy Perkins more than the goalie saved it. Most of Alejandro Moreno’s assists were to Seba. So far he and Ruiz have been on the same page once this year.

Carlos Ruiz – 4

What is his role? At this point I just want to know what it is I am criticizing. He isn’t running the offside line, he isn’t checking back hard or pulling defenders out of the channels. He isn’t turning provider for the other strikers. He isn’t holding up play for the rest of the team. Whether Ruiz is the cause of the Union’s offensive woes or a symptom of an overall low level of execution is not entirely clear. Almost every one else on the team has been benched or shuffled around at this point. Time to push for more from Ruiz or push him out of the first eleven.

Kyle Nakazawa – 4

What? Naka on for Garfan? Le Toux to left back? I don’t think I’ve even done that on my video game Union team. I remain convinced that Naka can be an effective weapon in the center of the pitch, combining hard work with a higher level of offensive skill than BC and Migs. But as a winger, especially on a narrow pitch where time on the ball is short, Nakazawa is out of his element.

Jack McInerney & Roger Torres – 5

I don’t want to reignite the Torres discussion. But I will. Down a goal with four strikers in front of you, the best option may not be playing fast and over the top. There should be plenty of options around. Take a simple route, get the ball back and look to make that incisive pass that only a player with your feet can make. After last season, Moreno praised McInerney but said that the young striker needed to learn that offense isn’t all about going full blast towards goal, even when you’re losing. Jack Mac told me that he worked on this in the offseason. Finding spaces, getting wide, finding isolations before attacking. Torres needs to be in that mindset.

The crowd

Boring.

The Geiger Counter – 3

Silviu Petrescu had a good game. He wasn’t asked to make many tough decisions.

The Lumberjack – 1

If it takes you 5-7 minutes to complete your fancy goal celebration, you need a better chainsaw or a smaller log.

Portland

My favorite comment of the night came from an unnamed associate: “Portland sells out their games because nobody can watch at home since they don’t own TVs. Something they love to tell you about.” That’s right, Portland. And Always Sunny is much better than Portlandia.

Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer, Courtesy of the Philadelphia Union

15 Comments

  1. good point on mapp hindering m. farfan’s play. he worked so much better with daniel last week! i do think you were a bit harsh on gabe tho. he did have some rough turnovers but played capable defense. 5? at least a 4.5?

  2. Mike Servedio says:

    For all of Mondragon’s terrific leadership and control over the defense, his shot-stopping ability is not really up to par. Still an upgrade over last season when the Union had no shot-stopping OR leadership from the GK position.

    And really, I’d love to see how the offense looks without Ruiz starting and sucking up all of the good space.

  3. Josh Trott says:

    I think a four is generous for Ruiz. The guy takes a touch, and if he doesn’t lose the ball, he shoots, no matter how far away he is. He seems to think that he is the Union’s only chance to score, so passing is a waste.

    Mwanga had a terrific run in the first half, burning a defender on the outside, getting in, and crossing to Ruiz, who was unable to score (and this was the kind of ball Moreno would score, who by the way, has three goals and at least two assists for Chivas already this year), and which bounced kindly for Le Toux, but he didn’t finish.

    I feel the defense did better than you are saying. We went into Portland, short two starters. This is a team that does have good offense, especially at home. When I saw the line up, I was nervous that we would see a rout. Williams only let them score once. That’s good enough for a seven, and the Farfans didn’t look that confused.

    I agree that Okugo and Mapp were both disappointments. I’m sure that Mapp also suffers from the lack of space that the toad uptop creates.

    • Earl Reed says:

      >>>Mwanga had a terrific run in the first half, burning a defender on the outside, getting in, and crossing to Ruiz, who was unable to score

      For the record, if Ruiz comes back towards the ball, he scores there. Unfortunately that would require some form of self-motivation, which he appears to be lacking. He expends more energy rolling over 20 times after a bump than he does trying to get into a good position to poach a goal. That’s what his role needs to be, poacher. He needs to use what speed he has left to beat the defense. He’s not a target man. He’s not Peter Crouch or Will Bruin or Edin Dzeko.

  4. This may be the first ranking that I kinda agree with. I would like to see a regular Nowak rating added to your list. His lineups have been suspect since the beginning.
    Nowak: -1 Continues to rely on Ruiz for our offense. Has managed to turn a MVP candidate and All Star into an impotent shell of his former self and a left back. Consistenly makes me scratch my head week in and week out.

  5. Good job this week. While I also usually disagree with the rankings, I think you’re right on target with this set. It would really be nice to see how a Ruiz-less offense would perform one of these days. We have 5 goals in 7 games – it couldn’t really be that much worse, could it?

  6. nice job. I think you are right on a lot you wrote here.

  7. I think we will see a lineup more similar to the San Jose game rather than the Portland game against LA. The Union unexpectedly were down two starting defenders going into this game and needed to sit back and absorb pressure. The offense was moving against San Jose and only saw it go to a more defensive shape (but still work San Jose) when they went down a man. I think we could see an Okugo/Torres pairing again with Daniels and Le Toux on the wing with Ruiz and Mwanga up top, that would be interesting as would a Le Toux Mwanga up top and Carroll into CM with Okugo and Torres pushed to the wing.

  8. Great piece, but I think you are a little rough on Moreno by comparing Ruiz to him because of their goal scoring records. Ruiz is lazy, slow, stubborn, and over paid while Moreno was hardworking, could hold up the ball and had a decent amount of assists. I believe everyone here would agree they would rather have Moreno than Ruiz. To be honest, and I know this is terrible, it would not be bad for the Union if Ruiz had a season ending injury at this point. Otherwise I don’t think Nowak is taking him out of the line up.

  9. hmmm. has anyone gone back and actually looked at the goal that you deam to be williams’ “fault”? Futty wasn’t even Williams’ man, he was M.Farfans. Go back and look at the replay, Williams jumps with everyone while Farfan jumps too early, if Farfan would have jumped when he was supposed to, he would have blocked the goal. Williams should have a MUCH higher rating then a six, everyone seems to take him for granted.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @Steve – If you go to 5:38 of the highlights from the Portland match, you can clearly see Williams on Futty and Farfan on #15.

  10. excuse me, just watched it in slow motion again, Farfan doesn’t even jump. Case closed, and it the six given should be reconsidered.

  11. Earl Reed says:

    Yeah, Ruiz. I’ve never seen a striker as stationary as this fella. At the SJ game, the fans around me got sick of me yelling at the guy to get his rear end moving around, getting open. Instead he seems plumb set on being a target man who has no height to get the ball, and when it’s played to his feet, he doesn’t hold it up well at all.

    Chemistry is huge in any team sport. From the first match of this season, I’ve considered Ruiz a cancer within the team. He’s lazy, he plays dirty, and he has moved in front of one of the best rookies in MLS 2010 in the depth chart. In my opinion he has singlehandedly set Mwanga back in his development. I’d hate to think that the purchase of Ruiz was some form of publicity stunt involving the shirt sponsor. He’s not the type of guy you want as the face of your franchise.

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