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Player ratings and analysis: Union 1-1 RSL

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

“How do you justify that?” Peter Nowak asked rhetorically.

Nowak echoed what many have been asking for years. Consistency is a major problem for MLS referees. How, Nowak wondered, do you prepare guys for games when you have no idea how a ref will handle things?

Before the playoffs come, someone at US Soccer or MLS has to answer: How do you justify that?

Thems the breaks

Sometimes you play on the road and everything goes in. Sometimes you play just as well at home and that goalposts game you play after practice pays off in totally the wrong way. Such is the fate of the Philadelphia Union.

The first half display against Real Salt Lake was on par with the first forty-five in Toronto. It was a different style of soccer, but once again the entire team was on the same page. Turnovers became opportunities with stunning regularity. The outside midfielders and backs moving in a different world than their RSL counterparts.

Jordan Harvey’s nine iron to play in Keon Daniel in the 22nd was just the best example of two players reading each other’s intentions perfectly. For most of the match, Keon had been checking central from that position. Not that time.

Outthinking them

The only weakness in the Real Salt Lake system is their ability to cover the opposition’s outside backs. Their strikers stay central and help the attacking center midfielder force build up play wide. Once the ball is wide, the outside mids step up to the backs and the backs step up to the mids. This leaves copious space behind the outside back, but the ball in must be fast, controlled well, and then supporting runs must be immediate. Stingy defenses close you down fast in the final third no matter how well you move the ball.

So thank goodness that Danny Mwanga is who he is and Seba Le Toux discovered his long-absent first touch. Well-timed runs from the strikers were followed by smart movement from the outside midfielders. The Union established possession high up the pitch and pressed the Salt Lake back four relentlessly.

Robbie Russell rocks

The Union can thank Jason Kreis for starting the hapless Robbie Russell at right back. Russell’s yellow card was soft, but it gave Kreis the excuse he needed to get Tony Beltran into the game.

Russell’s poor performance highlighted Nowak’s and Hackworth’s smart tactics. Rarely have the Union come out in a defined diamond midfield, but that’s exactly how they lined up against Salt Lake. On final analysis, it cost them the productivity of an in-form Nakazawa, whose job was clearly to chase Beckerman all the way to the bathroom if necessary.

Brian Carroll was given a bit more freedom to roam, although one wonders if that’s only because he, like the entire Salt Lake team, couldn’t find out where nominal attacking mid Andy Williams was hiding.

By matching the RSL system, the Union put the onus on the RSL outside backs to start the offense. They were ineffectual for most of the match while Sheanon Williams marauded up the wing behind Michael Farfan and Jordan Harvey epitomized cool possession working with Daniel.

The Sheanomenon

Speaking of Sheanon, how many times does he have to contribute on both ends of the field before the rest of the league sits up and takes notice? Williams started the year playing more conservatively than he did in 2010, but with each passing match the do-it-all right back exerts more influence on the offensive end.

First it was putting in crosses, then he showed an accurate touch on long ground passes into the feet of strikers at the eighteen. In the past few matches Williams has been looking for his shot, and he came very close to opening his account Saturday.

Adjustments and… counteradjustments?

At halftime, Real Salt Lake diagnosed their problems and came out with a plan that did a lot to neutralize the Union’s threats. Realizing that Mwanga and Le Toux were timing their wide runs well, RSL decided to sit back more and force the Union to work through the midfield. A more congested second half helped RSL creep back into the contest.

Secondly, RSL moved their outside backs up more on offense, forcing the Union’s wide midfielders to play space instead of man-marking their opposite number. This opened up a few lanes that RSL used to hold more possession and take the sting out of the Philly attack.

The Union never fully adjusted to these changes and fought to find their rhythm after halftime. Scouts that watch this tape will notice that Philadelphia is slow to recognize halftime tactical changes, something RSL may have picked up from the Union’s romp over Toronto.

Hip hip Jorge

It does no good to rehash what might have been when the Union hit more woodwork than a full-time carpenter. Thems the breaks and you live with it. It is psychologically beneficial to say the same about refereeing. Beneficial for the players, that is. For fans, it is extremely disappointing to watch a ref lose his authority on the pitch. After Jorge Gonzalez ate his whistle as Jean Alexandre ran through the back of Michael Farfan, RSL realized it was open season.

How little did the players respect Gonzalez? Fabian Espindola felt no qualms walking all the way up to Roger Torres, pointing and yelling. The referee’s reaction was: Nothing. He let it happen right under his nose without so much as a caution. Even if Espindola had not been actively engaging with Torres, how can a ref allow an opposing player to infringe all ten yards into a free kicker’s space once he has already set up the kick?

Any teams that watched Gonzalez struggle through a fairly straightforward game on Saturday will try to push him to make difficult calls. And maybe he will. Maybe he will call a very tight game next weekend. We just don’t know, because MLS officiating is inconsistent at best and embarrassing at worst.

Making moves

The Union might take the most holistic approach to substitutions I have ever seen. All personnel moves seem to be made with some long-term goal in mind. How else do you explain pulling an outside back for an outside midfielder, a central midfielder for a striker, and then an outside midfielder for a central player?

Either the coaching staff is playing chess while everybody else is playing checkers (which is what the Torres substitution against New York looked like) or they are making moves almost purely by instinct. I would like to imagine it’s the former, but thus far results have varied more than an infomercial product’s.

Perhaps the answer lies in looking behind the words that the team uses to define it’s style. Fluid and creative have been tossed around quite often, and they suggest a system that can generate offense from numerous points of attack. Recently, the results support this. But it isn’t the system that has been succeeding, but the players that have been stepping up.

Without a certain starting midfield, the Union have come out with different sets of talent and won in different ways. The Farfans add flair, Mapp brings his mazy runs, Nakazawa is strength and tackling, Torres is looking for hidden seams, Carroll is sweeping the midfield, and Daniel is a vision of intelligent play.

Each midfield combination creates opportunities in different ways. But the substitutes are rarely made with any eye towards maintaining the rhythm— or even the shape—established on the pitch. This may have been a good thing when the offense was stuck in neutral (see: Galaxy, at PPL) but now the see-what-sticks approach often offers a shake up when a simpler move would do.

Why spend all that time explaining to Torres how to play on the wing when he’s going to be moved into the middle in T-7 minutes?

Looking ahead

Despite dropping points at home, this is a game the Union can build on. They outplayed a team respected around MLS for their ability to go on the road and impose their game. By going with a diamond midfield and trusting the rookie Farfan to play smart soccer with Williams bombing up the wing, the team sent a message to the rest of the league that they have the depth and toughness to make a deep run in 2011.

Player ratings

Faryd Mondragon – 4

The shot by Espindola was well-placed, but Mondragon was caught between leaving and staying and it cost him. He continued to show excellent leadership by letting the referee know what everyone else in navy and gold was thinking.

Sheanon Williams – 8

I mean, really. There is no ceiling for this guy in MLS. He plays the position the modern way and he is taking advantage of Valdes’ excellent covering ability to push it on the offensive end. Pay attention to the long passes into feet that come from The Sheanomenon. Those are not easy. They must be inch-perfect or the defender will clear the ball over Williams’ head to start a counterattack.

Danny Califf – 8

A tower of strength once again. Califf has been caught in a few windsprints with fast, young strikers this season. He hasn’t been beaten yet. Califf endured abuse from RSL in the form of a blatant forearm to the back that sent him to the ground (Jorge Gonzalez: Nope, nothing there) and an awful sliding challenge from Jean Alexandre that was aimed at the Union defender’s vulnerable plant foot. Califf did not appear injured after the match, but struggling Vancouver might be a good time to rest the veteran defender with the dog days of summer approaching.

Carlos Valdes – 6

Definitely not Valdes’ best performance. He needed to make a stronger tackle on Espindola on the goal. But Valdes remains the personification of that X-factor that has driven the Union all season: A consistency bolstered by a fiery attitude and fearless play.

Jordan Harvey – 6

Harvey’s solid first half was tempered by an uneven second. Halftime adjustments by RSL meant Harvey was receiving more pressure and his decision-making suffered. Still, he has avoided the mistakes that plagued him at times last year and few will call number 2 a liability this season.

Michael Farfan – 7

The assist meant a lot. It was a perfect ball into the box and a great reward for another dynamic half from the second round pick. Marfan struggled once again at left back, looking slow to fill in lanes and uncertain in his decision-making. Maybe you think he should get points off for giving the ball away in the middle on the goal. Maybe you hit a lot of bumpers in your car and think it’s fine. It’s not.

Brian Carroll – 9

Whose work allowed Philadelphia to push forward with numbers and overwhelm RSL in the wide areas? Linguine, that’s who. I wonder if BC read Andy Williams any bedtime stories before he tucked him in for a 90 minute sleep? And then there was the brilliant covering when Williams took off upfield. In the second half, Alexandre dropped into the midfield to receive the ball. Carroll met him every time and showed good strength against the big striker.

Kyle Nakazawa – 5

Naka’s first priority was Beckerman. Where the RSL man went, Naka followed. It resulted in a largely anonymous game from Beckerman, who needed to step up in a depleted midfield. Unfortunately, Nakazawa was not able to join in the offense in any way. He could not find the spaces to let Daniel and Harvey start the ball across the formation to change the point of attack. Becoming a more reliable point man is the next step in Nakazawa’s development.

Keon Daniel – 9

Keon Daniel on his goal: “Yes I did hit it cleanly. I hit it powerful as well. It was even close to him but he couldn’t stop it.”

Danny Mwanga – 7

At least once a match, Mwanga brings the ball down under pressure, absorbs a hit, and swiftly turns into space, accelerating up the pitch and creating consternation across the back line. On Saturday, it was Jamison Olave who tried to body up on Mwanga, only to end up face down as the Mwagic Man centered for Le Toux to slam against the crossbar. Mwanga’s on-field awareness has grown in leaps and bounds. Where he could get rattled and lose the plot last season, Mwanga has instead stamped his style on games with good runs and a vastly improved first touch. It looked like Mwanga really wanted to get Seba his goal on Saturday. That’s nice and all, but be selfish, Danny. All strikers go through peaks and dips in form. You’re flying high right now.

Sebastien Le Toux – 5

Graaaah! So much better but still no goal! Better touch, productive runs, great high pressure… man! They’re coming. Definitely coming.

Justin Mapp – 5

Mapp’s first few minutes were promising as he broke right and crossed well to Mwanga’s head. But with RSL well-coached to keep Mapp on that weaker foot, he failed to exert much influence late in the match.

Roger Torres – 4

Didn’t do much. Got moved around, which made it tougher to get into the flow of the match.

Jack McInerney – 6

His only speed is attack. And he is always in gear. Mac was almost in on net late, but a heavy touch and a questionable tackle saw the ball trickle away. A year from now that’ll be a guaranteed finish. He wants to score too badly to waste many more of those.

The Land End Goal frame – -3

You suck, dude. Just get out of the way.

The Geiger Counter – 1

Jorge Gonzalez was poor. Aside from the big decisions (the Marfan foul, the Espindola pointing incident, the forearm to Califf), the referee did not show any consistency around which the teams could build a rhythm. Sometimes it was a foul, sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes it was a talking to, sometimes it was completely ignored. Just nothing to be proud of here.

Peter Nowak – TBD

Many noticed that Nowak left the field without shaking RSL manager Jason Kreis’ hand. Kreis on the situation: “Never caught him. Tried. He’s a fast guy.”

Until Nowak addresses the issue, we can assume either bathroom emergency or the burning desire to get Jorge Gonzalez’s autograph. But the issue should be addressed. No matter the situation, a post-game handshake is always the right move.


Real Salt Lake manager Jason Kreis

“Credit to Philly. They should have been two or three up.”

On trying to shake Nowak’s hand: “Never caught him. Tried. He’s a fast guy.”

“I set a goal this week to get at least two points.”

Union manager Peter Nowak

“One shot one goal. When you see the full replay, you scratch your head. Maybe we ask US Soccer to send us new officiating.”

“[This game] felt similar to last year where you feel those moments that we lose control of.”

“It was a very good cross from Michael. We tell the players in practice they need to cut between the defender and the goalkeeper.”

“It’s frustrating because we should still be two points ahead of New York. And because they didn’t create anything. During normal games you never know. Is it a foul? Is it not a foul? Is it a pk? Is it not a pk?”

“We gave them a chance. The ref gave them a chance to come back…”

On Michael Farfan returning and Gabe Farfan picking up a knock: “One brother in, one out. I don’t know. Maybe they play, what do you call it, rock-paper-scissors.”

Keon Daniel

“I think [the goal] was just a bit of anticipation. I react a little bit faster than my defender.”

“No, [Nowak] didn’t talk to us about points left on the field. He was confident and cheering us up. Peter felt that [the non-call on Farfan] was a mistake.”

On the late offsides call: “I don’t know what to say about it, you know? I think he made a decision, he made it a little late. I didn’t hear any whistle. It was a while delayed. And then it happened. I’m not gonna dwell on it. Leave it as it is and move on.”

“Yeah, yeah. [Nowak] keeps telling me get in the box, get in the box, get in the box. Every day. I decided I gotta take chances and that’s the only way to score.”

“Yes I did hit it cleanly. I hit it powerful as well. It was even close to him but he couldn’t stop it.”

“They tried to pin [Marfan and myself] between the winger and the defender. That’s part of it. That’s football. I played for my country and I scored goals. People pay to watch us play. I’m gonna work around it.”

Danny Califf

“Everyone’s trying to put their best foot forward. Once we get into the playoffs we can start looking at matchups then. It’s a bit premature to start talking about first place twelve games into the season or thirteen games into the season.”

“Real Salt Lake have developed a good mentality and a good approach to how they come into every game. A hallmark of their team is that they roll up their sleeves and they work really hard for each other and they work really hard for their coach and they stick to a style regardless of who’s in there.”

“Yeah, I think Peter and our coaching staff wants a fluid, attacking style so each game is going to pose different problems and have different solutions. When you’re playing against different teams like Salt Lake you have to throw different wrinkles to see if you can provoke different reactions. When you have 4 chances to score in the first 15…”

“I think it comes down to the fact that teams respect us a bit more than they did at the beginning of the year. Last year we put together some decent performances but didn’t necessarily get the results. This year we are actually getting the results and teams are taking us more seriously. It feels like it out on the field. A different attitude when you line up. Teams aren’t coming in and thinking this’ll be a cool casual day.”

Sebastien Le Toux

“Yeah, because I don’t know if I’m in back so I can’t tell if I’m offside or not. He called it so it’s canceled now.”

“It’s frustrating, mostly because we didn’t get the win tonight.”

“No, not really. It’s the fact that we try to stay away from the referee. It was not a good call and I’m sure he knew it. It upset the coaching staff I’m sure. Of course it’s frustrating about that.”

Michael Farfan

“Yeah I mean they played a bit better in the 2nd half. We had enough chances to put the game away but unfortunately we didn’t.”

“[First-timer off the corner] shot was going in but it was closer to the goalie than anything.”

On the Union’s diamond midfield: “That’s the way it worked out. We had it set up a little bit like that.”

“Nah, there wasn’t much notification. The move to left back just happened.”

On the RSL scoring play: “I was getting to the ball and I kinda got tripped up from behind.” PSP: Kinda!? MF:  “Yeah… yeah.”

Amobi Okugo

On his ankle injury: “It’s good. The doctors said I should be good. Progressing really well. Expect some soreness coming out of the boot. That’s the worst I’ve ever hurt it. Once I put pressure on it again I said nah, I gotta go out.”

“The first half I thought we had 3-0 but that’s what happens when you don’t. RSL is depleted with the Gold Cup and Morales. Unfortunately we didn’t finish chances.”

“I’m not allowed to comment on refs, they’ve been bad all season.”

“[In the second half] They tried to spread out the midfield. But I think we just came out a little flat. If we could have had the second one after the way they lost at Columbus. It’s unfortunate but it’s good we didn’t get the loss and we can look forward to next week.”


  1. Wasn’t it Kreis that had “words” with Nowak at the end of last years match? If I read lips correctly, I believe more than a few F-Bombs were dropped.

    Eh, never mind…I’ll go with “bathroom emergency”.

  2. We tie and you give out “9’s”?

    • right?

      • Adam Cann says:

        One shot on goal allowed in 90 minutes against a very good team trying to bounce back from a deflected goal loss? Multiple posts hit? Player ratings as individual ratings within the larger game? Yeah, there were some incredible performances. Even a bad team usually gets more than one shot on goal, and they usually get it without blatantly fouling in the middle of the field.
        But it’s all subjective. Alternative ratings are welcome!

  3. Torres gets a 4? Really?

    He was behind our two best chances in the second half. The great ball through to Jack and I think the other was a lob to Mapp who put in a great cross.

    You can say he wasn’t consistant but he certainly did better than a 4.

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