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Player ratings and analysis: Union 3-2 Chivas USA

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

It would be easy to ignore that the Union needed a Mwagical goal with eight minutes left to beat Chivas and earn a total of four points against three of the weaker teams in MLS. It would be so simple to point out completing just over two-thirds of your passes is rarely a formula for success.

And we don’t do easy or simple here, do we?

Really? That starting eleven didn’t score?

The same lineup that defied the odds and avoided scoring on Wednesday returned for another misadventure. Justin Mapp, Veljko Paunovic and Sebastien Le Toux ran a three-man offensive support structure behind Carlos Ruiz and Jack McInerney, while Brian Carroll covered anything that twitched, moved or thought about moving in the midfield.

Ostensibly an offensive-minded system, the formation lacks a true distributor. Paunovic may have been expected to fill this role, but he struggled to assert himself on a frenetically-paced match.

Instead it was the strikers who conjured up the most opportunities. This is both a positive and a warning sign: If the strikers are doing the creative work to get the offense going, it means they are either checking back very deep to receive balls, or the team is playing long balls at a worrying rate.

In the first half, both issues loomed large.

Strikers tasked with creating

Jack McInerney was coming into the midfield to collect and turn. This was partially by design—the kid is good at it—but mostly by necessity. With Paunovic uninvolved and Justin Mapp in dribble-only mode, only McInerney could create connections going forward.

When Paunovic did get a touch, he was all too prone to the long pass. With Carlos Ruiz in fine form up top, this was not a terrible option, but certainly it isn’t the type of offense you expect in a first vs. worst matchup.

Disorganized D

The defense was hardly more organized for Philadelphia. The Chivas goal came off a corner that was set up by a Nick LaBrocca half volley which was brilliantly saved by Mondragon. This was just one of many first half opportunities that Chivas generated by simply getting the ball past the Union’s front five and then keeping it as far away from Brian Carroll as possible. If Justin Braun was more finisher and less energetic man-child, he could have been celebrating his second hat trick of the season by game’s end.

Truly, the first half revealed how anxious the Union were to break out of their stagnant, winless run. They pushed forward aimlessly, their runs were straight at goal, their defensive coverage existed in name only, and they found more traps than outlets.

Chivas traps

This final point is an important one, because Chivas’ defensive strategy overmatched Philadelphia in the first forty-five. Unlike Vancouver and Kansas City, who pressured Califf and Valdes, Chivas looked to double down on Williams and Harvey once the ball was played wide. The first striker and the outside midfielder converged on the Union’s outside backs while the second striker drifted across to prevent an outlet to the central defender. With Paunovic slow to offer feet and Brian Carroll remaining in the middle of the pitch, Chivas created numerous turnovers from this simple bait-and-trap plan.

Brilliant subs or…

Ah, the paradox of the halftime substitution. If it changes the game for the better you are a genius and nobody remembers how wrong you got your starting lineup. Of the two changes Peter Nowak made, Danny Mwanga certainly made the most memorable impact. But it is arguable Keon Daniel who had the biggest effect on the match.

Daniel has consistently exhibited a calmness on the ball that creates a good working relationship with the players on his side of the pitch. Jordan Harvey is a noticeably better offensive player with Daniel in front of him. Connecting with Paunovic and Le Toux, Neon Keon managed to subtly slow the Union’s hail mary offense down to a more controlled pass and move state. Sebastien Le Toux spent less time chasing balls over the top and more time with the ball at his feet.

For evidence, please see the first and third goals.

On the first, Le Toux both received the ball at his feet and played a diagonal pass instead of the more direct balls that characterized the first forty-five. Mapp to Paunovic and the score was even.

Gotta stay positive

Enough of the doom and gloom. The Union have shown time and again that they will not be a consistent or dominant team. They will not be a team that hogs the ball or dictates the pace of a game. They will certainly not be predictable.

But they will be tough. Physically and mentally, the team is in first place because they have fought back for wins and ties. They have mined goals from unlikely sources; plugged midfielders into defense and defenders in as strikers. They have played the full ninety in every single match (we can argue about Seattle, if you want).

A flawed but determined team

The Union are a flawed team. And the coaching staff has been surprisingly willing to let chaos reign in every on-field aspect beyond the back five.

Whether this 2011 Union side can harness that chaos and create in the fluid and unstructured offensive system that Peter Nowak favors will remain a glaring question until answers emerge in the form of a balance between defense and offense. A balance that creates quality chances without leaving Brian Carroll sitting alone at the table with the defensive tab for the rest of the midfield.

Another three points, but the same issues remain. It looks like the players on the field will have to do their own problem solving, because the coaching staff has yet to provide answers.

Player ratings

Faryd Mondragon – 4

A great save on LaBrocca’s half volley and another strong performance marshaling a stretched defense. But The Dragon’s poor punch set up the first Chivas goal and he misjudged Justin Braun’s speed on the second. Maybe the forty-year old thought he had an extra step in him after he bounded out 25 yards to clear in the first half.

Sheanon Williams – 5

A stinker of a first half for a normally reliable offensive defender. Williams was dispossessed on the wing numerous times and adjusted poorly to the Chivas pressure. He still managed to set up two chances with accurate and timely long passes to the feet of his strikers. A better job defensively in the second half, with Chivas coming up his side almost exclusively.

Carlos Valdes – 6

Valdes had a heavyweight bout with Justin Braun all match. The Chivas striker was impressive in his speed and strength but showed few instincts. Valdes paid a physical cost for marking the big man all game and was caught out when Flores lofted a ball behind on Braun’s goal. Valdes again showed a proclivity for getting forward, and he has started to make an impact with key passes and runs through the midfield.

Danny Califf – 6

Califf can only shrug his shoulders when he watches the Braun goal on replay. There’s no way he can keep up with a player on a run across the defense onto such a perfect lob. But Califf should talk to Mondragon about staying on his line a bit longer, because if there is one thing Danny does well, it is recovering angles. If Braun had taken more than one touch, he would have found it very difficult to get a shot off.

Jordan Harvey – 3

Harvey was a step slow defensively and was a target for Chivas’ trapping defense. Forced to play quickly, and with a central option rare, Harvey was caught with the ball in his feet and became very cautious about going forward.

Justin Mapp – 5

Mapp’s defense is a liability. One of the biggest issues in the first half was that Mapp and Le Toux both end up so far out of position on defense that odd-man rushes are almost an inevitability. To make the most of Mapp, the Union need a better distributor in the middle, and not a Roger-Torres-bloop-over-the-top guy. Someone who can find Mapp in space going forward. Mapp also missed an absolute sitter in the first half.

Brian Carroll – 9

Brian Carroll needs bigger pockets because he is keeping multiple players in them each game. Nick LaBrocca certainly didn’t think he’d have to come out to the wings to get the time on the ball he craved. Carroll is up to the challenge against teams like Chivas and KC, who seem more surprised than anything at having space to run through the middle of the pitch. If the Union try to leave Carroll on an island against a quality midfield duo, it is asking for trouble.

Veljko Paunovic – 7

A goal and an assist. Not bad at all from the immobile Serbian. He was granted less space than in the KC game and responded with more long balls and by disappearing for long stretches. But he hustled into the box to score and picked out Ruiz with a lob that the Guatemalan’s in-form first touch and shot turned into goal number two.

Sebastien Le Toux – 5

I promised Le Toux would not get a higher rating until he scored, but if he keeps playing like he did in the second half I will have to break my rule. Another pair of glaring misses in the first half showed that the Frenchman is trying way too hard in front of goal. The second forty-five showed that when he isn’t baring down on net, the Union’s number nine can be a creative force. He worked hard to find space and was willing to pass rather than try to do too much, as has often been his flaw this season.

Jack McInerney – 5

Shoot the ball, Mac!

Carlos Ruiz – 8

His best match in the blue and gold produced a fine finish and a number of calm, deliberate touches to send teammates into space. Ruiz and Mwanga play like they are unaware each other is on the pitch, but when they are both scoring individually, it will have to do for now.

Keon Daniel – 7

Does anybody know why Chivas failed to challenge Daniel at all down his wing? He’s a fine player, but when a midfielder is slotted in at left back, wouldn’t you rather attack him than The Sheanomenon? Daniel’s footwork and skill on the ball were crucial for the Union to gain more possession and create a more nuanced attack.

Danny Mwanga – 8

Yeah, that’ll work.

Kyle Nakazawa – 6

Not a huge impact, but the stats show Nakazawa got stuck in on a good number of tackles for his short time on the pitch.


  1. Pretty dead on with the ratings. Carroll has really thrived playing the lone holding role. He does a nice job clearing out the ball in some very dangerous spots. Danny Mwanga is a joy to watch. It rare to watch a super star in the making but that is what we are doing. Mondragon is starting to worry me about with his desires to go walk about…

  2. Great review as always. I’m glad many of us recognize that Ruiz played an excellent game. Eleventy one offsides aside, he was consistently dangerous. He really is a shade above nearly all MLS strikers. Mwanga is two shades above. Crikey.

    • @Rolando – Man… that was a lot of offsides. But it looks like Ruiz bought a new first touch during his Gold Cup travels.

  3. Adam, what do you think about marfan as being that distributor in the middle? We don’t really have anyone like that (Benny Feilhaber anyone?) but farfan has shown a nice ability to move the ball around, although primarily from the wing.

  4. Adam Cann says:

    Marfan’s 45 minutes in the middle of the park against Chicago was one of the most impressive central midfield displays of the season. He made some glaring mistakes but also fought on tackles and both passed and carried the ball smartly.

    In short, I think he’s a step above Torres in that role and a more dynamic option that Nakazawa at this point. Too bad his versatility means he keeps getting slotted in at LB where he eats more dust than Wily Coyote.

  5. I must apologize for those sitting around me in 121 for my screaming “Take the damn shot” at Mac – as angrily as I have possibly screamed my entire life. I am sorry. So is my throat.

    • No apology needed. Half of us in section 129 screamed the same thing. Then when he didn’t shoot the other half screamed “Oh my God!”

  6. Ed Farnsworth says:

    For as much as he was prone to disappearing and doing little defending, credit is due to Paunovic for hustling back to block a shot from a dangerous opportunity in the second half.

    I’m pleased both Ruiz and Paunovic scored – what Union supporter wouldn’t be? But being pleased that they are doing what they are paid to be doing doesn’t minimize my doubts about them or Nowak’s offensive decisions. If Toronto taught us anything, one outing with offensive production being at the level we expect doesn’t mean the offense is fixed. There are three road games coming up against some quality opposition including two conference rivals. If my memory is correct, of the seven road games thus far, the Union have been scoreless four times, twice scored one goal and had the Toronto explosion. Has the Union offensive turned the corner? We shall see.

    • Well put Ed. Congrats to Ruiz and Paunovic. I’ll even offer a guarded conratulations to Nowak. I still think he’s out of his mind and both the Union and their supporter’s are soon going to suffer for it. Now that Ruiz and Paunovic have both scored in the same game, I’m afraid he feels justified in his line up decisions and shiver at the thought of what other moves he may try. However, they fought back and pulled this one out so that’s all the criticism I’ll offer. Let the Union bask in the glow of victory. I hope it continues.

  7. Ruiz’s goal was very well taken, but he is still disconnected from the rest of the team. He seemed to always be out of sync with Le Toux, Mac, and Mwanga. He has great strength on the ball, as he displayed on the goal, but he is still lacking that extra step. Unfortunately, it looks like Nowak would only take Ruiz out if he had to be stretchered off the field. Still, though, I think we would all be happier with Mwanga and Le Toux up top rather than any other combination.

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