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Someone owes me two points

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

1-0 looked like it would be enough against Houston. With ten minutes to play the Philadelphia Union looked as if they were on their way to another one goal, home victory. Second goal or not, they should have made it stand and for the second game in a row they are left with a draw that felt like a loss.

Coulda, shoulda

While some of their traditional weaknesses had again come to the fore—the central midfield again conceded too much space, or the raft of untimely turnovers coming out of the back, or the lack of clinical finishing by anyone not named Jack McInerney—the Union had played well enough to win. Roger Torres was much more involved than in midweek, as was Veljko Paunovic, both of whom showed more spark and swagger as they linked well through the first 45. If there was a team who was going to build an attack through industrious, creative play, it was the Union.

Comparatively, there was nothing creative, interesting, technical or fun to watch about Houston’s approach: bang balls into the box to a bunch of oversized meatheads who then clutch, elbow, kick and claw in the area, hoping to blindly bundle the ball over the endline. Yeehaw, what a bunch of crap. How very MLS of them. Coach Dominic Kinnear has put together a bunch of thugs, better fit for a bar brawl after than the actual match itself.

To watch team after team play their own brutal brand of soccer against the Union has become painful to witness because against such simple systems of attack, good teams find ways to win. Yet the Union continue to be unable to find the class to finish games against such inferior sides.

Whether it was completely caving against Colorado, failing to show up in Chicago or most recently closing up shop about 15 minutes too early against Houston, the Union are shipping points at an alarming rate. It had been my belief that Danny Califf and Carlos Valdes would will the Union to victory on Saturday night and, forgetting the one slip up that allowed Colin Clark in on frame in the first half, they did all that could be asked of them, and more. Check out Danny Califf’s bloodied temple, for example, received via a vicious red-card deserving elbow from Cam Weaver, and tell me he did not go above and beyond.

But when it came right down to it, referee Terry Vaughn, a questionable substitution and Stefani Miglioranzi betrayed the Union and they are the ones to whom the blame must fall in this most recent in a growing string of disappointments.

Terry Vaughn

I haven’t had a good dig at an official in a while, so here goes. Terry Vaughn is the latest in a troubling parade of embarrassing referees who believe that their own ego and stage performance is more important than the game itself.

Good officials eat a lot of crow. It’s part of the job. After all, to be a top notch referee means recognizing that, despite the whistle in their hand, the game is not, in fact, about them. Professional soccer player’s are self-important and egotistical by nature and they believe in their innocence to a level that is astounding. Yet when players persist at whining and griping to the referee, it is not that official’s place to match their level of anger or frustration, and certainly not to hold grudges. While it is not as if other leagues and countries do not have their own faults and struggles with the quality of officiating, MLS is unlike any other league in the level to which referees escalate tense situations rather than ameliorate them. Rather than giving the internationally recognized, two-handed gesture for “calm down,” MLS referees chase players down (see Jorge Gonzalez against Colorado), shove them (Gonzalez again) or act in an entirely condescending, demeaning manner that only serves to raise the players’ ire. Terry Vaughn is the king of the last one.

Referees are well within their rights to warn players, back them up or caution them—all are fine approaches. But when referees essentially taunt players and develop clear biases there is a problem. On Saturday, Terry Vaughn’s personal vendetta (I don’t know what else to call it) against Danny Mwanga cost the Union a blatant penalty kick and allowed Bobby Boswell, Mwanga’s assailant in a nearly gruesome tackle, to remain on the pitch.

The initial incident between Mwanga and Vaughn occurred not long after the striker entered the match at halftime. Mwanga went shoulder to shoulder with Andre Hainault, and the Union man went to ground too easily. Vaughn waved the play on—fine, no argument here. But after that, the young Union attacker grew into the game. Taking players on and beating them with energy and intensity, Mwanga would have been a handful for the Dynamo defense had Vaughn not been the whistle-blower on that particular night. But he was, and with his mind made up following Mwanga’s first minor indiscretion, Houston was allowed to foul Mwanga at will, who had no recourse from a referee whose “play on” gesticulations grew more fervent with each tackle, as if to say, “Tough shit, you’re getting nothing and you’ll like it.”

And then Mwanga went on a mazy run, beating a first, then a second and finally a third Dynamo player as he drove towards goal. Bursting into the box and preparing to shoot, he was dragged down—tackled, as it were, with two hands, one on the arm and the other on his jersey. There wasn’t even an argument to be made that it was a shoulder to shoulder challenge: Mwanga had clearly won the foot race, leaving the clutching tackle to occur from behind. You’d be hard pressed to locate a clearer penalty. Yet Vaughn did not hesitate, again emphatically gesturing that Mwanga get up, ostensibly proving that he had made up his mind not to give the foul before the incident had occurred. He plainly was in no mood to oversee an even contest on that night.

One needed only to look at the other end of the pitch for confirmation.

For all of his aerial prowess and toughness in the box, Brian Ching is a diving cheater. Nearly every time that Valdes pressed Ching with his back to goal, the former US international would hit the deck. And not in a simple “I’ve just been fouled” manner. No, Ching preferred the full hands in the air, “Oh, the humanity”, a-sniper-just-took-me-out-from-a-thousand-yards approach. They were the kind of dives that look so comical that when the referee is actually taken in by the theatrics the reaction of the PPL crowd is rightly one of disbelief rather than anger:

“So, you’re telling me that this guy that just went full speed into a shoulder challenge turns his back to goal and suddenly he’s softer than a jelly doughnut getting hit with a hammer? Are you shitting me?”

Of course you’re not, you’re Terry Vaughn, and you were dead set on making that call long before the contact occurred.

And that my friends is bias.

Just once…

I’ve made this recommendation before and considering the current environment in MLS soccer, I feel it was worth revisiting.

MLS wants to eliminate diving from the game. That’s certainly a noble pursuit, and the recent suspension and fine handed out to Álvaro Saborío is to be commended.

Here’s an idea about how the league can do more. Just once, call a foul on a play where a player doesn’t hit the deck. So many fouls that are called from dives are caused by hand fighting, shirt-tugging and tackles that obstruct rather than obliterate. So call a foul in favor of a player who is stays on his feet. And I’m not just talking about the blatant grasping of a shirt. How about when a late tackle forces a player to pull up and their touch is intercepted? Or when  Player wriggles free of a bear hug only to lose out to the second arriving defender. Those are fouls the same way that the slide tackle that flattens a player or the body block that sends a man crumpling to the pitch are fouls. Perhaps if they were treated in a similar fashion, players might be a little more convinced of the merits of staying on their feet.

Better yet, make that call a penalty. That would really show players the league is serious.

Ater all, it is a little disingenuous to tell players that they shouldn’t dive and that diving will not be tolerated when the only way to earn a foul in MLS, penalty or otherwise, is to leave your feet. It seems that every match is punctuated by exasperated referees waving players back to their feet only to turn around and give a bogus foul for a player who used a little bit of contact to earn himself a slide across the turf.

If a player is diving, card him. But, if he’s doing his best to maintain his feet despite being fouled, then reward the player with the call. Until that happens players will continue to go to ground and, honestly, who can blame them? They’re trying to win soccer games, not accumulate ethics badges.

What’s the difference between Bobby Boswell and Brian Mullan? Nothing.

That was a leg breaking tackle. No two ways about it. Boswell came it with both feet, studs up, high on Mwanga’s shin. There was malice and intent written all over it by a player who has spent his seven year MLS career as a hatchet man, first for DC United and now Houston.

While the tackle bore tremendous resemblance to Brian Mullan’s leg shattering challenge on Seattle’s Steve Zakuani, Mwanga had an advantage Zakuani didn’t: he was incredibly fortunate to see Boswell coming and his ability to get his feet off the ground kept him from kissing goodbye to the rest of the season—that’s how bad that tackle was. If Mwanga doesn’t jump, his season is over—no question about it—and today we’re talking about whether Boswell’s suspension should rival Mullan’s ten game vacation from the game. In any decently run league, Mullan is shown a red card, without hesitation. The fact that he wasn’t is a terrible of indictment of a league that, despite already losing three of its best players, remains impotent and afraid to act even when confronted with a such clear cut scenario.

One goal really should have been enough

Back to the beginning.

Whether it was Le Toux’s shot ricocheting back into Tally Hall’s grateful hands or Terry Vaughn depriving Mwanga of the aforementioned penalty, the Union did not come through with a second goal. However, given the nature of the opponent, the Union should have made Jack McInerney’s early opener stand up (and what an opener it was). Houston was never going to be good enough to get in behind the Union defense and with the entirety of the match played in front of them, it is fair to have expected the Union to come away with all three points.

While it was very odd to see the Union make two attacking halftime subs despite being up a goal, it was the third substitution that made the least sense.

Stefani Miglioranzi, the Union’s white flag

When Migs replaced the Union’s man of the match in the 66th minute as the team’s final substitution, two preferable choices—Keon Daniel and Amobi Okugo—were still on the bench. With Migs on the field, the Union essentially conceded that they were done attacking and were willing to sever the linkage between the defense and the attack in favor of parking the bus to see out a 1-0 result.

Not only is the 66th minute WAY to early to go into a defensive shell, one need only re-watch video of Wednesday’s awful match in Chicago to see Migs’—who, insanely, was allowed to play a full 90 minutes—most recent reminder of his fall from grace He conceded possession and territory with reckless abandon and never showed anywhere near the hustle we’ve grown to appreciate from others on the Union bench who are consistently overlooked.

And despite his insertion as a defensive specialist, the blame for Geoff Cameron’s late equalizer must again rest squarely on the shoulders of the 33-year-old Brazilian. Migs bought Cameron’s simple, rec league fake hook, line and sinker, conveniently stepping out of the way as the Houston no. 20 teed up the match-tying blast. It was atrocious, embarrassing defense from a player who has made a habit of similar howlers this season.

Why not Keon Daniel? What the hell has Keon Daniel do wrong? Why is he suddenly the odd man out? Ostracized from the soccer field despite looking solid and dependable each time he steps on the pitch, Daniel’s poise in possession, strength in the tackle and quick runs to the corner could have helped the Union midfield keep the ball and build towards a final, nail in the coffin, second goal. Daniel also could have helped Sebastien Le Toux to provide high pressure on Brad Davis and Geoff Cameron, keeping them away from the most dangerous areas of the pitch.

Why not Amobi Okugo? Ever since his return from injury, Okugo was struggled to get onto the field. The fact that Migs now has almost twice the minutes of Okugo is surprising given that Okugo is perhaps twice as good as Migs. All the things Miglioranzi was brought into the Houston match to do, Okugo does better. He’s faster, works harder, and plays tougher defense. He is a better passer, has better vision and applies pressure higher up the field.

Sometimes a veteran uses the breadth of their experience to settle a match down and leads by example. Sometimes a veteran is just an old player.

Migs is the latter.

After each of these gaffe-ridden performances, we speculate that this must be the final straw, surely the time of Migs has come to a close. Yet time and again, he is shown preference over players who have proven their merit despite limited opportunities.

And time and again he is guilty of breakdowns that costs the Union points. This needs to stop. He is done and dusted, he simply is not good enough.

I want my points back.

14 Comments

  1. Arrg. I must say that I felt this tying goal coming all game though, I don’t agree that we had the run of it in the first half. I think we were lucky to have a lead, and I think it makes no sense to have three defensive liabilities on the field at the same time- paunovic, torres, and mapp. Much as I like the first two for attack, our centerfield was theirs for the first half.

    Migs. Arggg. I agree. And what about Daniels, he was what he needed, calm authoritative possession, and hard work on defense. Should have been starting.

  2. I feel like I am repeating myself (cause I am) but the only people who can beat this team are the coaching staff. Aren’t teams supposed to have a starting 11? Isn’t that how teams work?

    They are trying to fix what isn’t broken. There is no reason to throw Migs back into the mix. As decent as Paunovic has been, there is no reason to introduce him into the musical chairs selecting lineups has become.

    I feel bad for the palyers – it has to be hard playing in a new formation with new players every week.

    • James, I’m curious…What would your starting 11 be?

      • 4-4-2

        Mwanga – Jack Mac
        Le Toux – Torres – Carrol – MArfan
        -standard defense-

        I admit that is more adventurous than what others would go for … but if we keep the ball on the ground and play wide I can see that lineup gelling and scoring a lot of goals.

        But with Jack Mac making his diagonal runs, Mwanga dropping back for the ball and taking players on, and LT/MikeFarfan controlling the flanks, I like that lineup.

      • like this lineup at the end of games but i would prefer to start daniel for torres and move marfan to the middle. then bring on torres as a spark later.

      • I understand that attitude but at some point you need to look at it like trying to put the best team on the field right away, building winning chemistry and getting the young players to grow together.

        Being a “spark off the bench” is a tiring excuse when right now it is synonymous with “Start inferior players, watch them run around aimlessly for 60 minutes, sub in the better players who should have been starting, watch them dominate but come up just short of getting the tying/winning goal”

  3. I’m not as down on the refs re Mwanaga (who needs some better body language or he’ll never get these calls) but am otherwise in complete agreement. Houston was a pure goon squad and Kinnear is embarrassing on the sideline. Were his histrionics rewarded, especially versus Hack’s mellowness?

    Migz plays like I do, which is fine for old man soccer, but not so hot on MLS. I had thought he was behind us but somehow he has crept up the depth chart again. Completely mystifying.

  4. Totally agree with James. If anything, Mapp should have subbed out with Daniel coming in. Torres should not have come out.

    At this point I think Nowak and Johnny Hacks are killing us as much as the refs are.

  5. Agree with this. Uhhh Migs? really, cut him, bench him, make him play reserve matches. Okugo, and Daniels both great young players who can go the full 90, both excellent players who like you stated play offense and defense and create opportunities. Cut Naka and Migs and give Okugo and Daniels the nod. Also agree with James, the coaching is mixing things up a little to much for the starting 11. However seeing J-Mac in there and then having him step up and score what im going to call 2 goals is what we need.. he looked like he was onside when he got the 2nd one. LeToux Bring it on saturday. DOOP!

    • He was definitely offsides and that run he made really highlights his immaturity as a striker…that being said, I really hope he continues to get the start

  6. How much more MIGSERABLE can he get before the coaching staff stops putting him out there? I’m starting to think he has compromising pictures of Nowak and is using them to extort playing time.

  7. Done with migs. More then halfway through a season and I can’t figure out why he seems to be always on the pitch. Give me Okugo or Daniels, PLEASE.

  8. Most of the comments have been on the coaching issue (which I agree with totally) but I have to make a point about the officiating: MLS is a joke.

    I don’t blame a single Eurosnob for not wanting to follow a league this atrocious. I complain about officiating in every league and sport I watch, but other than pre-lockout NHL, I’ve never seen it so destructive as in MLS. It might not have the handful of high profile blown calls that most people fixate on, but it has the four key qualities of terrible officiating:

    -Stars are treated differently. Breathing on Landon Donovan? Immediate foul, maybe you’ll be carded. But only a handful of guys are “stars” so the rest, have at them.

    -Officials making themselves the center of attention. You nailed this perfectly.

    -Injuries. The NFL practically changed their rules on the fly to combat all the concussions. MLS lets players get injured constantly from dirty play without doing anything about it.

    -Changing the style of play. The worst part, it changes the style of play. MLS has a dreadfully boring, rough and thuggish style of play. It sucks. It’s practically unwatchable. I have to force myself to get through most non-Union MLS matches. And you can’t blame the coaches! It’s a lot easier to assemble mediocre talent who can dive and pull their way to victory than it is to try and put together a talented side.

    MLS spends so much time worried about not being the NASL, and yet they’re replicating, step by step, the mistakes that almost destroyed the NHL.

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