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7 ways to kickstart the Union offense

(Photo: Paul Rudderow)

With a weather-induced fixture logjam in their immediate future, the Union need to start scoring goals (and earning points) quickly. Yet, the attack continues to be lacking as the Union languish near the bottom of the MLS table in almost every offensive statistical category. With the signing of Freddy Adu, the Union, at least on paper, have a roster that is capable of producing an energetic, high-powered offensive display on any given day. So how do they put it all together and start turning potential into production?  Here are seven suggestions.

1. Stop rotating attackers

When a coach selects a starting XI for any given match, those choices should represent the best possible matchups for his/her players at every position on the field. Identifying the opposition’s weaknesses and taking advantage of them is the sign of a good tactical coach and mid-game alterations to that formation and those matchups should only come at a time when the team is being frustrated by the opponent or when a new weakness is unearthed to be exploited.

It can take time for an attacking player to get the better of his mark: Will the defender play the pass first? Or the dribble? Is there a speed advantage? In a sport where one goal is often enough to win the match, the deck is stacked heavily in favor of the defending player. Therefore, an attacking player’s failure to beat the defense on their first offensive foray is always going to be a likelihood and continuing to press the matchups will ultimately result in success as the chinks in a defense’s armor are exposed throughout the duration of a match.

So, why does the Union continue to insist on rotating their front five attacking players through all of the striking and midfield roles in a daft attempt to confuse their opponents? It has not worked yet, nor has it even shown the slightest signs of success—the only players who look consistently befuddled are the men wearing navy and gold.

Soccer is a game of chemistry and while defenses who are out of sync are ruthlessly exposed and stick out like a sore thumb, offenses lacking in self-belief and understanding between players sputter to halt. That is where the Union find themselves now and that is where they have been for much of the season.

2. Play players in their natural positions

Peter Nowak is a supremely confident coach with a deep faith in his players and their potential. It’s the kind of confidence that inspires players and fans alike and leads teams to championships. It is also the kind of confidence that can at times leave fans shaking their heads as they try to understand coaching decisions. Veljko Paunovic is a striker, not a midfielder. Jack McInerney is even less of one. Freddy Adu is not suited to play left midfield. In fact, the only player on the Union roster who can jump between midfield and forward is Sebastien Le Toux.

And none of this is to knock the players. They’ve spent their whole lives crafting their game to get to this point and to be thrown off course would be a challenging adjustment for any player. The Union talk of a “fluid” system and “versatile” players as if pure strikers and blindingly fast wingers and creative midfield playmakers are a bad thing. Well, in the case of professional soccer, the opposite is often true, with the well-rounded player—the jack of all trades, master of none—filling a substitute, stopgap role for injured or out of form players. A few of these “versatile” players can help fill out a roster, but pointy players, those who do one thing exceptionally well, make teams into winners.

Would Bayern Munich ever ask Arjen Robben to stop his blistering runs down the right wing before cutting in to his left foot to cross an inch perfect ball or score a goal, in favor of playing at the top of a midfield diamond? No. Never. That’s not what he does. Would Sir Alex Ferguson ask Wayne Rooney to stop shredding defenses and spend some time putting in crosses from the left wing? Of course not. That does not suit his skill set.

Sure, the Union are not on par with those examples—they are a team in only their second year, stocked with young players. But the point remains the same: they cannot  reach a higher level until the players are put in a position to do what they do best. Freddy Adu is the most recent, and obvious, example—he was brought to Philadelphia to be the playmaker that this offense was sorely missing. Yet, in his first two matches, he was not afforded the opportunity to assimilate into that role and looked thoroughly overwhelmed as he tried to adjust to a new position while watching his teammates swarm around him with chaotic disorganization. It takes time to grow as a player and to find your place. It takes time to grow as a team. But at some point, don’t you have to let the players be what they do best?

3. Keep it on the deck

Veljko Paunovic can win the ball in the air. So can Keon Daniel, on the rare occasion he actually gets on the field. Aside from the center backs, that’s about it with regards to aerial challenges from the Union. Sebastien Le Toux stands 6′-1″ but insists on taking corners rather than fighting for goals in the box. What else do you need to know?

Yet against Dallas, Paunovic was dropping deep into midfield to loft high balls in to 5′-9″ Jack McInerney as he endeavored to back down the 6′-3″ George John, a contest he never was going to win. With that type of play happening all too frequently, it’s hard to be surprised at the impotence of the Union attack. The Union feature a roster that is built around speed and superior technical skill that, when on the field, morphs into Stoke City, a team that is content to bang long balls to the giant that is Kenwyne Jones (and today’s new addition Peter Crouch). The Union are not Houston. They do not possess big strong target forwards whose job it is to challenge and beat up the league’s mammoth center backs.

This lack of a neat, possession-oriented passing game speaks further volumes of the discord in the midfield. Until there is a perceivable culture shift back to the controlling, ball-dominating emphasis that was the hallmark of the team in 2010, goals, and chances in general, will remain in short supply.

4. Get Danny more touches

Unlike a veteran striker like Paunovic, or even Carlos Ruiz, who will go missing for 10, 15 or 20 minutes at a time, only to emerge when needed to bundle home a match-winning goal, Danny Mwanga is a young striker who needs to be more involved whenever he is on the pitch. Some out there say that Mwanga is lazy. Rubbish. He’s a second-year player, a 20-year-old striker, and developing 90 minutes of consistent focus is a natural part of his maturation. Part of the reason he succeeds in substitute appearances is that when he comes on the Union are generally pushing for a goal and so the table is set for him to get early touches as the Union seek out an equalizer or a match winner. Yet, early in matches, when the Union are allowing play to be dictated to them, the strikers see precious little of the ball and, correspondingly, Mwanga has a tendency to lose the game and his confidence plunges. In order to get the young striker going again he needs touches and lots of them. It’s not as if he isn’t productive with the ball once he gets it at his feet. Play the ball to Danny’s feet and let him run at defenders, play balls into the corners and ultimately rediscover his scoring touch.

5. Get forward

When Mwanga (or Le Toux, or Paunovic) finally do get the ball in the attacking third of the field, all too often the only other player within 20 yards of them is their strike partner. For a team that lags very low in the league with respect to chances created, this is not good enough. Justin Mapp’s inconsistency in defending is lately mirrored by a frustrating inconsistency in joining the attack and with Brian Carroll (or Stefani Miglioranzi) occupied with defensive duties, that does not leave many players to spring forward. Add to that the fact that the distributor of the forward ball, whether it’s Paunovic, Roger Torres or Le Toux himself, often does so from near the halfway line and the number of bodies that can be thrown into the attack is fairly meager.

This allows defenses to collapse on the Union strikers, forcing them to try and beat two or three men without support from any teammates. Another benefit of keeping the ball on the ground is that the short passing game requires players who are already high up the pitch to make the final pass. Controlling the ball will allow the Union to build up numbers and free up space for their strikers to operate.

6. Play Michael Farfan

He’s good. At soccer. And unlike Adu or Torres, he has developed defensive tendencies given that he has been on occasion required to deputize at fullback. Despite being a rookie, he is older, bigger and stronger than the Union’s other young, creative options and he has shown his ability with every opportunity he has been given. As a substitute in games where a goal is required, Farfan has shown a consistent knack for spreading the field, taking on defenders and serving in dangerous crosses. With others around him struggling for form, he deserves a spot in the team, whether from the opening whistle or as a substitute.

7. Play a higher defensive line

Yes, this is a dangerous proposition, but with the Union midfield so lacking in players who honor their respective defensive responsibilities, the gap between midfield and defense has grown over the last many matches. Brian Carroll has been the first to suffer from these growing voids of space as he is forced to cover more and more ground with every match—it is time for the defense to press higher and pick up some of that load. While Sebastien Le Toux works hard to get back, his primary objective is to score goals. With Mapp, Paunovic, McInerney and Mwanga filling out the other spots in the attack, it is not surprising that opposition wingers have been having a field day running into the space behind the Union midfield.

So the defense needs to step higher to close down this space. Sheanon Williams, Gabriel Farfan and Carlos Valdes all have the pace to recover when needed but the benefits of the high line will keep free-roaming wingers and playmakers from having time to turn and compose themselves before meeting the wave of the Union defense. This will also put more pressure on the midfield and push them higher up the field, which, as discussed in no. 6, is a priority.


It’s not as much the personnel right now as much as it is the formation and system of play that are causing the Union’s offensive woes. It has been a constant concern throughout the entirety of the 2011 season, but now more than ever, if the Union are going to make a consistent push towards the playoffs, they need to settle into a consistent style of ball-possession and controlled attack in order to find a consistent vein of goal-scoring form. The players are there but the tactics continue to lag behind.


  1. You may get your wish with Marfan starting at right back again against RSL…although I’m not as high on Marfan as others are, he may be the best option we have at right mid considering what are other options are. Also lets stay away from dangerous propositions please…all it takes is one through ball against a high defensive line. Although valdes, williams and garfan have some speed lets avoid having them using it to recover…

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      I did admit that it was dangerous, but the higher they push, the higher the midfield pushes and so on. More bodies forward always comes at some cost though.

  2. You forgot #8: put the ball on net so we can crash it and get rebounds. It’s somewhat in line with your #5, but rebounds seem to be practically non-existent.

    Unfortunately, I think Nowak thinks he’s smarter than everyone else, and that arrogance is going to be a huge problem for us moving forward.

  3. I never understood why Marfan stopped starting. He has been one of our best players this year along with Keon. At this point, i think he has to start.

    Lineup should be:
    Williams Califf Valdes Garfan
    Marfan Adu Daniel
    Mwanga/Paunovic Le Toux

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