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Player Ratings and Analysis: Union 1-1 Toronto FC

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

Early Winter

With nothing left to play for in the 2011 MLS season, Toronto represented a fairly unpredictable opponent. Aron Winter could have used Saturday’s match at PPL Park to continue the development of his new system and go for broke, attempting to play spoiler and steal a road victory. Or, he could have put out a starting XI designed to sweat out a tough road draw.

He chose that latter and did so to a staggering degree—he might as well have just driven the team bus out on the field and parked it in front of his goal. The 5–2–3 Toronto deployed against the Union showed just how little faith he has in his own defense at this point and, rather than enter into a real contest with the Union, Winter appeared content to do anything to save his players’ egos from another embarrassing beating as their grim season winds to a close. With German international Torsten “Handball” Frings occupying the unfamiliar role of third centerback for TFC, the offensive task was always going to be tougher for the Union.

Catch and release

Nearly all MLS matches are won and lost in the midfield. With Joao Plata, Ryan Johnson and Nick Soolsma all deployed in Toronto’s new three striker setup, plus the five men in the back, the numbers looked good for the Union in the middle of the pitch. Justin Mapp and Michael Farfan had acres of space to operate with Matt Stinson and Eric Avila working exclusively in the middle of the park. The early going was all Philadelphia and it seemed the Union would overrun Toronto for a second time in 2011.

But the Union midfield, undoubtedly mentally and physically fatigued following two high pressure matches on the West Coast, soon became far too slow to react to the midfield advantage. While Sebastien Le Toux was in electric form, punching holes through the Toronto backline at will, Freddy Adu, Justin Mapp and Gabriel Farfan were all caught with their heads down, taking an extra touch before playing Le Toux into space, costing the team multiple offside decisions and chances to put the match away. When Le Toux, and later Jack McInerney, are slicing the TFC defense to shreds, both players should have had many more opportunities to be in alone on Milos Kocic’s net. In the end, while the Union did well to possess in midfield, they struggled to turn that advantage into the barrage of chances they would need to beat Toronto’s goalkeeper, who was in excellent form on the day.

The best defense is a good offense

The Union entered the tunnel at the end of the first half with all of the momentum in their corner following Le Toux’s stunning goal. When they came out of the tunnel to start the second half, they shifted formations, dropping Michael Farfan to holding midfield and sitting back into a 4–2–3–1. The result was a unit that was resigned to conceding possession to Toronto and defending their goal advantage rather than going in search of the second goal that would have taken all the wind out of TFC’s sails. Following the match, Peter Nowak said his team was “a little bit scared to win the game.” While that may have been true, the Union formation at the start of the second half was one committed to defending a lead for 45 minutes rather than continuing to assert authority on the game following a dominant first half performance.

Once the offensive tap has been turned off, and the equalizer is conceded, finding the momentum and energy to turn the tap back on is no simple job. And while the Union had a number of chances to close their home campaign with a victory, the combination of Kocic’s great day at the office and some poor finishing in front of goal combined to deprive the Union of the win.

Giving the weary legs of Mapp or Paunovic a well deserved rest following the recent weeks of travel and a strong first half showing with aggressive halftime substitutions like Jack McInerney or Roger Torres could have provided a further spark to the surging Union. Instead, the tactical shift at halftime cost the Union their momentum and once the air was out of the balloon, they finished the evening a little bit flat.

Make no mistake

These are dropped points. Post match comments from Brian Carroll, Faryd Mondragon, and Peter Nowak (and even the view of the author of a post on the Union website) demonstrate the team knows this. For, in a conference race that is as close as it is in the East, earning three points is critical against a hapless team like Toronto that elects to leave their several of their best player on the sideline, play many of their reserves and sits back in an effort to minimize the damage done at the close of a terrible season. Much will be made of the Union’s qualification with the draw, and rightly so—the players and coaches have given all of us a tremendous season to exceed all expectation. But two valuable points were left on the table on Saturday. With Kansas City now level with the Union on points, head-to-head competition, and goal differential but with a five goal advantage in total goals scored, Thursday’s already emotionally-charged rivalry game at New York is filled with increased meaning.

Perhaps that’s for the best. After all, the hottest team entering the MLS playoffs is usually the best bet to win it all. And with a win on Thursday, the Union would enter the playoffs on a nine-game unbeaten streak. You would be hard pressed to find a side in a richer vein of form.

Player ratings:

Faryd Mondragon-6

Not a lot of work for the Union no. 1 on his return from injury. He will be disappointed that he was not quicker to react on Johnson’s goal, though it would be unfair to fault him for it. A little rusty in his communication and interaction with his back four and his service out of the back was inconsistent when he went long. Playing short and quick always looked the better option as the Union were strong when they built from the back.

Sheanon Williams-8

Tremendous work rate from the right back who was tasked with corralling the Joao Plata. While Plata did pick his pocket on a couple of occasions, Williams recovered well to snuff out the danger. Lived high up the field in support of the midfield and at some point, he will earn another well deserved goal because his runs into the box continue to be dangerous. He has developed an excellent partnership with Michael Farfan and that connection should represent the right side of the Union formation for years to come.

Carlos Valdes-6.5

A step slow on the day, Valdes struggled with the threat posed by both Plata and Ryan Johnson. He will be kicking himself for letting Johnson slip through his fingers for Toronto’s lone goal. Nothing to be worried about from the defensive stalwart, just not his best outing.

Danny Califf-9

An extraordinary day for DC as he showed his class all over the pitch. Whether it was his thumping tackle on Johnson in the early going to set the tone of the match, or his sliding tackle to save the day on Plata—a tackle that needed to be inch perfect—Califf’s leadership and ability was on display in every aspect of the game. With the field stretched after Toronto’s equalizer, he even showed impressive mobility moving the ball up the pitch to restart the Union attack.

Gabriel Farfan-7

Despite maintaining good positioning on Soolsma for Toronto’s goal, Farfan never put enough pressure on the pass and made it too easy for the Dutchman to slide the ball into the danger area for the goal. It’s tough luck for a player that did not put a foot wrong the rest of the night and attacked his wing as if he and Sheanon Williams were involved in some kind of personal contest. His positional decision making is improving with each match along with his service into the box from the left side.

Brian Carroll-7.5

An odd day for the Union’s usual model of consistency. With only two real midfielders to contend with, and Matt Stinson staying home most of the game, Carroll had to show his range to defend any player other than Eric Avila. And he did just that. Sliding to either side to snuff out the threat of Toronto’s outside backs Morgan and Henry, Carroll kept himself busy throughout. Once the goal was conceded, his main role became to ferry the ball over the halfway line to initiate the the next attack. He was very luck that Avila could not do more with his turnover in the 81st minute, but otherwise, Carroll went about his business with the intelligence and industry we have come to expect.

Justin Mapp-6

Mapp started the match all guns blazing as he took every occasion to attack the Toronto defense early on. Would have had an assist on a Michael Farfan’s opener if his opposite winger could have directed Mapp’s square ball into the net, following some delightful interplay with Le Toux. As the match wore on though, Mapp faded and his lack of defensive tenacity gave Soolsma plenty of time to play out wide when Toronto countered. While he did get the assist on Le Toux’s eventual opener, Mapp could have been substituted at halftime as he looked tired from running his socks off in the opening 20.

Michael Farfan-7

An unquestioned starter at this point, Farfan will rue his early miss off of Mapp’s perfect delivery. He proved that he’s earned the coach’s faith when the team reverted to a 4–2–3–1 and he did not make way for Okugo. Farfan continues to be a consistent cog in any meaningful Union possession and Toronto was forced to drag him down as both Morgan and Iro struggle to deal with his pace and guile. Once he dropped into a holding position, Marfan made some critical interventions, but his influence on the game was limited by the deep-lying role.

Freddy Adu-3

Another poor showing from Adu who drifted around behind Le Toux looking to make the final delicate pass, but showed little interest in winning the ball or challenging the defense when he had it at feet. Playing in a team built on unity and chemistry, Adu’s gesticulations and frustrated body language stand out like a sore thumb. In the first half, with the Union attacking in waves, Adu was the only player unable to get in on the fun, losing the ball too often and creating very few chances in the process.

Veljko Paunovic-5.5

Denied on a beautiful effort for the second week running, Paunovic continues to show a deft touch wherever he lines up. The problem, however, is that he is lining up too deep for the Union to have success. With a true diamond in midfield, the Union need a second striker to keep up with Le Toux and exploit the spaces created by his excellent runs. Whether it is exhaustion, which woul;d certainly be understandable given the amount of travel the team has endured over the last two weeks, or something else, Paunovic needs to play higher up the field as a true striker or make way for McInerney or Mwanga, who will do that job.

Sebastien Le Toux-9

A bull in a china shop on Saturday. His goal was expertly crafted, but what stood out most was the quality and danger of his runs. While his midfield was at times slow to react, Le Toux did not stop stretching the Toronto defense all night. With the Union no. 9 in such scintillating form as the season concludes, they will not be anyone’s choice of matchup in the postseason.

Substitutions

Jack McInerney-6.5

Three classic runs from Jack McInerney, zero quality shots on Kocic’s goal. While it is great to see Jack at full flight, and challenging a defense, he looks short on confidence when it comes time to pull the trigger. He needed to fire first time in the 82nd minute, but instead elected to take an extra touch inside the Toronto box, squandering an excellent chance.

Danny Mwanga-4

Rusty. Not much more to say than that. It has been a rough few months for Mwanga and while he showed a couple strong bursts of speed, he still looks to be searching for 100% fitness. Another 30-45 minute against New York will be important towards regaining his confidence, touch and fitness entering the playoffs.

Roger Torres-6

A fairly even mixture of good and bad from Torres as he set the table for three excellent scoring chances while squandering a number of others by attempting to do too much on the ball. His energy and activity continue to make him a constant weapon for the Union as he refuses to back down from any challenge. His continued drive towards goal and desire to mix things up makes him a more dangerous distributor than Adu at this point of the season.

13 Comments

  1. Great assessment. Adu needs to be dropped. I don’t hate the guy, but, and I’ve said it before, Roger Torres is a better Adu than Adu. Save the money for an elite defender.

  2. Sheanon Williams is the unsung hero! All Hail the Sheanomenon!

  3. No mention of refereeing during the game? I know complaining about officiating is an exorcise in futility but yesterday was particularly bad. That even goes to the line judges missing balls blatantly out of bounds.

  4. I have a soft spot for Winter (can’t help it, I’m Dutch and ’88 was a good year). His players on average were weaker on the 1:1, but the seem to know what they were doing throughout the game, while we (yes we, still wearing the shirt) resort to those stupid long balls (praying Ol’ LeToux will make) as soon as the pressure starts building. I know the play offs are coming up, but I would wish come next season they start to play a little more soccer, and not, you know what.

  5. 2011=too many ties, too many dropped points. But hey! We’re in the post season! Ultimately before the post season even starts, Union’s 2011 season has been a huge success! Both on and off the field! If we had a single table, we would be in 6th place at this point in the season…the biggest difference with the teams above us is in the W and T column…protecting a lead should be a focal point for next season.

  6. Josh T. of Kensington says:

    I think you’re a little easy on Gabriel Farfan. His positioning isn’t right if it’s allowing that cross. I agree that there the biggest fail is defending one goal against Toronto.

    Third place would be bad. Second will be okay. Also, I think KC play LA, which is bad, as LA has little to play for, while New York has a lot to play for.

  7. MikeRSoccer says:

    Maybe I just require myself to despise one person on the Union, but it seems as though when ever we get rid of a problem child on the team a new one takes their place. Harvey in 2010 ended up being much better for the first half of 11, but only to be replaced by Ruiz. Ruiz leaves, ask Seba’s stats how they feel about that, and we gain Adu. First touch, positioning, work rate and even his vision are terrible. I originally thought Adu would struggle because of chemistry issues, but many of his problems don’t seem to be chemistry based. Runs with his head down, does not work hard and first touch is atrocious.

    • The only difference is that at least Adu is 22, so it’s reasonable to expect him to grow and get better. He also fits into what we needed, since he arrived just before Torres started to come on strong.
      Ruiz was just a terrible decision all around.

  8. Good look on Pauno. He needs to be dropped for Jack Mac, or alteast be ordered to stay high. We rely on Le Toux too much, he looks up for help in the final third and no one is there.
    And I hope Nowak stops playing favorites and realizes Torres is the better choice than Adu at this point.

  9. CityHeroesSpursZeros says:

    Come on Freddy, get your head out your @#$.

  10. Josh T. of Kensington says:

    Freddy looked like a monster playing for the USNMT, fast with the ball on his feet, stretching defenses by beating his man and then delivering incisive, goal creating dimes. I know he looks like crap right now, and I don’t know why, but he was playing against much better competition in those games than MLS. Somewhere, deep down, that Freddy is still there.

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