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Player ratings & analysis: Dynamo 1-0 Union (3-1 agg.)

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

Soccer’s tactical development over the past two decades unfurls, ironically, as a seemingly endless battle for the part of the field furthest from the goals. When Inter Milan wanted championships, they imported Jose Mourinho to teach the team how to play defense further up the pitch. After England fumbled and bumbled their way out of a spot in Euro 2008, they turned to Fabio Capello to teach the midfield how to adapt to the modern passing game that Spain was using to, well, pass England by.

Of course, the most cited example of midfield control is Barcelona, a team that, ironically, plays with only three official midfielders. Notably, though, all three of Barca’s middies like to stay central. By recruiting incredible athletes and holding possession to ensure they have time to recover after long runs, Barca can still control the wings. But anything less than top-level buying power would expose the major flaws in the Barcelona system (which is why everyone isn’t doing it).

Mourinho’s tactics have been assimilated into many successful sides. Two holding midfielders—at least one with Beckenbauer-type freedom to join the attack once it is established—essentially bring the classic central defensive pairing into the middle of the park. The wide midfielders drift towards the center of the park or, in Mourinho’s mentor Louis van Gaal’s successful Bayern Munich system, they are simply inverted so they start wide but work desperately to get inside with possession.

Controlling the middle is so important that it made the single striker a fashionable setup. A numerical advantage in midfield was deemed a priority over having a partner to open space for the best finisher. Everything good comes from the middle of the park and the opponent is consistently rappelled to the flanks. This is the way of the modern game: Left-footed Lionel Messi plays on the right; righty Cristiano Ronaldo on the left.

So what were we doing?

Which makes the Philadelphia Union’s consistent abandonment of the center of the pitch all the more confusing. After Houston dominated the Union at Philly by walking the ball into their offensive half under little pressure, Philadelphia responded with a 4–4–2 diamond that saw Veljko Paunovic drifting about so much that Michael Farfan was often manning the center of the park defensively.

All season, the Union have cut and pasted from popular tactical formations to create Frankenstein-ish hybrids. Justin Mapp as an inverted winger with a normal winger on the other side or a loose diamond with two attacking fullbacks and only one defensive midfielder to cover. These plans can end up a bit like adding bacon to ice cream, meaning two good ideas don’t necessarily merge into a better one.

In their final match of the season, the Union rolled out a 4–4–2 with a very loose diamond midfield. Sebastien Le Toux and Michael Farfan left their homes so often that it’s useless to call them wingers. Veljko Paunovic, noticing the space on the flanks, wandered out to flirt with the lonely wing positions. Playing with such a deep holding midfielder, the Union often cede the middle third and lock down around their box. But the stakes and strategy of this match made the typical system useless.

Pressure needs a partner

Brian Carroll came out with excellent high pressure that forced Houston into a desperate long ball offense. The result should have been a slew of Union chances and a Dynamo team sitting deep to absorb pressure. It wasn’t. Why?

The close cousin of midfield pressure is control of the second ball. If a long pass is the preferred outcome of your defensive pressure, you must prepare for it. The Union did not, and 50-50 challenges fell to the feet of Dynamo midfielders, who saw no need to drop deep when they were able to so easily gather scraps behind the strikers.

It did not help the cause that Michael Farfan showed the strain of trying to carry the offense. Drifting inside when Paunovic went AWOL, Marfan was uncomfortable and poor with his passing. This was particularly disappointing given that Marfan, Mwanga and McInerney were largely on the same page, though they seemed to be reading at different speeds.

One strike partnership, not two strikers

The rest of the team was wholly divorced from the strikers for much of the match. When he was central, Paunovic showed the calmness and passing range that made him an integral part of the team’s success. Unfortunately, Paunovic was rarely central. The Mwanga-McInerney duo made good runs but communicated poorly. When McInerney peeled off on a back post sprint, Mwanga did not drop short or find the space left behind. They both tried so hard to make a big impression that they forgot that strikers are partners first, individuals second.

With the strikers playing to the beat of their own drum and Pauno roaming, the Union were again without that most precious of commodities in the MLS game: A midfield axis. The final four in MLS this season each have an established axis player in the middle who is the default pass for any player if he is open. Kansas City took off when Graham Zusi stepped into their axis void. Pundits fretted when Juninho was suspended for the second leg of the LA-NY series, and they cheered Rafa Marquez’s absence because he has not become that necessary axis player. Kyle Beckerman has taken the responsibility in Salt Lake City. Houston, of course, has a wider variation in Brad Davis.

Acquiring an axis

The Union have players capable of playing this role, Freddy Adu and Roger Torres being the most prominent names on the list. Veljko Paunovic can do it too. Amobi Okugo was drafted with growth into a Beckerman-axis role in mind. Even Jack McInerney, with his limited size, may end up as a talented distributor by the time his career blooms. To summarize, the team does not have many personnel holes but this is a glaring one. And it needs to be settled in some manner over the offseason. Simply rotating an axis player through is not the answer.

Set pieces

Do we need to talk about set pieces? Let’s not talk about set pieces again.

Sheanon shines

The defense, allowed to operate in a comfortable formation, lived up to the hype. Sheanon Williams offers as much as any fullback in the league going forward and he put Brad Davis in his pocket one more time just to show he could. Davis resorted to fouling Williams and diving on the edge of the box, knowing that Ricardo Salazar’s inconsistency would grant him more opportunities than he was likely to earn on his own merit against The Sheanomenon.

Too much to overcome?

The big, blowout, lower-the-lights-zoom-on-Regis-question is: Were the players given a real chance to win in their 180 playoff minutes? Or did poor management, from the Red Bulls game on down the line, handicap the players on the field to the point where the odds became too great to overcome?

We will not argue about the tactics, game and personnel management: They were bad. New York: Bad. Playoff first leg: Bad. Playoff second leg: Not helpful. There is simply no counterargument here. The New York lineup and in-game decisions showed a complete lack of understanding of what that game—and first place in the East—meant to the season, the fans, and the team. The first playoff leg was a complete miscalculation stemming from temporary amnesia about the foundation upon which the Union’s 2011 success has been built. The second playoff leg was an overadjustment to an offensive set that gifted space where Houston wanted it and created an unsustainable, out-of-control tempo.

But these things happen. And poor management should not obscure the fact that this Union team was more talented than its opponent. The Philadelphia Union were brilliantly assembled. A wonderful locker room populated by veterans determined to pass on wisdom to their young, hungry and ego-less teammates; off-season signings that meshed perfectly with draft picks who asserted themselves on MLS with confident ease. Yes, this was a special team. As Sheanon Williams said after Thursday’s loss, “It’s been a great ride with these guys and no locker room is the same year to year so we’ll look forward to what next year brings.”

How good was this team?

Was the 2011 team good enough to challenge for the MLS Cup? Yes. As Greece showed in Euro 2004, and as Saturday night’s over-hyped College Football game between Alabama and LSU proved again: Defense can win you a championship all by itself.

The Union’s vets will take time off, heal their bodies, and prep for another go at it next season. The younger fellows will work their tails off in the offseason, constantly reminding themselves that beating expectations one season offers no guarantees for the next. And besides, expectations aren’t what you want to beat: It’s that team that lifts ol’ big ears in LA that you want to defeat.

Yes, the players are special. The young guys will want to take lessons from the 2011 campaign. The vets will tell them what lessons to take and how to use those lessons to fuel their desire to be better in 2012.

One can only hope that Peter Nowak, John Hackworth and the rest of the staff are as dedicated to learning from 2011 as the players will be. Because if they are, the Philadelphia Union are just getting started.

Player ratings

Faryd Mondragon – 6

Rarely tested, but when he was The Dragon was up to the challenge. His distribution was below-par but his presence in goal represented the big strides the team made this year. He may no longer have the skills that MacMath features, but his heart is the heart of the team.

Sheanon Williams – 8

Brad Davis had one successful cross from open play on Thursday. He had one other successful pass towards the center of the pitch. The rest he played wide. Who would you rather have with the ball on the wing? Brad Davis or Corey Ashe? Sheanon Williams was run over from behind without a call, he was pushed, beaten and battered, but he kept pushing forward and defending well. Before Williams’ arrived, right back was behind only goalie as the most unsettled spot on the Union roster. It belongs now to an underpaid and understated Bostonian. Let’s hope he wants to keep it for a long time.

Carlos Valdes – 7

A fine bounce back game from Valdes, who struggled mightily in the first leg. There just seems no way through Valdes and Califf at times, and MLS referees must recognize that frustrated strikers are going to dive and go down easily when they cannot break through. Calling fouls on soft contact is going to turn a sad trend into a MLS staple that will make the Houston model dominant in the league for years to come.

Danny Califf – 6

A tough end to the season for a guy who should have his name tossed around the MVP debate. Carlos Valdes had his ups and downs, but Bearfight played an entire season in top form with no backup available should he struggle or pick up a knock. Without Valdes’ pure speed, Califf was spent the second half of the season snuffing out faster players while tutoring Gabriel Farfan. That’s about as easy as fighting a real bear.

Gabriel Farfan – 5

Garfan has come a long way. He deserves a shot at keeping his left back role next season even if the Union recruit a veteran. Garfan should have been red carded in the first leg, but he survived Danny Cruz and Brian Ching making a meal of every challenge in Houston and provided good shape in the back. Garfan was inconsistent as an offensive threat all year and Thursday was no different. When the Union should have been pressing Houston back, Gabe was nowhere to be found. That said, he was never caught out on a counterattack.

Brian Carroll – 7

BC took the initiative and pressed from the opening whistle. He kept pouring coals on the fire until he realized the rest of the team couldn’t keep that level of energy and maintain any semblance of shape at the same time. Carroll was a major reason the Union limited opposing teams to few and inopportune shots in 2011, but he showed his offensive limitations often. If the Union stick with Carroll as the centerpiece of their midfield in 2012, they need to do a better job complementing his skill set.

Michael Farfan – 4

A very off-key showing from a player who worked his way into the rookie of the year debate with a string of stellar performances in 2011. Marfan strayed too often from the wing and was a moment too slow with his passes through the middle. The Union ended the match with zero through balls, but Marfan was the only one trying them.

Veljko Paunovic – 4

Another player who was well below the level expected of him, Paunovic was supposed to be the antidote to Houston’s midfield domination. It didn’t happen. He wandered and failed to match the high-energy of his midfield partner in the early going.

Sebastien Le Toux – 5

Can you blame Le Toux for being anonymous? He just played the way he always does at outside midfield: Hard work and little to offer going forward. Is this such a surprise to the coaching staff? It’s not to the rest of us.

Jack McInerney – 5

Truthfully, Mac was involved at a 4-level. But his movement and running were good. He was the victim of a team that put out a lineup to play one way (quick attacks) and ended up playing another (long balls). Compound that with Marfan and Pauno’s struggles at putting anything over the Houston back line and you end up with a player who cannot exert much of an impact on the game.

Danny Mwanga – 4

Mwanga was more involved than McInerney but made less of it. Aside from an early shot, Mwanga rarely threatened the Houston goal and was all too willing to take the ball wide or settle for an easy outlet when he should have been forcing Geoff Cameron and Bobby Boswell to deal with him. Mwanga is too skilled, strong and fast to settle for a stepover-shot in the box. He needs to take a defender on and force people to either stop him or foul him. He will soon find that not many can stop him.

Union subs

Were they on the field? I didn’t really notice. Torres was anonymous. Adu’s most memorable contribution was an incredibly ill-advised backheel, and Justin Mapp something something.

Geiger Counter – 3

Ricardo Salazar was all too easily seduced by Brian Ching’s sweaty rolling around. That Ching fellow is a large guy, how come he falls down so easily? He doesn’t get pushed around so much when he’s challenging for a header… something doesn’t add up.

That said, Peter Nowak’s post-match comments about Salazar remain irksome. Yes, MLS refereeing must improve, but observe first your own reflection before casting about for other causes, Mr. Nowak.

7 Comments

  1. Dude, whatever. Everything … and I mean EVERY-THING … is better with bacon.

  2. that saw Veljko Paunovic drifting about so much… I don’t do this often but this is exactly, EXACTLY what I predicted and why I was so opposed to Pauno playing.

  3. Pretty much spot on really. I think Nowak went too defensive in first leg- and in 2nd had too many “attacking” players on the field with no real shape/plan to speak of. Instead of Jack and Mwanga, i think he should have went with Torres and Adu (who as you said didn’t do much) – but i think the rest of the attack would have done better. I think the high defense ratings and low offense ratings are an overall for our year even.

  4. MikeRSoccer says:

    Another great piece, but let’s be honest and acknowledge that you guys probably could have written this piece before the game started because the issues are that clear.
    Now that we are in the off season who goes and who stays? Let me say something that I am guessing is going to be very unpopular, but does either Adu or Torres need to leave the team? Since they have been coming off the bench this season the issue of the two of them being too similar of a player type to be on the same pitch seems to be getting more obvious. Two central, left footed, creative attacking midfielders can’t be on the same field without issues. The only way I see them playing together is a 4-3-2-1, which I cannot imagine Nowak ever employing (regularly anyway).
    Any idea if/when PSP will do a key to the off season/transfer piece?

    • Adu/Torres is definitely doing to be an issue. Moreso, I think, because Nowak hasn’t shown any sort of the tactical acumen he needs to make this work. how about something like a 4-1-2-2-1/4-3-3?
      With Carrol sitting behind Torres/Adu who control the midfield, two advanced wingers and a striker?
      But then I don’t like only playing with one striker.

      • MikeRSoccer says:

        My dream formation for the Union would be that 4-3-2-1 with Daniel-Carroll-Farfan across the middle. All three are very capable on the defensive/physical front and Daniel/Farfan obviously have the skill moving up the field. The issue of Torres/Adu kills that plan though. Best case scenario is a 4-3-1-2 with same 3 man midfield, Torres or Adu sitting behind the strikers centrally and Le Toux/someone else up top. I really believe that Mwanga is going to have a resurgence next year and become that force that we saw rising in 2010. Hackworth/Nowak’s concentration this off season should be getting Mwanga’s confidence back. I said earlier I would not mind bringing in another striker, but now I think that would be a bad idea. 2012 should be the year that Mwanga becomes a great player and consistent starter or be his last as a Union player.

  5. Brilliant

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