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Analysis & player ratings: Timbers 3-1 Union

Photo: Paul Rudderow

When Gabriel Gomez’s free-kick glanced off of Andrew-Jean Baptiste’s head and beyond Troy Perkins, there was a moment where every Union fan allowed themselves to believe that stealing a road win was possible despite the dire performance being turned in by their side. And just like that, Zac MacMath fumbled the ball into his own net and reality crashed down over the Philly faithful. It was a truly embarrassing mistake from the young goalkeeper, but it was also one that, conditions aside, is not unexpected from such an inexperienced shot-stopper. No blame can be laid at MacMath’s feet for either of the other two goals and were it not for the quickness he showed off his line and the bravery with which he challenged in the air, the scoreline could have been tilted in Portland’s favor sooner.

So how then did the Union’s defense, which had not conceded three goals on the road since the final game of the 2010 season and was the team’s greatest strength in 2011, become so porous?

Leave the defense alone

It is apparent that the Union coaching staff must have spent the offseason tinkering with the one thing that needed no adjustment, the defense. Sheanon Williams was playing so high up the field that he was consistently receiving forward passes from Josue Martinez. Still, the Union isn’t fooling anyone. With Gabriel Gomez dropping into the center of a three man back line when the Union attack, Williams and Lopez are tasked with getting so high up the pitch that they are unable to recover in time to actually play defense. If Gomez is playing centerback, and Brian Carroll is busting his lungs trying to cover sideline to sideline, then who is left to patrol the majority of the center of the pitch? No one. The Union’s over-thinking of their defensive strategy ended up putting not only their fullbacks, but also their holding midfielders out of position, allowing Portland to build comfortably through the center of the pitch before exploiting the copious spaces left outside of the narrow, part-time back three.

Pass and move

Freddy Adu, Michael Farfan and Josue Martinez were all guilty of over-dribbling when they gained possession. Perhaps it was a factor of so many new players playing a constantly rotating system, but the lack of familiarity and quick passing crippled the Union attack. All of these players are capable of playing a quick two-touch game and for the Union to be successful they must find their way back to the old adage, “the ball is faster than the man.” One way to do this is by picking a position on the field and sticking to it. With chemistry still developing among the attackers, they need to find consistency in where they align themselves on the field so that a proper understanding can be developed—before they begin to rotate, change fields and formations.

Throw out the gadgets

The Union entered 2012 with one of the most talented rosters in the Eastern Conference but seemed so hampered by their pregame assignments that 10 out of 11 players looked to still be learning their job rather than performing it. That’s not good for a team with lofty expectations from both their fan base and within their organization. Fortunately, the cure is simple: Just let them play the game. After all, that’s what made them desirable draft picks and acquisitions in the first place and that’s the best way to find success, both on Sunday in the home opener against Colorado, and throughout the 2012 season.

Player Ratings

I had an urge to call these “Incomplete Player Ratings” since we learned much about the offseason tactical shifts but very little about the individual players as they try to acclimate themselves. While over the coming weeks all of us will be looking for greater consistency, constant change is a staple of the Union’s fluid game, and the players must prove themselves regardless.

Zac MacMath – 5.5

As mentioned above, his bravery and athleticism kept the Union afloat in the early going, but as the starter, any gaffe is one too many. He had the ball in his hands, only to see it slide underneath him in the wet conditions at Jeld-Wen Stadium, but showed good confidence to shake off the mistake, as he was called on to be sharp soon after he conceded Portland’s first goal. And that is why goalkeeping is typically a veteran’s game: No matter how many high profile saves a keeper makes, 100% focus is required because it is the blunder that is remembered, and despite his strong play throughout the other 89 minutes of the match, this instance is no different. This is the path the Union have taken in drafting MacMath so highly and as difficult as it is to swallow now, he has the character to learn from his error and will be sharper and more prepared next time out, not that that makes this loss any more palatable.

Porfirio Lopez – 3

Lopez was lucky to escape the referee’s notebook as he was guilty of a number of overly aggressive fouls as a result of his chasing the play all night. Clearly still not up to speed, Lopez struggled to contain Alhassan. And when he pushed up field, he found it hard to get back and cover his wing. He deserves the majority of the blame for allowing Alhassan all day to serve in the cross for Boyd’s headed goal, but was also left entirely on an island as Martinez, Adu and Marfan all operated out of the central and right-sided channels. Until Lopez gets a more consistent midfield partner in front of him, it will be hard to gauge his true effectiveness.

Danny Califf – 4.5

A step slow all night, the usually rock-steady Califf struggled to get into the flow of the game and looked uncomfortable sliding wide to the left in the Union’s experimental backline. In his first game since being returned the captain’s armband, Califf could offer little encouragement and leadership on a night where he, like his defensive mates, were all scrambling, trying to determine their positioning within the coaching staff’s new marching orders. Califf will have wished he’d done better against Kris Boyd, who shook his mark too easily in heading home the matchwinner for the Timbers. As the least mobile member of the back line, Califf will be most negatively affected if the Union persist with rotating their defensive alignments because he will be forced to cover speedy, wide players the further he gets from the center of the pitch.

Carlos Valdes – 5.5

After nearly having to be replaced following a clash of heads with Kris Boyd, he soldiered on and made a number of vital interventions, including a headed clearance off his line following a deflected shot. Valdes was asked to slide to the right back spot and even took some jaunts up into midfield, neither of which suited him. Simply put, when he plays center back, he is one of the best in the business; when he plays elsewhere on the pitch, he is not.

Sheanon Williams – 2.5

Williams had perhaps his worst night in a Union shirt as he tried to do everything except for actually playing defense. With Williams running as a part time midfielder and attacking winger, Portland easily exploited the space behind him and Eric Alexander skipped past him too easily when he was able to get back in position. For the record, Williams’ danger comes from accelerating up the field and joining the attack, not from consistently sitting in the midfield waiting for the ball. On more than one occasion, Martinez looked up to find that it was Williams who was the next man up the field, which should not happen. Like Lopez, he needs to be allowed to play fullback, with a focus on defense first, then attack.

Gabriel Gomez – 6.5

The pick of the bunch for the Union on his debut, Gomez showed off his hardworking and gritty characteristics. Unlike some of his teammates, Gomez found a ton of work on Monday night as he ran circles around his midfield partner, Brian Carroll. With Gomez needed as a box-to-box distributor and playmaker, it was hard to understand deploying him, instead of Carroll, as a centerback  when the Union countered. His skill and vision are required higher up the field and the sooner the Union do away with this strategy the better for the defense and Gomez. While his tough tackling and physical aggression will quickly endear him to the Philadelphia faithful, few referees will be as lenient as Baldomero Toledo and Gomez can count himself lucky not to have earned a place in the referee’s notebook. He struck his goal well, which can only serve as a reminder to the rest of the squad that good things happen when you shoot.

Brian Carroll – 2

An absolute turnover machine on the night. For every ball the Union won in the midfield, it seemed like he turned over two more. He could not put a clean touch on the ball and was a liability in the possession game all night, thus forcing Gomez to do extra work. Carroll struggled in a two defensive-midfielder set in 2011 and with Gomez bringing a more rounded game to the table, he must improve his play alongside the Panamanian or face missing out on the starting XI. Given his poor showing, he should have been sacrificed as soon as the Union went down a goal.

Freddy Adu – 4

Earns an extra point as compared to the rest of the Martanadu Triumvirate because, unlike Michael Farfan and Josue Martinez, Adu looked like he actually wanted the ball on Monday night. The problem, however, was what he did with it once it was at his feet. Too keen on running with the ball, Adu was overtaken time and again without getting his pass away. Sometimes the most creative thing a player can do is simply keep the ball moving quickly, but on the night Adu looked like he was pressing and trying to create a goal with every touch of the ball. While this might sound like a good strategy, possession and territory were sacrificed in favor of a series of mazy, dribbling runs that resulted in little more than turnovers and growing frustration.

Michael Farfan – 3

Marfan must be wondering what was wrong with his performances in 2011, as he was played in all but the midfield position in which he excelled during his rookie campaign. He looked completely lost in the center of midfield and struggled to string together passes out of the center channel. When he was moved out to the left, he drifted centrally and even ended up doubling up Martinez’s efforts on the right at times. With so much expected of Marfan after his strong play to close out 2011, it was a troubling start after being separated from regular partner in crime, Sheanon Williams, and he failed to find any comfort during his 79 minute run.

Josue Martinez – 3

Despite a few encouraging touches in the early going, Martinez was rotated out onto the right side of the formation where he faded into anonymity. As a striker who prefers to operate high on the left, dropping deeper and switching fields clearly had Martinez confused and with Sheanon Williams’ wildly adventurous positioning, the two shared the same space too often. While it was disappointing to see Martinez so far off the pace of the game, it is somewhat understandable given that he was deployed far out of his comfort zone in his first MLS appearance.

Lionard Pajoy – 5.5

While Pajoy worked hard with his back to goal in the first half, he retreated too far into his own half to receive the ball and play defense. As the lone striker, he needs to maintain contact with the opposing centerbacks. But with much of Pajoy’s work being done near the center circle, he failed to trouble or even tire Will Brunner or the rookie Andrew-Jean Baptiste. Still, he showed a delicate touch and was willing to mix it up to win the ball in his MLS debut. When he had the chance to turn and run at goal however, Pajoy’s lack of pace was exposed, and it seems evident that he will be best suited to play with a quicker partner who can profit off of the quality of his knockdowns. All of the other strikers on the Union roster can capably fill this role, and for the Union to carve out the number of chances they will need as the season progresses, it is obvious that he will need more support, however the coaching staff sees fit to provide it.

Substitutes

Danny Mwanga – 4.5

Mwanga tried to keep the Portland defense honest by maintaining a higher line than Pajoy, but with the ball never making it that far up the field, Mwanga was forced—as his strike partner had been in the first half—to drop deeper than he would have wanted to get a touch. He showed nice control with his back to goal on a few occasions, but was unable to do much to influence the outcome and couldn’t carve out any clear cut chances before Portland took control of the match.

Jack McInerney – 4

Another day, another example of how poorly suited McInerney is to playing in the midfield, where he couldn’t find his touch or the speed of the game, and so was unable to be the creative link the Union needed. He looked more lively when he got the opportunity to run up front along side Mwanga, but these chances were too few for the new No. 9 to make an impact.

Keon Daniel – 4.5

While it was good to see Keon’s special brand of strong, composure on the ball, he entered the match after the result had been sealed. With the Union winning more possession as Portland protected their lead, Daniel had plenty of touches on the ball, but ultimately they lacked a cutting edge, as the Union were emotionally defeated following Alhassan’s insurance goal.

Geiger Counter

Baldomero Toledo – 9

The Union are not used to any sort of home-cooking at PPL Park, so they would certainly have been surprised to find themselves on the favorable end of a series of decisions from Toledo at Jeld-Wen. With three Timbers’ penalty shouts of varying credibility all waved away, the Union should consider themselves fortunate. It was also more than a little unusual to see the match end without a single caution issued, as several of the Union players—and a few from Portland—looked hell bent on earning themselves a trip into Toledo’s notebook. Future referees will not be so lenient. Not by a long shot.

Preferred Formation for Sunday against Colorado

4-4-2

MacMath; Williams, Valdes, Califf, Lopez; M. Farfan, Gomez, Torres, Daniel; Mwanga, Pajoy

Have questions that you’d like the PSP’s Eli Pearlman-Storch to answer in a post? Send them to epstorch@phillysoccerpage.com along with your full name and where you live, both in PPL Park and in the world, and he will get to them in an upcoming post on the Philly Soccer Page. 

38 Comments

  1. Richie The Limey says:

    Make your mind up, Eli. In an earlier article you espoused the benefits of a 4-2-3-1 as it would allow the U to ‘control the middle’ of the park.

    A system is only as good as it’s players and ours were completely lost, crowding small areas of the pitch, thus not allowing the quick passes and movement you want. 4-2-3-1 on a middle school size field was asking for problems. No space = no movement off the ball = mindless ‘down a blind alley’ dribbling.

    Nowak dropped a real bollock with this one – a high school team could out-coach him right now.

    • I tried to make a strong case for each formation regardless of personal preference. You are bang on about how it played out in Portland. I did a lot of head shaking on Monday.

      • Richie The Limey says:

        I smell ya, brother. Problem is that Nowak doesn’t seem to have a preference. Please, just pick something and stick with it!

  2. I think you are missing a score for Nowak as it seems a fair amount of the problems can be pointed at him.

  3. Great analysis (hopefully not just because I agree with it so much). I think fans are so disappointed because the team, which seemingly was progressing over two years, looked like a bad expansion team. The regression hurts.

    I am especially glad to see that you have no sacred cows and called out Califf and Williams. I am sure this will not be the general level of play from the Union.

    I am really at a loss about Adu. He certainly looked more confident on the ball than last year. However, as the marquis man, he needs to (1) close on players to win balls and (2) break away from players to create options. He can neither close nor break away. He is simply not physically cut out for this league.

  4. DarthLos117 says:

    Eli’s got it right! Leave the DEFENSE alone!!! Just let them PLAY!!! I like your 4-4-2 lineup for the Rapids.

  5. MikeRSoccer says:

    The disturbing part is that even though it was a clear issue in the first half and the start of the second a camera close up after the first Portland goal clearly showed Nowak telling Williams and Lopez to push up further. Worse…he explained in the comments PSP posted earlier that he felt it necessary to push up further after his first goal. Didn’t he realize that the second the Union scored Portland went all in and thus our full backs probably should have stayed in position for even a little while?
    I’m not anti-Nowak because it can’t be denied that he has assembled a startling amount of young talent, but the flip side is that his tactical awareness is simply illogical many times. Again…I wish Nowak was our GM and that someone else came up with the tactics.

    • I hear Joachim Loew is considering leaving Die Mannschaft. Can we have a DP as a coach?

      • MikeRSoccer says:

        I think there is a better chance of Nowak allowing the Union to be part of an MLS equivalent to HBO/NFL’s “hardknocks” for their preseason training.

  6. I agree with about 95% of this post. I’d give Adu another point for drawing the foul which led to the lone Union goal. At the end of the day I think you chalk the loss up to poor strategy by the coaching staff and sloppy play. The players didn’t appear prepared to me. Hopefully one day the Union will have the courage to play a few friendlies against MLS competition in the preseason. That might give them a better idea of their strengths and weaknesses.

  7. For Colorado, I’d like to see Starting XI that looks a little like this: MacMath, Williams, Valdes, Califf, Garfan, Gomez (CDM), Marfan, Daniel, Torres(CAM), Mwanga and JackMac. Bench: Harrison, Pajoy, Martinez, Adu, Okugo, Hoffman and Carroll

    My only concern is that Colorado is the MLS equivolent of Stoke City so our smaller stature players may get neutralized by the Crapids thug-ball tactics. Freddy and Roger, I’m looking at you.

    Need a win on Sunday, and not a scrappy 1-0 effort. I expect to DOOP two or three times and I need to see a dominant outing out of the back four and Zac.

    • Adu and Okugo are on U-23 duty and won’t be available.

      I’m not sure if Carroll was bad or the fact that he and Gomez were apparently assigned to the same position. Everytime I looked up they were both in the same spot. Marfan in the middle was the most puzzling move. Maybe Peter thought he was Torres? They’re both like 5’2.

      I’m not sold on Mwanga/Jack. They’ve had chances to play and continue to not demonstrate a reason for more minutes. Mwanga as a big cap number on the bench has to be an indictment of how he looks on the training ground.Pajoy looked pretty good the few seconds of the game the ball actually got that far up the field for him to do something with.

      • Actually Marfan is 5’10” so I guess your only off by 8 inches… Torres is a midget

  8. IMHO, you’re being generous with the 2-4 ratings given to the mids not named “Gomez.” We struggled to maintain any type of possession all night. No wonder the defense was constantly under siege…

    Also, I am still looking for the Adu’s stats from the game. I really think he had about as many turnovers as completed passes.

  9. MikeRSoccer says:

    I think your right about the jury being out on Lopez, but I still think a 3 is pretty harsh. Yes, his side was the fulcrum of Portland’s attack. Yes, he did have some terrible (awesome) tackles, but in the second half Lopez was effectively the only Union player on the left side of the field and had been ordered by Nowak to push up. What he endured was worse than being played out of position because he was told to play lb, lm and lw. Gareth Bale couldn’t have gotten back to cover the 2-3 players that were usually rushing down the left side.

  10. With every game that goes by, the more I realize I fear what Nowak does to this team more than what any opponent can do. His tinkering is not just maddening and unneeded, it’s also flat out wrong and at this point he may be the worst tactical coach in the MLS.
    It’s depressing to see so many players played out of position, so much tinkering that even WE can see these players have no cohesion, and the constant formation changes.
    Its becoming more and more obvious that until Nowak changes, we are going to have to win in spite of him.

    • DarthLos117 says:

      On top of that, Nowak doesnt take any responsibility for his poor decision making…but rather justifies and rationalizes or just avoids talking about his decisions completely. I respect Arena for taking responsibility for LAs loss and his decision to start a tired side against RSL.

  11. i want to see jack and pajoy

    • Good call, their styles compliment each other perfectly. I mean, you couldn’t imagine two better pieces, in terms of complimenting styles, to put up top.
      Chances Nowak plays those two together (in a traditional 2 striker formation where they are both strikers): 0%.

  12. Great analysis all around.

  13. Also, this may sound crazy, but what about trading Carrol? Maybe for some CB or defense depth? Think we could get a young CB with atleast SOME promise for Carrol?
    I know what he has meant for us, but it’s clear Gomez can do all Carrol can do – and more. Instead of suffering through those 2 CDMs sets Nowak is bound to employ for FAR too long, we should trade Carrol and make it harder for Nowak to make that bad tactical decision.

    • Problem with that is Nowak is the guy that would have to make the trade…

    • Besides, you’re assuming we’d get a player back, we only trade for allocation money. I’m trying to think of a player for player trade and cant.
      2010
      Thomas for $
      $ for Mapp
      2011
      $ for Carroll
      2012
      Le Toux for $
      Nakazawa for $ & Intl spot
      I miss anyone? And I now am annoyed that the U don’t list a “how acquired” on their roster and make me look this shite up.

  14. Smth at this shit. The d worked their ass of all night because the midfield got run over no way the d should have to do this much work. They’re not responsible for our strikers and mid fielders. The game starts in the middle of the field if the mids played their game the d would b brilliant . Portland had no problem with this they looked well oiled. So please when it’s only the defense playing we will all look stupid… Eli I really don’t know how you can grade this one. Our mid fielders got an F and every time they do we will lose the game.. Mark my word when they rate hight we will win. The game starts in the middle bro…

  15. Andy Muenz says:

    It says a lot that ZacMac had the most visible mistake and still had the second highest rating (and he deserved it based on all of the other plays he made). The rest of the team really needs to step up or they may be looking at an 0-4 record this month.

  16. Looked over the ratings again, and there is NO WAY in hell Lopez did better than Williams. Lopez was targeted all night and abused all night. The last two goals came from his side. He looked tentative, unable to stop anyone and was lucky not to be sent off.
    Williams was just out of position all night (and as noted, because that was his coachs’ orders) whereas Lopez was imply skinned all night.

    • I thought Lopez looked terrible…he gave opponents too much space, made sloppy tackles, and bit on every move. Looking at the bigger picture, Lopez was completely abandoned by the midfield. I don’t think I saw a midfielder track back to provide him with any defensive cover once during the game. Put a player on the left who knows his defensive responsibilities, can keep the ball out wide, and contribute to offensive possession (Wow, this sure sounds a lot like KEON!)and I think Lopez will be a very steady LB.

    • DarthLos117 says:

      Hah! Imply skinned! Funny cuz it’s true!

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  18. When this team gel we will be very hard to beat.

    • santas grotto says:

      IF this team gels. A first XI needs to play together consistently to gel. With PN that doesn’t look likely.

  19. What are everyone’s predictions for Sunday?

    • DarthLos117 says:

      I predict that Nowhack is gonna get booed and the Union fall 2-0. Than Nowhack will go B-A-N-A-N-A-S in the locker room…at the press conference, Nowhack will tell us that we need more games before we can pass judgement.

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