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Analysis & player ratings: Fire 1-0 Union

You’ve got to take your hat off to Peter Nowak. Just when Philadelphia Union fans think they’ve seen every possible formation, he rolls out a 3-2-2-1-2.

The narrowest formation, EVER

While we too frequently focus on the nuances of how a team lines up for kickoff, Nowak’s 3-2-2-1-2 represents just about the most narrow possible alignment of eleven players on a soccer pitch. Swapping Michael Farfan and Keon Daniel further exacerbated the problem, taking the pair off of their natural wings and putting them into the position where, playing to their dominant foot, they would cut further into the center of the park. And unlike past matches where players were free to rotate, moving through the formation at their desire, this side appeared well drilled to maintain their central positioning.

With no second centerback to aid Carlos Valdes, the fullbacks were also hesitant to stray both forward and too near the touchline, thus requiring Gabriel Gomez and Brian Carroll to not only drop deep for defensive duty, but also to work sideline to sideline in their defensive coverage. In the end,  with both constantly on the move to try and cut out the latest Chicago attack, it simply proved too daunting a task and neither player could stamp his authority on the match.

Swap Mwanga and Pajoy back

Though both proved largely anonymous on Saturday night, the Lionard Pajoy-Danny Mwanga partnership should be allowed to continue, with one major alteration: Let Mwanga play his natural position as a withdrawn striker, running off of the target man, Pajoy.

Over the last two matches, the pair have swapped roles and both are playing a position to which their skill set is not best suited. Mwanga, with his back to goal, had few options to stretch his legs, stymieing his blazing quickness and desire to run at defenders. Pajoy, on the other hand, lacks the pace to bring the ball forward and tends to drop too deep into the midfield to go looking for it.

Whether this role swapping occurred because of a coaching decision, or was the result of some sort of on field consensus is unclear. But it needs to stop, and be reversed, immediately.

If both players continue on this trajectory to limit themselves, failing to exploit their best qualities on the pitch, it is hard to see either player finding success—aka goals—any time soon.

Free kick specialist?

With all the uncertainty surrounding the Union, if there was one aspect of the Union’s game that fans could hang their hats on entering Saturday’s match it was that Gabriel Gomez was the unquestioned dead ball taker for the Union.


Over the first 75 minutes of the match both Roger Torres and Keon Daniel stepped up to try their luck on free kicks and corners. When neither met with appreciable success, Gomez finally got his turn late in the game and produced the Union’s best chances—and only shots on target—of the match. His second effort forced a fine save out of Paolo Tornaghi, the first time the young keeper was truly tested. With Valdes, Daniel, Pajoy and Mwanga all available to provide size in the box, it seems unnecessary for any other player to try their luck on set piece delivery when Gomez has already proven his ability to provide his special brand of powerful, dangerous free kicks into the area.

Weekly formation plea

The three man backline must be relegated to the history books, where it belongs, come Saturday. Vancouver’s attacking foursome of Sebastien Le Toux, Eric Hassli, Camilo Sanvezzo and Davide Chiumiento represents an attacking unit equally as potent as anything Chicago was able to throw at the Union. With the big-bodied Hassli in the mix, Union fans must hope for captain Danny Califf’s return, for he is best suited for that physical encounter. If he is not ready to go, then Gabriel Gomez is more than adequate as a substitute, with the simple caveat that he must stay in defense. Being tasked with two positions worth of work proved too much against Chicago, even for the excellent Panamanian, and his game suffered, both in defense and attack.

Player Ratings

Zac MacMath – 6.5

With his defense being carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey, MacMath had to be sharp, and he was. Three times denying Oduro from close range, MacMath showed top tier reflexes and aggression in springing forward off his line to deny dangerous chances. He still needs to improve on his handling as he nearly slapped a close range shot directly into the path of an onrushing defender in the first half. While there was nothing he could do on the goal, throughout the night his face was etched with a concerned expression, resembling a panicked Chris Seitz during the Union’s inaugural campaign. It’s hard to blame the youngster though, as the coaching staff has done him few favors by destabilizing the defense that did so well to protect Faryd Mondragon.

Chris Albright – 3

While he did make a last-ditch sliding clearance on Oduro late in the first half, Albright, along with Valdes, had been victimized by Chicago’s lone striker to begin the play. Albright was simply not up to the task of coping with the pace of Oduro and Nyarko, or the guile and deception of Pappa and Grazzini. The three man backline further exposed his lack of pace. He consistently found himself on an island against a speedier Chicago attacker and the gap between him and Valdes was often far too large and easily exploited by Grazzini’s passing. He was a step slow on most plays and when the Union managed to gain possession, was guilty of hoofing the ball up field, rather than building patiently out of the back. Things won’t get any easier against the Whitecaps and the Union should give Ray Gaddis serious consideration this week.

Carlos Valdes – 4.5

One of the least effective showings for the Union’s best defender. Valdes was badly beaten for Oduro’s goal as he lost track of Chicago’s lone striker, allowing him the space to power home his free header. With only part time help from Gomez and Carroll in the defensive line, Valdes looked less than his typical, assured self and was beaten for pace and positioning by Oduro.. As the match wore on, fatigue began to show in Valdes’ game and while the Union coaching staff has expressed concern about maintaining Danny Califf’s health for the entirety of the season, they will soon have to worry about Valdes’ durability if he is forced to keep up this pace for much longer.

Porfirio Lopez –  3

Another tough night at the office for Lopez as he again proved too timid to commit against attackers and too quick to go to ground when he finally engaged. Marco Pappa had the Costa Rican fullback running in circles. Responsible for Oduro’s counterattacking break that ended in Albright’s sliding clearance, Lopez was dispossessed by Pappa having wandered too far upfield and his carelessness on the ball nearly cost the Union dearly. Like Albright, he pumped the ball forward with greater frequency than the coaching staff would have preferred, conceding possession rather than seeking out a passing option. Three games is not much a sample size when determining a player’s ability, but Lopez has made the same mistakes with alarming consistency. While he was one of this summer’s marquee signings, Gabriel Farfan’s confident second half performance will do little to quiet the grumbles that perhaps last year’s left back might deserve his job back.

Roger Torres – 4

Brought into the side to spark the offense into action, Torres was smothered between the advancing line of Michael Farfan and Keon Daniel and the deep sitting Lionard Pajoy. Torres needs room to create, and with the entire Union midfield occupying the same space, the density in midfield allowed Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause to easily marshal the young Colombian. As mentioned above, should Farfan and Daniel be restored to their natural sides of the pitch, Torres would still represent the best option to pull the strings in the center.

Gabriel Gomez – 5

Being tasked with too much ground to cover, the Union’s best early-season player simply could not keep up with his many responsibilities. Never was this more clear than when he was badly beaten by Marco Pappa in the buildup to Chicago’s goal. Without outside midfielder’s to defend up and down the touchline, Gomez was forced to stray from the center of the park in an effort to slow the dangerous Pappa and found himself too far from home for comfort, with Pappa managing to dance around him to set up Chicago’s eventual match winner. Scrambling around the pitch trying to sort out defensive responsibilities on the fly, Gomez was never able to focus his attention on the attack. With so many positive attributes in his offensive game visible in the first weeks of the season, the coaching staff must revert to a formation where he can again be the key man in starting the build up and helping the Union to control possession.

Brian Carroll – 3.5

Carroll needed to spend his time focused on Grazzini, yet Chicago’s No. 10 had the run of the park in central midfield. Monitoring the full width of the field, along with Gomez, Carroll often found himself out of position. With Grazzini comfortable to set up camp in the center of the pitch, he was always going to have the upper hand. Given the Union’s overly compact attack, Carroll began to pop up out wide in attack, but he lacked the quality to create much out of his few offensive efforts. Another example of a player stretched too far out of his comfort zone to succeed.

Michael Farfan – 4

After excelling in the heart of midfield against Colorado, Farfan looked out of place on the left.. As a right-sided midfielder, Farfan happily gets chalk on his boots, stretching the pitch and attacking players up the touchline. On the opposite wing, the same cannot be said. Tucking tight underneath Torres, Farfan found little space, and with all three fullbacks pinned back in defense, no options presented themselves on the wing. Clearly affected by the formation and tactics on the night, Farfan let his frustration show more than others, and he was guilty of a number of unnecessary fouls that could have proved costly for the Union.

Keon Daniel – 5

Was one of the few Union players who put in a tireless shift, when others seemed to lose focus and drive. Still, the right wing always looked a foreign animal to the left-footed Daniel and he lacked his regular confidence on the ball. Restored to the left in the second half, he combined better with Gabriel Farfan, though they were still unable to generate the clear-cut scoring chances the match required.

Lionard Pajoy – 4.5

Too slow to be dropping deep into midfield to receive the ball, Pajoy had a few more touches on the night than did Mwanga, but barely. With the Union in desperate need of length—in other words, pushing high to stretch the pitch vertically since they were never going to use the horizontal space—Pajoy did his team a disservice. Standing near the center circle, he joined Torres, Farfan and Daniel in a tight area of the pitch that could easily be marshaled by only one or two Chicago defenders. As mentioned above, he needs to bring the fight to the opposing centerbacks while providing a consistent outlet for the midfield, or at the least take turns with Mwanga in this capacity, as his strike partner is far more capable of exploiting the space behind the midfield.

Danny Mwanga – 4

Mwanga suffered the anonymity that comes with holding a high line on a night when service was non-existent. He looked like he might show more enterprise early in the match by earning a couple of free kicks when he worked back to the ball. However, as Chicago grew into the match and Union midfield failed to find their feet, Mwanga drifted further and further out of the fixture for the ball rarely made its way far enough forward for him to have much work.

That said, Mwanga must show more movement and desire to create opportunities for himself if he is going to find his goal-scoring form. It may be harsh criticism on this particular night, since dropping into the midfield to hunt for possession would have created even more undesirable traffic. But Mwanga needs more of the ball to be successful and with the midfield struggling at the moment, he must put in the work to put himself in better positions to profit from his touches, however rare they may be.


Gabriel Farfan – 5

More confident and assured at left back than Lopez, Gabriel Farfan put his hand up to remind the coaching staff just how far he progressed in 2011. He got forward well to support Daniel once he switched back to the left wing, though his service into the box was soft. Still, connecting passes and overlapping smartly represented a marked improvement for the Union out of the left back spot and Farfan may hear his name called sooner than later if Lopez’s struggles continue.

Josue Martinez – 5

Bright and ready to run when he replaced Mwanga, even the quick feet of Martinez could not track down the errant balls being played forward to him. He attempted to keep up the pressure by maintaining a high line, but with little consistent service to speak of, Martinez’s effort was largely wasted.

Jack McInerney – 4.5

Was fortunate to earn a free kick immediately upon entering the match, but made little other impact despite the Union’s strong play over the final 10 minutes.

Geiger Counter

Ricardo Salazar – 7

Sure he was inconsistent, but his inconsistency favored the Union more often than not. How Michael Farfan stayed out of his notebook despite numerous fouls is anybody’s guess. And the Cory Gibbs foul on Jack McInerney that began the Union’s spell of late dominance looked a fair challenge from every replay. In the end, the referee’s decisions had no effect on the outcome of the match, and that is about all you can ask for.

Preferred Formation for Saturday vs Vancouver


MacMath; Gaddis, 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. 


  1. What a sad statement that the ref gets the highest rating 🙁

    • PhillyHotspur says:

      lol man……so damn true.

      So focking disappointing coming off such a strong year…

      A) Nowak’s continual tinkering continues to have adverse effects
      B) Danny Boy continues to regress
      C) Lopez looks like a serious dud at LB
      D) Still not confident in our keeper

      Lots of work to be done………And why O why are we even in this place to begin w/ ???

      Falls on Nowak ……plain and simple

  2. PhillyHotspur says:

    But very strong Player rating assessment……..

  3. I think Martinez needs to be on the field with Torres. Josue seems to be able to anticipate Roger’s aggressive forward passes and he makes good runs for them. I was disappointed that Roger was taken off before Josue was brought on. I would have liked to have seen more from them to figure out if they really do have good chemistry. Heck, it’s as good an idea as anything Nowak has.

  4. DarthLos117 says:

    Its gonna be a long year. Lopez is a bust. Mwanga is on the edge of a career bust. Nowak is just losing it and must be surrounded by a bunch of “yes men” scared to tell him he’s crazy…Im a fan of your projected lineup minus Gaddis. G. Farfan instead. Its gonna be a long DK barrel throwing year…

  5. MikeRSoccer says:

    Let’s wait to judge Lopez. Keep in mind that Williams has not looked good in either of the games he played. I believe Lopez has looked poor as well, but keep in mind that he has not had a stable defense, has played two games in a 3 back formation that is not suited for his LB skill set. I doubt very many Lbs could play well given the circumstances. He has shown flashes of good play and with a standard 4 back system, with a LM in front of him that is not moving into the center leaving Lopez all alone on the left side of the field…. He can succeed. Given the tactical decisions Nowak has made Valdes, Williams, Marfan and Torres have, all looked dreadful and yet no one is calling them duds yet.

    • The Black Hand says:

      How much time do we want to give this guy? The Union had one of the strongest defensive units in the league last year and they are all on the roster. Granted Mondragon is gone and that is a huge hit, but why would Nowak decide to tinker with what actually worked for us. Especially, given the fact that we have a very shaky goaltender. Lopez plays a very lazy game. He is out of position more than he is in. He does not challenge any crosses, many of which have resulted in goals, (2 in Portland and one in Chicago). He has size but never challenges because he gets caught looking at the ball, or the opponents boots. As far as the others, Valdez has been the only one pulling any weight on the back line and has simply been overworked. Williams has been a LB/LW and that is just poor management. Marfan, has put in effort. He lacks the skill needed and, like the rest of the team, lacks any hunger when it comes to putting the ball on goal. Torres appears to have taken over Adu’s job of killing plays by drawing the ball back, rather than pushing the ball up for an attack. I feel he needs a little time to get comfortable in a starting role (Nowak will not allow that.) Mwanga has been awful and might just be a complete bust…maybe. He waits for the ball, rather than attacking it. However, he could work out if a midfield shows up for the Philadelphia Union. The long balls over the top simply don’t work and it seems to be the only plan of attack that Nowak has. I feel that we have the pieces to a winning squad, but without the manager we cannot win. It is getting very close to time for Peter Nowak to step down.

  6. Thank you for address the fact that Gomez didn’t take any free kicks until late in the game. You have a guy who has already scored on a set piece and is dangerous every time he steps over the ball. And for a large part of the game you didn’t use one of your best weapon. No. Excuse.

  7. no wak mu st g o says:

    i disagree with u about ZM he needs to have both hands behind ball and make save on a pretty soft header.. or come off his line and defend the cross…

    however he was solid rest of game besides the last 15 seconds of first half…

    • I think McMath has his problems, for one looking timid the whole game but can’t fault him on a goal from an open header at the PK spot, about ten goalies in the world are making that save on a consistent basis. (none of them are in the MLS)

    • The Black Hand says:

      I have to agree with you on Macmath. The header was actually pretty soft and definitely should have been contested. No goalie should ever allow a ball to come into his area (six yards), without contesting it through the air. The resulting header squeaked by due to poor positioning. That said, the kid is only nineteen. I hope that he will perform better through time. He is a bit overly aggressive on some balls for my liking. His defender saved his ass on a play in which he overcommitted. I think he will perform better with a little defensive aid…I hope

  8. I think if they went to a 4-4-2, Albright would be ok. He’s naked with 3 back cause he just doesn’t have the speed. As for the midfield alignment, maybe instead of a 4-4-2, the midfield diamond 1(Gomes), 2 (Marfan/Daniel) and 1 (Torres) would get the width they have yet to find. Then a top 2 of Martinez/Pajoy.

    Mwanga’s response to the pressure of being the guy is to turtle and become even more invisible. This trend that started last season of not looking to shoot is now alarming. I’d rather see Jack off the bench first than Danny at this point.

  9. The coaching staff needs to read this. Garfan may be better and we no doubt need 4 in the back. That would be a shame that we spent money on lopez for nothing. Do you think he would be better as a central defender? I also wantto see mcinerney with pajoy. Mcinerney shows aggression for the ball more thanthe other offensive players.

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