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Analysis & player ratings: Union 1-0 Crew

Photo: Paul Rudderow

At three of the possible four levels, the Union turned in a very strong performance in defeating Columbus 1-0. Goalkeeping, defense and even the recently maligned midfield were sharp and productive as the Union did just enough to see out the victory.

Yet as they head to Los Angeles to battle Chivas USA, discussions surrounding the team still focus on the lack of goalscoring, with no goals scored from open play. For the second match running, the Union were held to only two shots on target, with one coming from Gabriel Gomez’s match winning penalty kick.

But aside from the obvious three points, there were plenty of positive performances to come from the match that should not be overshadowed by the continuing deficiencies in front of goal.

Return of the Iron Curtain?

In 2011, the Union lived and died by their defense, which wasn’t such a bad way to go given the excellent form of the four men lined up in front of Faryd Mondragon. But after surrendering five goals in their first two matches, alarm bells were ringing with question marks everywhere. Three of the four positions were in flux due to the Sheanon Williams midfield experiment, Danny Califf’s injury status and Porfirio Lopez’s early struggles in adapting to MLS play.

Three games later, it seems—and Union fans will hope—that regular service has been resumed. Gabriel Farfan’s return to the starting lineup at the expense of the hapless Porfirio Lopez not only strengthened the defense; it aided the attack with the aggressive Farfan comfortably prowling forward in support of Freddy Adu. The first half contest between Farfan and rookie attacker Ethan Finlay was an incredibly entertaining and electric duel between two players who were ready to throw whatever they had at each other.

On the other side of the park, you could be forgiven for thinking the last minute inclusion of Ray Gaddis would threaten to derail the Union’s bid for their first win of the year. But Gaddis hardly put a foot wrong, and after taking a few minutes to find the pace of the game, single-handedly eliminated any threat Eddie Gaven could pose on the proceedings.

On the day, the plaudits must fall to Sheanon Williams who, despite being several inches shorter than Crew striker Aaron Schoenfeld, was dominant and assertive in the air, using his strength and positioning to best his man. For Olman Vargas, the field was cut in half, as the Costa Rican wanted nothing to do with the right side of the Union defense. It would be difficult to name a speedier tandem than Gaddis and Williams anywhere in MLS.

Flip. Flop. Win.

Two weeks ago against Vancouver, Gabriel Gomez played the role of midfield destroyer. Sitting in front of the back line he broke up play and looked to start the attack from his own half. Brian Carroll, on the other hand, pushed higher and higher as the match went on, leaving his comfort zone and ultimately missing a glorious chance to steal three points for the Union. Fast forward to Columbus, where Peter Nowak flipped his two holding midfielders, putting each back into his natural slot, and reaped the benefits as both players were largely responsible for keeping the Union in the ascendancy throughout the match.

Operating as a lone ball-winner, Carroll put Mirosevic in his pocket while still having the range to sweep in and provide support to his fellow midfielders and defenders. Higher up the pitch, Gomez helped run the offensive show, spreading the ball around and giving Michael Farfan the freedom to probe and attack defenders. His defensive responsibilities limited, Gomez reveled in his own freedom to chase play high up the field, providing pressure in the Crew half of the pitch and making life miserable for Columbus whenever they tried to build from the back.

Pa-who?

Lionard Pajoy is one of the Union’s two goal scorers, but he seems unlikely to add to that total in the immediate future. Saturday’s match represented another performance in which Pajoy was completely dominated by a center back pairing. While he did show some neat, soft touches in the early going, the majority came from balls played directly to his feet. In the air, Chad Marshall and Eric Gehrig were easily able to crowd out the Colombian, who has yet to prove that he is physical enough to provide the type of hold-up play the Union require.

His back-to-goal play aside, Union fans will be far more concerned with Pajoy’s inability to attack the goal when he has been played in by his midfield. On more than a handful of occasions, Michael Farfan, Keon Daniel, Gomez and Adu all played the big striker in on Andy Gruenebaum’s cage. With the goal beckoning, Pajoy failed to register a single shot as the not particularly fleet of foot Marshall and Gehrig were able to catch Pajoy from behind, nipping the ball away, or forcing his efforts wide of the target.

This is not to say that a target forward needs to be both big and exceedingly quick, but where Pajoy fails is when it comes to using his body to shield the defender from the ball. Perhaps he is still adjusting to the physicality of MLS, but after five games, he is still knocked off the ball far too easily. It is a strength we have seen from Danny Mwanga in the past, putting a defender on his shoulder, shielding them throughout the run, making a foul their only option to intervene. Pajoy need only look to Michael Farfan or Keon Daniel to see players who used their bodies smartly, creating separation between defenders and darting both in and out of traffic with the ball still at their feet.

Speed, please.

During the build up to this match, plenty of the talk was focused on the gaps that could be exploited between the Columbus midfield and defense. While the Union did well to find work in these spaces, a lack of team speed kept them from ripping the game apart and scoring the goals they deserved in this match. With Danny Mwanga missing through injury, a start for Josue Martinez or Jack McInerney could have provided the Union with a danger man capable of blowing by the Crew’s defense with his first step. Lionard Pajoy played his best with his back to goal and the ball on the deck, making the inclusion of a speedy strike partner to split Marshall and Gehrig’s attentions a reasonable option, further stretching the defense and allowing more room for Pajoy to work and distribute.

Player Ratings

Zac MacMath – 6.5

Another night where MacMath was rarely troubled, but responded expertly to the rare threat launched by the Columbus attack. His studs-first intervention to deny Vargas was a match saver and in the latter stages of the second half, he rose well to clamp down on crosses without giving away a sniff of a bobble.

Also, it was good to see MacMath step up and challenge Vargas in the dying moments of the match, vocally calling out the striker for his unnecessary challenge. Confident and assertively protecting his box, both with his play and with his mouth, MacMath channeled his 2011 mentor, Faryd Mondragon, and there is nothing bad about that.

Raymon Gaddis – 6.5

A sterling debut for the rookie fullback. His last minute inclusion in the starting XI may have been a blessing in disguise as he had little time for any nerves to get the better of him. Tasked with containing Eddie Gaven, Union fans would have been thrilled to see Gaddis turn in a stout defensive performance, limiting his errors and staying home to help out Sheanon Williams. Not content to stay deep, Gaddis one-upped expectations and powered forward to support Keon Daniel, who dutifully returned the favor and worked hard in defense. While Danny Califf will return and Sheanon Williams will once again assume the role of right back, the knowledge that Gaddis can be more than simply a depth player is excellent news for the Union.

Sheanon Williams – 8

You could forgive the national audience tuning in to see the Union play on NBC Sports for thinking Sheanon Williams is a full time center back. Despite standing short of six feet, Williams used his strength and positioning along with tremendous leaping ability to completely mask the height discrepancy between him and his mark, 6-4 striker Aaron Schoenfeld. On the deck, Williams had little difficulty asserting his dominance, using quick feet and sharp passing to win the ball and turn it up field as the Union built. With so much of his game focused on getting forward, a solid 90 minutes of pure defending serves as a potent reminder of just how skilled a defender Williams is.

Carlos Valdes – 7.5

Saturday’s stand-in captain, Valdes put in a typically assured shift, looking after Vargas and keeping a handle on his new look back line. With Gabriel Farfan glued to Finlay and Milovan Mirosevic getting bullied in the center of the park by Brian Carroll and Co., Valdes was able to stay tight to Vargas, who only once eluded his attention, leading to MacMath’s solitary save of the match. No matter what winds of change blow around him, Valdes remains a rock for the Union.

Gabriel Farfan – 6.5

Garfan shut down, frustrated, and beat up Ethan Finlay in one of the night’s most interesting duels. He physically intimidated the young Columbus attacker, who was forced into a series of comical and unnecessary simulations to try and find any joy against Farfan. He pushed the play forward as well, pinning back Shaun Francis and supporting Freddy Adu throughout. While there are times when Farfan’s game seems clunky and overly-aggressive, it is hard to fault him on a night where he canceled out his mark entirely. Going against Farfan, a more-seasoned veteran might receive greater consideration from the referee than did the rookie Finlay, but the PPL Park crowd won’t be asking for too many changes in his game, as his performance showed massive improvement over anything Porfirio Lopez offered in the first three and half matches of this young season.

Brian Carroll – 7

Restored to his status as a lone wolf, patrolling the middle of the park, winning tackles and picking up scraps, Brian Carroll was at his combative best. Carroll was physical and eager against Columbus, reducing Milovan Mirosevic to complaining about the treatment he received every time he crossed the halfway line. With Gomez sitting above him pushing the offense, Carroll proved a more confident participant in the possession game, tidily connecting on the short passes that kept the ball moving and Columbus chasing.

Gabriel Gomez – 7

With Brian Carroll sweeping up behind him, Gomez was freed to roam in attack, spreading the field and picking apart the Columbus defense. He set the table beautifully for Pajoy in both halves with teasing crosses, though the striker was unable to convert on his chances. While his yellow card was harsh given the scenario in which is was awarded, that now means the Panamanian midfielder has accumulated three cautions in five matches, a ratio that the Union will need to see him improve. His cheeky chipped penalty certainly reeked of confidence, as he would have been a citywide goat had it been saved.

Keon Daniel – 7

After a couple of uncomfortable weeks adjusting to right midfield, Daniel has settled into the role and is becoming a leader in the Union attack with his smart passing and powerful work on the ball. In a chippy match where tempers frayed frequently, Daniel never broke character, remaining calm and stoic throughout. While Columbus found it a Herculean task to pry him off the ball, Daniel got forward more comfortably than in weeks passed, firing a strong shot into Gruenebaum’s stomach before driving his headed chance agonizingly over the bar. As mentioned above, he showed tremendous work rate to track back and support Gaddis defensively, while providing the youngster, as well as the rest of the midfield, a constant outlet out wide to keep the ball moving.

Michael Farfan – 7

By far the Union’s most electric presence with the ball at his feet, Farfan was simply unstoppable at times, driving into challenges and emerging with the ball on the other side. Gabriel Gomez’s presence freed him to be more creative and at times the interplay between the Union midfielders was simply beautiful to watch, with Farfan pulling the strings on many of the Union’s most promising moves. He still needs to turn his attacking aggression into the creation of his own shot on goal, as he is too unselfish around the box. Still, his confidence growing on a weekly basis, Farfan may just turn out to be the attacking, central midfielder that Union fans have been waiting for.

Freddy Adu – 6.5

Passing and crossing Freddy, good. Dancing Freddy, bad. It’s really as simple as that. It’s hard to give too much grief to a player who created both of the Union’s best scoring chances, the penalty kick and Keon Daniel’s header, but Adu needs to do a better job of understanding and playing to his strengths. For all their glitz and glam, the step-overs need to be retired, and Adu needs to become a player dedicated to spraying lethal passes all over the field, putting his fullback into space up the line, opening up the midfield and playing the final ball through for the onrushing strikers. Adu’s talent is unquestionable, but he is not a speedster by any stretch, and challenging defenders one-on-one is not his bread and butter. Rather, he would be best served to use his excellent vision and touch to become the elite table-setter he is certainly capable of being.

Lionard Pajoy – 3

As mentioned above, Pajoy reeled off some clever early touches but conspired to spurn a raft of chances spread over both halves. Not quick enough to pull away from the defense, Pajoy also could not use his body or angles of running to protect the ball long enough to have a shot on target. On a week where the midfield was on song and set the table with some glorious chances, Pajoy’s performance was simply not good enough. The Union are not scoring goals and Pajoy has played all but one minute up top. At some point, the Union coaching staff must begin to see a correlation there.

Substitutes

Josue Martinez – 3.5

A less than convincing outing from the Costa Rican international who, after netting a brace in the reserve game, will be wondering what he needs to do to earn a start. The cards were stacked against him from his introduction with Pajoy dropping into midfield and leaving Martinez to beat a lone path up top. He looked hesitant and seemed to over-think his decisions, dribbling into traffic with open players surrounding him, or choosing to pass when a lane to goal was begging. Given the circumstances of his inclusion and his lack of minutes up top with a strike partner, it is still hard to make any long-term evaluation of Martinez. With the Union settling in to see out the result, Martinez never received the service Pajoy did and Union fans are left to wonder on how he would have taken some of those earlier chances.

Amobi Okugo – 6

Calm, cool and collected on the ball, Okugo slotted in well next to Carroll and the pair snuffed out any semblance of attack through the center of midfield over the final quarter of an hour. Unfortunately for Okugo, holding midfield is not a position Peter Nowak chooses to rotate, and with Gabriel Gomez collecting cautions like baseball cards, his eventual suspension may be the young US international’s best chance to get on the pitch from the opening whistle.

Antoine Hoppenot – N/A

Ran hard during his brief debut, but really didn’t have much to do outside of adding energy to the final minutes of the match.

Geiger Counter

Michael Kennedy – 3

Consistently inconsistent is a phrase often used to describe MLS officiating. Rarely, however, is it used to describe a referee’s performance throughout a single 90 minute session. Yet for periods on Saturday, Michael Kennedy called everything in sight, only to turn around and let everything go at a different interval. Much of the choppiness in the match can be traced directly to the players lacking a comfort level with what was, and was not, a foul.

Additionally, Kennedy’s grip on the advantage rule seemed tenuous at best. Charging forward, a team looking at a goal-scoring opportunity should be deemed to be in an advantageous position. A square ball, a drop pass or even a short forward pass 50 yards from goal are not advantageous situations, specifically when a player is left sprawled on the turf.

Still, the Union will have nothing but kind words for Kennedy, as it was his decision in the 37th minute that allowed the Union to open the scoring with an ultimately match winning penalty kick.

Proposed formation for Saturday’s match vs Chivas USA

4-1-4-1

MacMath; Williams, Valdes, Califf, Garfan; Carroll; Daniel, Marfan, Gomez, Adu; Mwanga

28 Comments

  1. At the very least, I look forward to our defense continuing to fortify itself back into the rock it was last year; when that happens I have no doubt MacMath will be a big part of it.
    I would say a major flaw with MonDragon was his lack of movement off his line and inability to rush out and considering MacMath looks very aggressive and capable of doing those things, I am expecting big things from this defense in the future.

  2. DarthLos117 says:

    Solid ratings.

  3. Kensington Josh says:

    I’m excited to see Mwanga back. Marfan looks fantastic at points. You’re spot on with Adu. My question is, wasn’t Adu pacey at fourteen? Or was MLS just slow? Is he slower now that he is twenty two?

  4. It may have taken 2 seasons and 5 games but I think we’ve FINALLY found a true starting XI. I agree that Pajoy isn’t cutting it so far, but I still think Nowak will start him next week.

    I don’t know who else noticed, but I have season tickets in 119 – right behind Columbus’ goal for the 1st half – and the ref missed a CLEAR hand-ball in the first half hour, so while the one he did call may or may not have been a true hand-ball, it was justified because the first one bounced off of Gehrig’s outstretched arm – when he was all by himself in the box.

    • I’m in section 127 and we notived the other hand ball too. It seemed really obvious from where I sat.

    • I was in section 121 and that was def. a handball in the first half hour. I don’t know if the penalty was a makeup call but the first one was blatant and the sideline ref seem to see it as well and did not intervene.

    • That’s noticed.

    • It was also visible to the television viewing audience. I definitely saw the eventual call as sweet justice.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Way more of a blatant hand than the one we got the call for. Justice was served in the end.

    • Section 116 says:

      There were three handballs that looked like clear penalties, and netting one for the U was probably justice.

      In addition to the first Gehrig handball, everyone around me also thought that Williams clearly handled a ball around the 70th minute, which also was not called.

      Almost as bad was the mysterious offsides that cost the beautiful Pajoy flick-on. It’s not Kennedy’s fault — he trusted the guy with the angle — but it seemed that the lineman on the North sideline made a few calls just to prove he was there.

      Butwhile the advantage and offside rules were confused, what was probably worse were Kennedy’s decisions on when to stop play. If a non-keeper is sprawled on the deck and does not appear to have a head or spine injury, you let the play go on until either (a) the team does the sporting thing and knocks it away, or (b) the “injured” player’s team takes possession. A ref can’t and shouldn’t blow the whistle every time a lumbering guy takes a dive when they are dispossessed, unless it’s a foul. Columbus appeared to be using this tactic to stop counterattacks if/when they lost their shape and were stripped of the ball.

  5. I have to ask the question, with the performance of the defense in recent weeks, do you continue starting the back four of Garfan, Williams, Valdes and Gaddis allowing Califf time to heal? Also Lopez should not see the field ever again! Columbus’ Rentaria made Slopez his bitch for much of the reserve match. I was embarrassed for Porfi, never have I seen a professional get torched in such a consistent manner.

    • If a guy’s injured, he has to heal up. Pretty straightforward. As well as Williams and Gaddis played, however, you want Califf out there if he can be. Shutting down a rookie target forward (Schoenfeld) is one thing. If you’re facing the Red Bulls, for example, you want Califf out there for his aerial presence with a guy like Kenny Cooper on the other side.

    • Gordon Thompson says:

      Maybe Union need an angry, aggressive striker who doesn’t get as many minutes as they think they deserve to explode for SOG like Rentaria did in reserve game…….or was Lopez just that bad?

  6. Loved the way the defense played. Williams played solid in the back I have to give him credit playing with stitches in his face and mouth. Solid performance!!!!

  7. snugsmac-rejects says:

    Solid rankings, and a solid game by the U. No complaints this week. I had to stay home with a sick child this week, the park seemed a little empty on TV…was that just me or was there a poor showing from the crowd?

    I thought both Farfan’s are really finding their grooves, I had doubts on whether either was a true MLS starter, but if their play continues like this I say yes.

    Also, ADU was not an MVP, but I still think he was dangerous and showed some life. His best game as a Union member in my opinion.

    3 more points this week and we are right back in it.

  8. snugsmac-rejects says:

    Maybe the new German can put it in the net for us!

  9. i say. MacMath; Williams, Valdes, Califf, Garfan; Carroll; Daniel, Marfan, Adu; Gomez, Martinez.

    That’s right. Gomez as a striker.

    • T of the U says:

      I would not be opposed to that actually…Gomez could be a good target man/hold-up forward. And with Martinez or JackMac running off of him. Interesting…I’d be willing to give it a try and see what happens, as Pajoy isn’t really gettin’ it done. Only issue is that Gomez is such a beast in the midfield…and I think a healthy Mwanga is our option up top.

  10. Nice tie, Eli! Turn on the volume on the mick; can barely hear a word with my volume turned to the max.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      Daniel has done an excellent job to get us set up with the technology to make these happen and we are now ironing out the kinks. Next match we should have all the bugs worked out. Thanks for sticking with us!

  11. Also the Interview videos are really well done. Its nice to stuff like that from bloggers and not just the big name networks – and of course this being soccer it aint like there is much of the latter when it comes to the Union anyway.

  12. The Black Hand says:

    Strong rankings. The midfield looked much improved. Keon is really coming into form. He was strong on the ball and took his time with his passing. He seems to be gaining confidence. Marfan is looking more and more comfortable out there, making some nice decisions with the ball. Adu had his best performance with our club, to date. He looked confident and showed good vision with skilled ball movement. I loved seeing a little separation between Gomez and Carroll. Carroll was excellent, in my opinion. I had lost faith in him, but his performance on Sunday was too strong to deny. The freedom to move laterally, allowed him to raise his game a level. Gomez is the right guy to distribute the ball to attacking players. He can also be dangerous when he joins in on the attack, providing a threat from twenty yards out. This was the first time, in a long time, that I saw good ball control from our middle third. The past two outings have revealed improvement in our back line and our middle…progress. Who will be our finisher? That is the million dollar question. I have no idea. We need someone to develop a hunger for goal…ahem, Danny Mwanga. He needs to step up and be that guy. DOOP

    • Black Hand hits the main point spot on. It is time for Danny Mwanga to arrive. If we want to keep this formation, a true striker must show up.

      • All want is for him to get a fair run of games. Nowak jerks players like Mwanga around, starting him, pulling him after 60 minutes, benching him for 3 games, starting him again in a different formation with a different strike partner, and et cetera.
        He gave Le Toux a guaranteed start + 90 minutes every game last year, even though he literally went half the season before scoring his first goal. He has done the same thing with Pajoy so far. Is is that hard for him to name Mwanga our second striker, give him a fair run of 4-5 games, then judge him then? You know, actually give him a chance to develop chemistry and mesh with his teammates?
        Nowak plays musical chairs with this offense, and it’s really unfair to judge our young strikers so far when Nowak caoches like this.

      • I watched the game for the second time last night w a knowledgeable soccer man and we came up with two over riding factors.

        1) The 4-5-1 is here to stay with the Union, and it is not all bad. We have a commanding mid-field presence when we are in it, we win lots of balls and the players and coaches are learning the best spot for each of them. With Carroll in his natural spot, Gomez being the center of everything, Keon, Marfan and Adu sort of floating above Gomez it really looks nice.

        2) Pajoy is a major problem. If we are going to stay in the 4-5-1 (see above) we just need a better player up front. I was selling Pajoy big time based on some tape I saw of him, but he is not translating at all. If you really watch, Pajoy gets excellent service at least 5-7 times in the game (probably more) and doesn’t register ONE stinking good chance.

        Hopefully Nowak will pull Pajoy at this point, and try Danny or the New German right away, both have scored and Danny has scored alot of MLS goals based on his playing time. Pajoy has had 5 games now and has done nothing except convert an easy header.

        BTW I highly suggest watching the game a second time during the week. It is fun and you see alot more when you know the outcome already.

      • The Black Hand says:

        I agree with the snugsmac. Pajoy received quality balls and floundered them with awful touches. Other times he Looked lazy when challenging potential 50/50 balls. I understood his lack of production in the previous matches. The distribution to the attack was poor. Against Columbus that was not the case. Pajoy seemed to lack the pace and aggression needed out of a single striker up top. A pair up top would be more fitting for our current attackers, but that would require another overhaul of the middle. (we finally saw quality out of our midfield. We should run with it.) We need a pure striker with pace. Mwanga has to be that guy! We stuck with him (opting to ship Seba), now he needs to prove that we made the right choice. Overall, we a close to complete. If it is Pajoy, that we stick with, he needs to put forth more effort and provide quality football up top.

  13. I thout martinez looked good(granted i was on the other side of the stadium) he looked unsure, but hungry. I would love to see him/jack mack/ or muanga get a string of starts to see what they can do(for sure jackmack, in the vanc. Game he seemed like the only player who.activley wanted the ball)

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