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Something to prove

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

Sure, a friendly is just a friendly.

But with a midweek match to test themselves against elite European opposition, the Union turned in an excellent performance on Wednesday night, winning 2-1 over Champions League-bound Schalke 04. There were plenty of strong performances from the home side, but a number stood out with players eager to impress the coaching staff and earn playing time as the Union seek to find their form in league play. Starting from the most impressive and moving down the line, here are the players who did the most to reinforce their claims for more minutes in the upcoming league matches.

1. Danny Mwanga

Tasked to lead the attacking line against Schalke, Mwanga took to his task with a renewed work rate, challenging the opposition’s back line in a way Union fans have not seen in 2012. He picked the pocket of Jermaine Jones, who was playing center back on the night, before whistling his shot wide of the near post in the 16th minute. He nearly got on the end of a nice piece of work from Ray Gaddis as he again brought the physical fight to Jones. Mwanga showed good movement as well, dropping into midfield to hold up play and provide quick passes while racing in behind the defense to stretch the Schalke back line, both for himself and his onrushing teammates. Mwanga offered the physicality, touch and pace that Pajoy has lacked over the first eight matches of the 2012 campaign. The case for Mwanga to earn regular minutes is further strengthened by Pajoy’s improved, more comfortable performance out on the wing, where he was not called upon to bang bodies or demonstrate the tight control required of a player who makes his living in the middle third of the pitch.

2. Chandler Hoffman

Strikers are measured by goals scored. Period. Coming out of UCLA, Hoffman was billed as a natural finisher with that elusive “nose for goal.” When he opened his professional account with the game-winner on Wednesday, his teammates were quick to praise his goalscoring instincts. He showed a veteran-like awareness and savvy well beyond his years when he delayed his run at the penalty spot in the play leading to goal, letting his teammates continue to the back post. Then drifting towards the left flank to make himself available for Gaddis, the rookies combined, and Hoffman was able to make the space to turn and fire his shot beyond the Schalke keeper. Add to that Hoffman’s combative, no-quit mentality in his battles against two full internationals in Jermaine Jones and Joel Matip (Matip is Cameroonian), and the reason the Union were so thrilled to nab Hoffman in the draft continues to come into focus.

3. Brian Carroll

With three strikers pressing forward and Kai Herdling and Keon Daniel hot on their heels looking to create in attack, Carroll had to be on top of his game to keep the daunting Schalke offense at bay. And he was. In a big way. On the heels of Gabriel Gomez’s disappointing effort against Seattle, Carroll’s masterful tackling and ballhawking reminded the PPL crowd why he remains such a vital cog in the Union midfield. He will likely be restored to his place in the starting XI on Sunday and will need to have his wits about him to cope with New York’s central midfield trio of Joel Lindpere, Mehdi Ballouchy and Dax McCarty.

4. Kai Herdling

Working from the right flank against San Jose, Herdling looked uncomfortable. Playing as a second striker in Seattle, the going got better for the German, but not by much. Playing in the center of midfield against Schalke, Herdling looked like he was home. Regardless of where he has lined up for the Union, Herdling’s motor cannot be questioned as he covers ground both on offense and defense, looking to find space for himself and his teammates while constantly closing down opponents. On the heels of this performance and Michael Farfan’s recent struggles in the center of the park, Peter Nowak would do well to consider swapping them against New York, giving Farfan the chance to attack rookie Connor Lade while Herdling pulls the strings from the middle of the pitch.

5. Amobi Okugo

Not to be outdone, Okugo turned in a sterling second half performance at holding midfield that rivaled Carroll’s work in the first. The 21-year-old looked calm and collected in a leadership role alongside homegrown Zach Pfeffer and Cristhian Hernandez. He covered enormous amounts of ground and frustrated Schalke as they tried to drive at the heart of the Union defense. For a Union team that has lacked possession over the last month, they should look to the example set by No. 14, because Okugo focuses on playing quick, precise one- and two-touch passes, building patiently and maintaining possession. Additionally, it was first his tackle, and then his cross field pass to Gaddis, that began the build toward the Union’s match-winner.

6. Josue Martinez

Finally a proper run for Martinez up top, and the young Costa Rican international did not disappoint. Working on the right flank against Escudero, Martinez showed pace and guile on the ball as he attacked with aggression and also showed chemistry with the overlapping Gaddis. He was comfortable dropping into the midfield and was eager to get on the ball. His most dangerous run came when he switched fields, finding himself on the left flank. After nearly shaking Astuto Uchida out of his shorts, Martinez created space for himself, releasing a strong effort that brought the best out of Unnerstall. Based on his performance Wednesday night, the Union coaching staff needs to get him on the field as a striker with more than 5-10 minutes left to play.

7. Chris Konopka

With the starting goalkeeper post up for grabs against the Red Bulls this Sunday, both Konopka and Chase Harrison had 45 minutes to audition for the job. Konopka’s second half performance proved the stronger, as he made a string of impressive saves while commanding his box and marshaling his makeshift back line. While the coaching staff will not take marks off Harrison for the goal—he was helpless to stop it—they will raise an eyebrow at the late aerial challenge on Huntelaar that earned Schalke a penalty kick and the Bundesliga’s top scorer a trip to the hospital. Still, Harrison has his nose in front, having been the backup for every match this year. But in denying Lewis Holtby, Teemu Pukki and company, Konopka proved that he is more than capable of stepping in between the sticks should he be called upon.

8. Zach Pfeffer

It was the 17 year-old’s first appearance of the 2012 campaign, and Zach Pfeffer played like he had something to prove. Unfazed by the quality of the opposition, Pfeffer was poised and precise in midfield, linking well with Okugo and driving play forward to bring his strikers into play whenever possible. He stood his ground in the tackle and covered plenty of territory in the three man midfield set up. Also, he nearly stole the headlines two minutes before Hoffman’s winner when he burst into Schalke box and stung the fingertips of Lars Unnerstall with a near post blast.

9. Lionard Pajoy

Goals are goals are goals. See above: Hoffman, Chandler. Goals are the currency in which strikers trade, and Pajoy’s was a beauty. Redirecting Keon Daniel’s delivery beyond Unnerstall took plenty of skill, and for that Pajoy deserves credit. Also looked more lively and involved throughout the first half on the left wing where he was relieved of his duties as a lone striker. While he still made many of the poor touches and decisions that have Union fans tearing at their hair, he nevertheless showed that with a proper strike partner, he will be more likely to pose a threat.

10. Gabe Farfan

Sheanon Williams was shaky at left back against San Jose. Ray Gaddis did better in Seattle but clearly favors his right peg. Seeing Gabe Farfan back on the pitch serving up his rough brand of justice was a welcome sight for a Union side that will be eager to welcome him back into the fold when they travel to Dallas next weekend. At this point in the season, it is hard to argue Farfan’s claim to the left back slot because he is definitely the best option.

11. Ray Gaddis

He’s been forced onto the field through injuries and suspensions to others, but make no mistake, Gaddis is the goods. He proved his quality at both left and right fullback and was a dangerous attacking option on both flanks. Likewise, he showed his full range of skills, pace and strength in the first half when he clashed with Sergio Escudero in the attacking third. Racing up the field to join in the attack, Gaddis fought off the physical challenge of the Spaniard before reclaiming the ball and firing a teasing low cross that was only just hacked to safety by Jermaine Jones. Gaddis was finally rewarded for his industrious performance in the dying moments of the match as he again broke free, racing up the left flank and finding Hoffman for the Union’s winner. While he is predominantly right-footed, Gaddis continues to look like one of the steals of the 2012 draft, producing wherever the coaching staff plugs him in.

11 Comments

  1. I would quibble with the order, but not the choices. I found Carroll most impressive, followed by Martinez. But, as you say, goals are goals are goals. And Danny did look good.

  2. I know the premise of this piece is for players who should get more time on the field, but I feel obligated to say that even though I am in agreement with your choices (perhaps not in the same order, but that’s a minor quibble), Daniel and Valdes are the ish. End of line.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      Not sure I follow. Valdes and Daniel were steady and even. Like usual. Didn’t really learn anything new about them, though Keon’s free kick on Pajoy’s goal was SWEET!.

      • DarthLos117 says:

        ish is slang for Sh@t

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        Oh. Yeah. In that case, I agree. Valdes was always going to be a starter which is why I did not include him in the list. Of the midfielders, I thought Carroll, Herdling, Okugo and Pfeffer showed a ton and while Keon was good, he did not jump out for his performance. I rate him highly and want to see him on the field, but dont think he showed anything extraordinary against Schalke, not that he needed to.
        No one has ever accused me of being cool, sorry for the confusion and my lack of slang knowledge.

      • You used the word “mensch” yesterday, therefore you are tres cooler than I could even hope to be. I just felt like I needed to gush over Valdes and Daniel, even though their place in the starting XI is pretty much a given, which wasn’t really the premise of this piece.

  3. James "4-3-3" Forever says:

    IB we play a 5-4-1 empty bucket with gomez as a CB and pajoy has the forward

  4. Thanks for aggreeing with me on McInerney (who did not apear on your list). Nice compilation; good work!

  5. I am going to ask this question: To what extent is Ray Gaddis ending the tenure of Danny Califf on this team as a starter?

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Good question. I don’t think he will. Sheanon Williams is still far more effective as a right back than a center back. Williams has drawn praise from many (including me) for filling in out of position, but I think the Union are a weaker team with him at center back and not right back.

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