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Analysis and player ratings: Union 2-3 Red Bulls

Photo: Nicolae Stoian; Video: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Losing a rivalry game can be devastating. Especially when that rival was thoroughly outplayed for 90 minutes. Yet that is where the Union find themselves.

Playing down a man for 47 minutes, the Union still turned in their best performance of 2012, looking confident on the ball and eager to attack the questionable New York defense. It wasn’t enough. Though Freddy Adu’s red card did not turn the game for New York, it did insure that as the match wore on, the legs of the remaining 10 Union players would grow weary far more rapidly than those of their opponents. But the Union fought on and, despite the gut-wrenching loss, deserve credit for the heart and intensity with which they stayed in the match.

Battling until the very end, it was only their own inefficiency in front of goal that kept the Union from earning at least one hard fought point from the match.

It has two be two strikers going forward, right?

What a difference an extra striker makes.

With Danny Mwanga stepping into the back-to-goal, target forward role, Lionard Pajoy slid out wide to the left and both players profited from the alliance. With Freddy Adu a live wire in the opening 30 minutes, Mwanga created plenty of space by pressuring the centerback pairing of Tyler Ruthven and Markus Holgersson. Pressing high and providing some much needed physicality, Mwanga held the ball, shielding off defenders and twice put Adu into shooting lanes. He created for himself as well, turning and squaring up to goal, showing the confidence and intent that had been lacking in his earlier appearances in 2012.

With Mwanga occupying two men in the middle of the pitch, Pajoy found himself free to run at Brandon Barklage on the left. Cutting into the box he was plainly enjoying playing his kind of soccer, facing goal. Union fans will still be concerned with his finishing because he missed a glut of point-blank chances, but between his powerful 31st minute header and second chance effort in the 46th, there were plenty of positives in Pajoy’s match, particularly his ability to find space when running off another striker.

BC, the Destroyer

Don’t look now, but Brian Carroll has his swagger back. Whether it is covering enormous amounts of turf on defense or providing the quick, simple outlet in the Union’s build up play, the decision to drop Carroll into the lone holding midfield spot has paid off for the Union.

And his teammates have noticed.

With Carroll snuffing out opponents attacks and doing the little things to keep the Red Bulls from settling into their attacking groove, the rest of the Union midfield, along with both outside fullbacks, had the freedom to get forward. Plenty will be made of the impact of the second striker—and rightly so—but Carroll’s confident and capable display in front of the back four must also be pointed to as a major reason for the Union’s ability to throw four or more bodies into the attack, even after they went down a man.

You can’t teach height…

But you can acquire it, draft for it, or trade for it. With Danny Califf missing from the lineup, the average height of the Union’s back five—the defense plus Carroll—is a hair over 5’10”. And that’s based on the listed heights of players, which can be slightly exaggerated.

With the Union already a deficient unit when it comes to set piece defense, they simply are not big enough to compete consistently in MLS. And that’s not to take anything away from a defense that has played its heart out over the past 5 games, (2 wins, 3 losses). Regardless of their impressive effort, their speed—probably the best in MLS—and their ability—which is unmatched when it comes to getting forward and supporting the attack—MLS is still a league for the big boys. And the Union’s patchwork defense does not appear capable of holding it together for the entire season.

In 2011, the Union had great fortune when it came to the health, discipline and form of the back line. In 2012, their reliance on a thin defense core has come back to bite them. With the rumored trade of Danny Califf, the Union are left with only one natural center back on the roster. Add to that the busts that have been the acquisitions of Chris Albright and Porfirio Lopez, the latter made all the more glaring with Peter Nowak preferring attacking midfielder Michael Farfan in defense to the Costa Rican, and the Union defense is in shambles.

Ray Gaddis’ sterling play came out of nowhere to plug some of the holes, and Sheanon Williams has raised his physical game at just the right time to shoulder the load in the center of defense. But if the Union expect to make it through a season with this makeshift and undersized unit, they are kidding themselves.

Player Ratings

Zac MacMath – 5

While it would be hard to directly blame MacMath for any of the three goals, any day a keeper pulls the ball out of his net that many times won’t leave a good taste in his mouth, nor will saving only 1 out of 4 Red Bulls shots. For the second week in a row, MacMath gave up a juicy rebound in the center of the box, though he did recover well to challenge Agudelo’s overhead kick. He also must focus on his distribution, which became loose as the match wore on.

Michael Farfan – 6

Hard to argue with Farfan’s performance, as he gave a strong showing of himself despite being played out of position. The Union’s attacking center midfielder for the early portion of 2012, Farfan looked to have enjoyed the freedom of life back out wide, even if it was in a defensive role. He pressed Lindpere and forced the Estonian to slide into the center of midfield to look for work. Going forward, Farfan looked dangerous, though a few of his crosses were marginally overhit. In the dying moments, lofted a perfect free kick which landed at the feet of Pajoy, but the big Colombian was too slow to pull the trigger, allowing Meara to cover the shot.

Farfan could have been the hero with a late tap-in, and only he will know how he failed to bury the open chance from less than two yards out.

Sheanon Williams – 7

Giving away 4 to 7 inches to Kenny Cooper, Williams had to break out some of his best martial arts maneuvers to cope with big striker. And he did cope surprising well with a player who now has more goals than the entire Union team. With the ball on the deck, Williams looks supremely confident, knocking the ball around, showing a willingness to keep the ball moving rather than simply pumping it up field. In the air, its hard not to marvel at his leaping ability, but to see Williams as a permanent option in the center of the park seems far fetched. With the beatings he’s taking against the larger strikers he is forced to mark, the Union should be concerned about how much physical punishment he can endure.

Carlos Valdes – 6

Beaten badly for New York’s third goal, Valdes was uncharacteristically out of position when he stepped high towards Richards and lost Cooper’s run in behind. It was hard luck on the Union captain because he and the Union back line had kept close tabs on Cooper all night. If Danny Califf has indeed departed the Union, Valdes will be under even more pressure to prove his physicality and aerial presence in the coming weeks, with FC Dallas’ Blas Perez his next challenge.

Ray Gaddis – 7.5

What can’t Gaddis do? The rookie was everywhere on Sunday afternoon, all while neutralizing Dane Richards, the Red Bulls top speed threat. He chased all the way across the pitch to pressure Ballouchy in the build up to New York’s first goal and still had the jets to win a footrace against Richards in the dying moments of the match, making sure the Jamaican could not get a shot off on the empty net. Above the hustle and effort given by the rookie, his spatial awareness and tight control were most impressive for he looked completely in sync with Keon Daniel as the pair worked the ball calmly out of trouble in the defensive third and combined to create chances in the attack. He even managed to put in some left-footed crosses.

Brian Carroll – 7.5

See above. Carroll is in peak form for the Union. Despite the next two matches being played on the road, Peter Nowak would do well to stick with the aggressive 4-4-2 he deployed against the Red Bulls because Carroll is more than capable of holding down the fort at the back, provided the Union retain their full compliment of eleven players.

Keon Daniel – 5

A Jekyll and Hyde performance from Daniel. On one hand, he worked tirelessly in the midfield to retain possession, combining well with Gaddis up the wing and helping to drive the Union offense forward with sharp, decisive passes into the forwards. On the other hand, Daniel found himself alone on the keeper twice and failed to convert, the first time he looked shocked that the ball made its way to him and he botched his touch, the second time he delayed too long on the break away, allowing Meara to smother his chance. And finally on defense, Daniel failed to get off the ground to challenge Markus Holgersson when he rose to head home for New York’s second goal.

For all the good he brings to the starting XI, Daniel must ratchet up his focus in the offensive and defensive thirds to become a top player in MLS. That means scoring a few goals and, as one of the largest bodies on a small Union team, using his head to prevent them.

Gabriel Gomez – 5.5

Freed from the responsibilities of defensive midfield, Gomez got back to the business of setting up chances and found some of his early season form. He moved the ball forward with purpose and covered the wings well when either Adu or Daniel went for a run. Still, the sharpness was lacking from the Panamanian as he skewed passes off target that he normally would stick and looked a little out of sorts under the pressure of McCarty and Marquez. He seemed hesitant to play the quick, one-touch passes that were required while his teammates were knocking the ball around him. He was really sucking wind when finally substituted late in the match.

Freddy Adu – 4

Union fans got to see the best and worst of Adu in 43 minutes on Sunday. He let his excitement get the better of him early when he was booked for a nasty late tackle on Roy Miller. Absolutely electric with the ball at his feet, Adu left the Red Bulls with no answers for his jinking, driving runs. Tested Meara early and worked well with Mwanga to get himself into shooting positions. But then came the red card. Debates will rage about whether referee Jorge Gonzalez’s call was just but, with Adu looking primed to take over the match, the Union suddenly found themselves without their most influential player on the day. And they were always going to struggle to get a result after that.

Danny Mwanga – 6

Used his body well throughout to pressure New York’s center backs and made sure he kept their focus, freeing up Pajoy to roam. Combined well with Adu and looked to bring Pajoy into the play as he dropped into midfield to make the simple wall pass that kept the Union’s attack flowing. Faded a bit as the first half wore on and Pajoy tucked in too close in the center of the pitch, with the two forwards running into each other. Still, he looked more confident going forward and had a couple lashes at goal even though they were off the mark. Looked hesitant to attack one on one and until he takes the ball at pace and runs straight at a defender his confidence will not have fully returned. Regardless, it was a strong performance from Mwanga, who deserves another run out along Pajoy because he is the only player on the roster with the physicality and touch up front to make two forward partnership with Pajoy work.

Lionard Pajoy – 7

Pajoy showed how much more comfortable he is when not required to play as a physical, back-to-goal striker. He did well to convert two of his chances, especially the second as he stuck with the play despite missing out initially. With Mwanga occupying the center backs, Pajoy was able to move as he pleased, preferring to work from the outside in on the left flank, with the Union creating more chances for him than in any prior match.

It is hard to call out a player anytime he scores a brace, but Pajoy missed a raft of gilt-edged chances to tip the match towards the Union in the early going. Also, with the empty net begging, he failed to look sharp on a number of occasions in the closing minutes. He could have had a third and probably a fourth goal after he was set in by Adu, Farfan and Daniel with regularity throughout the match.

Regardless, with matches against a struggling Dallas side and the shockingly bad Toronto FC, Peter Nowak will have been happy to see his move to two strikers pay off and should keep faith with the duo going forward.


Kai Herdling – 5

With the Union tiring and New York growing in possession, the questions are less about Herdling’s performance and more about his inclusion. With Amobi Okugo capable of providing defensive strength and composed passing in the middle of the park, the 5’7″ German’s entry into the match was surprising. Holgersson tied the match less than a minute after Herdling ran onto the pitch, forcing an immediate change in tactics. He whipped in a couple of dangerous balls as the match wore towards the final whistle, but ultimately was unable to affect the outcome.

Chandler Hoffman – 5.5

Nearly replicated his match-winner against Schalke when he flashed to the left, showing for Gaddis late in the match. Unfortunately, the ball was inches behind him, and the striker could not find the first time strike he desired. He worked hard in his brief appearance and made smart runs into the box to provide good options for the midfield. Looks to be growing in confidence.

Josue Martinez – N/A

With only six minutes to play, Martinez worked hard to help the Union pull a goal back and nearly had an assist when he flicked on to Michael Farfan at the back post, only to see the temporary fullback scuff his effort wide.

Geiger Counter

Jorge Gonzalez – 1

It is simply a question of consistency when it comes to Gonzalez’s performance. Had he not given a free kick for every dive from Rafael Marquez, every soft tumble from Kenny Cooper, and every theatrical spill from Mehdi Ballouchy in the early going, Adu’s second yellow and subsequent ejection would have seemed warranted. However, to give a second yellow on that play was extremely harsh. McCarty left his leg in and Adu went down. There was no arm-flailing or appeals. Had Gonzalez simply allowed play to continue, neither side would have complained. It was not as if Adu had been falling all over the pitch. It was a simple isolated incident and Gonzalez got the call wrong.

Once the decision was made, Gonzalez tried to offer up a few nuggets for Union fans as he told Cooper to stop flopping, yet managed to not card him, offering the Red Bulls hit man leniency he had not shown to Adu.

When all that is being asked of a referee is consistency, Gonzalez earns his low mark not for the Adu incident, but for his continued inability to provide the players with an clear understanding of what is and is not legal in his eyes.

Preferred Formation for Saturday’s match at FC Dallas


MacMath; Gaddis, Williams, Valdes, G. Farfan; M. Farfan, Carroll, Herdling, Daniel; Mwanga, Pajoy


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

    1) I admit when I am wrong, and good god was I wrong about Carroll. I completely underestimated his ability at this point in his career. He can anchor a backline as well as anyone in the MLS. And his passing, while needing to be complemented by a more forward midfielder, is calm and collected and does well to relieve pressure. Which leads me too
    2) If Nowak had any sense at all, he would keep this lineup and formation and tactics and ride it till it stops working. While I am as optimistic as I have been all year, it is tempered by the worry that Nowak is just as likely to play a 3-4-3 next week as he is this successful formation.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      To a certain extent this was a 3-4-3. Marfan seemed to be playing more of a midfield role than a back and Adu wasn’t far from being a 3rd striker.

    • Agreed James. I too am optimistic for the first time in quite a while. It was great to see some exciting, entertaining soccer from the Union. I’m looking forward to the next match, hoping they can keep it up but sadly I’m fully expecting Nowak to “F” things up with his constant line up changes.

    • Kremsteremus says:

      Nowak does not have any sense at all. FIRE HIM NOW!

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    I think Valdez was given too high a rating. In addition to the third goal, I thought he was caught way out of position on the first goal as well.

    • To be fair, Valdez may be caught out of position a few more times in the coming weeks if Califf is gone. Williams isn’t a trained CB so if he gets pulled out of position, Valdez has to move out of position to cover for him. I’ve seen many cases where a good CB is blamed for conceding a goal because he was out of position, when the real fault lies with the person he was covering for.

    • Kremsteremus says:


  3. Freddy was electric in the first half. 10 performance until he got sent off.

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

    Also, Pajoy was actually #1 in the Catrol rankings this week. Which must mean he doesnt take into account all the great chances he completely shanked. Seriously, he didn’t even put some of his great chances on frame, which is embarassing.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Whole team missed chances. Pajoy was involved, (for the first time), and putting the ball in the general direction of the goal. I’ll take that. Overall, our finishing was awful. That game was offered up, many times, but we refused to put it away. That said, it was refreshing to see our club have an attack and (actually) be in a position to score.

  5. I kinda think Gaddis is a bit overrated. He will be great but right now he lacks strength and gets pushed around a lot. He also has a tendency to get burned bad, but his speed usually helps him make up for his mistakes.

    • but we also knew that in drafting him everyone said he is not very strong but is a speed demon like no other and uses it offensively and defensively. if you dont like the way he plays fine but at the same time he is only a rookie and has plenty of time to improve. i think the hype i because of where we got him in the draft compared to how he has actually been playing

      • We knew it. And I’m not against him getting minutes. But people are treating him like he is a finished product. He isn’t and unless we are conceding this season I don’t think he should start.

  6. Is that a 7 rating for Pajoy? Not used to seeing such a high number for him. Had to double-check it wasn’t a 1. 😉 Although I prefer your projected lineup, E, I fear that Nowak et al will resort to the “tried and tested” defensive posture of a 4-5-1 … MacMath; Gaddis, Williams, Valdes, G. Farfan; M. Farfan, Carroll, Gomez, Herdling, Daniel; Pajoy

  7. You nailed the rating for Gonzalez. If he would’ve given a PK for Adu falling I would’ve quietly accepted it, knowing that we got away with one. But to call it a dive, even at full speed, is just absurd. Macarty was trying to make a play, and smartly backed off in time, but it’s not like Adu was just flopping all over the place. As he said I think he was genuinely bracing to get taken down and lost his balance. I think the correct call was a no call, as it was neither a dive or a penalty. The initiative to eliminate diving is a good effort by MLS, but it’s not one referee’s job to do it in one game to a player who had no prior issues with diving in that game.

  8. told you we need 2 strikers

  9. Actually thought they were playing more of a 4-3-3 with Adu really high on the right and Pajoy sort of in the position Villa plays for Barcelona, as a wide forward but not a winger. While I liked Marfan at the back because it gives us an outlet at the back, playing those 4 at defense gives me nightmares because as evidenced by the second goal, at times 3 defenders would be really high up the pitch. Also props to Carroll. He has been excellent this season, tackling and distribution, and we really missed him during the Seattle game.

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