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Analysis & player ratings: Union 3-0 Toronto FC

Photo: Paul Rudderow

While the Union’s last second triumph over the Galaxy on Wednesday night was impressive, watching the 90 minute dismantling of Toronto FC was something more.

In LA, outside of two highlight reel goals scored by Jack McInerney and Michael Farfan, the Union were beaten for intensity and quality, with the Galaxy controlling the match’s flow for 90 minutes. Were it not for the heroics of Zac MacMath and the back line in front of him (and on a few occasions, behind him), things would have gotten out of hand. Quickly.

Sunday’s Union team knew what was required of them and understood that succumbing to Toronto for the second time in 2012 was simply unacceptable.

Beat the teams you’re supposed to beat

Both teams were tired. Both had to deal with a stacked fixture list, thousands of miles of travel, and injuries to key players.

But in a must-win game for both teams, the Union deserve all the credit for coming out sharp and focused, taking the game to Toronto and refusing to let up.

PPL Park once stood as a fortress for the Union. Visiting sides knew that they would be lucky to slink away from Chester with one point. But late in Peter Nowak’s tenure, that mystique washed away. Reactionary tactics, most notably in the franchise’s first ever home playoff game against Houston, announced to the league that the Union were not looking to command the game, but rather to react to it.

John Hackworth’s aggressive, inspired home performances are quickly reestablishing his team’s pride in playing at home. Notching a second defeat of Kansas City in less than a month and earning a win over the Montreal Impact would go a long way toward restoring PPL Park’s reputation.

Movement makes space. Space makes goals.

All of the sudden, the Union can’t stop scoring.

They score goals for fun.

It all begins with the movement up top.

What Jack McInerney is missing in terms of size and speed he more than makes up for in the quality, timing and execution of his runs. On Sunday, he surged in behind the Toronto defense on more than a handful of opportunities without once being flagged offside. Not only did these runs create plenty of goal-scoring opportunities for the Union, but they also forced the defense to think twice about aggressively stepping into the midfield to break up play.

Unlike when Lionard Pajoy or Danny Mwanga ran in the center forward channel, McInerney freezes a defense, holding them that extra second needed to open space for playmakers Michael Farfan and Freddy Adu to thrive.

For a team lacking in physical stature, McInerney’s resurgence could not have come at a better time.

At no point in the Union’s brief history have they been considered a strong aerial team. Yet, whether it was Moreno, Ruiz, or most recently, Pajoy highest up the pitch, long balls were common place, though few were ever corralled by their intended target.

With Hackworth’s 4-3-3 stretching the field vertically and horizontally from touchline to touchline, the long ball has been restored to its rightful place. No longer the first option for a team that seems to better understand its strengths, long lofted balls only come into play when switching fields or playing over the top to a streaking forward, never into a 50-50 context.

The most dangerous fullbacks in MLS

Reggie Lambe and Eric Avila barely knew what hit them.

With the decidedly defensive minded Torsten Frings and Terry Dunfield coming through the center of the pitch, Toronto pinned all their attacking hopes on their two outside midfielders. Union fullbacks Sheanon Williams and Gabriel Farfan proved it a poor tactical decision  as they took turns beating their marks.

Living life almost exclusively in the offensive half of the pitch, the Union’s defensive bookends are close to shedding the term fullback. Perhaps wingback is more appropriate for the pair who spent nearly as much time in the attacking third Sunday as they did protecting their own defensive zone. With Michael Farfan and Gabriel Gomez directing traffic in the midfield, both wingbacks saw plenty of the ball as they were repaid for their effort to storm forward.

While Kansas City and even Montreal will offer more resistance than Toronto, the blueprint for success is clear. With Brian Carroll dropping deep to support the defense when Gabriel Farfan and Williams go hunting, the Union have shown the ability to attack with seven bodies. Hackworth’s commitment to a set system should only see the Union improve as an attacking force in the upcoming weeks. Already known to be stout defensively, the Union can begin to earn the reputation of having a dangerous attack as well.

Post-game Press Conference with coach John Hackworth

Player Interviews with Jack McInerney, Sheanon Williams , Gabriel Farfan, Antoine Hoppenot

Player Ratings

Zac MacMath – 7

Made the saves he needed to make and got help from Sheanon Williams to preserve the shutout. Must tighten up his distribution, as too many of his long balls found their way to touch or were turned over directly to a red shirt. Seems to have rediscovered the confidence that had been lacking following his return from concussion symptoms.

Sheanon Williams – 7.5

He may not be back to 100 percent fitness yet, but don’t mention that to Eric Avila. The Union right back held an extremely high line throughout Sunday’s match, failing to give any Toronto player, whether it was Avila or later De Guzman, room to roam on his flank. Showed immense commitment to head Danny Koevermans leaping volley off the line, keeping Toronto off the board.

Amobi Okugo – 8

Was in tremendous form for the Union defense, surpassing even Valdes with his timely tackles and interceptions. Seems to have worked out his positional issues on defense. Going forward, Okugo was eager to get on the ball and used it smartly, leading the team with 59 completed passes. Just as impressive were the only 4 incomplete passes the converted midfielder played, despite switching fields and lofting long balls forward.

Carlos Valdes – 7

It was another solid showing from the Union captain, who can take pride in the hunger and aggression showed by his back four. With Reggie Lambe’s wing the only effective channel of attack for Toronto, the play biased towards the left of the Union defense. Had a couple of shaky moments against Ryan Johnson, who first bumped him off before serving a ball for Koevermans, and later ran in behind Valdes when Valdes stepped up too soon. These moments are only worth noting in that they were two rare attacking forays for the visitors, and Valdes’ teammates did well to cover for their captain, as he has for them all season.

Gabriel Farfan – 7

There was a moment when Reggie Lambe made a face as if to say, “Not only am I going nowhere against this fullback, but he’s ALSO a better attacker than I am.” It’s true. Farfan got forward time and again on Sunday, negating Lambe’s impact to a few soft fouls when the exasperated Toronto winger ran out of ideas and went to ground looking for a call. Showed composure and confidence in settling McInerney’s cross before releasing Adu to set up the Union’s second goal. Even broke out his dancing shoes to show off some fancy foot work.

Brian Carroll – 7

With Toronto playing Frings and Dunfield in the center of midfield, the Reds offered negligible drive through the middle of the pitch, which made for a quiet evening’s work for Carroll. The Union were never pressed through the middle of the field, leaving Carroll to play simply, getting the ball to more creative options in Gabriel Gomez and Michael Farfan. Carroll is best in matches like this one, where he is rarely mentioned.

Gabriel Gomez – 7

Looking more limber and fit than in the LA or Houston matches, the Panamanian had a strong match distributing the ball. With Michael Farfan and Adu both in irresistible form, Gomez did well not to do too much other than keep the play moving forward. Showed excellent vision to switch fields at the right times to keep the Union in possession and displayed his delicate touch on balls that put in Pajoy and Williams. Did well to control his body for his goal, reaching back to latch onto a ball that was marginally behind him.

Michael Farfan – 9

The Union have a No. 10 shirt lying around without an occupant. On Sunday, Michael Farfan took a giant step towards declaring himself its rightful owner. After struggling to adapt to his role in the 4-3-3, Farfan has come on in recent weeks, pressing higher and staying more central as he looks to be the primary playmaker for the Union. Against Toronto, it all clicked into place with Farfan delivering a master class in distribution, midfield control and creation of chances.

Had his radar locked on McInerney all night and found the No. 9 with regularity as he got surged into the Toronto box to set up the Union’s opener. Never looked to be pressing as he drove the offense at a canter, whether he was switching fields, playing simply through the midfield, or providing the lethal pass through the Toronto defense. His two-touch trap and pass to set up Hoppenot for the Union’s third summed up his night: simple and ruthlessly efficient. Farfan’s play made everyone else better on Sunday.

Freddy Adu – 8

Deployed on the left wing against Toronto, Adu brought out the whole bag of offensive tricks. Tucking underneath to look for work, Adu ran at defenders, found his teammates and scored his first goal since April. He made a great run off of Gabe Farfan to stretch the Union’s lead to two and hopefully will learn to work as hard off of the ball as he does on it. Toronto simply had no answer as Adu got to full flight for the first time since New York came to PPL Park. He’ll regret not grabbing a second in the first minute of the second half when he missed the target after Kocic’s fingertip save on McInerney’s chip fell perfectly to him.

Jack McInerney – 8

It has only been a few weeks since his return to the lineup, yet it is hard to imagine the Union without him. The most precise runner of any Union forward, he picked out Logan Emory as the weak link in the Toronto backline and tortured him all afternoon. Showed veteran smarts to cut back his cross for the first goal, rather than driving it towards the backpost. With Emory and Eckersley dropping off and running scared, McInerney showed his quality with his back to goal, dropping frequently into midfield to hold up the ball. It was one such run that saw him release Gabriel Farfan for the Union’s second of the night. And he’s still a teenager.

Lionard Pajoy – 7

Less comfortable on the right flank than his regular spot on the left, Pajoy still put in a gritty, productive shift. His budding connection with McInerney was on display on multiple occasions as the pair played each other into space. Got in toward goal and was unlucky to be crowded out in the 26th minute before he got get his shot away. Will be kicking himself for failing to score with his diving header in the final minute of the first half. Despite the miss, Pajoy deserves plenty of credit for continuing to battle in the air, both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Between his tracking back and Williams high line, the pair completely eliminated Avila’s threat down the right touchline.

Substitutes

Antoine Hoppenot – 8

Continues to justify the faith shown in him by coach John Hackworth, putting the game to bed with a lethal finish in the 78th minute. Showed his confidence is growing when he latched onto Michael Farfan’s through ball, pounding it past Milos Kocic with his first touch.

Roger Torres – 7

Finally made his long awaited return from a knee injury, playing his first minutes since March. Immediately made an impact, releasing Hoppenot with a cleverly struck through ball. An important step towards his recovery to full match fitness, it will still take time to get all the way back.

Chris Albright – N/A

Picked up his first minutes since April, but had little to do with the match already decided.

Geiger Counter

Paul Ward – 4

Timid and slow with his whistle, two occasions saw the referee only blow for a foul after the felled player grabbed at the ball. In a match that could have gotten chippy, it was the players, not the official who kept the proceedings from boiling over.

Still, it was a nice change to see a referee conduct himself without the gregarious, gesticulating nonsense that has become the staple of other officials in the league who seem to crave the spotlight.

Preferred Lineup for Wednesday’s US Open Cup Semifinal vs Sporting Kansas City

4-3-3

MacMath; Williams, Okugo, Valdes, G. Farfan; Carroll, Gomez, M. Farfan; Adu, McInerney, Pajoy

The temptation to rest players is there, but with a berth in the final on the line, the Union will go with their current best XI.

24 Comments

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

    I know people are high on Okugo at CB (as they should be) and some are even calling for a future NT spot there since our young CBs are so weak. But really, I would keep him at DM long term.
    He was already a quality NT prospect there for years, and if anything all this great work at CB tells me is that his defensive skill and knowledge is THAT good and it’ll get even better once he’s back at DM.
    I also simply want to see him get the range that DM provides, he is very athletic and fully capable of bossing the whole midfield. Keeping him at CB prevents that.

    • Here’s a thought:

      Is Soumare mobile enough to play center back the way Okugo is right now? The ability of Okugo and Valdes to slide wide and cover a lot of ground allows the fullbacks to effectively play as midfielders in attack. Can Soumare? We’ll have to wait and see.

      • you have okugu rated too high. there were plenty of mistimed tackles where he was fortunate to get bailed out. that might be ok for a midfielder but i expect better timing from a cb. i feel like he’s nice to have for depth at cb but he wasn’t better than valdes on sunday and i doubt he’ll be better than soumare when he’s fit.

      • he straight up wiffed on clearing a bunch of balls

      • The issue is that he is trying/being asked to do too much. valdes finds himself far up field a lot and that leaves okugo alone a lot with valdes sprinting back to cover underneath. Also how many dangerous balls has okugo played over the top to jack and hoppenot. Califf was never asked to make those plays and I am doubtful he or soumare are talented enough too. I agree he is best suited to defensive mid but I am not sure he has the experience to slot in for carroll and that they won’t get in each others way. CB offers him space and ability for vision. what makes this team work is aggressive balls and passing through the midfield combined with a quick to respond backline. A whiff that makes the striker delay or re route his run is sometimes the same as a tackle and always better than a foul near the box. Everyone wants to change change change. give him a chance to learn and develop. The skills he is learning and using now will translate to DM.

      • i don’t think he’s bad by any means. i just don’t think his play warrants an “8” and all the bandwagon. being hopeful is one thing, thinking he’s paolo maldini is another. as i said i’d be happy for him to be the depth at cb but honestly until he does develop i’d rather have a true cb in front of him. hopefully that player is soumare.

  2. Hoppenot is our young Michael Owen…

    • Hopefully we have the patience to not push his development. Let him play 20-30 minutes each game and score and build confidence. This will pay enormous dividends down the road when its his time to fly.

      • Philly Cheese says:

        Hoppenot is only proven effective when he can jet all out for 15-20 minutes. Not sure he has stamina for even 60 minutes. Remember he had to be subbed out as a sub himself because he ran out of gas. Not to take away quality and danger he adds with his super sub designation. He has been great.

  3. Jason Huff says:

    I miss Miglioranzi’s beautiful play. Miss it like a rash.

  4. MikeRSoccer says:

    A few weeks ago it looked as though this team would have to be completely rebuilt. Now I don’t know if they need, or even should, sign any new players. Okugo has looked fantastic at CB, but as others mentioned the skill set that he has shown off at CB makes my eyes light up for when he returns to CDM. He is the natural replacement for Brian Carrol and as soon as Soumare is fit and if he lives up to expectations Okugo should be moved to CDM. He is simply too talented to sit on the bench behind BC or Gomez.

  5. I agree with what everyone above has written about Okugo, if that is logically possible. Most of the ratings are on target.

    Am I the only one here who is still disappointed that not the Union but Montreal have signed Nesta?

  6. Good game. Enjoyed watching it. Even though its Toronto, a win is a win. The Union is not exactly Barcelona either. So great game.

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