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Analysis & player ratings: Union 1-2 Sporting KC

Photo: Earl Gardner

The good news: There is only one more match in this most painful of seasons.

The bad news: The Union are no closer to having a set formation, sound tactics or team chemistry, despite having played 33 of 34 matches.

Going into Livestrong Park against a Sporting Kansas City side that still had an Eastern Conference title to play for was never going to be easy. After taking it to Sporting with a 4-0 victory at PPL Park in June, Kansas City put the Union back in their place in the US Open Cup as Peter Vermes turned up the physicality, battering and bruising John Hackworth’s men to a 2-0 home defeat.

Kansas City clearly saw what worked and what didn’t against the Union, making the necessary adjustments in preparing for their penultimate fixture on the 2012 calendar.

As for the Union, not so much.

Sporting’s perilously high defensive line again won out over the impetuous Jack McInerney. The Union midfield failed to deal with the tough, bruising play of Julio Cesar and Peterson Joseph, while the defense had few answers for C.J. Sapong, Kei Kamara and Joseph Peterson.

What was the plan?

Looking at the gaping holes in midfield and Brian Carroll’s frantic running, it should be assumed that the Union were sent on the field with two defensive midfielders. The question then must be asked, was the other holder Michael Farfan or Gabriel Gomez? Gomez, as has become his M.O. in he closing months of 2012, simply went missing, loafing forward too close to McInerney and failing to take part in the team defense. Michael Farfan, though full of effort, was little more effective as he looked to catalyze an offense with only two, but usually one, option in front of him.

In this way, Hackworth has done painfully little with the midfield since taking over from Peter Nowak: It remains largely shapeless with players rotating seemingly at random. There is a place in soccer for players switching fields. If they are running against a well-drilled defense and struggling to produce, a shrewd change of flanks can open up new options, unlocking even the most staunch resistance.

That hasn’t been the Union way. Hackworth cannot be criticized for the roster he has been handed. He can however, be taken to task for entering the final match of the 2012 season with a midfield that has little more confidence and fluency than the unit that was hammered in Portland on opening night back in March.

More strikers

Jack McInerney cannot shoulder this burden on his own. Not only is he too young and inexperienced, but the 20-year-old is simply t0o small to be the target forward in any offense. When Hackworth promoted a 4-3-3 look early in his tenure, McInerney made sense in a forward line that included two other options. As time progressed and the Union manager grew increasingly more conservative and dropping strikers for midfielders, the focus of the offense moved fully onto McInerney.

His youthful frustration and offside issues aside, over a 34-game season, McInerney simply cannot survive and remain effective, standing as he does at only 5-10, 150 lbs. That leaves Hackworth with only two options, and neither involves the 4-2-3-1 formation that has become the standard over the past two months.

With the addition of a large, target forward in a more traditional 4-4-2 (i.e. everything Lionard Pajoy was supposed to be but wasn’t), McInerney could shed some of the physical pressure put on him by two center backs. With a player to work off of, McInerney’s slicing runs would be even more effective for the simple fact that he would no longer be the sole focus of a defense.

The other option is to return to a 4-3-3. Spending the offseason improving the wide game of Hoffman and Hoppenot while adding more wing forwards to the roster, the Union could continue the small ball approach. With the ball on the deck and multiple bodies scurrying forward, the Union would become a far more difficult team to scheme against, forcing defenders to track the runs of 3, 4 and even 5 attackers.

These are the options for the Union. Surely there are altered versions of each option, but the main point must be two or three strikers, not one. Jack McInerney has proven that he will be a major part of the Union attack for 2013, but he cannot possibly do it alone.

Throw caution to the wind

With one match remaining in front of the PPL Park faithful, why not give the fans a show, treating them to the young/fringe players who will have a part to play for the Union in the future? If nothing else, they will come out of the tunnel with a commitment and excitement level far exceeding some of their unenthusiastic, downright dour, senior teammates.

Trotting out the same players for far too long has yielded roughly the same performances.

Win or lose, the Union have done little well. Relying on a stout, organized defense to hold down the fort while the offense clumsily looks to find its feet, the Union have stolen a few points but rarely been convincing of their quality.

With that in mind, Hackworth should offer an olive branch to the fans who have stuck with his struggling team, giving them something to celebrate, rather than having to endure the same old performance.

Player Ratings

Zac MacMath – 7

Were it not for MacMath’s excellent shot-stopping, especially his late first half double save, things could have gotten ugly for the Union. Showed confidence under the high ball that has been lacking for much of 2012.

Ray Gaddis – 4.5

His untidy touch ceded not only possession on Kansas City’s opener but also played Okugo out of position, allowing Kei Kamara in behind him to set the table for Jacob Peterson.

Amobi Okugo – 4

For the most part, he did well to keep his composure despite picking up an early yellow card. However, his hard work was undone when he failed to track Sapong, who sliced across the pitch behind Valdes for the match-winner.

Carlos Valdes – 4

Caught in no man’s land on both Sporting goals, the Union captain looks as if he may be going through the motions to finish out 2012.

Michael Lahoud – 3.5

Michael Lahoud is not a left back. Lahoud’s performance did little more than remind the Union faithful how dire the need is for defensive depth.

Brian Carroll – 4.5

With Gomez and Farfan looking to create, Carroll finally got the lone defensive midfield role for which fans have been clamoring. Unfortunately he didn’t live up to expectations, leaving far too large a gap between the defense and midfield. In the decisive moment on Kansas City’s winner, Kamara brushed aside Carroll with ease. Carroll had only two options: Tackle or foul. He took neither.

Gabriel Gomez – 2.5

It’s never a good sign for a player when his removal ignites their team. Gomez cannibalized space in the middle of the pitch, turning the Union’s traditional launching pad for attack into a complete dead zone.

Keon Daniel – 3

After his performance against New England gave hope that Daniel might reverse a trend of meek, unimpressive showings, Wednesday night proved that it was just a flash in the pan, a bright moment against a brutal opponent.

Michael Farfan – 4

Drew six fouls and showed heart and commitment throughout. That said, both his pass selection and accuracy were well off the mark. And that penalty? Yuck.

Danny Cruz – 4

For 10 minutes, Danny Cruz, was Lionel Messi. Slicing and dicing, taking chances, shooting the ball. The ball seemed glued to his foot. For the other 63 minutes, he was ice cold.

Jack McInerney – 3.5

Getting no support is clearly weighing on McInerney, who saw his goal-scoring streak ended at 4. While so much blame must fall on the midfield, McInerney has strayed further and further offside in the last two matches, forcing things that simply aren’t there. His 17-yard-header off the post was a thing of beauty. If only it had been directed a few inches to the left.


Antoine Hoppenot – 5.5

Hoppenot’s ability to torture defenders comes from the fact that he never stops working. His goal in Kansas City was further proof of the work rate that his seen him ascend the depth chart, knifing into the box to bail out Michael Farfan with the simple tap-in.

Jimmy McLaughlin – 5

Congratulations to the homegrown, teenaged McLaughlin on his first MLS appearance. Showed a few nice touches on the ball, but looked timid on the big stage.

Chandler Hoffman – N/A

The Union had run out of gas by the time Hoffman was introduced and the rookie had little to do.

Geiger Counter

Ismail Elfath – 5

In a match between a team with something to play for another just looking to spoil their party, things could have easily gotten out of hand on Wednesday night. And as irritating and unsportsmanlike as Kansas City’s histrionics, card-waving and simulation can get, Elfath deserves credit for finishing the match with an even number of fouls between the sides.

Union fans will be aggrieved that no justice was dispensed for Sapong’s dirty elbow on Valdes late in the match, but hopefully that is a matter that, unseen by Elfath, will be handled by the MLS Disciplinary Committee.

Preferred Starting XI for Saturday night’s season finale against New York Red Bulls


MacMath; Gaddis, Valdes, Okugo; Cruz, M. Farfan, Carroll, McLaughlin, Hernandez; Hoffman, McInerney


  1. Should be JACOB Peterson, not Joseph. Although, it’d be cool/weird to have a Peterson Joseph and Joseph Peterson on the same team.

  2. 3.5 is too harsh for Jack. He looked to be the 1 in a something-something-something-1. In that role, he damn well better be called offsides often. He did his job.
    Here is a Hackworth quote: “If we get a deadball situation in front of goal, and it’s in Carlos Valdes’ range, you’ll see him take it.” Why on earth didn’t Carlos Valdes take that PK? Is a PK not in his range?
    “why not give the fans a show?” Because running out the reserve team to face RBNY could result in a pummeling. It’s still football. It would be unwise to have a large number of immature players in the starting XI. Unwise and unsporting.

    • Lest we not forget Nowak starting Pfeffer last last year IN NY in a game with playoff implications.
      Looking back, that was practically cruel.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      1. I am a big fan of Jack, but he was very poor against KC. His touch was bad, his running was off. He just didn’t play well.

      2. That was absolutely Michael Farfan’s penalty to take. He just took it poorly. The next one will be taken by someone else. Advocating for a defender to take penalties is not a great policy.

      3. With nothing to play for and the chance for a learning experience for younger players, I would argue that letting young guys take their lumps is better for the team’s future than rolling out the same garbage to finish out 2012. Also, last year’s Pfeffer-beating came in a meaningful game for both teams. This year’s affair only means something for New York, meaning that it will likely devolve into a wide open, track meet like it did in Kansas City.

      • 2. Let’s not be silly. I am not advocating. There was a PK to be taken, and the experienced PK takers were not on the pitch. This is not a world-class team we’re looking at, with loads of quality goal-scorers waiting for their chance. And even if it were, there is nothing inherently wrong with having a defender take a PK. You say John Terry, I say Marco Materazzi.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        I never say John Terry. My point is just that Michael Farfan is the Union’s central midfield playmaker. He should be taking the penalty kicks. The issue wasn’t the taker. He simply took it poorly. End of story.

      • Awful penalty. Just awful. Marfan owes Hoppenot a six-pack for saving his butt.
        The fact that Gomez and Adu (not in order) are arguably our 2 best free kick takers says a lot about the overall talent level of our team. The future certainly is bright, but just about EVERY other team in MLS has at least 1 player who can rocket a free kick in. Even Chivas, who is dreadful, has a player who can put one on frame, and the same goes with Toronto and Portland.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        Not sure why we are dwelling on this, especially considering Hoppenot’s gangnam glory. Farfan is a good ball striker who took a terrible, terrible penalty. The teams dour performance for 80 minutes last night was far more concerning than that penalty.

      • It was an historic miss; so maybe that’s why. We’ve watched many, many, many dour performances in three years, but we’ve never seen anyone on the team miss a PK. Sorry to dwell on it.

      • I was simply stating a point, didn’t mean to dwell on it. There are a LOT of things this team doesn’t do well right now, but they’ve never missed a PK. EVER. I am fully invested in Marfan being our midfield playmaker so I guess I just didn’t like seeing him make a mistake like that. It’s not a big deal, I agree there are far worse issues at hand, and Hoppenot continues to amaze. At the end of the day it was just a hiccup, but next time we may not be so lucky.

      • I have to say every one wants to beat up on jack for being offsides a lot lately, but when the defense has no one else to worry about all they have to do is stick one player on him and all they have to do is step every time the ball is about to come, with no one else to worry about you know jack wiLl be off, it’s why she hope came one he caught them stepping and they had to stop

  3. Your points about Hackworths ultimate lack of tactical visions are dead on.
    My only hope is that he is so unimpressed with most of these players, and/or simply doesn’t want to force these guys into “his” system halfway through the season. Hopefully he DOES have something in mind and will use this off season fully to implement his vision.

  4. I love seeing goalkeepers take penalty kicks. (they usually aren’t the central midfield playmakers, rationale is flawed) IMO, Jack shoulda taken PK as he is on fire.
    3-5-2 = Horrible idea (especially with 3 reserve players) Might as well gift the Red Bulls 3 points. Fans are already questioning Hackworths tactics, putting out a 3-5-2 would really help him out and send the fans into the offseason more frustrated than they already are.
    C’mon man, really?

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      I was having a laugh. It’s the last match of the season and the Union are terrible. When did you all become pragmatists? I am at a loss.

      My honest opinion? Hackworth will play the same lineup he played against SKC and the Union will get muscled, outworked and ultimately, smoked. Again. More of the same.


      • I get it. We’re not a great team. But we are a good team. We have proven over the course of the year that we can run with the great teams. (SKC: 4-0W and 2-1L in league play)
        This is our last home game of the year and it’s against our “rival.” They need to put out a lineup that gives us a chance to play.
        Ya’ll know I love the 4-1-3-2. So how bout:
        Gaddis-Okugo(Albright)-Valdes-Lahoud(G. Fargan)
        Any combination of 3: Cruz, Daniel, M. Farfan, Torres No Gomez or Adu, Maybe Subs)
        ————-Jack and Hoffman————

        I think this team can compete with RBs…I need some hope in the offseason.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        Love it. Lahoud at fullback is terrifying, but thats really Nowak’s fault for having a paper thin roster.

        Unfortunately Hack is more likely to start Hopp versus Hoff, negating many of the strenghs of both antoine and jack.

    • Yeah, chances are we are going to get smoked regardless. I would MUCH rather get smoked with Pfeffer, Hoffman, Hernandez out there than having to see Gomez or Daniel or Lahoud out there.

  5. I feel a return to a simple 4-4-2 (or rather a 4-4-1-1) would do wonders for this team. We have a young and inexperienced side and switching tactical formations every other week (ex. the 4-3-3, 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1) adds to the confusion and cohesion of the unit, especially in the midfield. Keep the roles simple.
    A left, right, defensive and central midfielder. Give Jack a second striker to play off of; you could even throw in Torres as the underneath “striker” with Jack up-top making runs. In my opinion it was this tactical switch at halftime in the KC game (as much as benching Gomez) which resulted in our better 2nd half play.

  6. I think a lot of your ratings this week are too harsh. It’s as though you are frustrated with the season and just taking it out here instead of actually evaluating everyone.
    In the first half Farfan was getting nowhere and Daniel was a non-factor. During the early part of the second half they (along with Danny Cruz) totally woke up and started making some serious ball movement and taking on defenders.

    I saw a young team — who might easily have been demoralized by a lousy season, the nightmare ex-coach who put them there, and a poor first half — who came hard-charging out of the gate for the second half against the class of MLS against a packed road house, and basically played even with KC in the second half. What I thought I saw is not reflected in your game recap here.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      10 strong minutes in the second half are not enough to justify a poor showing for the vast majority of the match. Yes, those minutes were full of promise, but no, they were not good enough.

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