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Tactics Talk: Day 2

Photo: Earl Gardner

And we’re back…

Just a refresher that, in lieu of our traditional formation posts, this year’s tactical preview comes in the form of a discussion, as we try to look at the pros and cons of different formations and how best to deploy the Union’s current personnel. This feature will run over the three days (for part one click here), so please feel free to join the conversation in the comments. If you have specific questions, ask them, and we will do our best to weave them into the discussion.

Adam Cann: There is no reason to believe Hackworth will be more aggressive or proactive than Peter Nowak. While he has been extremely positive in his treatment of young players, Hackworth has not shown the same vision when setting his tactics.

Pairing Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud limited the team’s ability to play on the ground, as neither player excels in small spaces. Moving to a midfield that includes Okugo and/or Roger Torres should open up the game and allow the team to move forward with something approaching shape and style.

But we are back to issues up top. What tactical changes have to be made (or are personnel changes enough) for the wide players to remain involved in 2013? When they disappear, the Philly attack starts to look a lot like Jack McInerney doing his airplane on a runway impression over and over.

Concerning the back line, I believe that splitting the center backs is usually bad for business. Especially in a league like MLS where the crossing is not going to be perfect, you want to control the box first. Brian Carroll and Amobi Okugo can cover a lot of ground, so let them put pressure wide, let the fullbacks recover slightly more centrally as support, and keep your center backs in the middle of the park. It’s true that the Union have a lot of positionally flexible players, but nothing makes a system hum like filling it with guys who know and are completely comfortable with their role. Even minor changes like moving a guy from left back to right back, or a center back from the left center to right center position, can cause major changes in effectiveness.

Eli Pearlman-Storch: Completely agree regarding the backline. Union defenders, and for a larger part MLS defenders, are given the short end of the stick when it comes to receiving the plaudits they are due. Defense is hard. The idea that you build an attack and fill out the defense with the remaining players on your roster is disrespectful to the great defenders that help teams win championships. Tinkering around with your strikers can expose a weakness in a defense, light a fire under a sputtering player or add numbers to the attack. The same is not true in the back four. A consistent, solid group is the recipe for success at the back, especially for a team like the Union that has such heavy demands of its fullbacks.

Keeping with the organization or the rearguard, What is the feeling on MacMath as an organizer? I hate to bring up my beloved Spurs, since I know I’ll get grief for it, but one of the main reasons they are so successful at their high pressing system is because Hugo Lloris is athletic and agile enough to act as a sweeper behind Tottenham’s high line. Can MacMath do that? Is he ready for prime time now that he has a full year as a starter under his belt?

Adam: I think part of the reason Jeff Parke is such an essential member of the backline is that he will shoulder some of the organizational burden and allow MacMath to step back and focus on the fundamentals of shot-stopping.

With hindsight, we can see that MacMath handled his defense in a manner fitting of a college goalie. If there was a leak, he sent someone over to fix it. At the MLS level, that’s not how he should be thinking. Where are the most dangerous spots on the pitch given where the ball and the players are at any given moment? Often, it’s not where the ball is but where Kenny Cooper (or insert other burly strikers here) is. Can MacMath accept that sometimes the ball is open, but that’s fine as long as the runners are picked up? What kind of mental growth did you see from him last season?

Eli: That is where the whole “veteran goalkeeper” comes in. The Union hinted that would be making such a signing, but did not. That is a shame considering that, with his promotion to technical director, Rob Vartughian will have less time to work with the Union’s no. 1. Still only 21 years old, MacMath hardly seems to have passed his growing pains years and while his decision-making his hardly calamitous, it seems a certainty that he still has mistakes to make as grows and develops. But, MacMath is the Union’s guy, which will lead to plenty of gnawed off finger nails for the team’s supporters. Is there any way that with Chase Harrison or Chris Konopka legitimately pushes MacMath in 2013? How much of a dip in form would it take for the youngster to be pulled?

Adam: Maybe if Zac MacMath dresses up as the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, loses battle after battle until his arms and legs are cut off, and he is nothing but a stumpy rectangle with a blond head. Maybe then he will be pulled. Until then, he will start.

I want to circle back to where we started now. What will it take for John Hackworth to make significant formation changes? We have seen the 4-3-3 become a 4-5-1, but rarely on purpose. We have seen some European teams adopt something of a 4-3-1-2 this season, with the 1 being an advanced winger rather than a central playmaker. The other three midfielders stay central, clog things up, and spread the ball high and wide quickly before joining the attack. Do the Union have anyone who could act as this dynamic winger? What about Michael Farfan out wide with Okugo, Carroll, and Torres centrally? Torres can drift wide defensively or the striker on the opposite side can suck back to cover.

Eli: Hmmm. Interesting. What about this? Instead of Michael Farfan in that role, you put Le Toux there. On paper, he looks like a CAM, but in reality, he adds work rate and defensive pressure to the midfield. Plus, on attack, he is launching his dangerous runs from deeper. With McInerney on top looking for gaps to slip into and Casey battering opposing defenses into smithereens, it would be hard to pick up the late run from the hard charging Le Toux, who could pick his angle of running based on where McInerney goes in front of him.

Yeah? YEAH!?!

Adam: I thought about that. I really did. And while I think it would be interesting to see, I don’t see how it would be better than using Marfan. He can go on runs, beat people, and be a threat. And he has been goooooood as an outside midfielder. Le Toux has been serviceable, but he’s still going to be square peg with rounded edges in a circular hole.

Let’s talk about the Union’s bench. In the past, there has been a tendency to throw players on in something of a haphazard manner. Is this the way to go? If you need goals, throw on more offensive options? Or should the Union stick with formations that work and substitute within those shapes?

Eli: I definitely like Michael Farfan in that role. I just figure that Le Toux and Farfan are more likely to be on the field under Hackworth than Torres and Farfan.

With substitutions, Hackworth continued some of Peter Nowak’s questionable formation habits. There is nothing wrong with bringing on a player in the 60th minute in a like-for-like swap just to refresh the side. I am hugely against the idea of grind out your starting XI for 75-80 minutes and then throwing on three attacking options for the last 10-15 minutes. It takes players time to get involved in a match, and for the 2013 Union it is not as if you have any superstars on the pitch that need to stay there. If you had Henry or Wondolowski sure, leave them out there; at any moment, they can produce something magical. A fresh Roger Torres, Antoine Hoppenot and Chandler Hoffman are all better than a tired Jack McInerney, Sebastien Le Toux, Conor Casey or Michael Farfan. Giving these players at least 20 minutes in a game is the only way to give them a realistic chance to make an impact.

With Okugo in midfield and Ray Gaddis able to play both RB and LB, does Hackworth use 3 bench spots on a goalkeeper, Gaddis and Lahoud, then stack the other four slots with attackers?

Keep those questions and comments coming. We will try to touch on them all by Friday.


  1. Correction Eli, Sebastien Le Toux does not get tired.

  2. And McInerney has 5 MLS goals >75mins…I say let them go until they can’t go.

  3. Here are 3 fears I have:

    One I fear that Roger Torres will get caught in an infinite loop where when he comes in at the 75th minute. If he does we Hackworth will think “I knew he would be great as a sub.” and If he doesn’t do great in his 15-20 minutes in the game Hack will think “I knew he couldn’t start.”

    Two. They don’t want Roger Torres at all for some reason but are afraid that there will be riots, bloodshed and insurrection. Their fears are not groundless.

    Three. The throw all the subs in strategy is a feature not a bug. Part of me has a legitimate fear that keep the game close then throw in Jack Mac, Hoppenot and Torres when they are tired is a actual real strategy.
    That kind of keeps me up at night.

  4. I’m also a Spurs fan, Eli, and I’ve noticed the same thing. I think it’s one of the reasons Lloris can be considered one of the world’s best keepers.
    Onto the Union, do you think Okugo can play in that “shuttler” role on the outside of the central 3, to quote Michael Cox from Zonal Marking? I’m not sure about it, but i think it’s possible. He has that great passing range, and I think he proved last year at CB that he is fairly mobile. I actually think 4-3-1-2 fits the personnel well. Garfan and Williams will have much room to attack, and I think the Okugo/Carroll/Torres or Marfan midfield fits very well. You have Carroll as the destroyer, Okugo as the passer, and Marfan/Torres as a creator, which covers all your bases. I also think its a great idea to keep Mac central with Casey, and play Le Toux in that “inverted winger” role, to quote Cox again.

  5. Run away! Run away!

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