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Preview: Union vs Revolution

Photo: Paul Rudderow

What: Philadelphia Union vs. New England Revolution
Where: PPL Park
When: 5 pm on Saturday, March 16
Watch: TCN, Univision Deportes, Direct Kick MLS Live

Though few believed it outside of the club, the New England Revolution spent the 2012 offseason acting like they were a player or two away from contending. Saer Sene up front and Benny Feilhaber in the midfield, alongside the absurdly talented rookie Kelyn Rowe, convinced management that they could get by with a young and shaky defense behind Clyde Simms.

The plan did not work in such sublime fashion that New England had no choice but to accept that a different route forward was needed.

How many of these offseason issues describe a team you support?
  • Needed to jettison a finnicky American playmaker who didn’t live up to his potential.
  • Needed to reinforce a young back line that included a talented defensive midfielder forced into central defense.
  • Needed a veteran offensive presence to take the pressure off the young up-and-comers.
  • Needed to find a new system that made talented wingers more effective and involved.

Add in “find veteran goalie to push/tutor younger keeper struggling for confidence,” and you have the Philadelphia Union.

To the Revs’ credit, they looked in the mirror and decided to address their flaws.

  • Benny Feilhaber? Gone. Adios. No more ornery antics, no more bad examples for the young players.
  • Number one draft pick? A defensive player with exquisite ball possession skills and the right attitude.
  • Offseason additions? A fiery, veteran playmaker. An experienced central defender. A defender/midfield destroyer to take pressure off the dynamic wingers.
The playmaker

Juan Toja was a force in his two seasons with FC Dallas before leaving MLS for Steaua Bucuresti. He is strong, technical, and direct, and his willingness to involve others in the attack makes him a perfect fulcrum on a team full of young players who can’t direct play as well as they can respond to it.

Toja made five substitute appearances last season for New England and took his time getting into the first match of 2013. In the second half, however, he was dominant. Even more encouraging for the Revs was Toja’s combination play with substitute Kelyn Rowe, who read his new playmaker well and showed the kind of intelligent movement that made him a teenaged star at UCLA.

And as good as Toja was against Chicago, Brian Carroll was equally bad against the Colorado Rapids. The Union captain had a howler, looking both a step slow on the turn and a few feet off on the pass all game. If the Union are going to utilize a more attacking style against the Revolution than the one they played in Colorado, Carroll has to win tackles and keep Toja from getting the same kind of space Kevin Harbottle found so often last week.

The defender

Juan Goncalves was brought in to shore up the New England defense. Against Chicago, that is exactly what he did. Though he sprayed errant passes around like victory champagne, the powerful Portugese defender was strong in the air, quick to read Chicago’s play, and got markedly better as the match wore on. Additionally, he looked like a calming partner for the frenetic AJ Soares, whose energy can be both his gift and his curse.

Notably, Goncalves looked a bit harried by the fast, back-and-forth pace of MLS soccer. He seemed uncomfortable under high pressure, and the Union should be able to exploit this weakness at home. Forcing Goncalves and Soares to play through the center to Clyde Simms and Cisse will do a lot to slow down the Revolution. New England would prefer to work outside in, with the wingbacks getting up the pitch before playing the ball centrally, drawing the defense inside, and opening space for the wingers to make runs and disrupt the back line. If Simms and Cisse are forced onto the ball earlier, the offense will be much less dynamic.

The destroyer

No disrespect to Clyde Simms (and you know that means I’m about to sound a bit disrespectful), but he was overmatched last season. The Revs offensive performers are a long toss from being two-way players, and Simms is less a reader of the game than a reliable presence. He was pulled all over the pitch and left so much space in front of his center backs that you could almost hear offensive midfielders giggle with glee when they turned to face goal.

The addition of big, bad Kalifa Cisse allowed Simms to do what he does best against Chicago: Offer an outlet/make simple passes in the defensive zone, and involve the wingers further up the pitch (then get the heck out of the way). Simms completed 27 of his 29 passes last weekend, with the only two mishits being a “pass” that looked more like a clearance and a chip into the box that was headed out. Not bad at all.

clyde simms vs chi

Clyde Simms vs Chicago

Cisse allowed Simms to play within himself by galloping around the pitch like a man possessed. While this gallivanting did leave space for Joel Lindpere to activate offensively, more often than not it forced Chicago to play the ball long instead of getting up field and looking for through balls to their speedy wingers. Tellingly, Jeff Larentowicz only completed 6 of his 10 forward passes in the New England half.

Answering Cisse’s energy will require small triangles and smart off-the-ball movement from the Union’s midfield. If this sounds simple and obvious, it is. But theory and practice are rarely similar, and the Union have—and there is no way around this—done a terrible job of playing triangles this season. Raymon Gaddis and Sheanon Williams find themselves on islands more often than Jeff Probst, and the result is long balls and lost possession.

On the Union

Assuming John Hackworth is telling the truth and conditions in Colorado dictated the team’s defensive tactics, what changes can be expected this weekend?

There are a few options, some more likely than others.

1) Hackworth acknowledges that Carroll is struggling and that Amobi Okugo is on the rise. Okugo steps into the midfield and Bakary Soumare slots into central defense to pair with Jeff Parke. As hard as it would be to move Okugo out of the back after his one-man show in the snow, his passing ability is badly needed in the middle of the park. As long as Michael Farfan is playing high up the pitch and Roger Torres is playing the waiting game, the Union have nobody checking in to offer a central option when the ball is wide. If Brian Carroll isn’t going to do it, somebody needs to. Whether it means dropping Carroll or adding Okugo as a box-t0-box player beside him, this is an issue that desperately needs to be addressed if Philly wants to compete with a team that does more than pay lip service to defensive organization.

2) Conor Casey starts up top and the Union try out a Stoke City go-long-and-knock-down style. This will mean that Hackworth has to stop pretending the team is just a game away from mastering a pass-and-move style, but it could also be the best use of the team’s offensive resources. Frankly, and partially because of the reasons listed in the previous paragraph, the Union are horrific at transitioning from defense to offense. At some point, you look at your roster and honestly ask if you have the personnel to work around your shortcomings. In Conor Casey, you do. With willing runners around him and Michael Farfan ready to pick up the pieces and distribute, giving the middle finger to style is an acceptable price to pay when it means your strikers get to raise the index finger (or bow) more often each game.

3) Pack the midfield. Sebastien Le Toux’s corner kick, headed in by Amobi Okugo, was the only successful cross that did not come off the foot of Michael Farfan in Colorado. Against Kansas City, only four open play crosses were successful. Again, the team can accept their height and crossing limitations while emphasizing a strength by packing the midfield. Jack McInerney and Sebastien Le Toux are willing runners. Bringing together Michael and Gabriel Farfan, along with Okugo or possibly Keon Daniel, offers the Union a host of possession players who are more than willing to spray a ball over the top. Spray short passes in the center until a running lane opens up, and you have a quick hit offense that can either get behind a defense or pin the back line far enough back to allow someone to step into space between the lines. This system is reliant, however, on moving a defense around with the type of tight triangles in the midfield that have not been seen in Philadelphia since, dare I say it, the days of Fred.

The Union face a dangerous Revolution squad that appear to be establishing an old school, English identity with a tough spine and wide players who take people on and put the ball into the box for a sniper to finish. Combating New England will require either better ball possession or a commitment to long, knock-down play. Thus far, Philadelphia’s technical staff has put out teams that produce none of the above. But as bad as the team looked on Sunday, they showed the heart and determination that appeared lacking against Kansas City. That is certainly a step in the right direction.


  1. If Hackworth starts Carrol, he is an idiot.

    • The Black Hand says:

      I think we both know that Carroll is going to be out there.

    • especially after acknowledging that soumare is healthy freeing up okugo to move up.

    • JediLos117 says:

      What if he starts Carroll and we win? Or what if he starts Soumare and moves Okugo into the midfield and we lose?
      Would he still be an idiot?
      That being said. I think this is the game you give the fans what we want to see. We want to see Okugo as a LONE CDM, we want to see what Soumare is made of and we all want to see what Torres can do.
      Fans in the know really want to see this happen:
      William, Soumare, Parke, G. Farfan, Okugo, M. Farfan, Torres, Somebody, Le Toux, McInerney
      My somebody would be Cruz based on Colorado match.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Tough call. I think we have to see Soumare at some point. From what he has shown, I can’t believe that Carroll would be the X factor. If we lose it could be due to the fact that NE addressed their weaknesses and we didn’t.
        Quite possibly.
        I agree, but I don’t think that NE is an automatic W for the U.
        I’d like to see:
        Marfan, Daniel

      • I like this too. Still a huge fan of Gaddis. Rough week in CO, but deserves to be on the pitch most weeks.

      • Totally with you on Soumare situation. Here’s my dream selection (tweaking yours a bit)- just can’t support Cruz’s brick touch


      • I’m with spugger here

      • I would swap Gaddis for Garfan and shift either Gabe or Daniel up to the “somebody” slot.

      • http://img2.etsystatic.com/004/1/6230452/il_fullxfull.384322598_fg9c.jpg

        What if…

        I don’t think Hackworth is an idiot but he along with the entire organization sometimes think they are smarter than they are and sometimes that is worse than being an idiot.

      • The Black Hand says:

        I think that is precisely the case.

      • +1. A common theme for some teams and managers of all sports. The talk themselves out of the obvious. Start the best XI and find a way to make it work. I find myself adjusting lineups on FIFA ’13 all the time just so I can get my best XI on the field.

  2. Great points. New England looked good against Chicago. This is a better team. If Kelyn Rowe can be a 90-minute player (or even a 65-minute player), this could be a good team.

  3. Any update on Le Toux’s condition from last week? I haven’t seen much out there, but it’s rare he makes an exit from a match, and he looked to be favoring an injury of some kind.

    • Le Toux, Casey and Gabriel Farfan are all listed as questionable for the game. Casey and Farfan have right hamstring strains, while Le Toux is listed for a lower back strain.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Smells like Jack Mac will be up top solo.

      • and Gaddis will out in the cold the wind and the rain, alone, on the left side. He will look over and see Parke standing by a large orange pylon. Desperately he tries to make eye contact, a plea for help but park has his own problems and looks away. Silently he will say a prayer to his god. The last thing he will see id the faint bobbing of dreadlocks in the distance and the sound of the howling of wolves…
        All they will find is a torn jersey and one left foot. The mystery of what happened to his body will never be solved, though there will be rumors.
        The Bimbo bear will deliver the eulogy there will not be a dry eye in the house.

      • The Black Hand says:

        He was a good RB.

      • I think when I make my one millionth typo on PSP balloons will drop from the ceiling.

      • “large orange pylon.”

        Now that’s funny!

  4. No prediction on the weather or how many loyalty points we’ll get as a bonus for attending?

    What kind of preview is this? 😉

  5. A Fred reference?! He was at times the most exciting and most infuriating player on that team. I remember that new team smell back in 2010, and the optimism we all had. I want that again.

  6. I’m pretty darn sure that the brothers Farfan are our only talented wing options (Danny Cruz is a winger but . . . and we all need to except that Keon is a CM). Personally I want them to see them starting on the wings. I think that was the key to our best half-hour of football all season. We have multiple options every where else on the pitch(sorta,)but not really out wide.

  7. I think that we’ll see the same starting XI as last week except Garfan and Hoppenot will replace Cruz and LeToux, respectively. Primary reason is both players are banged up.

    As much as I would like to see Soumare, I don’t think we will. Hack won’t risk it on a wet field.

  8. I hope the rumors about Freddy Adu to Brazil are true for Freddy’s sake. This will hopefully help Freddy grow up as a man and a Futbol professional. I would love to see him make it back to the USMNT. The Union was not a win/win for either side. Add to that Hackworth’s inability to exploit the strengths of a player and Freddy’s inability to adjust to the Union made it a disaster. I am hoping that the Union will be making moves to get a real manager going into next season. Nothing against Hackworth personally, but I honestly feel his is not a pro coach and is limited in vision and approach to the game.

  9. Hey! Someone is posting my comments under the name “Texas Moving Companies.” That’s vastly more connected to the game than most of what I say.

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