Match previews

Preview: Union at Vancouver Whitecaps

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union at Vancouver Whitecaps
What: MLS Regular Season
Where: Brian Carroll Place, Vancouver, British Columbia
When: 7 pm EST
Watch: TCN, Direct Kick, MLS Live
Referee: THE Baldomero Toledo, Asst 1: Frank Anderson, Asst 2: Mike Rottersman, 4th: Alejandro Mariscal

Few home draws are truly acceptable. Variables like form and player availability can make dropping points at home easier to swallow, but when you make a list of teams against which you will accept a tie at home as a positive, it should be a very short one.

Portland makes that list.

So with a point against the hottest team in MLS on the board, the Union move on to… a hotter team?

Well, not exactly. Vancouver has flipped the script since collecting only nine points in their first nine games. Twenty-three points since the start of May makes the Whitecaps the third best team in MLS in that time span, with the two in front of them (RSL and NY) having played an extra match. The Union are not far behind with 20 points over the same interval.

While Caleb Porter has garnered all the praise, Martin Rennie has shown the adaptability and tactical intelligence to steady a rocking ship. An objective look at the two northwestern rosters will tell you that Porter has both more talent and a set of players better suited to play his distinct style. Rennie is not short on talent, but the mishmash with which he works makes him more of a jenga master than an army general laying out troops.

Yet the Whitecaps’ success is down to more than a good manager’s tinkering. As John Hackworth well knows, having a hot striker is a trump card in MLS. And Vancouver has Camilo.

The tallest mountain

Since joining Vancouver prior to the 2011 season, Camilo has consistently put points on the board. He tallied a goal or an assist every 165.6 minutes his first season, every 143.25 minutes his second season, and  82.44 minutes in 2013. He is a triumph in scouting. Successful spells in Malta and South Korea portend good things, but figuring out how goals will translate across such disparate leagues is a tough calculation.

This year is the first that Camilo is benefiting from a system truly tailored to his abilities. Rennie was blessed and cursed with a bazaar of strikers in 2012, as he looked to fit Sebastien Le Toux, Eric Hassli, Darren Mattocks, Omar Salgado and Camilo into various jigsaw formations.

After jettisoning his 2012 opening day strikers, Le Toux and Hassli, Rennie has discovered a hidden trove of secondary options behind Camilo and the resurgent Kenny Miller. No. 4 overall pick Kekuta Manneh, Russell Teibert, and Red Bulls castoff Corey Hertzog have all played the hardworking role required to keep defensive solidity in a 4-3-3. In response, Miller and Camilo have been able to relax defensively and focus on finding spaces up top.

The best defense is a good Brazilian striker

For all the names that have appeared on Rennie’s lineup cards, however, none approaches the importance of Camilo. Like Philly’s own Jack McInerney, it isn’t just the number of points, but the timing with which he delivers them. Camilo only has three game-winning goals — not even first on his own team — but on a team that tends to fall behind and find its footing in the second half, he is a constant spark to ignite comebacks.

Big questions: What to do with Williams?

While the Brazilian can play on either flank, he’s likely to line up against Sheanon Williams early on. The matchup poses interesting questions for the Union’s decision-makers: Williams’ improved offensive form has been a major factor in the Union’s transition from a one-trick attack into a well-rounded unit. Should the fullback tame his forward-thinking instincts in favor of tight man-to-man coverage on Vancouver’s danger man?

The initial response should be, “No.” The Sheanomenon is too important to the Union’s offense to be on a defensive-minded leash.

But one counterargument is persuasive: The Union have not been a good possession team on the road. In fact, they have been downright poor. Since getting thrashed at New England, Philly has all but abandoned any pretense of possession soccer on the road. Consider that the Union were only able to hold 53 percent of possession at Toronto despite being up a man for over half the game. Houston and Real Salt Lake, two teams that know how to hold the ball, both kept it over 60 percent of the time.

If Philly is going to stick to a counterattacking style, asking Williams to stay deep and cover Camilo might be a reasonable argument. Vancouver has found success pushing the ball up the right flank through their young speedsters. Kenny Miller and Camilo then arrive in the box or at the far post to hold deep pressure or poke in any loose balls. Nigel Reo-Coker has (and I can barely believe I’m saying this) carved out a fine niche for himself as a hard worker who helps move the ball horizontally once the Whitecaps reach the final third.

All these factors suggest that allowing Vancouver the opportunity to take off on odd-man rushes is a recipe for a dish that doesn’t taste like points.

Big questions: Keon Daniel’s return

It isn’t that Keon Daniel is a bad soccer player. But he is probably the poster boy for the team’s midfield struggles this season. A guy who showed the ability to hold the ball, be defensively responsible, and contribute a fine cross when he arrived, Keon is suffering from an acute case of Farfanitis in 2013.

Farfanitis: An unexplained phenomenon that diminishes a player’s touch, vision, and positioning at the same time. Medical professionals believe most players acquire Farfanitis somewhere between the wing and the center of the pitch. The only possible cure is moving a player back to the position in which they were previously successful. 

Michael Farfan has taken a lot criticism in the past two seasons, but he remains a young, immensely talented player who hasn’t been back to the right flank since he made his name there as a rookie. Daniel, like Farfan, has struggled since moving to the middle of the pitch. But he is older and less suited to the Union’s current system of releasing wingers high up the field when in possession.

With Danny Cruz and Sebastien Le Toux seemingly locked in to outside roles, should Keon replace Michael Farfan alongside Brian Carroll?

Daniel’s deeper positioning might lend important support to Ray Gaddis, but at the cost of putting any pressure on the Whitecaps up the middle. And unless Neon Keon is ready to up his work rate over its 2013 average, that defensive support on the wing will be minimal. Daniel’s depth is less a function of defensive responsibility than a lack of mobility, as he has been reluctant to join the attack, drift wide, or generally leave the center for any non-free kick event.

John Hackworth also has the option of moving Le Toux forward and pushing Farfan to the right wing. If he does this, Keon will compete with Kleberson and Roger Torres for a spot in the center of the pitch. Despite his long absence from first team football, Kleberson should start and step into the gaps left when Reo-Coker steps strides forward.

Big questions: Michael Farfan’s movement

If Farfan is to start, his essential contribution will be off the ball. As ineffective as he has been overall as a central midfielder, Marfan remains a useful contributor with the ball at his feet; it is the rest of his game that needs to improve. Specifically, Farfan must make two major adjustments: First, he needs to check to the ball hard and either get it or get out. Oddly, it is the exiled Roger Torres who best embodies this movement on the Union. Torres checks in with an urgency that encourages the defense to commit to his run while Farfan checks in with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that suggests the service you get at a hip coffee shop.

The second facet of Farfan’s game that needs to be present for him to make an impact in Vancouver is directly related to the first. If he can become involved early by demanding the ball, Farfan’s off-the-ball runs will pull the active Jun Marques Davidson out of the middle and open spaces for Jack McInerney and whoever replaces Conor Casey to check back and disorganize a none-too-brilliant Whitecaps defense.

Defending a lead

The Union have not done it well. And Vancouver plays a full 90 every game.

Getting ahead early will mean little unless Philadelphia can tighten up, hold the ball, and force the Whitecaps to chase. It may seem admirable to play the same way no matter the circumstances, but results over the past month and a half point to the benefits of understanding how to adjust shape and movement when holding the advantage.

It is impossible not to call out Danny Cruz here. The midfielder’s offensive contributions will be ignored in post-game analyses if he continues to make vertical sprints and dribble directly at the defense when his team has the lead and his defense needs a rest. I am willing to wager that every soccer coach, successful or not, has uttered the phrase, “Let the ball do the work” at more than one point in his career. The unspoken corollary to that well-worn cliche is that when the ball does the work for you, it also forces the other team to do more work. Hence the other common epigram, “The ball is faster than the man.”

Prediction: Vancouver 1-2 Union

Jack McInerney has had time to get his instincts back after a spell without first team footy, and Aaron Wheeler will fill the massive void left by Conor Casey with height and power. Vancouver’s strong run of late has featured lots of points earned over weaker opponents. In the Union they meet an equal, and one of the best road offenses at that.

Expected lineup

UnionVancouver

 

7 Comments

  1. Brian Carroll Place…I see what you did there.

  2. Am I the only one who doesn’t think that just because Wheeler is big and tall like Casey, he is an obvious replacement for Casey? I think Connor’s success this year is based more on his veteran experience and his positioning instincts rather than his size. Look at the diving header against Columbus. He didn’t get that because of his size. He got it because he communicated with Jack on the run, switched posts with him, shed his defender and gave Le Toux a target to hit. That’s something that comes with experience. I don’t think automatically replacing him with Wheeler would be the right move.

    With as much as Le Toux and Cruz push forward on the attack, we could do a 4-5-1. It’s not that I don’t like Wheeler. I do like him. I just think we could use proven midfield talent rather than somewhat-tested attacking potential. Just bump Marfan back next to Carroll and put Roger Tor… OH HELL, WE ALL KNOW HE’S NOT GOING TO DO THAT! JUST STICK WHEELER IN THERE!

    • I don’t like a 4-5-1 with Jack up top–he’s not a target forward.
      .
      If you listen to the press conference, Hackworth talks about your point a little bit, mentioning that it gives us an opportunity to try a different approach without a target forward. So, I expect LeToux will join Jack as a forward. Then, it gets more difficult to predict, but I foresee Cruz on the right, Fabinho on the left, and one of Daniel, Marfan, or Kleberson (depending on fitness) in the center.

    • Philly Cheese says:

      Great response…….I’m sure Hack will read your post and think to himself …”I’m going to put Torres in just to prove Joe C doesn’t know what he is talking about…..” …..nah….never happen…..just keep paying Roger big bucks to run sprints on sideline every game……

  3. Great One says:

    Pretty sure Hackworth will be playing Le Toux up top, Marfan on the right and Keon at C(D)AM.
    .
    Has there ever be a bigger disparity in Philly between what (sane, well-balanced people) fans and a coach think of a players skill than with Roger Torres? I mean most people believe he should start., but Hackworth will once again not even have him in the 11.
    .
    I’d like to see Fabinho and Kleberson get a chance, but I’m pretty sure Fabinho has fallen into place with Hoppenot, being one or two off the bench. And if we didn’t have to have 18 on the roster Kleberson would be with Torres.
    .
    Also, why do people think Keon was gone? Fernandes just took his place, he’s just a little slower and worse.

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