Analysis / Union

Talking Tactics: Day 3

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Editor’s note: With all eyes set on Portland’s Providence Park for the unfortunately late kick-off of Philadelphia Union’s season (10:30 pm ET on CSN), PSP’s Eli Pearlman-Storch and Adam Cann have been going back and forth on the tactical options available to the Union their newly revamped, deeper-than-ever roster. Here is the final part of their conversation, beginning with Eli’s reply to a question about how flexible fans can expect the Union to be in 2014.

Eli Pearlman-Storch: I cannot see Hackworth digging his heels in, a la Vermes, Porter, Kreis or Kinnear. For better or worse, the Union tend to be a reactionary team, and while some might find fault in this, it is who they are. If they think that they can beat up an opposing center back, Casey and McInerney may see the field. If they’re concerned about losing the midfield, they may stack the park with all the central midfielders they have. That has been the drill through the first four years of the franchise, and while a great many things will be different this year, I do not see that as being one of them.

As far as possession goes, I do see this as a legitimate priority for the Union. Not only in the midfield upgrades, but also in Berry, they have the players with the technique required to keep the ball on the deck and move it quickly. For guys like Maidana and Nogueira, they may not know another way to play.

But with possession comes one giant potential trap for Hackworth and Co. They must maintain width. Moving the left-footed Fabinho to left back was a step in the right direction, but toying with Le Toux cutting into the center of park and flip-flopping Maidana into an inverted winger would represent a big mistake. If there is one place that MLS is pretty darn solid, it is in the middle of the park. Teams that are unable to exploit the width of the pitch get beaten. Both the kind of between that shows up on the scoreboard and the kind that leaves bruises.

Do you have concerns that the modern, European tendency towards inverting wingers could have a negative impact on this year’s club? How about that 4-4-2? Can the Union thrive with only two players in the center of midfield? Could Hackworth sit Carroll?

Adam Cann: I think that, defensively, the Union line up well against inverted wingers. Austin Berry blocks shots as well as Jeff Parke, so players that cut in to shoot will have to get through 12-plus feet of Berry/Okugo. And pushing teams to the middle should be the goal of any Union defensive strategy. Not only is the center where Philly is strongest, but opening up space on the wings for a counterattack is a great strategy for a team likely to start with Williams and Fabinho out wide (or Gaddis/Fabinho if Sheanon’s injury is serious).

But for Philly to adopt an inverted winger system seems like a poor idea based on the players the team has. Thus far in its development, the inverted winger position has been built around the idea of helping talented technicians on the wings create their own opportunities. While some elite players are given the freedom to drift inside without the ball, coaches are rightfully hesitant to give a license to roam, since the whole idea of the modern winger is to move playmakers out of the increasingly heavy traffic in center of the park.

Do you trust Union wingers to stay wide? For all that Sebastien Le Toux brings to the table, I expect him to follow the ball as much as he always has. Same with Danny Cruz. Additionally, neither of those players is talented enough in 1-on-1 situations to thrive in an inverted role. They both have good speed moves, but they can get caught with their heads down. That means they end up holding up good moves and letting the defense get organized rather than quickly threatening and pulling people around the way inverted wingers should when the system is working.

I’m torn on the two-striker issue. After last season, it’s hard to argue against giving Jack McInerney someone to play with. But I think the only person you can drop if you move to a 4-4-2 is Brian Carroll, and the coaching staff appears quite set on using the captain at the base of the midfield triangle. Last year, Conor Casey was a good hold-up player and definitely put in his time chasing down long balls. But if the Union want to move away from that sort of game, it seems like they will need a player in the hole (either the traditional hole in the center of the field, or in the more modern hole just off center where players like Valeri and Morales like to pick up the ball).

I get the sense that Hackworth wants Maidana to take on those playmaking/hybrid wide-central player responsibilities. I also get the sense you’re not a fan of that strategy. What are your thoughts there?

Eli: Ah, the 4-4-2. I don’t doubt that it will be deployed at some point this year, nor do I doubt that it will be effective.

Two concerns linger though.

No. 1, deploy Danny Cruz rather than Le Toux on the right. With two strikers in the box, the Union do not need Le Toux poking around centrally, as he will invariably do. If both wide players are working towards the middle, the formation is simply too narrow. Fabinho and Williams will get forward, but it is too much to ask for them to provide ALL the width for this team. Having a more linear player in Cruz will help maintain width, especially with Maidana expected to tuck in to provide service.

Aggressive 4-3-3 featuring Pedro Ribeiro.

Aggressive 4-3-3 featuring Pedro Ribeiro.

Which leads me to concern No. 2: The Union must find a way to support Fabinho. His runs up the left flank cannot be a cleared-out runway, with the fullback expected to work endline to endline on the sprint. Some of the responsibility with fall on Edu to provide an outlet for the Brazilian to exchange passes as he begins his movement up field. Maidana will also have to be smart and selective about the timing of his incursions into the center of the pitch. Delaying his runs will allow him to get the ball with Fabinho steaming up beside him, giving him both a dribbling option and a passing option to his overlapping fullback.

Question for you:

To allow Maidana to playmake from a technically wide position, why not Pedro Ribeiro?

Yes, I know it involves dropping Brian Carroll, but hear me out. Ribeiro brings a smart, attack-minded mentality, a big body, and a powerful left foot. I agree that Maidana will be expected to shoulder a lot of the playmaking burden, and what better way to make him more dangerous than to connect him with another left-footed attacker with whom he can interchange?

A guy like Diego Valeri made his money last year finding space in the triangle between the right back, right centerback and defensive midfielder. I would expect Maidana to operate in a similar manner. This would allow the enormous Ribeiro to either crash the box or slide onto the left wing for short stretches, providing the rookie a breather from the hustle and bustle of an MLS center midfield.

In that formation (illustrated here), you would be hard-pressed to find a better safety net to back up the young playmaker than Edu and Nogueira. Imagine taking a set piece with Okugo, Berry, Edu, Ribeiro and McInerney all crashing the box. I like the sound of that.

Time to sit back and see how it all plays out.

Predicted opening lineup: MacMath; Gaddis (due only to Williams’ injury), Okugo, Berry, Fabinho; Carroll, Edu, Nogueira; Le Toux, McInerney, Maidana

Click for Part One and Part Two of the tactics talk.


  1. i remember eli mentioning that possible lineup a couple times and i’m all for it

  2. Why do we HAVE to grant Carroll a spot no matter what? (I know why WE do, but I mean the coaching staff). It’s that line of thinking that really worries me this year. I think it’s a good idea to start Carroll the first game or few even until we figure out what is what and the players acclimate. But after that, he can’t be the only player who has no worry about being benched, it’s just ludicrous. I like Carroll but come on.

    • I’ll have to go digging around for it. But there was a quote from Hackworth at some point this pre-season that gave me the impression that Carroll wasn’t going to start every game. I’ll go hunting, I guess…

    • If he isn’t benched, I could see him coming off around the 60th minute in exchange for Hoppenot or another attacking player if we need to press for an equalizer. With Casey out, expect Carroll to start. Once he gets back, then all bets are off on which one starts.

      • John Ling says:

        Yep. Plus, in a place like Portland – especially with a team that hasn’t really gelled yet – it makes a bit of sense for him to start too.
        But yeah, I think there will be games this year where Carroll will get subbed off, whether it be for an extra forward (Casey or Hoppenot) or another attacking mid (Ribeiro, Cruz – yeah, I know), I think tactically they have a lot more flexibility. The key will be whether Hackworth uses it.

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