A team in evolution

Photo: Earl Gardner

Philadelphia Union are a work in progress. The question is what that progress will look like going forward.

The Union are 1-1-4 after six games and have played entertaining soccer throughout that stretch. Vincent Nogueira could be MLS Newcomer of the Year. The attack often looks fluid. Philadelphia is controlling possession.

But they have surrendered four of their eight goals in the 80th minute or later, more than any other MLS team.

If you could erase those goals, the Union would have the league’s best record. If you could just cut them in half, Philadelphia would sit in first place in the Eastern Conference.

Instead, they sit in sixth.

Last year, Portland was 0-1-3 after four games under new coach Caleb Porter, due largely to defensive frailties. Then they shored up the defense, caught fire and didn’t lose another match till July on their way to the Western Conference title.

Can Philadelphia replicate that? Can their progress look like Portland’s did?

Union manager John Hackworth said Tuesday that his team’s mistakes so far are correctable.

“My hope is that we’ll be able to concentrate for 90 minutes and do a better job of collective defending,” Hackworth said.

He raised another interesting point. Last year, the Union did a lot more defending because they ceded a lot of possession to their opponents and lived by the counterattack. This year, they are controlling the ball more, so they have to transition their mindset to defense in a different fashion, Hackworth said. They haven’t done that adequately enough.

Separately, when you look at those late goals allowed, three of the four included excellent individual plays by the opposition:

Whatever the Union’s defensive lapses were, great players sometimes make great plays. That’s what illuminates defensive mistakes.

But it’s not just that.

Several goals that the Union have surrendered this year have been due primarily to avoidable mental mistakes. They never should have been caught off guard on Johnson’s quick corner in Portland, for example.

An equally good example is Salt Lake’s first goal Saturday.

This was an obvious penalty, but that’s not what should draw your focus in the video above.

Instead, watch Austin Berry (No. 4 in blue) as the players line up before the penalty shot is taken. Berry is hunched over with his hands on his knees. That stance presses one’s weight dead into the ground and, unlike when you ready yourself on the balls of your feet, requires a shift in weight to run. This cost Berry a split second after the ball rebounded from Zac MacMath’s terrific save. Berry’s body language indicates he was probably dwelling on his collision on the prior play that led to the penalty. He couldn’t have been tired five minutes into the game.

That’s a classic, fatal mistake for a center back, dwelling on the last mistake and then making another one because of it. I’ve done it myself all too many times, so I sympathize. But I’m not the professional. Berry can’t make that mental mistake, and he knows it. Luke Mulholland seized upon it by lining up his run for the rebound before the penalty kick was even taken.

The Union are still a fairly young team, and young teams make mistakes.

The question is, as Hackworth said, whether they will correct them.

If Zac MacMath is any indication, this group can learn from mistakes. Everyone remembers MacMath’s infamous drop against Dallas last year that led to a late equalizer. Did you also notice how he then drastically increased the proportion of balls he punched out of the area? If not, perhaps you noticed that MacMath looked like a first rate MLS goalkeeper on Saturday.

The Union remain an evolving team, so don’t overlook the fact that evolution means change. When Brian Carroll left Saturday’s game after 76 minutes, it marked the first time in Hackworth’s tenure that he pulled Carroll before the veteran played a full 90. Hackworth is far more open-minded than he is given credit for.

It’s a long season, and more than half the league’s teams make the playoffs. This team is still taking shape and figuring out who they are. The trade for Andrew Wenger is one step in that evolution. Cristian Maidana’s great showing Saturday could be another. Finally getting all four first-choice back line starters healthy couldn’t hurt.

This team looks an awful lot like last year’s Portland Timbers. If they can stop coughing up late goals, maybe they too can win a conference title.


  1. Let’s see whether Hack is as good as Porter; I doubt it… Porter put his stamp on Portland. Can Hack do the same with the Union?

    • As hard as it is to give him credit … he already has! 2.5/3 on the new big name signings, and ALREADY having us played a great offensive style.

      • You give him too much credit. Points on the board, standings and going far in the playoffs is what counts!

      • Considering where this team was at as recently as late last year, lets take it one step at a time?

        I’ll settle for a handful of above average MLS players and a coherent style right now.

        I cant worry about the Supporters Shield next.

      • He still has no plan/answer in either third of the field, the two most important areas. We give up bad goals and don’t generate chances. Same issues as last year, but now we have a MF…but still no final third tactics. That’s why I don’t rate him.

    • What’s up Guido. Played lately? I haven’t had a chance last few months.
      Caleb Porter is in a class all by himself. Future USMNT coach I hope and hopefully sooner than later. He will change the dynamic and redundancy that we see over and over and over again.

  2. Excellent point on Hackworth pulling Carroll. I was shocked when he did this, but I think it’s a very good sign. Not necessary because I don’t wnt Carroll to play — that’s a debatable issue — but because it shows flexibility in Hackworth’s mindset that we haven’t necessarily seen before.

    The next thing I’m looking for us whether we get some different starters in the next 2 matches. I say this not because I think the current starters are the wrong bunch, but because we have 3 games in 8 days, and last year Hackworth rarely changed the starting XI, even under these circumstances, and he really flogged some of the players who had a lot of mileage (Casey, Carroll). So, will Carroll sit for one of these matches? Will Nogueira, who’s been playing whole matches for many months solid and will be needed for many months more? How about Sheanon Williams, just back from injury, coming off a pounding in the last game and running rampant up and down that right flank? If we do see some switches tonight or Saturday to get some guys rested, I will feel even better abou Hackworth’s coaching flexibility.

    • Hackworth discussed squad rotation in his media teleconference yesterday. I think you’ll see a few players rested for at least one of these games.

      My guess is that you’ll see Casey and Wenger each start a game at center forward, Le Toux and Fernandes each get one game off (with Maidana rotating back in), and probably Carroll, Williams and maybe even Berry get a rest. (Williams and Berry aren’t back to 100% yet. Hackworth flat out said that during the teleconference. Berry just looked it.)

      I don’t think Nogueira, Edu, or Okugo will sit. They’re too crucial. Gaddis will probably play both games too, as he is versatile and has good fitness right now.

      I also think it’s time we see a bit of Lahoud spelling the center midfielders. Cruz is practicing again after returning from injury. And Corben Bone showed a hop in his step in that one game in between fouling the crap out of people, and I’m curious to see what he can do with more minutes too.

      • I think almost all of that makes good sense. CBs don’t do the kind of running the other guys do, so I suspect Okugo doesn’t need the rest, and I agree that Gaddis is really fit at this point and will be fine. If Berry is not at 100% then I would play him against NY and rest him against Houston, when Wheeler would probably do fine facing off with Will Bruin.

        I also think that Edu wants as much playing time as he can get for auditioning purposes, and he’s also fit. I am hoping to see Casey and Wenger start one game each, and we have a bunch of wingers to split time now.

        But I am worried (in advance) about Nogueira. The guy is absolutely critical to us. But he played most of the European season and then rolled straight to our training camp. We don’t want to wonder where his magic is gone when he wilts in the summer heat.

    • I would tend to think that pulling someone once in that many games would make it the outlier, not a sign of someone open to change. However if he is beginning to change I’ll accept it.

      • My thoughts as well. I think the article makes many good points, except for the “Hackworth is far more open-minded than given credit for” line. Maybe Dan knows him better, but that’s not what we, as fans, have seen. What else can we go by when developing our opinion?

        I think Hackworth has been fantastic as a talent evaluator/procurer. Not so as a tactician/strategist. I’d say if he can’t bring out the best in these guys as coach as the season goes on, give him Sakiewicz’ job.

      • You mean make Hack part-owner? I don’t think he has the $$$.

      • Haha! Touché. I meant being de facto GM. I’m sure loudmouth Nick would gladly tell me why that will never happen though.

        I suppose Hack already has a lot of roster power. Guess I’m just looking for a way to get rid of Nick, who I don’t care for.

  3. I’m glad that you pointed this out: “Finally getting all four first-choice back line starters healthy couldn’t hurt”, in terms of this team finally evolving in to the one that we (and they) all hoped to be this season.

    • I think/hope it may be the biggest story line of the season so far. Not in that we can blame it for the conceded goals late in games, but more that it’s hard to imagine them not improving just by virtue of having an intact back line used to playing together. Plus, a *better* back line overall.

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