Match previews

Preview: Union vs Houston Dynamo

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Houston Dynamo
What: Regular season game
Where: PPL Park, Chester, PA, USA
When: 4:00 pm, Saturday, April 19
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Referee: Armando Villareal; Linesmen: Corey Parker, Matthew Kreitzer; Fourth official: Jose Carlos Rivero

The first half was wide open. The second half was disturbing. The scoreline was brutal.

Whether you are a Philadelphia Union fan or a Houston Dynamo supporter, those words ring true right now. Both Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls were thoroughly beaten by opponents that used simple, direct tactics to overcome possession teams that looked bereft of creativity.

Without the marksman left foot of Brad Davis, the Dynamo found no route through a stout New England defense last Saturday. Though Oscar Boniek Garcia looked every bit the creator and spark, he was doing it alone. The Honduran was responsible for a full 1/5 of the team’s completed passes, notching 54 of 68 with 5 key passes (one corner and one free kick included). Houston’s wide players shriveled under pressure from the New England fullbacks, with Kevin Alston completing 15 of 16 passes in the final third and topping it off with a well-taken goal.

To be frank, it was a very un-Houston performance from a team — and a coach — that takes pride in consistency above all else.

And the Union? Well, the players’ post-game quotes tell the story. New York isn’t a team that can take a game over; you have to give it to them. And on both goals, that is exactly what Philly did.

Even in the first half, when the Union were undoubtedly the better team, they played the Red Bulls’ game. A wide, expansive contest suited Mike Petke’s lineup, which needed big spaces in midfield to let strikers post up defenders with time and space to set up runners. Meanwhile, Philly, used their man advantage in the midfield to… play vertical? Huh?

And so two teams that looked to be establishing identities after the first few games of the season find themselves without one as the 2014 season is beginning to hit its stride.

Dealing without Davis

Dom Kinnear always finds a way to take teams that are less than elite on paper and make them very difficult to beat. When Kinnear implements a system — whether it is his preferred 4-4-2 or the 4-3-3 he turned to during a rough patch two years ago — everybody who plays knows their role. Last weekend, that did not appear to be the case. Tony Cascio and Andrew Driver provided little width, and were a woeful 10 of 18 passing (and 0/3 crossing) in the final third.

It was clear that Dynamo missed the injured Brad Davis. The US international’s ankle may be healed in time to contribute against Philadelphia, and that would completely alter the dynamic of the Houston attack. Oscar Boniek Garcia has proved an inspired choice in central midfield, but one of his main attributes is his ability to pick a smart pass, not to pick a brilliant one. This means that players in good positions get the ball, but that anyone looking for a reverse pass splitting the defense is likely to be disappointed.

New England's wide players got deep vs the Houston defense.

New England’s wide players got deep against the Houston defense.

For a Dom Kinnear team, this is fine. They will take what they are given and ask questions of a defense with good service. But without Davis, the positioning and quality of the final ball into the box was clearly lacking.

If Davis can’t play, the Union fullbacks should step forward and prevent Houston from developing attacks on the wings. New England narrowed the pitch and the Dynamo had no response. If Kevin Alston and Andrew Farrell can do it… come on. Even if Davis does play, Philly must use the athleticism of their fullbacks to force him to play defense and receive the ball in deep positions (where an inadvertent nick on the ankle won’t result in a dangerous free kick).

Maidana vs NY

Maidana vs NY

Using the full field

The modern five-man midfield is a solution to the question posed to coaches who had trouble getting their playmaker involved as athletic, skilled defensive midfielders took the traditional central attacking player out of the game. A fluid midfield triangle allows creative players more freedom to vacate the middle in search of space while simultaneously increasing possession numbers by adding an extra man that needs to be marked.

To counter the extra midfielder, teams must either pull a striker back or push a defender forward out of position. Most teams use a striker, which means the strikers are no longer taking away lanes to the fullbacks, so they can get up and join attacks more often.

The culmination of this long waterfall of outcomes is that wingers should have more freedom to seek space and operate. The wingers can drift around since the opposition’s wide defenders are kept positionally honest by attacking fullbacks.

But where do the wingers go? Ideally, they work with the striker by dropping into space in front of the back line when the striker makes a run.

On Wednesday, Cristian Maidana found a lot of those holes in the first half and looked a dangerous creator. Sebastien Le Toux, in contrast, continually looked to get in behind the defense before the Union had established possession in the opposition half.

The Red Bulls back line, as many defenses have started to do to counter the Union’s speed, played a bit deeper, giving up space in front but preventing balls through. Yet time and again, Le Toux was pushed all the way up against the defense. He was easy to mark and was not available for short passes to hold possession in the final third.

Against Houston, the Union should again have an extra man in midfield. Instead of pushing play, they need to use this advantage to hold the ball and move the defense around. It is worrying that the formations were largely as expected in the New York game, yet the Union appeared to not be drilled on how to use their clear advantage.

Fabinho receives a ball from Fernandes, who then steps up to create space. Nobody fills the space and Le Toux has already taken off upfield against a deep back line.

Fabinho receives a ball from Fernandes, who then steps up to create space. Nobody fills the space and Le Toux has already taken off upfield against a deep back line.

Two striker set and Okugo’s role

Playing with Fernandes in front of Nogueira and Edu, the Union should have been able to push the ball past the Red Bulls’ midfield while retaining enough shape to control counterattacks. Instead, they fell into a wide open contest that left space in front of the defense. New York took full advantage, playing balls into the feet of their strikers and making runs as the Union collapsed without shape. Houston will do the same thing, using Will Bruin to body up Union defenders and bring the midfield forward.

After watching video, it will be difficult for John Hackworth to come up with good arguments against restoring Brian Carroll to the lineup. Love him, hate him, or simply think that a deep-lying midfielder isn’t ideal for the Union, Carroll fills passing lanes extremely well. If nobody else is going to do it, he has to come back into the side.

The only other option is moving Amobi Okugo into midfield. Yeah, I’ll start that debate again.

Okugo is a good center back, but after a year and a half at the position, he still tends to play reactive defense while looking like he’s holding himself back from striding forward with the ball. With an engine and passing range to rival any midfielder in MLS, can you blame Okugo for wanting to be more involved in the game? As a defender, Okugo is of average size and has average instincts. As a midfielder, he is stronger and more technical than many players in the holding position. This defensive experiment has merely shown that a good player will be a good player no matter where he plays. But the role of a coach is to maximize a player’s potential. Okugo deserves a shot to do that in midfield.

First 11

The Okugo conversation leads to questions about the starting lineup. Sheanon Williams was rested mid-week and should return on the right. Gaddis’ defensive contributions mean he should replace Fabinho on the left alongside Austin Berry. The Union simply cannot, cannot spend much more time figuring out who their best center back pairing is.

Aaron Wheeler is a work in progress. Few can argue that he has been far better than expected given his limited experience. But the Union just brought in a player with years of starting experience in the left center back position. To compete in the Eastern Conference this year, Philly has to establish a central defensive pairing and let it develop.

But don’t take it from me: This is the same argument John Hackworth was making for keeping Okugo in the back last season.

Prediction: Union 2-1 Houston

Both teams need a win, and they’re going to go for it. The Union get the edge since Houston will (likely) be missing Brad Davis and have questions of their own with Ricardo Clark out of form. But this outcome is contingent on Philly coming out with some semblance of a plan for how they will shape up on offense. The vertical running and midfield emptying that characterized the New York match should be gone in favor of a possession game that favors the team’s talented center midfielders.


Union v Houston

Union v Houston


  1. Putting Okugo in the midfield at this point would be Krazy with a capital K. If the U need to establish NOW who their best CB pairing is — and I agree with this — and Berry has to be one of them (as soon as he’s healthy, at least) — and Wheeler is promising but not yet ready for prime time — and White apparently looks less good than Wheeler in practice — then Okugo’s got the job. Personally I think he is a superb CB overall. Everyone wants to put him on the future USMNT when he has a good game there and wants him to move into the midfield when he has a bad game.

    I also agree wholeheartedly about Carroll. His absence on Wednesday was, unfortuntely, palpable. Maybe once our back 4 are more settled we can go without him, but not now. And maybe next season he’ll have slowed enough that we bench him, and THEN we can have the Okugo discussion all over again. But not now.

    • Yeah, to clarify: The Okugo thing is more long-term. That’s why I left him in the back in my proposed lineup. As I said, he’s very good. I’m just talking about getting the most out of him by moving him to a position that can control a game and isn’t as easily filled by aging foreign imports.

      • The Black Hand says:

        My only reservation with the lineup is; we are going back to a rather ineffective XI. Yes, we were a little more organized looking, but we could have lost each of those matches. I think that we need to abandon the single-striker set and run out Wenger and Casey (or Leo, as a withdrawn forward). They will both be physical, bruising marks and I think that Noguiera and Maidana just might be ably to run off of them. The fact that our CB’s cannot hold up, without Carroll as its 5th member, makes me strongly question if we really have any CB’s (Okugo included). We need to fix a problem, not resort back to a smaller (looking) problem.

      • This is a good point. Okugo so terrific and wonderful and usmnt worthy, but only if we have a dm making sure nothing gets through

      • “The fact that our CB’s cannot hold up, without Carroll as its 5th member, makes me strongly question if we really have any CB’s (Okugo included).”

        World class point right there. I hear Man City is thinking of a 30 million bid for it.

  2. You may be right on Okugo and the mid but surely it’s only a theoretical debate at this point. Let’s get a W, U. we need this.

  3. Torvald Coolguy says:

    I really wonder about Ethan White. Friends of mine who support DC were really sad to see him go, and he can’t get ahead of Wheeler on the depth chart here.

    Maybe the issue is complementarity in a CB pairing, as an Okugo-White backfield is extremely small. If Okugo moves to the midfield it could effectively be a White for Carroll swap.

  4. JediLos117 says:

    Union 3 – Houston 0

  5. McMohansky says:

    This is a fascinating analytical look at the team. Great stuff, Adam. Despite our frustrations with their underperformance thus far, we shouldn’t be too surprised or fatalistic about 2014. SO many new pieces, constantly shifting. But better pieces, and a more confident goaltender.
    Carroll looked so good in the season opener- a revelation really. I hope the midweek rest can recharge him and allow Edu the freedom to move the ball forward with more ease.
    I prefer Fabinho to Gaddis at LB (minority opinion, I know) but regardless, both fullbacks need to pick their spots going forward better. Part of the blame for last games failure has to be the coaching- without Carroll protecting 2 CBs on poor form, he can’t expect LeToux to have the positional discipine to help out his fullback all game long. Clearly the game plan against was to create 2v1s down the flanks, and it worked. That has to be corrected today. The defenders need confidence in their defensive cover to step up into the opposing player. Second goal was a perfect example. Fabinho hedged on the man with the ball because of an overlap down the wing. The midfielder needs to be on that overlap. The time and space allows the man with the ball to deliver a nice cross into the box for an easy goal. Too much to ask of the fullbacks right now.
    Offensively I’m not as worried because the talent on the team will produce goals. Coaching isn’t holding them back there. I would like to see Casey up front with Wenger and Maidana running off him. Wenger’s made great runs so far and is helping out on defense.
    Excited for today- great weather, vulnerable foe. C’mon the U!

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