Fixing the Union: A few ideas

Photo: Earl Gardner

It may still be April, yet the Union front office/coaching staff have already seen some of the ample supply of goodwill they earned with a positive offseason begin to dwindle. With all the quality acquired for 2014, the Union have only one win from their first eight matches.

Even worse, during the last two games — a road loss against New York Red Bulls and a home draw against a struggling Houston Dynamo side — the Union looked short of attacking ideas and general intent.

With a chance to take down Eastern Conference bottom-dwellers Montreal Impact this Saturday, changes need to be made. But what can be done to ensure that the Union squad that opened the year so brightly begins to put together some victories? Here are a few ideas.

1. Define Nogueira’s role
Vincent Nogueira's completed pass chart vs. Houston

Vincent Nogueira’s completed pass chart vs. Houston

Vincent Nogueira’s positioning is a problem which John Hackworth must address.

It is a problem not because he’s playing poorly, or because he’s not giving effort, but because he is doing so much work and covering so much ground that he is too often not in position to influence the attack from the center of the pitch or even in the attacking third of the field, where the Union need the most help.

It was a similar story against Houston, as Nogueira’s passing chart demonstrates (see right). He was everywhere. Whether he was showing for the ball, controlling possession, or pinging the ball around metrononmically, Nogueira was yet again the focal point for the Union. But that focus was rarely near enough to goal to cause much trouble for the Dynamo backline.

If Nogueira is to become the Union’s leading creator, as the coaching staff expects him to be, he needs to concentrate a more of his efforts in the attacking half. As an example of what can happen when he does get into that space, look no further than the ball he played for Andrew Wenger’s first Union goal. Additionally, taking up a more consistently attacking stance would allow Maurice Edu to better define his own role as he continues to settle into the Union formation. A more advanced Nogueira would mean that Edu could become the primary recipient for passes out of the back, allowing him more touches in space as the Union look to build.

However, if Nogueira is not going to have his role restricted by the coaching staff, then they should look for someone else to assume those duties and allow the fantastic Frenchman to officially drop back into the box-to-box role that he prefers. With Brian Carroll and Edu already entrenched in that deeper level, such a move would necessitate a rethink on how both of those players are deployed.

2. Switch depths, not fields

This one shouldn’t even need to be said: It didn’t work last year; it didn’t work the year before. It doesn’t work.

Flipping wingers and rotating forwards and midfielders at short 5-10 minutes intervals (or sometimes shorter) simply does not confuse defenses. With all that running around, MLS defenders are more than happy to sit back and watch the Union go through their motions.

Against Houston, with so many upfield passes going awry, the Union forwards rotated so frequently that the only players they seemed to confuse were their deeper lying teammates.

This is not to say that the Union should pin their wingers to the touchline and leave them there. Smart movement off the ball is what opens up space for attackers to run into and lanes into which fullbacks can overlap.

So instead of switching fields, Sebastien Le Toux, Leo Fernandes, Andrew Wenger, Cristian Maidana and whoever else finds themselves out wide need to drop deeper into the field to get touches and get relief from the constant pressure applied by outside fullbacks.

Against New York, both Le Toux and Fernandes were often guilty of laying off a short pass to their respective fullback before turning tail and bolting up field, so leaving the fullback without a simple passing option. As a result,  both Fabinho and Gaddis were forced to turn the ball back in field to the outlet offered to them by Maurice Edu or Nogueira. And just like that, the linkage between the midfield and the forward line was severed.

Taking the time to possess the ball and move it with purpose around the edges of an opponent’s 18-yard box is critical to creating scoring chances. This is no aimless possession around midfield. Not only does it give players like Maidana and Nogueira a chance to pick out the killer pass, but it also allows for the late runs of Edu and the fullbacks, bringing even more bodies into the play.

3. Better control of fullback positioning

A  speedy, overlapping, attacking fullback can be a coach’s best friend and a ready-made cure for a team suffering from a chronic lack of width.

However, you can have too much of a good thing. At the moment, that is where the Union find themselves.

True, the chances Fabinho, Sheanon Williams, and to a lesser extent Ray Gaddis are taking to push play high up the flank often succeed in pinning back opposing fullbacks. However, there is an unforeseen side effect to so much pressure. Despite winning the flanks, the Union are caving in centrally to cover up for their spatial victories out wide.

Rather than the pushing the center backs forward to either side of Brian Carroll and condensing the play into the opponent’s half, the Union captain is sitting deeper and deeper, inserting himself into Amobi Okugo’s right center back spot and forcing Okugo to essentially slide to right back. Edu is then left to control the void in the actual center of midfield, while Nogueira flies around putting out fires all over the pitch. The end result is a fullback high up the pitch ready to deliver crosses and cutbacks into the box, but with a lack of bodies there to receive them, let alone distribute or create in the center of the park.

Obviously, this has its detriments at the defensive end as well. When Carroll was rested against New York, it was Okugo sprinting out to his right to cover runners who had gotten behind the overly adventurous Gaddis that led to both goals. Yes, had Sebastien Le Toux tracked Roy Miller on the opener, that goal may not have happened, but the fact remains that Gaddis committed to a tackle too high up the pitch rather than sitting off and picking up whichever player ended up making the final run. Had he cooled his heels and communicated with Le Toux to contain the play, the space behind him couldn’t have been exploited.

For the Union to go back to winning ways — and consistently stout defending — getting a handle on when fullbacks commit, both defensively and offensively, will be crucial to insuring that opposing teams don’t feast on the spaces behind them.

4. Don’t automatically funnel towards goal

Funneling defensive play towards goal is one of those cardinal rules dished out by youth coaches. As soon as the opposition wins play and counters, players are drilled to work quickly back towards their own goal. With young players, it not only gets their feet moving in the right direction, it also instills a sense that the play is not over once a turnover is committed. And it is a valuable lesson to keep teaching youngsters.

But it is a rule that has exceptions, especially at the highest levels of the game, and the Union would do well to spend a significant amount of practice time focused on them. The reason to spend extra time on the exceptions is because too many bodies in navy and gold shirts are collapsing into Zac MacMath’s box without having the requisite awareness of where, in fact, the different attacking runners will be coming from.

Partly, it is down to old-fashioned ball-watching, as in Harrison, N.J. on Wednesday. Thierry Henry and Lloyd Sam are both elusive runners (Henry more so, obviously), but with their eyes fixed on the ball, Aaron Wheeler and Fabinho’s frantic efforts to ensure they were goal side of their marks led them to run right past the play, leaving New York’s two most dangerous players in 2014 alone for simple finishes.

5. It’s down to communication

It starts with Zac MacMath and goes straight up the spine of the formation, through Okugo, Carroll, Edu, Nogueira and Wenger. So many of the mistakes that have cost the Union in the opening eight matches are down to focus and communication. Late in matches, when players are tired, communication becomes that much more important to keeping shape, tracking required runners, and supporting teammates. The need for extra chatter late in matches is true for all sides, regardless of level. As the Union continue to jell and get to know each other, that element should continue to improve as well, hopefully along with tactical adjustments.

6. Start Austin Berry

Get Austin Berry back in the starting XI, but quick.

There is no doubting that Berry was off of his game against RSL in his first game back from injury. But the 2012 Rookie of the Year is a proven center back in MLS, and is deserving of his place in the starting XI. The Wheeler Experiment has proved a mixed bag. While the converted forward excels in the air and in making the plays in front of him, when he is required to track runners, chase down attackers, or distribute from the back, he’s frequently found wanting. Changing positions is never easy, and Union fans will remember the struggles that Okugo endured. His transition was only one level back from the midfield. While Wheeler’s conversion is an entertaining storyline, the Union have a player in Berry who has already proven himself to be a top quality MLS defender.

Berry showed prior to his injury in the brief run of games alongside Okugo and in the past two MLS seasons that he has all of the skills required to both compliment his center back partner and get the job done.

7. Reach for the scalpel, not the sledge hammer

In other words, leave Cristian Maidana on the field.

Over their short history, the Union seem to have little patience for players who exert all of their efforts trying to make things happen in the final third. Whether it was Roger Torres or Michael Farfan, the low percentage chances that come when a player tries to fit a pass into a tight spot tend to draw groans from around PPL Park. Too often, at least in the past, that player was replaced with a more direct, linear attacker.

But with so few players on the roster that can thrive on life in an opponent’s 18, allowing Maidana to play a full 90 minutes is more critical than ever. His persistent probing and searching for the final ball will inevitably lead to good things as defenses tire late in matches. His guile and passing range can unsettle defenses in a manner that simply throwing more bodies into the box does not.

There is too much talent on the Union roster for anyone to press the panic button. Yet, with the Union struggling, changes must be made to how the team approaches play at both ends of the field, otherwise they will continue to limp through 2014, with poor results following them the whole way.


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