Match previews

Preview: Union at Chivas USA

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union at Chivas USA
What: Regular season game
Where: StubHub Center, Carson, CA, USA
When: 10:30 pm, Saturday, May 31
Watch: CSN, MLS Direct Kick, MLS Live
Whistle: Allen Chapman; Linesmen: Fabio Tovar, Anthony Vasoli; Fourth Official: Daniel Radford

Is there anything worse than entering the summer section of the MLS season with the knowledge that you are a bad team?

The Philadelphia Union are heading into June not as a bad team, but as a team with absolutely no idea what they are. Somehow, that seems worse than being bad.

Last week’s performance was a horror show. Players that have grown up in Union colors looked nothing like the maturing, reliable stalwarts fans have embraced. A coach who continues to have the full-throated support of his team tossed 11 guys onto the pitch against a goal-shy Galaxy without any discernible plan for defending two of the best strikers in MLS.

The Union response to the opening goal perfectly encapsulated the slogan that would grace honest billboards around town: Philadelphia Union: What now?

Depending on how you look at it, a match against Chivas USA either gives the Union a chance to rebound against a weak opponent, or it gives the team the opportunity to show that last week was hardly the nadir of a shambolic season.

Showing up Chivas

Tactically, the Union match up well with MLS’s sitcom franchise. Like Philly, Chivas plays a 4-3-3. Unlike Philly, they play purely to counterattack.

Philadelphia handled Kansas City’s counterattacking style on the road, and the team generally performs better against teams that have a simple game plan that they are loathe to abandon. For instance, the Union shut out Houston, beat KC, handled Portland at home, and stuck with RSL. It’s the teams that vary their attacks that have given the Union fits this year.

Chivas does not have a creative attack. The Goats will sit deep — very, very deep — and wait for the Union to make a mistake. Then they will push the ball wide and flood the center of the pitch. This should suit the Union just fine. Ray Gaddis and Sheanon Williams (the latter of whom should absolutely return to a wide role this weekend) can handle counterattacks.

In fact, the only threat Chivas should pose to the Union will come from overlapping fullback Eric Avila. As Rosales has drifted more centrally to offer an easy outlet for the team’s struggling midfield, Avila has pushed further up the pitch. He is a strong crosser of the ball and won’t hesitate to shoot in good positions. Philly has not done well tracking runners all season, and Avila is a player that could make them pay.

Can the Union score?

This has become the second biggest question of the 2014 season, just behind, “Can the Union go 45 minutes without making an error so costly that it means we can copy and paste John Hackworth’s quotes from the last post-game presser into this week’s quote sheet?”

Chivas' midfield gets flat, leaving clear gaps in front of defense

Chivas’ midfield gets flat, leaving clear gaps in front of defense

Chivas has given up 22 goals, more than all but two MLS teams (Houston and guess who). The Goats play a high line with aggressive fullbacks who don’t recover well. Basically, any through ball should do. But to find the space to play those through balls, Hackworth and company must learn from Caleb Porter’s tweaks on Wednesday night.

The Timbers’ coach could hardly complain as his team dominated Chivas from the get-go. But the insertion of Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri is what finally put the game away for Portland. Chivas’ midfield is fairly unstructured, especially without Osvaldo Minda (though he should return from suspension Saturday). Against Portland, they got too flat and left big gaps in front of the defense. Once Nagbe and Valeri arrived to sit in those spaces, the defense had to step high to close them down, and it took mere moments for the deadlock to be broken by new Timbers striker Fenando Adi.

Similarly, the Union need to flood the middle of the pitch and dominate those gaps behind the midfield. For a team with three central midfielders, Philly has a tendency to abandon the middle of the pitch. The wide spaces created by both wingers pushing (too) high is often filled by Vincent Nogueira or Cristian Maidana.

This would be fine if those players were collecting the ball 30 yards from goal on the wing. But they aren’t. Nogueira picks the ball up near the half line and looks up to find a defender on him and empty space in behind. Empty space that nobody fills.

Disciplining the midfield to stay in the middle will open up the wings for the fullbacks. The midfield can then stream forward and collect return balls further up the pitch where they can actually, you know, make dangerous passes.

Longing for Le Toux

If there was one game on the Union schedule that fits Sebastien Le Toux-as-striker perfectly, it is this one. With Bobby Burling on a red card suspension, Le Toux could force backup Eriq Zavaleta into rushed decisions. And the slow Chivas back line is tailor-made for Le Toux’s incessant vertical running.

But alas, an injury keeps the Frenchman at home, so the Union will likely return to Andrew Wenger up top. On a side note, there is absolutely no point in playing Conor Casey until the Union figure out how to get more bodies forward. Not only is Casey off his game, but playing a target striker with nobody in the hole behind him is like running a passing play in football with no receivers on the field.

The big, ugly, lineup questions

The least controversial thing I write in this preview is this: Zach Pfeffer should start on Saturday. Get past his age and his inexperience, and realize that the Union need any and all players that still have a shred of confidence on the pitch. When Leo Fernandes was in form, John Hackworth did not hesitate to give him starts. Why should Zach Pfeffer be any different?

And there is any easy place to put Pfeffer: In Leo Fernandes’ spot. The player that sparked the Union early in the season had one the worst halves of the season in the first 45 against LA. Bring in Pfeffer, bring back Maidana, and give Wenger two creative players to put him through. This should also open up the wings for the fullbacks to get forward.

Further back, things get tougher to figure out. Maurice Edu certainly earned a day off with his showing last weekend. But he won’t get it.

Thus, an ideal setup would see Edu and Nogueira playing slightly in front of Amobi Okugo in a three-man midfield supporting Pfeffer and Maidana. Nogueira and Edu can join attacks while Okugo sweeps up and drops into the box as a third body to defend crosses (of which there will be many).

So now we are stuck with center backs. Ethan White? Austin Berry? Aaron Wheeler? Brian Carroll? My choices would be Berry and Carroll, though I would hardly protest a White-Carroll partnership.

The Union have given up 24 goals this season, and many of those goals have come from individual errors. Brian Carroll plays a simple game, and he reads play well. Center backs don’t have to be fast, they have to be smart. And Carroll is that. By moving him deep, the Union sacrifice height but gain a level of consistency that should benefit the team. Plus, with each 5-goal game, the arguments against trying something new become less convincing.

Prediction: Chivas 1-1 Union

It would be disingenuous to predict a Union shutout after the past two games. Plus, Cubo Torres is a great goalscorer, and Mauro Rosales will be taking free kicks against a flimsy Union set piece defense. Giving up just one goal would be a nice showing from the Philly back line.

Can the Union actually score? My prediction is contingent on a lineup somewhat similar to the one I’ve proposed. If the Union play a 4-3-3 with the wingers pushed high and Nogueira vacating the middle… let’s just hope Chivas is as bad as they were on Wednesday.

Preferred lineup vs Chivas USA

Preferred lineup vs Chivas USA



  1. Chivas are a counterattacking team? Win or lose I eagerly await the Union touting the possession stat as proof of their dominance.

    • Adam Cann says:

      Only Toronto holds less possession (~40%) than Chivas (~44%). So the Union better win that battle. When the Goats get the ball, they want to go-go-go… they just aren’t very good at it.

  2. Prediction: The winning coach’s postgame interview will include the phrase, “It was ugly, but we’ll take it.” I have a hard time picturing anyone but supporters of one of the teams tuning in for this.

  3. Carrol at CB!?!?!

    Hasn’t he been run over enough at DMid?

    We need to go with a White-Berry backline … you know, the only two natural CBs on our roster.

    • Agreed! With giving up 9 goals in our last 2 games and all the mental lapses our defense has had so far I think its time to give White a shot. If we aren’t going to play him this season even with the current state of our backline then the Parke-White trade may look a lot worse than the McInerney-Wenger trade. We would have traded our most experienced CB for basically no one if he’s not going to touch the pitch. Time to bring in some new blood.

  4. I think trying Carroll at CB is a pretty good idea — I’ve been wondering whether that might work.

    Alternatively, now that the USMNT squad has been chosen and Mo isn’t on it, we could put Edu in at CB. I’d rather see him in the midfield, but we’re having such back line problems that maybe putting him there — or Carroll — makes sense.

    • I think Edu at CB is a great idea, given what we have right now. Also, I think showing off his versatility is Edu’s best chance of sneaking his way into the WC squad if there’s an injury. But I think a Carroll-Berry partnership would simply be too slow. It’d probably be slower than the Wheeler-Berry partnership that was responsible for the NE game, only with less presence in the air.
      Ultimately, for the long-term, we need to do one of three things regarding Edu: secure the rights for Edu at his current salary and trade/sell him for positions we lack, or secure the rights for Edu after we’ve negotiated his contract down to non-DP levels, and keep him–his performances thus far do not warrant DP money. Thirdly, we could just end his loan and allocate his former salary towards a new ST/CB/locking Nogs and Okugo into long-term deals. Keeping Edu and trading him would give us more resources to work with, but there’s always the risk that we won’t be able to unload him (see Blake).

  5. You mean the nightmare isn’t over? there are more games? phew.

  6. DarthLos117 says:

    We lose this game 2-0.
    I would start a 4-2-3-1
    Williams, Okugo, Berry, Gaddis (on left), Carroll, Nog, Pfeffer, Madiana, Cruz, Wenger.
    Carroll and Chaco fade around 70-75 min mark, bring on Edu and Fernandez.

  7. Brain Carroll must be in the line up is really what you are saying. Carroll with absolutely no physical presence is your new CB. At this point the Union as a soccer team is a joke.

  8. Is Obi Wan Kenobi available? A bit slow, but at CB he is our only hope.

  9. Everyone else has been dreadful at CB, could BC really do any worse? I think Okugo should be playing as the starting D-mid and any roster re-shuffling we have to do to make that happen should be done. So if that means starting BC at centerback, so be it. So it means BC on the bench, so be it. If it means BC traded to Dallas for some retro Burn jerseys, then…you get my point. Also, I like the preferred line-up; however, I don’t see Hackworth benching Cruz at this point. He was one of the few players who actually seemed to give a darn against the Galaxy. Not saying he was effective, but at least he cared and that should mean something when the rest of the team quits on you.

  10. Carroll at CB? No way. Unless you plan on playing him there all season this is a bad idea. The biggest thing the defense needs is consistency in personnel. Let the same 4 play and develop together. This idea of changing the back line constantly is one of the biggest reasons we are shipping goals. As much as I would like to see Okugo in the MF, we need him and Berry to form a tandem like we had last season with Parke. You have to right the ship from the back.

  11. Carroll at CB would be a horrible idea. The guy gets knocked off the ball almost every game and every time he gets the ball. I admire the attempt to change things up and try an unconventional line up but Carroll at CB would make the back-line even worse then it is now and i know that’s hard to believe. Carroll does not have the skill to control the play or ball under pressure, he gets knocked off the ball and will get knocked off the ball all game and it would create dangerous turnovers, even worse then the turnovers hes already conjured up all year.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      I don’t think facts back up your statements. Carroll consistently completes around 90% of his passes. When he does turn the ball over, it is usually when he is trying to lead the break, something he wouldn’t be asked to do in defense.
      Also, the statement that he lacks the skill to control play or the ball under pressure is similarly inaccurate. When he concedes possession, it is generally from someone catching him from behind, again not a concern when you’re stationed at the back.
      Whether or not he would make a good centerback is still very much up in the air, but I do not think you are giving a fair account of the player in question.

      • Well I have to disagree with you. Passing isn’t the issue at hand. Every player in the back has been able to complete passes from the back. It is more of how he will stay with his mark and his positioning on transitions. In the midfield he has not been strong in this aspect. Time and time again it has been very easy for teams to get in behind Carroll and he is easily beat one on one. His defending consists of having his body in front of the play and not really closing down the opposing attacking player. Does this happen every time? of course not, but he does it enough to cause dangerous situations. Luckily for him, he has had Okugo and the back line behind him to slow down the opposing pressure. He is pretty poor at clearing the ball safely, and he has been very fragile when pressured from behind or even when going forward. He can be the best and most efficient passer in the league, but there is a lot more that goes into playing center back then passing.

      • Just look at how the team is more fluent and responsive in the midfield when Carroll is not in the line up. They have done better in the midfield when he is not involved. I think my assessment is fair because there have been plenty of games to see what Carroll can do and what he cant do.

      • Just look at how the team looks and responsive they are when Carroll is not in the line up. They have done better in the midfield when he is not involved. I think my assessment is fair because there have been plenty of games to see what Carroll can do and what he cant do.

      • Adam Cann says:

        Fair points, to be sure. I think a lot of the things you point to aren’t actually Carroll issues, but Union midfield issues. The midfield gets incredibly spread out, which means Edu and Carroll – usually Carroll – are putting out fires rather than holding shape. Carroll has always relied on his positional sense to make up for whatever athletic ability he lacks, so asking him to run back and forth all day instead of filling gaps is not playing to his strengths. Put him in back, however, and you have a positionally sound guy who can slow down attacks and play simple with the ball at his feet (and doesn’t have to worry as much about guys behind him).
        By your description, Carroll is a pretty terrible soccer player. I’ve made the argument that he shouldn’t be starting in front of Okugo before, but I think the assessment that he’s only good at efficient passing and “having his body in front of the play” is pretty jaded. Though the thing I’d disagree with most is that Carroll is lucky to have Okugo and the back line behind him to slow down opposing pressure. I’m not entirely sure how that would work, but I’d bet good money the players would say it’s the other way around.
        Also, this is all contingent on Hack continuing to play Edu in midfield even though he plays more like a CB every game 😉

  12. Also, on your assessment with Carroll conceding possession, You stated that it happens when he is pressured from behind. This shows the evidence that He lacks awareness, which along with every player on the field, a Center Back especially needs. This shows that he is unaware of the players around him and what is going on or developing on the field. So in my opinion putting a player with these problems in a CB position would be dangerous.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      I would argue that he is getting his pocket picked because he is trying to make something happen offensively in this struggling team. That is not in his skill set and I think he struggles when he tries to do it. The fact remains that he is a very efficient player, one who gets caught in possession EXTREMELY rarely.
      You clearly have an enormous bone to pick with Carroll.
      The game is slower at the back, and players there are given more time to make decisions and when you have players like Okugo who demand the ball in front of you, very little creativity is required of the centerbacks other than to track runners, win the ball and immediately deliver it short to a checking midfielder or outside back.
      Carroll can do this. Just to be clear, neither Adam nor I are advocating for Carroll as a long term solution at CB, we’re trying to make the most of a bad situation, which means getting Okugo into midfield where he can do the most good for this team.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Carroll has no business on the back line.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        You make so many definitive statements. It’s hard to take them seriously sometimes.

      • The Black Hand says:

        A CB needs to: Challenge for 50/50 balls (strength is needed to fend off strikers), remain centrally positioned, pass the ball forward.

        None of these are characteristics of Brian Carroll’s game.
        We have CBs…play ’em!

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        All fair points. I enjoy the debate. I think Marquez has earned a call up to be in the 18 as well. He’s been playing very well by all accounts in H-burg. Play your CBs. it’s pretty simply. Problem is, this team has 1 spot for a DM and 3 DMs. For me, Okugo is the pick of the bunch. But then what do you do with Carroll and Edu?

      • Adam Cann says:

        The thing is, none of those (maybe the forward passing?) really describe Sheanon Williams’ game either, but everyone is fine with him at CB. The Union have given up a ton of goals off individual errors and mental mistakes. The crux of the Carroll argument is that he’s consistent, plays simple, and reads the game well. And that sort of stability could benefit a backline that has not done any of those things lately.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Shaenon can challenge for the 50/50 balls and would be much more physical than Carroll. Neither are ideal. I would go with White/Berry or, as Eli had mentioned, bring up Marquez.
        Can MacMath keep up with all of the balls BC would be playing to him? Can we recover from the BC turnovers, when he launches balls aimlessly from the back?

      • DarthLos117 says:


      • The Black Hand says:

        Definitely -1!

  13. Why not try players who actually play the position and, until coming to a Hackworth managed team, have shown they can play? Hackworth has tried every combo except natural defenders. Why not go with Williams(LB) Berry White(if he’s on the game roster) and Gaddis(RB)? Okugo could play in front of them. The real defenders have never been given a chance to play together and form chemistry. Carroll can sub and Okugo could always drop back if necessary.

    • Sorry of course I meant Austin Berry and Ethan White. OMG the picture in my head! My eyes! My eyes!!

      • I will definitely text my vote for song of the match for anything by Berry “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Goals, Babe” White.

      • Made me laugh. You have trumped the Obi Wan comment above as the comment of the week!

  14. Gotta say though, Great and entertaining article Adam!

    • Adam Cann says:

      Thanks! That is the best part about not having a set lineup… previewing gets more fun because everyone has a different perspective on how to shape things up. Back when the Union were good for half a season, it was just, “Same guys, I guess.”

  15. The Chopper says:

    Interested to see hat Hack goes with. We may not like him tactically, but he is a generally smart guy. He,is well aware that while he has been west with the club, Nick Sak has been back at the office in Chester formulating a plan to move on without Hackworth. A plan that will be likely be put in motion before the team lands in Philly unless there is somehow a very convincing Union win in this match.

    His job,is probably gone anyway, but he gets one outside long shot at a stay of execution.. Let’s see how he plays it.

    • His stay should have been the KC game. I doubt Sakeiwicz will do anything because he’s just as delusional as Hackworth. Still one can hope!

  16. How about the player who scored the two goals last night, Fanendo Adi? Signed in May on loan (with an option to buy), Europa League experience, mid 20’s, 6’4″, not a DP. Not sure Portland needed a striker, but they were able to find one. Union, we start Danny Cruz and Antoine Hoppenot.

  17. Great One says:

    I’m of two minds here. The smart side of me is acknowledging the season being over and playing the midfield triangle of Edu, Okugo and Nogueira, with Berry and White in the back.
    The still hopeful/try to win now part of me says start Edu and Okugo at CB with Carroll at DM with Chaco and Nogs in front of him.

  18. If we lose to Chivas, the front office has to making a coaching change…right? I’m not sure how much lower we can go as a team.

    • It’s hard to argue for keeping the manager if they lose to Chivas. However, I would not want to go down the path of a mid-season interim manager again. I don’t see anyone on staff right now that is a better option.
      If the front office decides to make a change at manager, they had better have specific managers targeted; people with a track record of success at the professional club level.

  19. I liked Williams at CB…right until the Galaxy game. Gaddis on the right is fantastic for him and the team. But until we get a true LB and a true CB to pair with Berry (stop saying White-if he can’t get ahead of the guys we’ve been throwing out there, that says volumes).
    BC at CB is as good as any other option we have. And Amobi offers more at CDM than at CB.
    We need to find some type of respectability for the remainder of the season, because right now, there is no reason to come to Philly if you are a free agent.
    Get the young guys back. It’s time to see where our future lies.

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