Roundtable

PSP roundtable: Midseason Union assessment

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

Philadelphia Union are 17 games into a 34-game season, so it’s time for a midseason panel. They have fired one coach, traded their best scorer, and gone through back line combinations like babies going through diapers.

So, let’s talk.

Will the Union make the playoffs?

Dan Walsh: Probably not, but if Sebastien Le Toux plays as more of an actual forward, they have a good shot. I think they can play well enough to go 7-4-6 and finish with 45 points, or 1.26 points per game. That would place them fifth if the standings remain as they are — which would require New York and Houston to continue underperforming after their World Cup call-ups return. (Houston has been outscored 13-0 in their last five games, amazingly.) Only one team has made the playoffs with that few points since the league went to a 34-game regular season in 2011.

Ed Farnsworth: Sadly, no. I will be very happy to be proven wrong.

Adam Cann: Yes, but not in 2014.

Eli Pearlman-Storch: Not this year, though they will make a run for it at the end.

Mike Servedio: No. The hole they have dug seems too deep.

Jeremy Lane: This seems very unlikely, but stranger things have happened. The problem is that the Union seem essentially broken in a few areas (defense, creativity on offense), and unless new faces come in to solve those problems, it’s very hard to see them getting enough points to make the playoffs.

Greg Orlandini: No. They dug a deep hole, and I don’t see them doing the right things to make up all the lost ground this year.

Kevin Kinkead: No.

Who has been the Union’s best player this year?

Dan: Vincent Nogueira. He is one of the best midfielders in the league, and there is nobody in MLS like him.

Ed: Vincent Nogueira, hands down. He may be the best player in the history of the Union.

Adam: Nogueira and Gaddis are the only two players to put in consistent shifts this season. Okugo is not far behind. In fact, if he could put any of the offensive headers he keeps winning on frame, he’d easily leapfrog the other two!

Eli: Vincent Nogueira has been the Union’s best player, despite being bounced due to questionable tactics.

Mike: Nogueira has been the best player. No one else has played at such a high level so consistently. Zac MacMath has continued his good form from the end of last season. Ray Gaddis has also been strong.

Jeremy: Vincent Nogueira is the best player ever to wear the Union jersey, from a pure talent and ability point of view. But the player who has contributed the most has to be Zac MacMath. Without him, the few Union wins would be even fewer.

Greg: Has to be Vincent Nogueira. Most consistent performer, shows up each match and works to get his teammates involved. He’s leveled off a little bit, but he is still the team’s best performer.

Kevin: 1a) Vincent Nogueira, 1b) Zac MacMath. Nogueira has been such a phenomenal signing for this team. He sees the field and moves the ball unlike any other Union player over the past five years. He has great skill, great vision, and great fitness, and really defines the role of a box-to-box distributor.

MacMath has improved drastically this year. You see the penalty saves he’s come up with. His shot-stopping ability has always been top-notch, but he’s becoming much better at positioning himself on crosses and set pieces. He’s learned to make “high percentage plays,” such as punching in traffic instead of trying to catch and collect.

Who has been the Union’s most disappointing player this year?

Dan: Austin Berry. He was supposed to be the missing piece. Instead, his inability to stay healthy and lock down a center back spot set off a domino effect that wrecked the back line.

Ed: It’s a toss up between Andrew Wenger and Sheanon Williams. It’s not Wenger’s fault that he came to the club in exchange for Jack McInerney, but, as he said when he arrived here, his success should be measured by goal production and it just hasn’t been there. With a delayed start to the season following injury, and some positional bouncing around, Williams feels too much like a shadow of the dynamic weapon he has been in the past. Hopefully both find their mojo in the course of the second half of the season.

Adam: Tough call. Austin Berry has been extremely disappointing, looking well out of form after his injury and failing to lock down the spot when given a chance. That said, no player was supposed to have a bigger impact on the Union’s fortunes than Maurice Edu. While he has been a good player, the fact that he seems easily replaceable by a guy the Union already had under contract (Okugo) speaks to how far below expectations Edu has been.

Eli: Watching Jack McInerney excel in Montreal on a team that believes in him makes watching Andrew Wenger just that much more frustrating. His lack of quality in front of goal is glaring, and that is how strikers are evaluated.

Mike: Sheanon Williams. He has played out of position fairly regularly but been disappointing overall. Williams started the season slow after an injury and never really seemed to find his form. Andrew Wenger has done nothing to prove to me that he was worth giving up Jack McInerney for.

Jeremy: Sheanon Williams, because his lack of form and apparent apathy have driven me crazy. He’s gone from being one of the Union’s most consistently good players to one of it’s least productive, and that’s a shame.

Greg: Maurice Edu. He’s played will, but I think expectations were high for him. He hasn’t really put his stamp on a game or on the team as a whole.

Kevin: Amobi Okugo, and I say that because he should be held to a higher standard than other players on this team. Amobi is an excellent player with a lot of upside and a chance to go to Europe. He’s made some uncharacteristic mistakes defensively, a good example being the first goal conceded to Los Angeles where he simply lost his man on a standard set piece. That’s a positioning mistake that he didn’t make in 2013. He’s not looked like the solid player he was last year, even with a full season at center back under his belt.

On the other hand, you see how well he performed in the couple of games when he captained the team from the holding role. This is a guy who was born to play in the midfield, and his talents are being wasted at center back.

What tactical changes, if any, would you enact for the team?

Dan: Sebastien Le Toux should be deployed as more of a striker again so he can be put in positions to score goals, which too few players on this Union team actually do. Play him more like a second striker, nominally as a right attacking midfielder who comes centrally in attack and allow Maidana to float wide right when he wants to. Beyond that, reframe center midfield around Vincent Nogueira with players who look forward (Okugo, Lahoud) and not just behind (Carroll).

Ed: I’m advocating a return to soccer’s roots in Philadelphia: Bring back the 2-3-5!

Adam: Interesting question. Against teams with one striker, I would play a three-man defense with Berry or Edu between Gaddis and Williams. The Union have not been able to get midfielders involved in the offense, so flood the center of the park and start controlling that zone. Otherwise, I would say the problem is less in the tactics than in the movement. Player movement is stilted, reactionary, and not troubling to defenses. This has to change.

Eli: Stick with the 4-2-3-1 and make Okugo and Nogueira (when healthy) the holding duo that this team can then be built around. Let Maidana, Cruz and Le Toux continue to rotate through the attacking midfield positions, with spot starts from Pfeffer and Ribeiro. And up top, unfortunately the Union need to once again ride Conor Casey until he breaks down. When he is in form, the gap in quality between his level and Wenger’s is wide.

Mike: If Casey can give you the minutes, a one striker set like a 4-2-3-1 works. If you have to use Wenger/Le Toux/Wheeler?, I think they have to play a 4-4-2. The 4-3-3 idea is gone with Hack and rightfully so.

Jeremy: One: Enough with multiple holding midfielders. Two: Enact an offensive strategy more complicated than “You guys run around and figure it out.”

Greg: Does the 4-3-3 myth leave with Hackworth? Probably. I admit I am a Luddite and would welcome a 4-4-2 from this team. But I think a solid 4-2-3-1 minus Brian Carroll would work.

Kevin: Scrap the 4-3-3. I don’t think it should have even been installed in the first place. This team doesn’t have enough firepower to play with one center forward, and you’re not going to ride a 32 year old Conor Casey for 75-80 minutes in every game. Play with two strikers and get Andrew Wenger and Sebastien Le Toux more involved.

What personnel changes, if any, would you enact for the team?

Dan: You only start one right back, and both Ray Gaddis and Sheanon Williams are starting quality when in form. The Union should have traded one before Williams’ stock plummeted this season, but if one of them (packaged with a draft pick, allocation money, or whatever) can bring a good, true left back or center back in return, he should be dealt.

Ed: Is there a time limit on filling the team’s needs because the Union need a left back, a central defender (two, really), a playmaker, and a striker, not to mention a permanent head coach. That’s a lot to address in one half of a season.

Adam: What Ed said. Bring in players you believe in, give them a real chance to succeed, and see where it goes. Acquire a left back who is a left back. Acquire a young playmaker and let them get a real shot at success. This team is far away from being a force, so now is the time to see what young guys can do. The Union have, unfortunately, gone the DC United route.

Eli: Find a new coach. Sign the new coach. Ask the new coach what personnel changes they want to make. The idea of making any serious splashes in the transfer market is strange given the uncertainty about the coaching staff who will lead this team in 2015 and beyond. That said, this team has glaring holes at left back, center back and at striker. Also, they lack elite speed in the attacking positions, so grabbing a legitimate burner sometime in the not to distant future wouldn’t be a bad idea. Jimmy McLaughlin, Cristian Hernandez and Richie Marquez should all get looks before the season is over.

Mike: Coach first. Another striker has to be high on the list. An upgrade at left back would be nice as Fabinho has had a few good moments, but not enough. An experienced center back. If the playoffs really start to slip away, think we need to see more Pfeffer, Ribeiro, etc…

Jeremy: Buy a left back/bench Fabinho. Buy a creative central midfielder/assist machine. Buy a striker.

Greg: Play the kids. Jimmy, Pfeffer, Pedro, Cristian(sp). Get them into the 18 at least and get them some starts.

Kevin: A lot.

What would be your most regular starting 11? (Note the formation and the players.)

Dan: 4-2-3-1. MacMath, Williams (RB), Edu, Berry, Gaddis (LB), Okugo, Lahoud, Nogueira, Maidana, Le Toux, Casey. Le Toux would be more forward than midfielder. Let’s see how Okugo/Lahoud would free up Nogueira in a wide-ranging No. 10 role. For an occasional different look, you can pop in Danny Cruz or Zach Pfeffer for Lahoud, move Maidana to the No. 10 and nudge back Nogueira to a linking role.

Ed: I do history, man, not tactics! Given recent form, MacMath, Gaddis, Edu, Berry, Williams, Okugo, Lahoud (who has looked very good now that he’s healthy), Nogueira, Maidana, Le Toux, Casey. Given the ineffectiveness of Fernandes and Hoppenot, Cruz becomes my first sub off the bench. I still want to see Ribeiro in a league game, he showed so much promise in preseason.

Adam: I would vary based on opponent. As I said above, a 3-man back line makes sense against one striker. Philly has the players in midfield to control a game, but they tend to be too spread out. So add more to the midfield. 3-6-1: MacMath; Gaddis, Berry, Williams; Edu (deepest), Wenger (on right) Okugo, Nogueira, Fabinho (left), Maidana, Le Toux/Casey. Against two-striker sets, drop Edu deep and bring Cruz in on the right.

Eli: 4-2-3-1. MacMath; Gaddis, Edu, Berry, Williams; Okugo, Nogueira; Cruz, Maidana, Le Toux; Casey. First 3 subs: McLaughlin, Wenger, Lahoud.

Mike: 4-2-3-1. With the assumption that Edu is now a center back going forward. MacMath, Williams (LB), Berry, Edu, Gaddis, Okugo, Nogueira, Le Toux, Cruz, Maidana, Casey. I’d use Lahoud/Carroll for Cruz on the road.

Jeremy: 4-3-3/4-5-1: MacMath; Williams (LB), Berry, Edu, Gaddis; Okugo, Nogueira, Ribeiro; Maidana, Casey, Le Toux.

Greg: 4-2-3-1 GK: Macmath, Gaddis, Berry, Amobi, Williams. Edu, Nog, Maidana, Pfeffer, Cruz, Casey.

Kevin: Honestly, I have no clue, because the center back situation is such a mess. Based on the limited options you have, I’d try a 4-4-2 (flat, not a diamond): MacMath (GK), Gaddis (LB), Berry (CB), another center back who is actually a center back (CB), Williams (RB), Edu (CM) Okugo (CM), Nogueira (RM), Maidana (LW), Casey (FW), Le Toux (FW).

What has been the Union’s strength this season?

Dan: Possession ball. Combination play between Nogueira and Maidana.

Ed: Self-belief. By all accounts, the Union locker room remains unified despite a terribly disappointing first half of the season. That unity will be vital going forward.

Adam: Penalty saving and work rate. The Union have shown a willingness to work and run hard. If only they could harness that work into something more efficient and effective. A lot of the time, it has looked more aimless than it should (chasing… so much chasing).

Eli: The Union have really shown up in the effort category. However, like Adam said, without an organized game plan in place to direct all that running, it ultimately comes to little good. Once these players are working together with a clear understanding of their individual responsibilities, they should turn the corner.

Mike: Like a few others had said, work rate and belief. Despite a good deal of adversity in the first half of the season, the team has seemed to stay together.

Jeremy: Possession. The Union has shown an ability to hold the ball, which is a precursor to useful offense (or should be).

Greg: Tough one. Decent at possession.

Kevin: They’ve played some nice possession/keep away at times, which has resulted in good scoring opportunities. See the second half of the Vancouver game for a good example of that.

What has been the Union’s most fatal weakness?

Dan: Defensive chaos. Recall the early season draws against Portland, Montreal and Chicago that should have been wins. If you add those six points, then this team is comfortably in playoff contention, and all those other problems seem so much smaller.

Ed: Defense. We’re midway through the season, and central defense is still not settled.

Adam: How can a weakness be “most” fatal? It has to be unforced errors. As mediocre as the Union have been, they have had the ability to pull a loss from the jaws of a draw so many times thanks to losses of concentration and unforced errors.

Eli: Sloppy mistakes, mostly of the mental variety. Ball watching, hospital passes, poor communication.

Mike: What everyone else says here. Big mistakes, particularly in the defensive third. The defense needs to get settled.

Jeremy: 1) Horrific defending, especially on the left. 2) A complete lack of coherent attacking play.

Greg: Scoring. Just abject play from their forwards.

Kevin: No proven goal scorer. Constant flux on the backline. Forwards and midfielders playing defense. Poor performances from guys who were good in 2013. Refusing to play home-grown and younger players. Playing a formation that does not fit the personnel. Poor substitutions and in-game management. Etc.

17 Comments

  1. Let me save you all some time and provide the assessment:
    We suck so much.

  2. kingkowboys says:

    The best player on the Union is Nogueria, but the MVP is MacMath. He’s really made a big jump in his development and he has kept this season alive.
    .
    Regardless of the coach that comes here, CB is our biggest problem. We NEED Valdes, and if he’s sold we need to find Valdes 2.0.
    .
    I’m fine with 4231 with the personnel we have now. Just because Okugo and Lahoud are holding midfielders does not mean they cannot have a vital role in the attack. Unfortunately we are again riding on the shoulders of Connor Casey. Everyone should say a prayer before bed that he stays healthy and in form.

  3. 700chopper says:

    Hire David Moyes or just Hire a real coach, try to get Clint Dempsey and lastly have the front office act like they have a team which pretty much always sells out and spend some money on some real talent not everyone else’s retreads and discards!!!!!!!!!

    • I don’t understand this sentiment at all. I think everyone in a Union jersey would take RSL as their team. It has nothing to do with spending on big names.
      .
      1) Get the talent
      2) Develop the talent
      3) Pay and keep the talent

      • The Black Hand says:

        Two big time expansion clubs are going to make it difficult to develop players and compete, at the same time. We don’t have the quality, within the ranks, to hang. Gonna have to spend some cash!!

      • We couldn’t develop a Polaroid with our shit staff lol

    • Why would Dempsey move from one MLS club to another? Especially one of the best to one of the worst.

  4. The Black Hand says:

    Given the fact that the East is underperforming drastically, the Union have a pretty legitimate sniff at the playoffs. Even with the games in hand, we can slide in the top five IF we can string together some results (I know, that is a HUGE if.) We have to leave Texas with 3 points!!

  5. Amazed no one had Maidana as best player or even runner up. Only All Star on the team for me.

  6. I think this was the most important point made:

    “Eli: Find a new coach. Sign the new coach. Ask the new coach what personnel changes they want to make. The idea of making any serious splashes in the transfer market is strange given the uncertainty about the coaching staff who will lead this team in 2015 and beyond.”

    Beyond bringing Valdes back (who is already a Union player) I don’t think the Union should sign anyone before a new coach can take stock of what he has and what he wants.

    The more they talk about making moves in the transfer market the more worried I am that Curtin is coming closer and closer to losing that “interim” tag.

  7. Old soccer coach says:

    Journalistic ethics constrain Dan Walsh from saying more about the sources he used to develop his story several weeks ago that discussed a plausible explanation for Colorado’s attendance woes, in spite of having won MLS Cup a couple of years ago. Last season’s poll of season ticket holders included questions probing the dichotomy between playing beautiful soccer and winning ugly. I infer that Dan might have had a source within the Union Front Office not for attribution for the piece in question. Such a front office concern might explain why John Hackworth took such huge risks so rapidly. Jim Curtin has pulled back from beautiful in favor of winning ugly, but risks by so doing repeating Colorado’s attendance trap. I sit in a section that has many seats purchased but many fewer attendees; last year a neighbor’s seats were occupied more than occasionally, but by the owner’s family only for the exhibition game against the EPL side. I have yet to see that family this season. Jim Curtin’s approach is unlikely to bring them to the stadium, save for Crystal Palace. I doubt Curtin will be the coach as long as the perception continues that the Union can only win by grit, guts, and physicality alone.

  8. philsoc8 says:

    Edu has been by far the most disappointing. Instead of proving he deserved a World Cup spot, he did the opposite. Nobody who watched him play a few games for the Union was surprised he didn’t make it to Brazil.

    I hope that without that pressure, he can now be himself and really prove his quality.

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