Player ratings

Analysis & Player Ratings: Toronto 0-2 Union

Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Thank you, Toronto FC, the Philadelphia Union needed that.

Thank you to the rapidly nose-diving Toronto FC, and new manager Greg Vanney, for the insipid, unimaginative soccer that made asserting the Union’s will and game plan on both matches so simple.

Let’s take a quick moment to talk about how to control Toronto. Step 1. Put one man on Michael Bradley and provide help via a second whenever he is on the ball. Step 2. There is no Step 2. It is that simple.

When the Union managed to do that, their opponents ran out of ideas faster than Doneil Henry collects yellow cards.

The Right Starting XI
Nogueira (L) "the shuttler" & Maidana (R) "the creator"

Nogueira (L) “the shuttler” & Maidana (R) “the creator”

On Saturday, at long last (for some of us), Jim Curtin was able to deploy a midfield trio of Cristian Maidana, Vincent Nogueira and Amobi Okugo. After being teased with this prospect, but missing out on seeing it midweek because of Nogueira’s minor groin injury, for the first time since Curtin took over, the Union dispatched with the double pivot. Instead, Okugo was left to shield the back four, a task at which he has improved with nearly every showing. With the center of the pitch manned by a solitary defensive midfielder, Nogueira moved to wherever he was needed. And with Dominic Oduro looking to challenge Ray Gaddis high up the pitch, that meant that Nogueira could offer support, providing a quick outlet out of the back to keep the offense flowing.

In matches past, Nogueira’s desire to help his teammates and connect passes all over the pitch meant abandoning the center of the park and so limiting his effectiveness at leading the attack. Restored to his preferred role behind Maidana, Nogueira was able to play the way he likes, safe in the knowledge that he was not the sole playmaker on the pitch. And in Maidana, the Union have a player who simply adds a level of quality that is rarely seen in MLS. If he can maintain his fitness through the end of the season, it will not be surprising to hear his name mentioned along with fellow Argentines, Diego Valeri and Javi Morales.

Not only does Maidana have the innate ability to find the pockets of space he needs to operate, but his control of both his body and the ball saw would-be Toronto tacklers swinging and missing with regularity. Wherever he collects the ball, be it on the sideline where he set up Wednesday’s winner, or in the middle of the field, the chance that Maidana will draw one, if not two, defenders, dragging them out of position before delivering the decisive pass.

Wenger vs. Cruz

This may seem a strange time to consider this pairing, given the former’s recent hot streak, but with the return of Maidana to the starting lineup, the dynamic of the Union midfield has shifted. Over the past month, Andrew Wenger has improved by leaps and bounds as a winger. His ability to drive past his defender with the ball at his feet has set up some of the Union’s best chances and has led to goals for him, as well. But against Toronto on Saturday, he was quiet. True he did pop up to score on a well taken header, but during open play, he was unable to make the most of the favorable matchup against Nick Hagglund, a rookie centerback playing out of position.

A look back at both Maidana and Nogueira’s passing charts might offer a little insight. Against San Jose and Toronto on Wednesday, the Union sat deeper with Maurice Edu and Brian Carroll partnering Okugo in the back of the Union midfield. With two defensive midfielders in the game, and a shorter, simpler passing game employed, Wenger was the recipient of plenty of balls to his feet just on the attacking side of the halfway line. Subsequently, Ty Harden and Mark Bloom were sitting ducks, caught with two options, neither of them good. They could, A) step high and challenge Wenger when he receives the ball, knowing full well that if he beats them he is off to the races, or B) sit back and try to make an intervention against a player running at them at full pace.

But with both Nogueira and Maidana in the match on Saturday, the Union possessed the ball much higher up the pitch. With Nogueira buzzing around the field, moving play forward, the runs that were needed on the left flank were in behind the plodding Hagglund, which is where Danny Cruz comes into the discussion. Cruz and Wenger are nearly complete opposites in this regard. When it comes to running in behind and providing constant pressure on a fullback, Cruz does it as well as anyone on the Union roster, which is why he showed so well with Maidana earlier in the year. However, without the Argentine playmaker, his efficiency dipped because there simply was no one to get him the ball where he wants it.

At the end of the day, Curtin will go with the hot hand, and Wenger has certainly proved to be that in recent weeks. But if he goes off the boil and struggles to play with this more progressive midfield, Curtin should not hesitate to call Cruz’s number.

Edu vs. White

Another selection decision coming Curtin’s way is what to do with Maurice Edu. With Carlos Valdes returning from international duty to occupy one center back slot, Curtin must chose whether stick with Ethan White in defense and try to readjust the Union midfield to accommodate Edu, or leave him in the heart of the defense, where he has excelled. Based on Edu’s performance this season at both positions and the current organization of his team, Curtin should lean towards the latter option. First thing is first: White has done a laudable job stepping into the starting lineup and proving just how off base John Hackworth was in ostracizing him earlier in the year. His physicality has added an edge to the backline and his willingness to throw himself into tackles has earned him a great many new fans.

One area where White has struggled however, is his distribution. After completing only 58 percent of his passes on Wednesday, White again struggled with the ball at his feet on Saturday, completing only 6 of 10 passes. Add into that that number his 13 clearances (i.e. balls hacked clear, some of which could have been more constructively placed) and a picture begins to emerge that does not fit into the system that Curtin is developing with the Union. That system begins with defensive organization and moves quickly into winning the ball, distributing to the midfielders and launching the most dangerous counterattacks that have been seen in the history of the franchise.

This reason alone is why the idea of a Valdes-Edu partnership is so appealing. In his pair of World Cup veterans, Curtin might have the most mobile, creative and skilled center back duo in MLS. Throw in Sheanon Williams and Ray Gaddis and the pace and athleticism of the Union backline easily makes them one of the most dynamic groups in the entire league. And once the ball is won, either center back would be capable of launching the attack, with the added bonus that Okugo’s reading of the game and comfort in defense allows them to make their way forward with the ball at their feet when they so chose.

Simply put, a spine of Valdes, Edu, Okugo, Nogueira, Maidana, and Casey gets the Union’s best players on the field and allows them to have the greatest effect on executing the current, winning game plan.

Player Ratings

Zac MacMath – 7

MacMath’s ever-increasing command of his box was again on show in Toronto, with the young keeper twice going up confidently to claiming crosses that he might have punched in past matches. Buoyed his team when they were wobbling in the second half.

Sheanon Williams – 7

Roughed up the out of form Dwayne De Rosario before pushing forward to set up both Union goals. Williams has flown under the radar for most of 2014, but over the summer months, his form has dramatically improved back to the high standard he set in 2013.

Ethan White – 6

Turned in an industrious shift and never gave an inch to Gilberto and Luke Moore in physical challenges. His distribution issues slowed the Union’s play out of the back, which fortunately did not bite them when Toronto took control of the game in the second half.

Maurice Edu – 8

Calm, cool, and collected, Edu looked at home as the captain of the Union and the defensive line. With the team under fire late in the game, Edu won a number of critical challenges in the box.

Ray Gaddis – 5

Continues to struggle with his positioning and came off second best against Oduro too often. Hopefully for the Union, Gaddis’ rut is temporary and playing alongside Carlos Valdes for an extended period will get him back to his high-flying, tight-tackling best.

Amobi Okugo – 7

Okugo not only contained play efficiently, slowing down Toronto’s attack, but he made certain to put a body on runners, knocking them off their desired trajectory, and doing just enough to frustrate them without earning the referee’s ire. And when the Union won play back, Okugo’s understanding of his role meant that he was quick to get the ball forward to Nogueira and Maidana with the minimum number of touches, providing them with both the time and accurate front-foot service they need to run the offense.

Vincent Nogueira – 6

While he may be slightly below peak fitness given his recent injury concerns, the range and quality Nogueira provides when he is given the freedom to roam makes the Union a far more dangerous side. Wore down badly in the second half and was surprisingly not substituted, with Toronto taking over the center of midfield.

Sebastien Le Toux – 5

Le Toux’s was less sharp and decisive than on Wednesday, floating too freely around the field rather than putting Wenger’s whipping boy, Mark Bloom, under pressure on the opposite side of the pitch.

Cristian Maidana – 7

Maidana’s ability to shift his weight and drag the ball away from opponents makes him a constant threat to expose the space behind off balance defenders with a probing through ball. The Union were getting the job done in his absence, but his performances in the last two games have shown just how much better they can become.

Andrew Wenger – 6

Wasteful and a bit out of sync for most of the afternoon, Wenger still did very well to generate enough power to put his header over both Bendik and a leaping defender for the Union’s second goal.

Conor Casey – 7

His eighth minute goal summed up his recent form as he failed to quit after a heavy touch could have proved a cheap turnover. Instead of letting the play go, Casey went to ground, winning an important challenge that set up Maidana to play in Williams. And as he always does after so many physical confrontations, Casey was quick to dust himself off before finding the pocket of space between Toronto’s central defenders and flicking his header beyond a helpless Joe Bendik.


Pedro Ribeiro – 6

Made sure that Toronto were given no respite once Casey went off. Ribeiro continues to display an impressive skill set for a player so tall, with his latest feat being to make space for himself in the box before smashing a left-footed blast that forced yet another save from the stellar Joe Bendik.

Danny Cruz – 6

Gave the Union a much needed infusion of energy late in the match, completing all 9 of his passes and nearly grabbing an assist on Ribeiro’s late drive.

Brian Carroll – N/A

Saw out the final few minutes.

Geiger Counter

Alan Kelly – 3

There is a big difference between allowing the players to play and flat out missing calls. On Saturday, Kelly seemed unaware of the distinction. It is pure luck, rather than Kelly’s oversight, that Casey, Williams, and perhaps others weren’t injured on some of Toronto’s over the top challenges. Toronto had plenty of reasons to gripe as well, with the official incorrectly failing to whistle for a number of infractions which would have gone in their favor.

Preferred Starting XI for Saturday’s match vs. New York Red Bulls


MacMath; Williams, Edu, Valdes, Gaddis; Okugo, Nogueira; Le Toux, Maidana, Wenger; Casey

Zac MacMath has earned the starting job. The Union would not have earned three points on Wednesday without him and he was again instrumental in their victory on Saturday.


  1. Do you play all the starters when you have the USOC Final three days later? I think we should see some players rested, although I don’t think Curtin will do so. I’d hate to see a tired line-up against Seattle.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      Your point is definitely a good one and I would not be shocked to see Gaddis, Wenger and maybe Casey get the night off. I was simply stating my preferences in terms of securing three points against New York.

      • Those are the exact players I’d want to see rested too, except that I wouldn’t do it this weekend. The 3 points against our nipping-at-our-heels arch-rivals are just too important. I would like to see him play our best XI Saturday and Tuesday, and then rest several guys for the Houston match the following weekend, which is when there is serious danger of fatigue.

      • Than I’ll propose you this:
        You’re managing this weekend. Assuming everyone available is healthy and no further injuries occur, who do you start each game and how do you manage them?

    • Ted Cruz Border Patrol says:

      GK: McMath on Sat/Tues; M’bohli against Houston
      RB: Williams/Williams/Gaddis
      LB: Fabinho/Gaddis/Fabinho
      CB: Valdes-White/Edu-Valdes/White-Edu
      CM: Okugo-Nogs-Maidana/Okugo-Nogs-Maidana/LaHoud-Carroll-Fred
      LW: Cruz/Wenger/Wenger
      RW: LeToux/LeToux/Brown
      ST: Casey60/Casey60/Ribeiro

      That’s a strategy for a Win-Win-Draw and I could live with that

      • I don’t agree with every piece of this (I don’t think we can rest the entire midfield against Houston, along with resting Le Toux AND Casey), but mostly this looks like a very good plan.

      • It’s tricky. This is where JC shows how he handles a team with legitimate aspirations of hardware (OC) & the playoffs simultaneously. One game brings it home but it’s easily the hardest game. Saturday is a critical chance to separate from the team most likely to catch us. Houston is a match this team should expect to win. The best XI started Saturday but it probably can’t start both of the next 2 games – unless liberal substitution is available, I.e., no injury. It’s JC’S continuing audition to scratch “interim” from his title.

      • Where do I sign up for your patrol? Because I like the look of your next three starting XIs

      • fabinho is terrible and shouldnt play unless gaddis and williams are both injured. i’d rather have lahoud play either fullback position than fabinho

    • How many internationals are we allowed to play? I know that Fabinho was bumped from the 18 last round. I think we are only allowed 4 or 5.
      In order of priority:
      1) M’bolhi or Blake (we need a 2nd keeper)
      2) Maidana
      3) Nogs
      4) Valdes
      5) Ribeiro
      6) Brown
      7) Fabinho
      Another good reason to rest some folks on Saturday.

  2. After months of reading fan’s busting on Edu, it’s good to finally see him living up to his devastating potential. He is an absolute beast defensively and makes us a better team. I think his future is still unclear, but there should be no further doubt about what he adds to the squad. I hope he is with us next season.

    • +1. I am starting to believe that the guy is worth the money we’re paying him.

      • Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This article makes the case for having Edu be a center back, which is where he has played his best for the Union. Honestly if there are salary cap concerns next year he would be one of the first places to look for relief as center backs do not cost that much in MLS.

      • Omar Gonzalez makes >$1 million/year in guaranteed compensation. Besler just signed a deal that starts at $600K and goes up to $750K over 4 years. Yes, if we needed cap relief, Edu would be the obvious place to look. But we’re not going to get someone with his skill set for a whole lot less. You can get a good stay-at-home center back for plenty less, but Edu offers a hell of a lot more than that.

      • And BTW, as a DP, Edu’s cap hit is limited to the non-DP maximum salary or thereabouts. And there is sure to be further (upward) revision of both the cap and the DP allowance next year. So the U. may have more ability to keep him than they did to acquire him in the first place.

    • Keeping Mo is a no brainer. The Captain’s band tells you the respect he has of the team & the coach – everyone knows he doesn’t want to play CB, but it’s where he’s most needed. He turned it up Saturday – like a team leader in the biggest match of the year. It will be up to him. Will Klinsmann encourage him to stay in MLS? That could make the difference. After all it was the Brazil audition that brought him here.

    • Remember that there is a new CBA after this season. It will likely contain a higher number of DP’s or, at the very least, a higher salary cap.
      Mo’s salary and his status is not likely to be an issue after the CBA. It will simply be a matter of his role on the team and if he is comfortable with that role in the back.

  3. Eli. Your analysis regarding Cruz v Wenger and White v Edu is excellent. Well thought out and delivered succinctly. I think the first discussion is a game by game basis depending on what Curtain is trying to accomplish and the 2nd discussion is an easy answer. Thank you Mr. White. We look forward to pursuing your services next season as a full-time CB, however at this moment, Maurice Edu is the starting partner next to Carlos Valdez.
    If this team is going to make a playoff push, this season, Edu’s calm demeanor and typically solid play is a necessary part of the spine of this team.

  4. The future for the Union is so bright. Having Maidana, Noguiera and Okugo on the field at once with a strong and mobile defensive 4 and a stellar goalkeeper, Rais or Zac, will give this team some sharp teeth.

  5. Le Toux-6 seems more like it in my opinion. His running alone made TFC adjust their point of attack

  6. I feel that the line up against the Red Bull could be a reaction to who plays for Seattle against RSL the night before.

  7. Another reason to play Zac Saturday afternoon is the M’boli is playing halfway across the world on Wednesday.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      Didn’t really stop them starting him last time though.

    • Personally I’d like to see M’bolhi start on Saturday, and then have Zac start against Seattle on Tuesday. First, it would be nice to give Zac a chance to finish out the tourney; and second, his expertise on PKs could prove decisive if the game is even after 120 minutes.

  8. Old soccer coach says:

    With regards Le Toux, even the energizer bunny sometimes needs a fresh battery. Okugo’s ability to slot in at center back means that one of the old shibboleth’s of the flat back four – that center backs always stay home – can be displaced. Edu has made a handful of such runs out of the back in the last few games, and a few years ago, Valdes would do it once or twice every two or three weeks, although memory says that he was not as fast as Edu or as smooth with the ball. His presence at center back means the opposing DCMs have to monitor potential runs from four, not three: Okugo, Nogeuira, Maidana AND Edu. Add the peripatetic nature of Le Toux’s offensive positioning and you make the opposition think very carefully about setting up in the double pivot as you call it, a formation that tends to give the Union greater control of the central third of the central third. I hope Edu is willing to move to center back for the rest of the season. Beyond that point positions will be influenced by whether Okugo re-signs here.

  9. Rotation is key in these 3 games. Neither Casey nor Noguiera can play all 3. LeToux & Maidana will need to be subbed. Zac earned Cup start, so play Rais in league matches. Won’t JC pick OC game lineup first plan other games around it?

  10. I think it is potentially an Edu v Okugo decision. If there is a possibility of Edu coming back next year he needs to be in his preferred position of MF. Ethan White played well enough to keep his position in Jim Curtin’s mantra “Centerbacks playing Centerback.”

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      So you’re proposing dropping Okugo to the bench and moving Edu back to the midfield? I just can’t see that happening. Not only is Okugo playing very well in midfield, but he has also proven to be very strong at centerback. If Edu moves back to midfield, then okugo should partner valdes at CB, especially because they have so much experience partnering already.

      • I think he’s saying that next year, one of Edu or Okugo has to either agree to play center back, or we have to ship one of them. They both should be D-Mids regularly, and neither should be ‘dropped to the bench’.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        Oh, if that was the point, then yes, I agree.

      • Alternatively, you change formations and play a 4-man midfield of Okugo, Edu, Nogueira and Maidana, with Le Toux and Casey up top, in a 4-2-2-2 (though it would really function more like a 4-2-1-1-2).

      • Do you really see Casey back next year? I love the guy, but I think that, IF he comes back, it’s as a 20 minute guy in the 18, and not as a starter. And I don’t see him agreeing to that salary structure.

      • I agree that some point he’ll poop out, and maybe it’ll be next year, but the guy is still doing a fine job this year. And even if he isn’t back, we’d need a big hold-up type forward to play with Le Toux, so I stand by my plan, even if you replace Casey with Target Forward To Be Named Later.

  11. This season should really be a reminder about the ebbs and flows of a player’s confidence, fitness and fit-with-the-plan.

    I recall being disappointed with Chaco early on, how poor Casey or Shanomenon looked at times…or conversely how dominant Gaddis looked at times.

    I will say, this season has been the most fun to watch.

    • Yes — and it means one shouldn’t just turn on somebody and call for their trade due to a bad run of form. Of course, at some point the bad run just gets too long to justify their playing time, but there’s a difference between a player who’s no longer progressing and a player who’s in a slump. People tend to forget that Sheanon started off really poorly last year too.

  12. I believe Edu is on loan. So he has options of his own if he doesn’t like what the Union have to offer. Hoping Okugo and Edu are back for next season. Start Rais on Saturday and Zac on Tuesday.
    The whole Wenger vs Cruz is dead to me. Cruz gets lucky with goals. Hoping next season Danny is on someone else’s bench.

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