Player ratings

Analysis and Player Ratings: Union 0-0 Dynamo

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

When Jim Curtin took over from John Hackworth, his emphasis was on defensive organization and shape.

A tough-tackling, uber-competitive defender in his days in MLS, Curtin stressed a defense first mentality, quickly becoming known for comments like, “I like 1-0 games. I hate anything above 3 goals scored, it drives me nuts as a coach.”

Defensive Consistency

With both Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana unavailable for different lengths of time due to injury, Curtin built his team around two defensive midfielders, pairing Amobi Okugo with both Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud. The defensively unreliable Fabinho was sacrificed for the tight-marking Ray Gaddis. Ethan White won his first minutes of the season at centerback and Maurice Edu slid into the backline to provide veteran leadership.

Consistency was critical as Curtin gave his backline a chance to bed in, keeping the same four together, and the results quickly began to turn the Union’s way.

And while Curtin was quick to say that teams cannot begin to claim ownership of a specific style until they win something, the Union under his guidance grew to have a distinct look about them. Physical and organized at the back, the Union were willing to sacrifice possession in favor of structure. With physicality and pace along the backline, Okugo broke up play in front of the defense, while Edu and White swept up any chances that got in behind.

Once possession was won, quick, sharp passing moved the ball from the back, through Edu and Okugo to one of the Union playmakers and they were off to the races on the counterattack. And it worked. The Union went from a team that was all too easily stretched out of position to one that kept numbers behind the ball, while never failing to look threatening on the break, with Sebastien Le Toux and Andrew Wenger streaming up the wings.

Changing the system

That all changed in the Open Cup Final against Seattle.

Carlos Valdes’ return to the Union offered Curtin new options at the back, and the Union manager was quick to return Edu, who has enjoyed his best soccer in a Union shirt at centerback, to midfield. When asked about the decision to move Okugo to the bench in favor of Edu, Curtin said, “I think Amobi’s a great player, but at the same time he’s not displacing Vincent, he’s not displacing Chaco and he’s not displacing Maurice Edu at this time in our group. So that was the decision. Three guys that play midfield for us that you’ve all seen, he’s the odd man out unfortunately.”

This is a major shift for Curtin, who suddenly counts Edu as an intrinsic part of his midfield trio, despite only deploying him in midfield twice in the 15 games he oversaw prior to Tuesday’s Open Cup final. Okugo, inversely, played every match but two at the back of the midfield throughout the Union’s summer resurgence.

Regardless of what it means for the future of Okugo (there will certainly be questions raised about whether he is in the Union’s plans), it represents a sharp, tactical shift for the Union. Where Okugo makes his money sitting deep, breaking up play smartly, and immediately moving the ball forward to Nogueira, Maidana, or one of the fullbacks, Edu wants to be on the ball. Edu dribbling on the ball and getting forward means that Nogueira’s free reign of midfield is constrained. With Edu driving forward against both Seattle and Houston, Nogeuira has had to drop off, covering defensively for his deep-lying partner.

So while the Union began with two defensive midfielders under Curtin, before moving to a solitary one most recently, the team now finds itself essentially playing with no one tasked to the defensive role. Less than a month ago, PSP’s Adam Cann was looking at the benefits and difficulties of playing a double-pivot at the back of midfield. The Union are now learning to make the most of equal partners much higher up the pitch.

True, Edu has excellent range and showed that he will chase back when required, but the pocket of space in front of the back four that was so well secured by Okugo is now there for the taking. Against a truly weakened Dynamo outfit, too many balls found there way to Giles Barnes high in midfield, and Valdes and White were forced to maintain a higher line than at any point in the Curtin era. Fortunately for the Union, Omar Cummings turned in one of the sloppiest soccer matches any spectator is likely to see.

Offensive implications

Maidana’s pass charts vs Toronto (L) and Houston (R)

At the other end, the Union failed to make the most of 17 shots, managing to put only 3 on target, while having 7 blocked. Unlike the counterattacking team of the summer, Saturday’s version of the Union, while fluid and aggressive, failed to force the Dynamo, a team who prefers to sit back and counter themselves, out of their comfort zone. Rather than draw out Houston’s lumbering centerbacks, David Horst and AJ Cochran, the high positioning of the entire Union midfield pressed Casey to the back shoulder of the defense. Without the ability to drop in and make the defense decide whether to chase him, Horst and Cochran did well to stay close to the big forward, marking him closely and sliding in when required.

Maidana felt a similar compression of the Union’s aggressive stance. As compared to the Union’s recent 2-0 victory over Toronto (see right), his ability to come and go as he pleased was limited on Saturday. Instead, he spent nearly the entire game in the attacking half, drifting from wing to wing to serve in crosses. But with Houston’s defense sitting comfortably deep, welcoming the pressure, they were rarely turned and made to chase back to their own goal.

Clearly, the new system needs more work. And unfortunately for Curtin, the hamstring injury White sustained early in the second half may mean he has to put his brand-new, high-pressing philosophy on ice for at least a week. But once he returns, if Curtin continues along this tactical path, the Union must show more patience than they did on Saturday. Flooding forward in numbers played directly into Houston’s hands. Where a more methodical, calculated approach would have forced Houston out of their shell, opening up opportunities for incisive entry passes, the Union’s direct, aggressive style allowed the Dynamo to keep the game in front of them and limit the number of Union chances that turned into quality goalscoring opportunities. Patience, and a better balance of ambition between Edu and Nogueira, will be required to make a midfield compromised of this season’s three big offseason acquisitions work for the Union as they look to surge into the playoffs.

While there is still time to make these adjustments and get the Union attack clicking again, the main question Curtin must answer is: Why now? What wasn’t he seeing in the 9 goals scored in the 4 matches prior to Seattle (31 in 16 since he took over) that led him to alter his side in this manner? The idea that it is a simple matter of playing players in their natural positions rings hollow at this juncture, given both the results and quality of play coming forth from his side in recent months.

Player Ratings

Rais Mbolhi – 6

It is hard to tell who was happier at the end of Saturday’s match, Mbolhi, for recording what was likely the easiest clean sheet in his career, or the Union kit manager, who won’t have to wash his kit before the Algerian goalkeeper’s next appearance.

Sheanon Williams – 8

Aggressively physical with Brad Davis, Williams closed out the Houston playmaker efficiently before launching forward to support the attack. While only 1 of his 6 crosses found their intended target, all of Williams’ deliveries were of the menacing variety and had his attacking line been fresher on the night, likely would have led to more goal scoring opportunities. Even managed to get his head to the ball in the Dynamo’s box. Quietly the best player on the field.

Ethan White – 6

Having missed only the last Houston match since becoming a starter, White was attempting to complete 300 minutes this week when he was forced off with a hamstring injury. Before his injury, White had little work to do, other than dutifully stepping up to allow Barnes and Cummings to stray offsides with comical frequency.

Carlos Valdes – 5

Sturdy enough under the Dynamo’s limited threat, Valdes still has yet to look back his best since rejoining the Union. Appears to be struggling with the ball in the air, as he again dangerously popped up a defensive header and was not a factor on set pieces in Houston’s box.

Ray Gaddis – 7

While Gaddis’ overall play was excellent on the night, he was at fault for three of Houston’s most dangerous chances. Struggled at times with the direct, physicality of Andrew Driver, the Englishman skipping past him too easily twice to set up chances. Showed off his improving passing range, specifically in the 60th minute, when he split three Houston defenders to send Maidana into space.

Maurice Edu – 6

Pressed high in the attack, Edu forced his backline to chase higher than they likely would have wanted. Struggled to link play from the front despite moving the ball into dangerous positions, but oozed class once he was forced into defensive duty following White’s injury.

Vincent Nogueira – 7

Ran Houston ragged as he continues to get used to partnering with Edu. The duo will need to continue improving upon their chemistry, with Nogueira in particular needing to adapt to more defensive responsibilities. Still, his work rate and ability are such that, given more time, he will make the necessary adjustments.

Sebastien Le Toux – 5

Aside from the two key passes he put on a plate for Casey, Le Toux was erratic and off the pace of the game. The fact that he, not Wenger or Maidana, was the final sub might give a small amount of insight into just how tired he was.

Cristian Maidana – 7

Pushed high enough to almost consider himself a second striker, some of Maidana’s usual licence to roam freely was limited. Still managed to create plenty of chances in the final third, however, with most of the Union’s best moves on the night flowing through him. Struggled with his set piece delivery, especially from corner kicks.

Andrew Wenger – 5

Uncharacteristically quiet in the first half, Wenger flew out of the gates to start the second before fading badly down the stretch. Were it not for the injury enforced substitution for White, Wenger likely would have been lifted for Danny Cruz.

Conor Casey – 6

If strikers are rated on their ability to put themselves in good positions and get on the end of chances created, Casey gets a 9. However, if strikers are rated on their ability to create separation and finish those chances, Casey gets a 3. Let’s split the difference.


Amobi Okugo – 6

Added shape to the Union’s midfield upon his entry, Okugo settled in front of the backline, alleviating much of Barnes and Cummings’ threat. Played his consistent, quick passing game and nearly pulled off an audacious bit of skill in the Houston box after pressing high to steal back possession.

Pedro Ribeiro – 5

Used his physical stature well to hold up play in and around the box, but was wayward with his passing and, like Casey before him, failed to turn quality chances into shots on target.

Fred – N/A

Saw out the end of the match without affecting it either way.

Geiger Counter

Geoff Gamble – 4

There is plenty to discuss on Nogueira’s late penalty shout, though it remains a tight enough call that it is hard to discredit Gamble too much for his decision. That is not to say the referee was not poor, as he missed far too many calls as well as remaining uncomfortably silent as players looked to him for explanations of certain calls. The pinnacle of his awkward relations with the players came with Okugo pleading to him to stop play so attention could be given to Ricardo Clark’s potential head injury. Between Gamble waving him away while all 21 players pointed at the stricken Clark, and the time it took him to finally blow his whistle and summon the medical staff, it was a truly embarrassing moment for MLS refereeing.

Preferred Starting XI for Saturday’s match at DC United


Mbolhi; Williams, Edu, Valdes, Gaddis; Okugo, Nogueira; Cruz, Maidana, Wenger; Casey

The Union need to rotate their wingers if they expect to keep both in form. Against Houston, Le Toux certainly looked the more exhausted, but if Curtin chooses to give Wenger a night off, that would be fine too.


  1. Any word on White’s status? Is the preferred lineup wishful thinking to get Okugo in or is it based on White’s likely unavailability?
    Regarding the lack of call on the penalty, we’ve certainly seen worse that were let go and one’s that were less of a foul but called a PK. I know we’ve heard the Union saying he got it wrong, but I’ll be that if we ask Houston, they’ll say he got it right…

  2. Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

    As I mentioned in the body of the article, I do not expect White to be available this weekend. Playing on turf 1 week after a hamstring pull/twinge/injury seems like the worst thing possible for the player and I imagine he will be given this weekend off regardless of the severity.

    • I’m pretty sure the Rat Fun Kamp is a grass field (at least it was a million years ago when I was a ball boy for a Diplomats game). But it’s still in bad enough shape to want to keep out someone with a hammy issue.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        Whoops. Checked and confirmed, you are correct. The post has been adjusted. Thank you.
        That said, I still wouldn’t expect to see White this weekend.

      • Thanks for your response to my post (regardless of surface). As I get older, I have a harder time remembering what I read during the article by the time I get to the bottom. That’s why I only commented on the last two things 🙂

  3. I don’t think there was any room for interpretation on Nogueira’s play. The defender went for the ball and chopped him down. Seemed cut and dry live, more so on the big board on each successive showing, which is odd because they don’t usually show the controversial calls at all.

    Nonetheless, if the Union can’t beat down the door on an injury depleted and plain old not-so-good Houston side they have little chance in the playoff spot race. Which is sad because it feels like the enthusiasm in the park is fantastic right now and I don’t think anyone wants to hear “wait until next year”.

    • I haven’t watched it on TV, but when I saw it on the big board (and I was VERY surprised they showed it twice), I thought he got man and ball simultaneously.

      • I think that he got a slight touch on the ball, but not enough to knock it away from Nogueira’s path. If I’m not mistaken, I believe a ref can still call a penalty if the defender’s contact impedes the opponent’s ability to continue his play. Can anyone back me up on this?

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        I couldn’t make the game. I watched it DVR’d the next day. To me, the defender took him down, and didn’t get enough of the ball to justify it NOT being a penalty. The defender clearly stuck his leg out after being beat. It was a PK all the way. The ref missed it.

    • From my perspective (live from Section 129 and on the video replay), Nogueira clearly beat the defender and was taken down. Should have been a PK.

    • This is one of those plays that look worse on slow motion replay than it did live. In real time it looks like he lunged for the ball got caught up with Nogs so play on….

      Slow mo made it look much worse.

  4. “Why now?” My guess (and this is only a guess) is that, when Curtin got Edu to agree to move to defense, it was with the caveat that it was only temporary; as soon as we got two healthy, starting-caliber CB’s, Edu got his D-Mid position back. The Union FO made a big deal about how Edu was brought here to play midfield; I assume that was grounded in actual promises to the player as well.

  5. I thought I noticed Wenger being brought into the game more when White went off. I wonder if Amobi stepping into the midfield for Edu somehow caused that to happen

  6. I tend to agree with you that Okugo should be playing. It comes down to the fact the Edu and Okugo is better than Edu and White or Okugo and White. It’s not a knock against White, the other guys are just better.
    However I do think you’re pushing it just a little bit. Everything you’re saying about tactics makes sense, but I seem to remember Nogeuira maybe having his best game in a Union uniform against Seattle Tuesday, so he can’t be getting effected TOO much.
    I don’t know what to think, but I hope Okugo is here next year.

    • Agreed. I may disagree with the move of Edu into the midfield, but it’s at least a defensible one. That said, I hope Okugo is in our midfield next year and, if only one can stay, I would pick Amobi.

  7. Old soccer coach says:

    Perhaps Curtin’s shift from Okugo and Maidana to Edu and Maidana utilizes Carlos Valdes brain. The offside trap worked perfectly with White and Valdes against two speedy experienced strikers who should know all the tricks but clearly didn’t succeed. Playing the offside trap well is part and parcel of using a flat back four, but can be beaten by a skilled experienced side (see first half of Brazil v W. Germany 1993 Confederations Cup played at RFK in DC). Valdes is a center back and knows how to lead that. Edu, for all the skill speed and composure that he brings to the back line when he plays there, does not. After the necessary position switch, the trap worked much less effectively.

    Second, the rest of the league has had time to adjust to the resurgence of Le Toux and the Union’s use of the counterattack. With the combination of Nogueira and Edu in the double pivot as it has been called, against Seattle they contested the critical space in front of Valdes and White where Dempsey and Martins operate so well and so interchangeably. Houston had Barnes playing in that space and he was less effective than the Seattle pair. Against Houston our double pivot created sustained offensive control of the middle third of the middle third. Generally in soccer such control is a worthy tactical objective on balance because it denies the same to the opposition.

    Third, anticipate the likely defensive strategy to be employed by the Houston defense that has leaked goals with greater frequency than a fishing trawlers seine net does water. With two huge slow brutes in the center, they are not going to play a high line up the field. they will let teams have the defensive half of the middle third because that’s the only way they can defend the space behind their back line, and as long as they are not behind in the game they don’t have to come up the field. Their flank backs, Beasley and Sarkodie, I think, were able to suppress Le Toux and Wenger 1 v 1 without help in the first half, forcing Maidana and Nogueira to come outside for triangle play to creat attacks on either flank, (which worked, by the by, as it should). We failed to finish our chances, and we have never had a player yet with the knack for creating a goal on his own out of nothing; in fairness, at the top levels of play, those guys are rare and beyond merely expensive. Maidana passes wonderfully at attacking center mid; he has not shown the scoring knack.

  8. I brought this up after the Seattle match, and I think it is even more evident after this weekend. We have a 70-minute attack plan for a 90-minute game. What exactly are we doing when Casey comes off the field? No matter how tall Ribiero is, I don’t think his presence fills the space left by Casey. He would be much stronger if he were our second attacker coming into the 18-yard box rather than the first. Running a 4-3-3 isn’t going to do much good if we send the ball into the middle and we have one guy covered by 3 defenders.
    I put out three late game options last week:
    – Move Le Toux and Wenger in up top, and have Ribeiro atop a narrow diamond midfield behind them.
    – Flip the triangle and have Edu and Nog in front of Okugo. Let Edu get forward in the box and have Nog hovering just outside of it.
    – Bring Aaron Wheeler back into the fold as a striker and put Ribeiro behind him as a second forward.
    There’s simply not enough going on in front of the net. We can run wingers up and down the sidelines all we want. Goals come from the center of the field, no matter where the play starts from. Maidana keeps drifting out to the wings, and Ribeiro is left on an island to somehow solve our problems on his own. We need size and movement in the middle of the penalty area, and if we’re relying on Ribeiro to do that all by himself at the end of every game, we might as well give the other team the ball and sit back and wait for counterattacking options.

    • We have a 70 minute attack because of our bench. Other than Wheeler, yours assume only Casey has to be subbed but I don’t think we can count on Nogs, Seba or Wenger for 90 minutes every match the rest of the way. And when was Wheeler last in the 18? Where the heck is Brian Brown?

  9. Le Toux needs a game off. Thought he looked off his game in the 2nd half and extra time against Seattle and then again against Houston. Looks like carrying the team for a while has caught up to him.

  10. Parking Question:
    I know this is off topic, but I just renewed my tickets without Lot B parking. Could you share your experiences or recommendations on some of the independent lots,e.g. corner of Flower and 291, etc.

    • Haven’t used the independents, but if it’s not too late, you should consider Lot A. Somehow the traffic flow is such that it you get out much quicker than the other lots. Part of that could be just the fact that they don’t have to stop the traffic flow to let the buses and other lots out like they do with Lot B.

      • Thanks Andy! that was my first choice but there is a long waiting list to move to Lot A, and it’s unlikely that I would be able to get it.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        Waiting list? Really… Hmm… that lot is never completely full. I’ve parked in A since day one.

    • I’ve been using the Cavalry Baptist Church lot for the entire four years I’ve had season tickets. The only issue is making a left onto 291, which can be hard due to the line of traffic.

      If you don’t have to do that, give them a try. Friendly people, and I don’t mind giving them $10.

  11. We must take at least 1 point Saturday. We must score. Maybe more than once. So LeToux must start. He gets the week to recover. Same goes for Wenger. Curious that Curtin believed the high pressure would be better against a depleted Dynamo club accustomed to parking the bus, but might it create more chances against the remaining more offensive-minded opponents. Are our CBs ready? Is Mbolhi? It’s a higher risk – reward tactic. Much rather Edu accept CB for now.

  12. Why change something that works? Have Edu shut up and play center back, and get Okugo back in the midfield. Curtin’s starting to let me down, and at this point we’re going to need 6 points against Columbus

    • To his credit (& recognized by the arm band) Mo has been a model teammate & a pro about playing CB. As mentioned earlier, he was brought here to play CDM. As a DP. If he’s not your best, why did FO rent him at a premium? FO’s answer for CB after Parke left was Austin Berry & Ethan White. Prior coach’s answer was to set back Andrew Wheeler’s career. Not surprised if Curtin feels pressure to play him there. It’s not like it’s a bad lineup.

      • *Aaron*

      • Edu by all accounts has appear to be on board with the team plan and has said the right things.

      • The suggestion made is Mo’s acquiescence was negotiated: I play CB only when you don’t have 2 healthy naturals. Makes sense. Our draw for him was to audition for Klinsmann. That ship sailed. Now it may be that MLS – especially for an improving club – & playing at home at DP rates (up in new CBA) suffice. In position.

      • The Edu/Okugo discussion is at least a fair one – it’s not Keon Daniel that Okugo is sitting behind. It seems Curtin wants a box to box DM while Okugo stays at home more. Legitimate coaching decision.

        The part of your comment that should be concerning – Union are renting Edu this season. Okugo is out of contract at the end of the season. We can discuss here, as we do, the value of each and who we prefer. The scary possibility is neither is here in 2015.

      • If keeping Edu isn’t likely, benching Okugo is simply asinine. Remember he didn’t even play in the franchise’s biggest game ever as the only continuous player in its history. That looks more like a statement – rather than the bad decision of a young coach who made a few that night- with hindsight.

      • Your right. But I’d so much rather see a cheap Okugo and a quality striker than the little extra creativity Edu brings into the midfield. Just my opinion, but you guys saw the Houston game right? We need a striker more than anything else, and a free dp slot might do the trick

  13. I have a lot A pass that I am giving up. If anyone wants it for $200, I will give it to them. DM me.

  14. May I ask why are you giving it up? I don’t see a way to DM on this site.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *