Match previews

Preview: Union vs Seattle Sounders

Photo: Mike Long

Who: Philadelphia Union vs Seattle Sounders
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: Wednesday, June 24 at 7 pm
Watch: CSN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Whistle: Edvin Jurisevic; Linesmen: Anthony Vasoli, James Conlee; Fourth Official: Daniel Fitzgerald

Jim Curtin after Saturday night’s 5-1 loss to Los Angeles Galaxy: “Everyone has to take a good hard look in the mirror when you get outplayed like that. Starts with myself, but all of the guys as well, it was disappointing. I thought we actually had in the first 25 minutes some chances and started well, had two or three to get a goal, we don’t.”

Jim Curtin after April’s demoralizing loss to Columbus Crew: “I actually thought the first fifteen minutes, our guys came out and played very well. From that point on, we got embarrassed for the rest of the first half… You want to be able to look yourself in the mirror after a game and say that you gave everything. That’s what we talked about before the game, and I think we got a lot of answers.”

Somebody get this team new mirrors.

Early on, Zardes tried to push the Union deep, later he would check back into the spaces he helped create by putting Philly on its heels.

Early on, Zardes tried to push the Union deep. Later he would check back into the spaces he helped create by putting Philly on its heels.

Foundations and flourishing

Once again, a Union side that started organized and devolved into mess of individual freelancers was calmly taken apart by a team that settled slowly but executed ruthlessly. The common theme from these two nadirs is a squad that is tactically uncomfortable. The base formation is well understood, but can it be built on? Can it be used as a foundation from which to produce varied attacks and different types of defensive pressure? These are the questions that teams asked of the Union late in 2014. And then, like now, Philly had no answers.

In the sports world, soccer may be the ultimate balancing act between group and individual. To be solid defensively, everyone must know where to go on the pitch when the ball is lost. Even an extreme high pressure defense often returns to its shape if it does not win the ball back after five or so seconds.

Imparting that understanding of where to be defensively in relation to the players around you is the most fundamental skill of a good coach. The modern game is about pressure and space: Poor coaches teach pressure as focused on the ball; good coaches teach pressure as a function of the 15-20 yard radius around the ball (i.e., if you abandon that space to chase the ball, you are likely creating more problems than you are solving).

What separates great coaches from good coaches is the ability to build a defensive setup that allows individual offensive talents to flourish. Whereas defensive responsibilities are often imparted in a near-Pavlovian manner (when the ball is there, you go here; when the ball moves over there, you go over here), the offensive side of things requires a level of intuitive creativity. Players must read the defense and their own teammates’ tendencies and adjust their play accordingly. They must do this instinctively, based on opposition game-planning and practice reps with fellow players. And, of course, they must act with an understanding of what the coach wants going forward: Break out quickly? Look to possess?

Gaddis is caught up and completely unaware of Zardes' run in behind. No talking?

Gaddis is caught up and completely unaware of Zardes’ run in behind. No talking?

No more mirrors

So perhaps the mirror isn’t the best place for Union players to look. Watching Philly play, it is difficult to fault specific individuals for lack of physical effort. You could fault Maurice Edu for trying to do too much. You could fault Sebastien Le Toux for basing his defensive pressure on torpedos he saw in submarine movies. You could fault Ray Gaddis for a blind determination to close down anybody with the ball regardless of the space he leaves behind. But these criticisms do not denote a lack of effort. Even Cristian Maidana, who has struggled to make 90 minutes, and has looked lethargic for extended periods in the past, has shown an increased willingness to traipse back and forth across the pitch defending lanes until he wears down.

Maybe instead of looking in the mirror and demanding more effort from themselves, the Union should look at the players around them in the locker room and ask: How can I get a better understanding of what that guy is going to do? Because when a team like Los Angeles goes a goal ahead, the response should not be less organization, more individual pressure, and more freelancing. It should be an increased focus on shape and tactics, an increased focus on the group. From that comes ball retention, from that comes sustained final third pressure. And from that comes confidence.

The Union have shown that they have the ability to control games for short stretches. And they have the ability to play team defense in a way that frustrates quality opponents. But if anything knocks this team even a little bit off course, the entire foundation crumbles.

Before the first goal, Wenger played good defense and dragged Gargan wide to open space for Maidana. After the opener, he contributed an assist and little else.

Before the first goal, Wenger played good defense and dragged Gargan wide to open space for Maidana. After the opener, he contributed an assist and little else.

Wenger as symbol

Since he has consistently been the most representative tree in the forest this season, let’s focus on Andrew Wenger once more. The much-maligned winger had a very strong opening third of the match against Los Angeles. He was in place defensively, helping on the ever-dangerous Stefan Ishizaki. And the three times Wenger was isolated on a defender below the box, he took him on and put a cross into a dangerous area.

But on LA’s opener, Wenger went flying at Dan Gargan and completely missed his tackle. A long ball, a bad touch, a post and a finish later, and the Galaxy were ahead. Wenger’s head was hanging.

And for the rest of the match, the former No. 1 overall pick played as an individual. His offensive movement was slow, indicating that he was overthinking every move rather than letting his knowledge of the tendencies of teammates guide him. His defensive workrate was still high, but he and Sheanon Williams were often staring at the ball rather than communicating; Ishizaki grew into the match and Wenger’s assist was his only completed forward pass in the offensive half until he was replaced by Fabinho (and it almost goes without saying that a player with five shots on goal this season did not add to that total Saturday).

After the opener, Ishizaki found space to cross and dropped deeper to connect with Juninho. In the final third and further back, he was granted too much time and respect.

After the opener, Ishizaki found space to cross and dropped deeper to connect with Juninho. In the final third and further back, he was granted too much time and respect.

Philadelphia Union are a fragile, fragile team. But fragility in and of itself does not damn a team to the cellar. Many egos are fragile, and confidence is a frustratingly fragile construct. This team’s fragility manifests in a lack of belief in the tactical system and the other players on the pitch.

For all the words Jim Curtin has used to describe Maurice Edu’s leadership on the field and in the locker room, Edu was playing his own game after the team went down Saturday. And that form of leadership is rarely effective in a game that even great players can only dominate for short periods of time. If that is how Edu leads, the Union will continue on their current course: Competitive when the road is smooth but always on the verge of spinning out of control at the first bump in the pavement.

Let’s talk about Seattle… briefly

The Sounders are missing Clint Dempsey (but don’t worry sponsors, not for too long! MLS has your back!) and Obafemi Martins, which means they must build more sustained offensive pressure instead of getting the ball onto the feet of one of the best attacking duos in MLS history and watching the fireworks.

Additionally, Marco Pappa struggled through sickness to play a full match against San Jose over the weekend and will not be 100 percent on Wednesday. Ozzie Alonso remains on the road to full recovery and Brad Evans’ groin pull against the Quakes likely means he won’t make the trip to PPL Park.

The Sounders should be able to call on Gonzalo Pineda, who returned to the bench Saturday, and Chad Barrett, who is finally back at full speed but has yet to feature on the pitch since his injury.

So… what to expect? Lamar Neagle up top seems likely. Andy Rose has been very solid and will have to continue on tired legs in the middle. Zach Scott will replace Brad Evans in back, with Victor Mansaray and Darwin Jones hoping to get into the mix offensively.

What more can be said about this Seattle side? They were already likely to send a weakened squad to Chester, but now the lineup and tactics are even more mysterious. Will Sigi Schmid actually play for a draw on the road against a team as unstable at the Union? Does he have the personnel to do anything else?

Back to blue and gold

Regardless of the eleven players that Schmid shakes out onto the pitch, Philly needs to go for a win. The Sounders were taken apart by a San Jose squad that scored in the first half hour and sat in excellent defensive shape for the remaining sixty minutes. Losing Dempsey and Martins hurts Seattle’s offense, but losing Alonso saps the northwesterners’ ability to press effectively. Few players close down the acres of space in midfield as efficiently and smartly as Alonso, and the Union need to exploit his absence by pushing Nogueira through the middle and asking Maidana to link up centrally.

Maidana’s greatest asset can become a weakness when he abandons the middle too often in search of space on the wings. This issue has come into particular focus this season since Maidana’s drifts to the left have not resulted in opportunities for Wenger to spring behind the defense. Chaco, Wenger and a fullback should overload that space and allow the winger to sneak into space, but Wenger has been low on confidence and slow to read defenses, and the positive outcomes simply have not developed this season.

UnionSeattle

Curtin brought in Ayuk when the team was struggling earlier this year, now it’s McLaughlin’s turn.

Prediction: Union 1-2 Sounders

Sure, it’s a weakened Seattle side, but how do you pick the Union after Saturday’s display? No, I prefer pleasant surprise if Philly does put things together to any told-ya-so I could get from predicting victory based on little more than a bad lineup from the visitors.

The Union have spent a lot of time looking in the mirror this season. To succeed they must stop staring at themselves and start looking at the badge on their chest. That is one feature that every player in the locker room shares.

This team will not get better by giving more effort. They will get better by developing a backbone, by sticking to the game plan after taking one on the chin, and by pulling closer under pressure instead of putting on capes and trying to act like superheroes.

Superheroes do it alone. And superheroes aren’t real.

10 Comments

  1. Please let that be the lineup tomorrow night (I’d accept Carroll and Pfeffer reversing starter/sub roles, but everything else must be as written above). Your proposed lineup clearly gives us the best chance to win right now.

  2. Atomic Spartan says:

    Great analysis. Hey Jim, you reading this? Anybody in gold and blue? This would be a great time to field an actual team effort for a change.

  3. Do… or do not. There is no try

  4. pragmatist says:

    I’ll be like a little kid watching a horror movie behind my fingers all game long…

  5. Well done again Adam. Great read.

  6. I’d love to see McLaughlin start, but Curtin seems hell-bent on keeping Wenger in there despite everything (or the lack thereof) that Wenger has done this year. It makes me wonder whether McLaughlin did to piss off Curtin so much to not see any playing time (did he run over Curtin’s pet dog or something?).

    • It is an age thing. Out of the younger players on the team only Pfeffer was involved all season. Players like Marquez, Lee, and Ayuk only saw time due to injuries and really only Marquez has taken advantage and gained Curtin’s trust.

  7. This reads excellently- to put a theme into a preview and have it thump so resoundingly.

  8. I think if you can put a basic structure or framework into a team, both offensively and defensively, It can help the players perform with less anxiety. The union does not have any structure on the team, therefore it can easily descend into chaotic soccer. The players will never be able to change it on their own.Thinking about what to do in the locker room aint gonna work.A weak coach will allow players to eventually do what they want, thus disintegration after 20 min. There are no answers here.

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