Match previews

Preview: Union at Orlando City SC

Featured image: Courtesy of Orlando City SC

Who: Philadelphia Union at Orlando City
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: Citrus Bowl
When: Saturday, August 8 at 7:30 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, DirecTV
Whistle: Allen Chapman; Linesmen: Jeff Muschik, Jose Da Silva; Fourth Official: Daniel Fitzgerald

Philadelphia Union earned five points over their last five matches. Orlando City has only collected three. Um, yikes.

Both teams have given up over ten goals over the past five contests (11 for the Union, 15 for Orlando (that’s 3 goals against per game!)), For the Lions, the goals have come through the middle of the pitch at an alarming rate. New York and Columbus both went outside in and tore through the OCSC midfield with ease.

Luckily for Orlando, they have the best attacking passer in MLS, so giving up two or more goals — as they have done in each of the past five games — is not a death knell. Cristian Maidana is none too shabby, but he is not a former European Player of the Year; he is not Kaka.

Soft in the center

The middle of Orlando’s midfield is a combination of three players: Darwin Ceren, Cristian Higuita, and Servando Carrasco. Every name on that list is a good player, and every name on that list can play a defensive midfield role in MLS, though some (Ceren) at a more consistently high level than others. So what is going wrong?

The catch here should be familiar to Union fans, and for that matter, MLS fans in general. Many a team that has adopted the en vogue 4-2-3-1 formation has wondered why their two holding midfielders seem to operate as less than the sum of their parts. Though some players bloom when paired with another deep midfielder (take a bow, Monsieur Tchani) quite a few struggle to work out responsibilities on the fly. Philadelphia is such a good example because, on paper, their midfield looked outstanding to start last season.

Maurice Edu and Vincent Nogueira should have been the drums and bass keeping the beat for Cristian Maidana, but the trio turned out to be quite a dissonant supergroup. Edu and Nogueira both liked to advance the ball on the ground, however neither player was quite sure where to be when the other was at it. Additionally, Maidana’s penchant for touchlines created a huge gap between the holding players and the striker, and neither Edu or Nogueira seemed comfortable occupying that space; they preferred to run through it with the ball.

Eventually, Philly resolved to have either Brian Carroll or Amobi Okugo in midfield to provide consistent back line protection, even if it meant sacrificing the mouth-watering dynamism that Nogueira-Edu offered. Some pairings work very well (early Pineda-Alonso, or Will Johnson and Diego Chara) and others do not.

And the truth is: They don’t work because it’s a very hard formation to pull off successfully. Both holding players are essentially supposed to defend like 6s and attack like 8s. But remember: There’s a reason there are 6s and 8s: When the 8 goes forward at the wrong time, the 6 is there to cover. As simple as that sounds, it’s a truth that many soccer coaches ignore, overconfident that they can simply teach two heads to act as one; too often they end up with Frankensteins.

The OCSC midfield contained Toronto in the 1st half (L) but disappeared for the first 10 minutes of the second half and chased instead of retaining shape.

The OCSC midfield contained Toronto in the 1st half (L) but disappeared for the first 10 minutes of the second half and chased instead of retaining shape.

High highs and low lows

For Orlando, the early success the team had when they paired Ceren and Higuita together — only one loss a month in May and June — was such a dream that the team felt comfortable offloading the benched Amobi Okugo for Servando Carrasco. Things started to unravel in July when it became clear that Ceren and Higuita had simply been peaking at the same time. A four-match winless streak was only broken by a Columbus team struggling to re-integrate Wil Trapp. On Wednesday, Toronto returned Orlando to the loss column with a surprisingly one-sided performance punctuated by a Giovinco hat trick (he’s pretty good).

Orlando was torn apart by, of all things, a brilliant tactical move from TFC coach Greg Vanney (a man much maligned by yours truly). Vanney shifted Marky Delgado from the right into an offset attacking midfield role on the left. It was a very big gamble that left the TFC right flank wide open, because instead of shifting Jonathan Osorio out to the right, Vanney kept him on the left, leaving Jackson all alone to cover the other wing. Sure enough, Adrian Heath responded by sending on Lewis Neal and shifting Luke Boden to left back, creating an all “L” left side that successfully pushed possession into the TFC half when they had the ball. Additionally, this negated Jackson’s offensive influence, which had been considerable in the first half.

But the reward was greater for Vanney because Higuita and Ceren are heat-seeking missiles. By overloading one side, TFC successfully — and, honestly, kinda easily — seduced the OCSC midfield out of the center on missions to press the ball. Sometimes they did it well. Other times, they did not. An overly aggressive press against better numbers is always a dangerous game to play. When one of those numbers is sewed on beneath the name “Giovinco,” it’s downright crazy.

But the problem for Orlando is not simply that their midfield couldn’t close down the ball quickly enough to prevent Giovinco from springing the defensive line. The larger, more absurdly hilarious problem was that the midfield got pulled so far out of whack that they made Collen Warner look like an offensive wunderkind. That’s superduper hard to do.

Marky Delgado was minimally involved on the left side, but his presence overloaded the area and threw Orlando's midfield into disarray.

Marky Delgado was minimally involved on the left side, but his presence overloaded the area and threw Orlando’s midfield into disarray.

That Kaka guy

But Orlando always has an ace up the sleeve in Kaka. The Brazilian star does many things well, but the reason he’s not just another playmaker in the middle is his phenomenal transition game. Whereas the Union often have to go wide to transition, Kaka picks out positions and demands the ball on runs that make stagnant buildups into sudden breakouts. And Orlando, lacking the production they expected from wide positions this season, has needed their star man to be at the top of his game every weekend.

It has helped that Cyle Larin has finished everything he’s seen recently. The No. 1 pick is poised to set the rookie goal scoring record on the back of Orlando’s transitions that leave opposition defenses on their heels, though OCSC would be wise to look at their midfield morass as a warning sign for Larin.

To compare Larin to the young Union strikers whose shot to prominence and just as quickly crashed to the lonelier parts of the bench would be unfair. Larin has a more developed game than Danny Mwanga did at the same age and he has physical tools that Jack McInerney simply can’t match. In fact, Larin is a bit like a cross between McInerney and Mwanga in that he has the movement of the former with the size and strength of the latter. But like the two former Union men, Larin is young and will be inconsistent.

How can the Union help Larin regress to the mean?

Simple answer: Keep the ball away from Kaka.

More realistic answer: Hold possession so Orlando has fewer breakout opportunities

Most realistic answer given the uncertain statuses of Edu and Nogueira: Push Orlando to the wings.

Once Giovinco got space in the second half, the match was all but over. He's that good.

Once Giovinco got space in the second half, the match was all but over. He’s that good.

Yes, the team that came into MLS with dreams of creating offense through the dynamic wide play of Kevin Molino and Brek Shea now looks impotent when the ball leaves the middle of the pitch. With Rafael Ramos injured and Corey Ashe playing his first consistent minutes in a long time, Orlando’s fullbacks are now of the more traditional “get forward and cross” variety than the “join the counterattack” type that Adrian Heath envisioned when he installed Shea in the back line. Unless Kaka is spraying the ball wide as part of a quick transition, Orlando tends to look stagnant when the ball is near the touchline.

Furthermore, Higuita and Ceren take it upon themselves to add movement to the offense when the ball is on the wing, and while this is admirable in theory, it is often messy in execution. There are the standout instances when it works and midfielder bursts into the box, but there are many more times when an attacking run from Higuita is the start of a highlight that wraps up on the other end of the pitch.

Philly needs to adjust how their fullbacks defend to take Orlando out of their game. Ray Gaddis often presses as if he wants his man to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. This should not be the strategy against Orlando. Instead, defend the pass in to Kaka at the top of the box and let the cross be challenged, but allowed. Because Larin aside, who is going to get on the end of a cross for OCSC? After Larin (11 goals) and Kaka (9), the most threatening players on the Florida side are Aurelien Collin (2), Ceren (2), and Pedro Ribeiro (2). Collin may be dangerous on set pieces, but he won’t be anywhere near the box otherwise (well, it is Aurelien Collin so who knows where he’ll be). Ceren, as mentioned above, may get his chances (though he has only put five shots on net this season) but he’ll leave holes behind when he does. And Ribeiro has been relegated to a bench role since Larin caught fire.

Another reason the Union need to adjust their fullback play is that Mo Edu may be rested this weekend so he can be ready for the US Open Cup semifinal. This means that Philly, which has struggled mightily with individual errors this season, is likely to throw Ethan White and either Richie Marquez or Steven Vitoria out against Larin and Kaka. And that means the Union need to do everything possible to simplify the game for their central defenders. In other words, the less chasing out of the middle, the better.

And it doesn’t matter who replaces Edu in back, the damage to Philly’s offense will already be done because there is nobody on the roster who can pass out of the back with nearly the same range or accuracy as Edu. Add in Vincent Nogueira’s continued absence and you have a giant question mark hiding behind whatever attacking gameplan Jim Curtin puts together.

The Edu and Nogueira injuries are likely why Curtin, in under a week, went from “Yeah, we’re not saving him” (it’s unclear if Curtin meant to hint at the all-too-clear subtext that Barnetta’s play may be what saves him). The Union’s last place predicament means The Great Pfeffer Midfield Experiment does not have time to play out (and, thus, Pfeffer will be judged far too harshly over the coming months for his mediocre response to an incredibly difficult assignment).

Barnetta will play significant minutes in the middle of the park. The big question is whether he’ll do it atop a diamond, as he did last weekend, or as part of a nominally five-man midfield behind CJ Sapong. It’s a question I cannot answer. If Curtin starts off with two strikers, Chaco Maidana will be relegated to a wing role where he will either melt Corey Ashe’s face off or watch listlessly from the attacking half as Ray Gaddis is overrun.

A two-striker setup could be ugly and intriguing since the chance to watch Collin barge through Fernando Aristeguieta’s back repeatedly while professing innocence will make for entertaining viewing. Another reason two strikers may be preferred to the 4-2-3-1 Curtin claimed he would stick to with Barnetta around is the previous mentioned injuries. Ethan White is more comfortable going long, and when your team is the only one in the league with a double-digit negative goal differential, making the centerbacks feel comfortable should be a top priority.

Possible 4-4-2 diamond

Possible 4-4-2 diamond

Prediction: Orlando 2-1 Union

The Orlando midfield organization has been bad enough recently that even a Nogueiraless Union side may be able to generate chances against it. However, without Edu in back it is hard to figure out how Philly stops Kaka from becoming a clear cut chance machine.

And I’ve saved the scariest stats for last:

  • 2 — The number of points the Union have collected in the nine matches in which they have allowed the first goal.
  • 0 — The number of points the Union have collected when trailing at halftime (though note that Orlando has scored almost 60% of their goals after the break).
  • 3 — The number of times (out of six) the Union have lost when leading at halftime (again, note that Orlando has scored almost 60% of their goals after the break).
  • 50% — The number of games Philly has won after scoring the first goal (Orlando is at 62.5%, which is the same number as Chicago. Chicago!!! And just in case you think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, Colorado has won four of the six matches in which they score first. The offensively challenged Rapids have taken the first lead in half as many games at Philly, but at least they make it count when they do).

Those numbers may look bad. Because they are. But they only describe the past. And at the risk of perpetuating what Matthew De George has very correctly pointed out is an unfounded and, frankly, debilitating optimism, the past does not necessarily predict the future.

The Union won’t look good on Saturday, but they will try hard. It probably won’t be enough. But it might.

And that’s as optimistic as I can get at this point.

15 Comments

  1. Save the team for Wednesday. Start Casey (he’s suspended Wednesday) and have him go 90. Start McLoughlin and Lee. Give Barnetta a half. Just don’t make the team go crazy trying to win this one when it means nothing at the expense of the USOC game on Wednesday.

    • I’m with you

    • It’s probably the best strategy, but I would still be pissed if they throw the JV out there for Saturday’s game, since I planned a vacation to Orlando around it.

    • Bingo. This game means nothing. Get Mo healthy. Get Barnetta a little burn at the 10. Casey should play a minimum of 45, after CJ gets some work. Get Ayuk and Lahoud a little run in, also. And play the formation that’s going to be played on Wednesday vs. Chicago. If we’re going 4-2-3-1 vs the Fire, it better be 4-2-3-1 on Saturday night. Have some new pieces coming in (Barnetta) and some older ones that have a little rust (Lahoud, Marquez).

    • Paul Goings says:

      Absolutely, 100% agree. Rest as many key players as possible for Wednesday.

    • neatherprovidencepops says:

      Casey all day!!

  2. Its early August and the season is really over if you are worried about the Open Cup, which is still a non- event in this reality. Who says you have to play a diamond midfield anyway?

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      The Open Cup is all we have. I couldn’t care less about Saturday. No one expects a win anyway

    • We can actually win the Open Cup. We can’t make the playoffs.

      By my math, the lowest PPG in a playoff spot right now is 1.29. Over 34 games, that equates to 44 points. Since the Union have 22 and would need another 22 to make the playoffs over their final 11 games, that equates to 2 PPG. No one in the league is coming close to that average. The Union are not getting 22 points over the next 11 games. We’re playing for the Open Cup.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    Don’t forget that it’s another chance for Mr. Clean, aka Allen Chapman to make some random calls like he did to screw the Union at RSL.

  4. YOU HAVE SEVEN STARTERS, SEVERAL OF WHOM ARE RECOVERING FROM INJURY, AND A COUPLE OTHERS WHO COULD USE THE BREAK. SAVE THE BEST XI FOR THE OPEN CUP. TRYING TO WIN ONE USELESS MLS GAME IS STUPID. THAT’S IT – CURTIN IS STUPID. THAT EXPLAINS IT.

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