Tactics Talk / US Open Cup

U.S. Open Cup Final: The Mystery of Chessboxin’

Photo: Earl Gardner

A game of chess, is like a sword fight
You must think first, before you move
Toad style is immensely strong, and immune to nearly any weapon
When it’s properly used, it’s almost invincible

(“Shaolin & Wu Tang”, 1981)

Serious question: If the Union sneaks into the playoffs, do you see the team getting past round two?

I don’t.

Sliding into the postseason as the 12th best team in Major League Soccer could be spun into a moral victory, but the reality is that Philly isn’t beating two of New York, D.C., and Columbus in consecutive rounds. Beyond that, I’m not sure anyone from the East is better than LA, Vancouver, or Dallas.

That’s why the U.S. Open Cup final MUST be the focus of this franchise. The capacity to end another disappointing season on a high note is a lifeline of sorts; it allows a burgeoning young franchise to win its first trophy and springboard into the CONCACAF Champion’s League with prize money to boot.

It’s time to start thinking about the tactical approach to the game, which admittedly is limited in scope because of Union personnel specifics. Cristian Maidana, for instance, is certainly a better CAM than a wide player. Vincent Nogueira is a No. 8. The club has rarely strayed from the 4-2-3-1 in the past 18 months, and that’s because it’s the formation that maximizes the available talent.

It probably makes sense to pack it in defensively and invite Sporting KC forward. Philly has seen success in the defensive shell, closing down passing lanes and smothering attacks to frustrate teams that can’t seem to move the ball fast enough. Limited attacks rely on the work rate of C.J. Sapong and the roaming of Maidana to create against the run of play or nick a goal on the fly.

KC still plays the trademark 4-3-3 that won them the 2012 U.S. Open Cup and the 2013 MLS Cup. They still press and they still move well, but it’s more of a balanced attack this season. While Benny Feilhaber is the focal point, the attacking burden is shared between Dom Dwyer and Krisztian Nemeth. It’s certainly unlike last year, when Dwyer bagged 22 goals and Graham Zusi placed second in the team with just five.

Defensively, they aren’t as good as they were a few years ago, though they did keep a clean sheet in Portland on Wednesday night. The backline of Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, and Seth Sinovic had good chemistry and boatloads of experience playing together. That crew was probably better than this year’s rotating rearguard, which includes Kevin Ellis and various options at fullback. Ellis assumed a starting CB role when Ike Opara suffered a season-ending injury, and I don’t know if he’s better than Collin was in 2012 and 2013.

union usoc final

Plan A: use the personnel that got you through the summer

KC has a ton of games in September. They’ll play four in 15 days before flying to Philly on short turnaround. They’ll host Seattle on September 27 before coming out to the east coast.

Keep in mind, you can only have five internationals in your gameday 18. Andre Blake and Fabinho now have green cards, so they don’t count against the max.

Plan A – If it ain’t broke

This is the look that’s provided the bulk of the Union’s success this season. The pairing of Nogueira and Brian Carroll in the defensive midfield saw Philly go through a positive stretch of play in the summer, with Richie Marquez pairing Maurice Edu in central defense.

The only real change sees Tranquillo Barnetta come in for Andrew Wenger on the left. Barnetta is playing the No. 10 role with Cristian Maidana suspended, but it’s just too risky to move the team’s assist leader out of his best spot.

This shape sacrifices Steven Vitoria for Carroll in the middle. The Union’s veteran defensive mid has enjoyed a very good recent spell and seems to be the better partner for Nogueira in front of the defense.

The difference between Carroll and Edu at the 6 is oft-discussed in Union fan and media circles. Edu is the superior athlete and provides more quality going forward. Carroll is a stay-at-home holding mid who better complements Nogueira’s ball-moving ability.

Plan B – Moving Maurice Forward
union usoc final 2

Plan B: keep Vitoria in the XI and get Edu into the midfield

Steven Vitoria’s recent performances have been a pleasant surprise.

The on-loan center back returned from a lengthy injury layoff to find himself way down the pecking order, a fourth-string defender behind Edu, Marquez, and Ethan White. Slowly he worked his way into the starting XI and has looked relatively comfortable next to Marquez.

This XI pairs Vitoria and Marquez to push Edu into the midfield. You’d have to sit Carroll to make it work, but it looks like a solid formation on paper.

There will be arguments as to whether Andre Blake warrants a start in the final. He could be the better goalkeeper at this point in the season, but John McCarthy’s penalty saves are the reason Philly is even here in the first place.

Plan C – More Conservative than Donald Trump
open cup 3

Plan C: keep it conservative, and pair Lahoud with Carroll

The double pivot of Lahoud and Carroll was used during Nogueira’s injury absence.

Curtin played this formation in three games and the team conceded a total of 0 goals over 270 minutes.

It’s severely lacking in offensive ability, but generally shuts down opposing attacks with ease. I just don’t see how Nogueira could be left on the bench though, especially considering his overall pedigree and performance in the Red Bull quarterfinal game.

Defensively, this formation is like building a wall between Mexico and the United States.

Revisiting the 2014 Final

The big lineup issue coming into the 2014 final revolved around Maurice Edu. Would he be preferred on the backline or in the midfield?

For the first time in a long time, Curtin had a healthy team to work with, and two main options for his 4-2-3-1:

1. play Maurice Edu at center back, Amobi Okugo in midfield, and leave Ethan White on the bench

2. play Ethan White at center back, Maurice Edu in midfield, and leave Amobi Okugo on the bench

union 2014 usoc final

Philadelphia’s XI in the 2014 U.S. Open Cup Final. Maurice Edu was preferred in the midfield while Amobi Okugo was the odd man out.

Curtin went with option two.

There really wasn’t a “right” or “wrong” decision; it was just based on where Curtin felt Edu was best positioned. Carlos Valdes had recently returned and formed a solid partnership with White, which allowed Edu to move back to his natural position.

I felt like Okugo was a more “stay at home” #6, while Edu was better at center back, but that’s just one person’s opinion. Maurice scored the Union’s goal that night and Amobi didn’t get into the game.

In the end, I don’t think tactics, game plan, or shape had anything to do with the Union loss. Both teams were very good on the night (it was a great game) and Seattle’s offensive depth was the deciding factor. The ability to bring Obafemi Martins, Marco Pappa, and Gonzalo Pineda off the bench certainly tipped the scales in added extra time. Philadelphia brought in Pedro Ribeiro (at striker), Danny Cruz, and Mike Lahoud. Attacking options were extremely limited down the stretch in 2014.


  1. As long as they don’t go five in the back …

  2. I just posted this in the comments about JC’s presser, and probably should have done it here. But as I said over there, I think this team’s future lies with Banetta as the 10. He’s more stable and versatile than Chaco in that position. Barrnetta is also more willing to take the late run into the box to shoot, yes shoot at goal. Which Chaco is so reluctant to do. And yes this means Chaco has to move outside. But I don’t see it as a big problem because if and when Chaco wants to move, Barnetta has that ability to switch with him, without losing anything. Maybe right now is the best time to experiment with this, being the Union have three games to get it right before the Open Cup.
    No I will not deny Chaco makes spectacular plays as the number 10. But I will also say that with Barnetta there last week, the team looked more creative than it has all year with Chaco there. It’s the end of the season, and the teams playoff hopes are slim. When would be a better time to try this?

    • Agree with you here and the other post except I think Chaco is the player who gets moved this offseason. He does not seem to fit into Curtin’s system.

      • I’m split on this idea. My head is telling me you are right. My heart says it’s wrong. I’ll be honest and say one of my first thoughts when I saw what Barnetta did against San Jose, was that this spells the end of Chaco. I hope I’m wrong. I hope they can both fit on the field together well. They both have plenty of talent. It’s kinda why I want the experiment, to try and make them fit together. But against San Jose, I think we saw why JC has been saying, since Barnetta got here, he wants to put him in the middle. To me, I think he’s right to put him there.

      • doesn’t have the engine for JC’s system…..yup.

  3. I just like how much Kev likes the Wu.

  4. You are presuming that all of Vitoria, Marquez, Edu, Nogs, Maidana and Barnetta are healthy and available. Has that happened yet this year? Someone will make the decision for Curtin. The only difficult choice will be which two of Lahoud, Carroll, or Vitoria.
    I think the second most interesting question is on the bench. Let’s presume these guys are in the 18 for sure, if healthy: Blake, McCarthy, Gaddis, Fabinho, Creavalle, Marquez, Vitoria (I-1), Edu, Carroll, Lahoud, Nogs (I-2), Maidana (I-3), Barnetta (I-4), LeToux, Sapong.
    Who else do you put in the last three bench spots?
    Aristeguieta or Ayuk as 5th international?
    Aristeguieta or Casey as 2nd forward?
    What other options does Curtin want? Pfeffer for another midfield toy? BOTH Aristeguieta and Casey in case you want the kitchen sink? Wenger to dribble the ball out of bounds? Hoppenot to run out of bounds leaving the ball behind? Fred just to mess with the posters on this board? A pool goaltender as a third keeper to keep Sak happy?
    I lean towards Casey, Ayuk and Pfeffer, given the number of defensive guys in my first 15. But I have a funny feeling that Andrew Wenger and Aristeguieta being not only picked but Wenger being the first sub on the pitch. Because. Just because.

    • I think you are just being cynical now. Haha. I think the three on the bench have to be Casey, Ayuk and Wenger. Ayuk and Wenger because they are the best options on the wing. Not Pfeffer because there are better options. And Nando loses out because of the international spots.

    • As bad as Wenger has been going forward this year, he is the best defensive winger on the team. That alone could get him in.
      Also, I would not call Creavalle a lock to be in the 18. I would guess Carroll starts and Lahoud is on the bench for cover at CDM and outside back in case of injury. Creavalle would just be redundant.
      So I would guess Blake, McCarthy, Gaddis, Fabinho, Marquez, Vitoria (I-1), Edu, Carroll, Lahoud, Nogs (I-2), Maidana (I-3), Barnetta (I-4), LeToux, Sapong, Wenger, Pfeffer, Casey, Aristeguieta (I-5).

  5. River Schuylkill says:

    I like Plan B, it gets the most talent and versatility on the field at once. It might take a daring run from Edu out of the deep midfield to nick that goal we’ll be searching for. I’d also prefer Blake to McCarthy. He’s the superior keeper, and it’s a cup final. Check all sentimentality at the door.

    • I completely agree with the comment on Blake and sentimentality. Play the better keeper who will be less likely to make a distribution or handling mistake.

  6. +1 for the Wu Tang reference…………

  7. Laughter, then Tears.

  8. I would be very interested to see Plan B in league games going forward, both to see if Edu & Nogueira can work together, and to see if Vitoria & Marquez can continue to build a good partnership. However, these are both major question marks, and you do not want to explore them for a huge game like this. Edu & Noguiera have not complemented each other in the past (in limited time). Nogueira has MUCH more experience this season playing next to Carroll. Plus, we really need a stay-at-home type to birddog the dangerous Feilhaber. Given healthy personnel, I would STRONGLY prefer Plan A. If Carroll gets hurt then I would plug Lahoud in for him and still go with Plan A.

    On a separate note, Kevin, I would strongly dispute your contention that the Union have gone with a 4-2-3-1 because “it’s the formation that maximizes the available talent”. The wing play from the Union has been so bad this year that I’m not sure how you can say that. I think we played that formation simply because it’s Curtin’s system. Now, going forward, things have changed somewhat due to 1) improved play from Le Toux; and 2) the presence of Barnetta. Nonetheless, I would still argue that the maximization of available talent would call for a 4-2-2-2, with Nogueira and Carroll (or Lahoud) at D-mid, Maidana and Barnetta at attacking mid, and Sapong and Le Toux up top. The latter two guys would complement each other well (and if Sapong got hurt or tired, Casey or Aristaguieta would also complement Seba). Le Toux gets to play where he’s always been best. And we solve our “not enough guys in the box” problem. Two strikers also lessens the burden on the very hardworking Sapong, who takes a beating every game. Barnetta and Maidana like to roam, and Barnetta reads teammates quite well, so there should be enough wide play. And Nogueira and Carroll can do what they’ve been doing all season.

    • For option B, would it make sense to have Barnetta as the 10? Would allow Edu to roam a bit more and keep defensive shape in the mid-field. Then have Maidana as a wing player.

    • Kevin Kinkead says:

      You’re maximizing talent in the 4-2-3-1 because Nogueira is a true 8 and Maidana is a true 10. You put those two guys in any other formation and they are exponentially less effective.

      The 4-2-2-2 you mentioned, that shape rarely plays in a narrow way. It’s more of an “empty bucket” with two wingers, two holders, and a gap in the middle. You rarely see something that clustered in the field with two attacking mids and two strikers. I don’t think you can play anything like that without fullbacks who provide width, and Philly doesn’t really have that right now.

      • The truth is that Barnetta and Maidana are not really traditional wingers (speedy guys who run up the sideline and put in a cross), nor are they typical CAMs — Barnetta has a somewhat more wide-ranging game, and Maidana, for his impeccable field vision and passing, doesn’t get into the box as often, nor as many shots, as a traditional CAM. Both of these guys are hybrid offensive players who roam the field looking for spots and picking out passes. Maidana picks out spots really well — particularly out wide — and Barnetta seems to be really good at reading his teammates and filling in spaces. So I think the 4-2-2-2 I’m proposing, with these 2 guys, would neither be an empty bucket nor a narrow cluster, but something in between.

    • too narrow…….your banking on the width coming from the flank backs…..their not good enough for that.

      • I don’t know why people think that — Maidana pulls out wide all the time. Barnetta does too, when he sees space. And so does Nogueira. And then certainly the fullbacks would get up into the attack at least SOMEtimes.

      • Drifting out and being a wide man are two different things……..one gives you a “false” width, if you will, and the other generally has their heels on the touch line, facing the play……opening the whole pitch.

  9. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Kudos to CPfeif because he is only one to mention the defensive responsibilities of anyone a midfielder other than the double pivot DCMs.
    Feilhaber will roam. If he’s shut down centrally, he’ll flow to either side. We have to be able to account for that well. For the future, not the cup final, we might see more of a 4-4-1-1 with Maidana as the trailing 1 behind Sapong. Frequently they already look like that in the run of play.
    I think an important consideration is the over all speed, quickness and quickness of play of the opponent. If they are slow, Maidana is deadlier on the speedy counter. If we have to break them down, Barnetta.

    • OSC, the double pivot is also suppose to form an impenetrable square with the two CB’s. Basically, your slightly……and that’s the key word, slightly conceding the flanks to the opposition. The box created by the two CDMs and two CB’s move as a unit together….and its the no-go zone. We technically play 4-5-1…….giving Nogs a little more freedom to venture forward……..he’s rarely square with our other CDM. That’s the big reason teams use 4-2-3-1……when done properly…….it’s hard to break down.

Leave a Reply

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


%d bloggers like this: