Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: The definition of insanity

Photo by Marjorie Elzey

Let’s not beat around the bush: the Union aren’t scoring enough right now, and it’s making winning games hard. While I stand by my most recent column, right now, the Union look bereft of ideas.

Against Montréal, the return of Jamiro Monteiro, while so welcome, was not enough to kick the team into gear; Sergio Santos and Cory Burke weren’t able to forge a better partnership than they have in the past; and Dániel Gazdag has yet to lift off.

Others have noted that the regular season really is not the point for the Union. I won’t go so far as to say it doesn’t matter—hosting a playoff game would be far preferable to going on the road—but the Union goal is to win postseason games. If they can use the regular season to figure out what they need to do, then where they finish is not very important (and considering what’s going on with every Eastern Conference team not from Boston, they don’t need to be much more than middling to stay in the top three or four).

So instead of focusing on what the Union are doing wrong, let’s focus on what they can do to get going.

Find the playmaker’s feet

That heading could probably read “Find Dániel Gazdag’s feet,” but he isn’t always the playmaker. Versus Montréal, however, he got the start there, and was pretty anonymous. That’s not just on him.

It’s true that Gazdag needs to be more assertive, both in the press and in showing for the ball—demanding the ball. But because the Union default to wide play most of the time, there are opportunities the team are not taking because they aren’t looking for their playmaker. When Gazdag has the ball at feet, he looks promising, but those moments are too infrequent.

Gazdag may still be learning what is required of a true No. 10 (he’s said he thinks of himself as an 8), but the message from Jim Curtin needs to be to find Gazdag’s feet at every opportunity.

Be braver passing through the middle

The Union do a good job of passing it out of the back. Andre Blake, Jakob Glesnes, and Jack Elliott are adept at outmaneuvering opposition pressure and finding either a fullback up the sideline or José Martínez near the center circle.

Martínez is often past the first line of pressure when he receives the ball, but he is also so good at dribbling past his man or working a triangle with the fullbacks or 8s to turn upfield.

When this happens, he almost invariably works the ball wide again. This is, simply, too cautious. On more than one occasion versus Montréal, Martínez or another Union player found themselves with possession in the center circle, facing the opposition goal, and passed up the chance to force the ball into Gazdag’s or the strikers’ feet.

Obviously, avoiding turnovers is important, but the diamond midfield is narrow. It’s set up to chase the ball in the middle of the park. If a vertical pass gets deflected or picked off, there are bodies there to attack it and maybe force a quick turnover that turns into a break.

And if the pass connects, the offense has the ball at the top of the box where the creative players can make something happen.

Be patient

Passes up the gut won’t always be there, so playing it wide will be a part of what the Union do, no matter what. But that doesn’t mean they have to be so predictable.

Too often, Olivier Mbaizo gets the ball high on the right, and puts in the cross, almost without thought. It’s too easy for the defense to prepare for. If Mbaizo can delay a few beats, then late runners may come open for cutbacks, which forces the defense to make a choice and increases any pass’s chance of success.

Don’t settle

All of this is really part of the same idea: don’t settle for what the defense gives you. Every team knows how the Union attack. If the execution isn’t excellent (which, in fairness, it has been, at times, just not in a while), then it’s easy for the opposition to bunker and hold the Union at bay like a bully with a hand to a little kid’s forehead.

Play the kids

This would be the most popular decision Curtin could make, and it feels like we’ve been asking for it for a long time. And it’s true that Quinn Sullivan has looked the part of a game-winner. But the reason the kids should play isn’t that they are better players than the veterans, it’s that they play with the swiftness and doggedness of youth. The Union often look slow. If they can’t use possession to manipulate a defense, then they need to move the ball faster than the defense can manage. It’s really that simple.

Final thoughts

Can I tell you a secret? I’m no tactics guru. People with more tactical smarts than me might have a completely different prescription for fixing what ails the Union. But what’s not up for debate is that the Union need to change something. Like literally anything.

Because you’ve heard the cliché about doing things the same way and expecting different results.

23 Comments

  1. Good thoughts here Jeremy. I, too, find myself puzzled by the issues the Union are having in attack. Since Aaronson shipped off, I can’t tell if it’s the ideas that are lacking or just the performances.

    An opposing defense is having too easy a time. If they’re not caught on the counter, they can get away with marking the strikers and attacking mids across the box. This lot isn’t going to get on the end of an aerial cross (Bedoya’s header v. NYC is a lone standout here). We’re not getting the ball to attacking players’ feet in the box. I’ve felt most of this season that the system is the problem. And I generally think the better philosophy for a team that doesn’t spend big is to tailor the system to the players at hand… This lineup screams 4-2-3-1 to me. Mostly because I think our striker pairings are too often redundant.

    But I’m starting to think the players we have just aren’t good enough. If they have quality, it’s just not consistent. I don’t know. It’s a head-scratcher for sure. There’s still time to solve it, but I’d like to see the Union play a lot better sooner rather than later.

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      Your last paragraph is thought-provoking. You don’t need to score every chance as a striker when you’ve got the wood-chipping Aaronson, Monteiro, Bedoya, Martinez combo creating turnovers leading to attacks, because you’ll get plenty of chances. Last year our strikers were constantly fed chances, and they buried them about the same percentage as this year. The difference? Aaronson is leading his new team to the Champions League, Monteiro has been played at the 10 too much, Bedoya has lost a step or two, and people aren’t giving Martinez the options he should be provided with. Strikers don’t have as many opportunities, and they’re not burying the ones they’re given. Przybylko and Burke have had, dare I say, bad years. Santos is a bit better than what Fafa was: a striker that does everything but score, most of the time. His good games are our only hope in attack right now. I’d like to see Davo as soon as possible.

  2. Nice write up. It has been dispiriting watching the lack of scoring success recently.

    I like that part about pausing a beat on the sides-then being frenetic up the middle and in the box with more and quicker passes and shots.

  3. If I remember correctly the last game they won 3-0, 2 of those goals were scored thru the middle. The key thing is to mix it up and not always go wide as you correctly point out.

  4. If we are relying on moving the ball through the middle and creating chances from there, then I am sorry I do not think Bedoya (and Flach) are good enough anymore.

    I know it sounds crazy, but look at how Bedoya plays. Firstly, even at his best he is more of a glue guy. He is not going to dribble past a player – or run past – and he does not really have the vision or technique to drop dimes.

    His version of offense is to combine on the right with Mbaizo and take advantage of simple overloads. As you mention, all to often this results in an Mbaizo cross or having to pass back to the CBs to reset the attack.

    I think Sullivan has shown the ability to think quicker, to pass and move, and to play faster in the middle. All things Bedoya doesn’t really do.

    McGlynn is a different type of player than our other midfields it feels like – he reminds me of Haris. A connector, someone to show for a pass and quickly spray it around.

    Both of these homegrowns – and Aaronson in his more limited minutes – have shown an ability to play fast and combine with each other more often. If our goal is to do more in the middle, right now I feel better with Sullivan out there than Flach, and honestly probably Bedoya.

    • I don’t think the problem is Bedoya. Maybe he has lost half a step, but he’s also got 3 new players closet to him that are downgrades from last year. Mbazio is a downgrade on d from Gaddis and on o wants to cross the ball as fast a possible. The prevents Bedoya from getting involved closer to goal. Flach is significantly worse than Monteiro, especially on o. This forces Bedoya to be shift from the deeper 8 to the more advanced 8 and that’s not his game. And the Monteiro/Gazdag 10 has been worse than Aaronson, especially at demanding the ball and making that quick turn up field.
      .
      All that being said, hopefully Flach goes to the bench for Monteiro going forward and either Gazdag or Sullivan can grown into the 10 position. It’s really our only hope this year.

    • Bedoya is our Michael Bradley. I respect him, but the grace giving to 2014 WC players long exceeds their life span in the sport. Too often gassed, too often defaults to the old get it wide and cross Union that existed when he joined. I wonder if he still sees Ray and Sheanon out wide.

      The days of the long throw and wide crosses are over, we need to get past that.

  5. Could Have … Should have…

    Time will tell if Gazdag can fill Aaronsons shoes but so far it does not look good. I think we would have been much better off getting a “Barnetta”, a seasoned versatile skilled player with a few years of hi level performance still in the tank who could step in contribute sooner and mentor the upcoming guys liKe Aaronson Jr. and the other Union JV team. Even if they could have only signed this type of player for 2 years we would be scoring more goals and giving more time for the JV to develop. The Union were one of the top scoring teams last year. They have significantly regressed in scoring and enjoyability to watch.

    • Scott of Nazareth says:

      I don’t think we’re really going to get a really good read on Gazdag until next February. The guy has been playing non stop for over a year at this point. Let alone adjusting to new country, league and teammates.

      • Section 114 says:

        Agreed. A huge issue is that Tanner is looking to buy cheap, and offensive-minded midfielders are simply more expensive.

        Flach and Brujo are true 6s. Monteiro and Bedoya are deep lying midfielders by instinct. Gazdag is an 8.

        This repeats our past. Aaronson was a cheap reprieve. But this team needs to spend the bucks at 9/10/11 and get a couple of snipers and true creators. Kasper, Santos and Burke all are well suited to be the third best of those spots. But they aren’t the top 2.

        I’m hopeful that Sullivan grows into one of these roles. But he’s not there yet as a 90 minute guy.

        Which brings us back around to the real problem: our owner won’t spend the money, even sitting on a $500 million capital gain.

      • Fair points by both of you.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        It’s easy to say “Just go sign a replacement who will achieve exactly what the guy before him did,” but a lot harder in practice because everyone else is looking for that type of player too.

        More than that though, Aaronson was the 7th best player on the Union last year (based on all sorts of metrics and aggregated data). His skills were unique in that group, but he was bought for his potential, not his production. The comments section of this site are chock full of questions about why he disappeared in matches and too often didn’t have the final ball.

      • Jeremy Lane says:

        +1, Chris. About BA, specifically, he is proving himself to be as great as we all thought he _could_ be, but I was one of many shocked to see him picked MLS Best XI. He was at least 50% potential while with the Union.

  6. Vince Devine says:

    “…the diamond midfield is narrow”. Interesting statement. I know that’s what we are being told is how the formation should work, but I think our problem is that they don’t play the diamond narrow. I think the reason Martinez et al are passing to the outside is because that’s where our 8’s are. I don’t remember any recent games where we’ve controlled the center of the pitch. Seems like whenever we thru the ball over and start an attach Flach and Bedoya head to the sideline to combine with the outside backs. We completely abandon the middle of the field.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      This might be a chicken/egg thing, because other teams know the best route to attacking the Union is to go around midfield. We may not be controlling the middle, per se, but that’s because the play isn’t happening there.

      • Makes sense, but then if the play in the midfield is already on the sidelines, on a turnover, why couldn’t the mids check away from the sidelines to collapse the width of the diamond and move away from the opposing players? (who are presumably still on the sidelines)
        I realize that it is still chicken/egg thing, but there might be something to this diamond being too wide idea.

  7. Tim Herring says:

    No the definition of insanity is this team still having the same owner after more than a dozen years of trying & falling to succede in winning deep into the playoffs & winning an MLS championsiop. Appaling that Sugarman still has fans giving him money.

  8. JOSEPH Pearce says:

    One issue I see is that mimbazo if he isn’t crossing the ball then he’s passing it to the other team’s defense. He did it in the last game four or five times, all short passes all at least four to 5 ft away from his player and directly to the defenseman.

  9. Andy Muenz says:

    I think this is overlooking the main problem, finishing. The Union are generating offense. Last game they took 13 shots, against Toronto they took 16, and against Chicago 25. So the issue doesn’t appear to be generating offense so much as converting it into goals. The NYCFC game is really the only MLS game they had issues generating offense recently (I’m ignoring the New England game because of all the lineup changes).

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      Great points, and even against New England we took their punch and created chances.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      That’s fair, to a point, but the xG numbers for the Union are quite poor, which implies the Union may be generating shots, but the shots are of low quality. They create _bad_ shots, which the defense is content with allowing because they are easy to block or would require above-average finishing and/or luck to beat an average goalkeeper.

      • Jeremy Lane says:

        My point being, the solution probably isn’t as simple as replacing our strikers with better finishers, because that likely wouldn’t make more than a marginal difference unless the chances also improve.

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