It's my second time doing this analytical column for Brotherly Game, and I guess this is the first grueling reality check piece I'm going to have to write.
Not only are the Philadelphia Union coming off a horrendous, brutal, insert-whatever-adjective-you-want-here 3-1 loss to I-95 rivals D.C. United in the 100th installment of the U.S. Open Cup, but I don't have any Chalkboard or Opta help to make an already difficult tactical analysis even harder. I mean, what else can I really say apart from "The Union were just downright TERRIBLE", or, as I nearly tweeted, "IT SUCKED"? One week (it feels longer now) removed from a very convincing 3-0 win over Columbus in league play, suddenly the positive spirits that game created have come crashing back to earth.
I had pointed out in my Union-Ocean City Third Round recap for Soccer By Ives that it was ironic that the Union had released their new 3rd kit honoring legendary club Bethlehem Steel FC the same year that the U.S. Open Cup, a competition Bethlehem Steel won five times, is turning 100 years old. After such a performance as the Union displayed in BOTH rounds (yes, the win over the Nor'easters does not escape this comment), it feels like they did Bethlehem a disservice. After squeezing through to even make it to Boyds, MD for this Fourth Round derby tie with their RIVALS, the Union looked lifeless, uncoordinated, and unmotivated.
Let's (attempt to) break it down...
1. THE LONG BALL SUMMARIZES THE UNION'S MIDFIELD INEPTITUDE
It felt almost inevitable all night: when the Union would take possession, they would knock it along the backline or to Brian Carroll and Keon Daniel in the middle, then promptly launch a ball aiming for either Sebastien Le Toux on the right or Jack McInerney/Conor Casey up front. Time and time again, D.C. United's backline were more than happy to cut it out and break the other way. At one point, Amobi Okugo seemed to summarize the folly of it all when, while in possession, he spread his arms out from the backline as if to say, "Get moving and give me something I can knock one on the ground for."
The middle of the Union midfield failed to have the success they did last week against the Crew because 1) Columbus had major deficiencies, 2) Carroll had the task of marking Dwayne De Rosario (which I will get to more later), and 3) there is no swinging gate to their play. Think about Michael Bradley the other night against Panama...he was successful because his midfield partner, Geoff Cameron, held down the fort defensively and allowed Bradley to roam forward. Plus, Bradley is GOOD at doing that and can get the attack moving forward.
With Carroll tied up hounding De Rosario, his ability to go forward in attack was basically nullified. As I pointed out last week, both he and the Union have been more successful in possession and distribution when Carroll is free to roam and defend/attack at will, not be tied down with guarding the other team's playmakers. What this does is make his other midfielder have to take on the attacking responsibilities, and Keon Daniel is just not cut out for that. He plays a decent pass, but he was literally nowhere to be found on the SoccerPlex pitch in a Casper the Friendly Ghost-like 45 minutes of action.
To make up for that, the Union attempted a series of long balls played out of the back (summarizing the disconnect with the rest of the midfield) which either ran out of play or ended with the attack stalling on the edge of the box. Why? Because the forwards couldn't properly make runs from 25 yards out or get enough support from Daniel/Carroll to have options. It was simply a mess.
United was clearly prepared for this kind of attack from the Union. Think about it...how did Philly score the goals they got in the 3-2 win at RFK earlier this year? A ball played over the top for McInerney when the defense was pressed too high, a counter down the right that was squared for Conor Casey, and a long Sheanon Williams throw into the box that fell to Jack Mac. It was smash and grab stuff, plus the Union showed their speed on the flanks last week, so why not play the counter attacking game with pace and speed? Instead, a tucked in D.C. backline and a midfield that simply worked harder getting back made the long ball game ineffective and brutal to watch on this night.
That wasn't all that was wrong with the midfield though...
2. THE MICHAEL FARFAN OF 2012 IS GONE... AND SO TOO IS THE LEFT WING
A year ago next month, Michael Farfan was making his MLS All-Star Game bow as the only representative of the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park against Chelsea. He had one goal and four assists to that point and had been a real creative light in a Union midfield that sorely needed it (hey, sound familiar?) in the midst of a tough season.
Let's jump to the present: he has just two assists in 28 appearances (26 starts) since that night. Known for his playmaking and skillful passing/dribbling, such flair and positive play has largely (and maddeningly) disappeared all season for the Union. Once seemingly a surefire starter who always gave a decent game, Farfan has now dropped to the substitute's bench for several recent fixtures, as well as being relegated to the starting XI with fringe players against Reading last week.
Determining why his production has tailed off is hard to do: is it his positioning? The way the Union play? Was last year just a special season? Did losing his brother Gabe to a trade to Chivas play any role? Simply watching him tonight made answering the question tougher, but provided some talking points.
First, the whole idea of Farfan playing on the left but then cutting inside is a detriment to the entire Union midfield operation. As much as Danny Cruz frustrates for his lack of a good touch, poor decision-making, and haphazard running, he's at the very least a hard-working, all-action player who will keep fullbacks honest. The Columbus game showed that this could effectively stretch out a defense and open up opportunities for the opposite wing or the center of the midfield.
When Farfan comes centrally, it clogs the middle of the field with Daniel and Carroll already occupying the space, while also making Raymon Gaddis play up and down the wing and potentially lose his marker (which he has been prone to do this season). The lack of movement and midfield activity could conceivably be tied to the Union not being used to three guys shuffling around in such a manner in the midfield, as well as Farfan's work rate. Whether it was the gameplan or he simply didn't want to work hard there, Farfan gave literally nothing down the left hand side, meaning that D.C. could load up on defending Le Toux down the right and keep him occupied.
The left was rendered useless by this decision from Farfan...that is, until the emergence of Don Anding in the 74th minute (thankfully, for Farfan). With Leo Fernandes moved centrally and trying to provide the attacking balance to Carroll's defense, Anding came in on the left wing and worked tirelessly to attack that side and make left-footed deliveries. Yes, LEFT-FOOTED deliveries: how often have we actually gotten to say that about the Union on the left this year?? Anding had speed, a solid enough touch, disrupted the defense just enough to allow McInerney to settle and strike to give the Union a glimmer of hope, and he also delivered some dangerous crosses that were difficult for the D.C. backline and (ahem, Sebastien) could have been turned in for a good chance.
Anding has been much traveled as far as where he could play (from outside back to forward to this), but if last night's cameo is any indication, he MIGHT just be worth giving another look on the left wing. The Union could sorely use some quality there given Farfan's declining form, Cruz's wildly inconsistent play, and Daniel's lack of work. Plus, we all know now that Abdul Kader Keita won't be joining the Union...another blown opportunity by the Union FO and a poorly dealt with one too.
3. YOU MUST BE ACCOUNTABLE FOR THE OPPOSITION'S BEST PLAYERS
It's such a simple lesson, but there's really no other way to put it: the Union are failing to take account for the quality players on opposition sides. With the exception of the job done on Federico Higuain last week, this has been a noticeable problem pretty much the entire past month. Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan blew through the Union defense throughout the second half in the 4-1 loss to LA, Justin Mapp and Felipe Martins controlled the midfield while Marco Di Vaio was left untouched for a hat-trick in the 5-3 debacle at Montreal, and then Dwayne De Rosario left his mark with a hat-trick of his own last night for D.C. United
First of all, let's give credit where credit is due: De Rosario is one of the best players to grace MLS in its time as a league. He's great in front of goal, gives defenses fits, and can play a variety of roles for a team. The fact that his (and Chris Pontius') dip in form has coincided with one for D.C. United is not terribly surprising, though one that bodes badly for D.C. if that means the team is relying solely on one player (hey, sound familiar at all?).
But last night, a few days removed from being benched for the New England Revolution match, De Ro showed why he's one of the best in MLS. He was all over the pitch, popping up on the right early in the first half, switching to the left at times, and basically giving Brian Carroll a complete runabout in the middle of the field. When you have a player who can take his marker all over the place like that, it bodes well for your attack while also taking out a key component of the other side's attack. As I pointed out earlier, Carroll seems to be at his best when he is not tied down with marking someone. Last night, he was: I don't know how many times I saw him standing next to De Rosario at the end of a sustained United attack.
D.C. were not particularly good in possession all night (but better than the Union), but they left it to De Ro to find the chances when they presented themselves. His first he took in fine fashion to strike in the bottom corner after a layoff; the second simply weaving past Carroll, Jeff Parke, and Zac MacMath on a through pass from Union-killer Lionard Pajoy; and then the third taking away a sloppy pass and finishing from distance past a woefully out of position MacMath.
The first was a terrific finish, but the second two came from his ability to pounce on sloppy, lackadaisical defending and awareness from the Union. Here's a look at the second goal: keep in mind, Pajoy was set free after a brutal pass from Okugo out on the right wing (?!?) straight into the former Union man.
This was the kind of counter-attacking play I had hoped to see from the Union, but instead it was coming from the opposition. With Parke preoccupied with cutting off Pajoy, De Rosario slipped between him and a trailing Carroll (likely tired from tracking him all night) and rounded MacMath for an easy finish.
The third goal came under even more comical circumstances, with MacMath coming way out of his box to play one on the ground to Parke in the middle of the field 35 yards from goal. Yes, you heard that right...Parke was in the middle of the field 35 yards from goal, and MacMath went to the right side to play him a ball. You know what happened next: bad touch, De Ro was sniffing around, and boom, it's the easiest goal of the night.
It's a stat that's come up a lot, but five of the nine goals United have scored in all competitions this year have come against the Union. In just two games.
The lesson is brutally clear from last night: such mistakes will be punished when you are too loose and do not account for the best on the opposition.
To be honest, D.C. United themselves were not even very good last night given the lineup they had out there and the way they played. They clearly WANTED the game more though with the way they challenged, attacked the flank, and made possession count. Philadelphia simply went through the motions and lacked any sense of planning, ideas, or desire, which is shocking given how poorly D.C. have played this year. With how wide open the U.S. Open Cup is this year, with both the most recent holders out of the competition and quality teams falling by the wayside, it was a prime opportunity to earn some silverware.
But thanks to a simply lifeless display without any tact or direction, the Union are left to seemingly battle for the "pride" of an MLS Cup playoff spot and whatever contentedness that will bring to a front office who continue to fall short in improving the club.