One of the great qualities I enjoy about sports is their ability to create a "bounce back" mentality in both individuals and teams, especially in light of disheartening moments and events. In light of a difficult situation or a great hole, it's incredible to watch teams and players dig themselves out and find the inner courage and perseverance to respond. While perseverance in athletic achievement is nothing compared to perseverance in some of life's bigger issues and challenges, the main idea is that sometimes, sports can be a microcosm of life on a small scale.
I've seen many examples of this in my time watching sports: the Philadelphia Flyers rallying from three games down (and then three goals down in Game 7) to beat the Boston Bruins in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals. The countless times where Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and the like have stormed back from two sets down to win tennis matches. Liverpool (ugh) coming from 3-0 down to AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League Final to win it on penalties.
There are too many others to mention, but the point is clear: sometimes a team or person is at their greatest when their back(s) are against the wall.
The Philadelphia Union, though it is just past midseason in Major League Soccer, are facing a similar type of situation. Their five-match unbeaten run has come to an end, though the last two of that run were disheartening late draws from winning positions. Their leading goalscorer and a starting midfielder are away on Gold Cup duty (and the former is apparently #4 in the depth chart of four true forwards), four midfielders are now down injured, and the depth of the team is being questioned. The aforementioned unbeaten run has ended in a 1-0 loss to Houston where the Union looked flat, exhausted, and badly organized.
It's not the end by any means. But it's a time to question how much "Philly toughness" (Hack's term, not mine) this Union team--and coaching staff--really have.
On to last night...
1. SOMEONE FORGOT TO FIELD A MIDFIELD...
One of the most shocking/amusing/baffling/understandable images of Saturday night was this little gem from MLSSoccer.com's Matchcenter:
No worries for them, I think we were all confused as to what John Hackworth's thinking was Saturday with the XI he fielded. Let's start with the obvious: five players who are attack-minded on the field at one time is a really bad idea for creating a coherent attack. Essentially, the Union were playing a 4-1-5 (!!!!!!!!!!!!! This makes the 4-2-4 of the other night tame by comparison) with Brian Carroll holding together whatever middle of the field existed for the Union behind five attackers.
Up front in the middle, Conor Casey was again leading the line with Aaron Wheeler either next to him or playing just in behind him. Yeah, Aaron Wheeler--this was the same guy who was being touted as depth at the centerback position just a few short weeks ago. Now, he was making his first MLS start, but as a forward in charge of...something. While the fans were hoping for this kind of partnership, it's a bad fit because Wheeler is a big target-type just like Casey and not really the kind of guy to give complimentary movement to what Casey does.
In short, it's two very alike guys who struck me as being in a "Bash Brothers" type of spot last night--just trying to bang some heads around and create havoc. It was bad football and it created bad movement between the two of them because Wheeler wasn't fast enough or smart enough to make the right runs for Casey. (We'll get more into the long ball later.) Plus, Wheeler had said recently that he's not in the kind of shape to be going 70 minutes...well, he went for a good 2/3 of the match in the Texas heat. Yikes
The wings were Sebastien Le Toux and Antoine Hoppenot, the latter who was also making his first start this season. Again, two very forward-thinking players who wanted to play themselves high up the pitch. Hoppenot was clearly uncomfortable taking on Warren Creavalle in the opening 15 minutes, but looked much more dangerous out on the right once he and Le Toux switched. Of course, this required the ball to reach him, and with both he and Le Toux pressed high and wide, there was little in the way of link-up that happened to the midfield. SLT was largely invisible throughout the match, while Hop had some flashes of creating opportunitiess that were only flashes.
It really fell apart in the middle. While Brian Carroll was busy trying to do the job of a stay-at-home mom with kids in the middle of the park, Leo Fernandes floated around attempting to find the game in behind the forwards. His work rate and play was better than Wednesday night for certain, but Fernandes, like many of his teammates, wilted in the Texas heat as the second half wore along. (I'm willing to venture that it was even worse for guys like him and Wheeler because they have played so little and aren't used to starting. Hack...)
Most of attempted passes in the middle looked something like Carroll's chart:
See that? Too many of the passes that both Carroll and Fernandes were trying to play were long ones. In fact, I can think of several instances last night where the Union were trying to play long passes on the ground to try and kickstart their attack or get forward. It summed up how stretched the Union were in the middle of the field and how badly put together the formation was.
A good, effective midfield is the key to creating a good attack, no matter how many forwards you put on the field at once.
1A. ...BUT WASN'T THAT THE POINT?
Here's my best interpretation of John Hackworth's gameplan for Houston: plunder an early goal with the forwards lumped up front through the long ball and/or a long Sheanon Williams throw-in, then sit back and defend the game out against a team with no teeth up front.
Well, so much for that. This strategy created a few early throw-ins for Williams and Casey/Wheeler battled hard with Bobby Boswell and Eric Brunner, but those two centerbacks were physically equipped to withstand the beating they knew was going to come. The first 20 minutes were a sloppy affair, but Houston held firm without any problems and began to take charge from then on.
After that initial stretch, it became more of a "hit and hope" gameplan for the Union, who were clearly laboring in the heat. (Well okay, Houston were too but at least they were fashioning chances.) If this was truly Hackworth's design, banking on snatching a goal in such a manner cannot happen on a whim like that. The Dynamo are tied for the third-fewest goals conceded this season with 18, so it would have taken more than just pounding the Stoke City-esque attack that the Union displayed to make a dent.
It's just ineffective football and felt like an excuse for Hackworth to paper over several big cracks in the team in light of the deficiencies I mentioned in the open to this column. I really hit on this in the column following the draw with RSL, but the Union have looked ill-prepared to bring in guys from the squad to fill the gaps like others simply because they haven't played very much this year. Combined with a revolving door of tactical changes--all of which the players look like they aren't ready to step into effectively--and this past week has revealed a lot of issues the team has. There are more, but I've either touched on them in the past or will get to later on.
2. THE DISCONNECT MEANT HOUSTON MIDFIELD DOMINANCE
I read a very concerning statistic after the game. Every one of Houston's midfielders completed over 45 passes in the match. The Union did not have a single midfielder to have more than 24 completed passes.
Here are a couple of other nuggets to add: Houston out-possessed the Union by a 61-39% margin (or around that). They also completed 82% of their passes, while the Union only completed 71%. The Dynamo also won 58% of the duels that took place in the match, further consolidating their possession advantage.
The Union's strategy basically meant these things were bound to happen, and despite their fatigue and a squad deprived of several players as well, the Dynamo were able to take advantage. Adam Moffat, Ricardo Clark, and even Oscar Boniek Garcia enjoyed plenty of freedom in the middle of the park. They each knew their roles, played fairly in tandem with each other, and Garcia in particular had no problems creating and pulling the strings for the Dynamo attack:
Doing a lot of interchanging with Creavalle, Omar Cummings, and occasionally Giles Barnes down the Union left, Garcia knew exactly where the weakest spot in the Union defense was and went right for it (more on this in a moment). His effectiveness came from more than just his ability to interchange with the right side--here's a look at a frequent problem the Union faced:
(Key: Blue line means a pass that took place, Light Green line means future dribbling, Red line means future run being made off the ball)
That was a common sight throughout the match. Because of the stretched state of the midfield, Garcia had the freedom to roam and dribble at pace, especially since Carroll was caught in situations where he had to defend two or three guys at a time. With Fernandes trailing behind the play in moments like this, the folly and doom of the 4-1-5 idea was on full display and gave Houston the keys to the middle of the field. Garcia was more than happy to do the driving.
Here's another play that illustrates the kind of things that happened:
Cummings was offside on this play (which kind of summed up his rustiness and at times ineffective play last night..he still troubled the Union with his movement though), but his layoff to Clark and subsequent shot that narrowly missed showed just how bad the Union did tracking players back. Carroll was occupied with shutting down Driver's run just like he should have been doing, but once again Fernandes and the rest of the midfield failed to come back in support and shut down Clark's shot. Part fatigue, part bad tactics. When your system's broken, the other team (no matter how tired they may be as well) is going to make you pay with chances. Houston just missed a slew of them last night.
It cannot be understated enough the job that Amobi Okugo did in the middle of defense by the way. He had a very strong outing cutting out passes and trying to distribute out of the back. Houston were bearing down on the Union defense very often because of the lack of a midfield line of defense, but Okugo marshaled the defense very well and showed the kind of power and presence we've started seeing all season from him. Very quietly, he's turning into a consistent performer at the back and his partnership with Jeff Parke is continuing to make progress. Their work defending set pieces still needs work, but these two are coming along.
2A. THE WINGS SUFFERED THE MOST
Clearly, teams are beginning to find out that the wing is the place to hit the Union, and that the left wing with Raymon Gaddis is the most susceptible to issues.
First off, Houston's style of play generally revolves around wingplay so it was a good matchup for them regardless. Brad Davis, who was away for this match, always finds joy delivering crosses from Houston's left side for guys like Will Bruin (also away) to get on the end of in the area. Garcia and friends provide the same problems down the right, interchanging and delivering crosses in. On this day, Houston needed some more speed with Cummings and Barnes up front to supplement Bruin's absence, but they still went after the wings.
Garcia had the perfect matchup down the Union left, as Ray Gaddis was once again attacked frequently by multiple Houston players (I mentioned a few of them in the section above). Part of what made them so successful and made Gaddis look so bad was, as I mentioned before, the absence of any support from the midfield and outside wingers. Think back to the screenshots I've shown from before--do you remember seeing any support from either Le Toux or Hoppenot tracking back? Didn't think so...Leo Fernandes is at fault in the middle as well.
In fact, he was at fault on the goal as well, failing to pick up on Clark streaming into the area. Take a look at this link. Pretty shocking marking from Fernandes, but it summarized the woes the midfield had contributing to defense. Quite simply, the players on the field weren't cut out for it. (By the way, that was Houston's first goal since June 1 in league play. On this night of all nights.)
Back to the wings...check out this Chalkboard of Houston's crossing:
Officially, the stats from Opta have 29 open play crosses listed. Including free kicks and corners, there were 12 successful crosses from Houston. They simply pounded away from the wings again and again and again, knowing full well that A) the Union have struggled to defend from the wide positions this season and B) the Union have also struggled with clearing crosses dropped into the box (see MacMath, Zach...though he punched literally everything that came his way last night).
It was a perfect gameplan from Houston, though their finishing touch was absolutely dreadful all match. They could have pounded home several more goals than what they did, although the Union were also guilty of missing several chances at their end.
3. THE BENCH PLAY WAS BRIGHT
Don Anding. Roger Torres. Matt Kassel. World-beaters they are not, but they put in a great collective shift off the bench against Houston. (And really, it's little wonder they did...the other players on both sides looked absolutely gassed.)
Anding was the first on, replacing the ineffective Wheeler in the 60th minute and swapping with Hoppenot to go on his favored left side. We saw earlier in June how good Anding could be down the left wing, and he showed it again Saturday. Can you think of anybody else on this entire team who has a good left foot? I can't--Anding put it on display and showed a lot of ability going at defenders as well to at least provide some sort of alternative to the dump-and-run folly.
Based on the two instances now that we've seen Don Anding in competitive action, there are two things he does that Danny Cruz doesn't on the left side: use his left foot and display some sort of rational thinking in his movement. He's actually pretty smart and effective when he runs at people, whereas Cruz tends to just run at somebody and hope for the best (or just cannon a shot into row Z). I like seeing Anding on the left and would like to see more of this.
Then came one of the shocks of the night: Hackworth turning to Roger Torres to come on in place of Fernandes in the 71st minute. The much-questioned disappearance and fall down the depth chart for Torres has really never gotten a concrete answer (despite the best efforts of the journalists I cover the games with--Torres isn't really one of Hackworth's favorite topics in press conferences), and his inconsistency in training and friendlies at least seemed to be the reasoning. Eh, okay.
From the perspective of the Houston match though, Torres was effective and did what he does best: drop passes in from over the top:
Twice on both the right and left, Torres played pinpoint accurate passes to release Le Toux and Anding down the wings. (Here's one that led to a chance for Anding after a cross from Le Toux.) Isn't that the strategy that's best served the Union this season? Hit hard down the wings with speed and have a guy who can distribute the ball into that area. Torres did just that, giving the offense a chance to thrive with speed against a slowing Dynamo defense in the heat. He made sure that he also kept his distribution as simple as one-touch passes and short build-up work, but he also released the long passes at the right moments. Whether his benching and lack of appearances have any worth to them or not, Torres was the midfield link so desperately lacking last night.
Even Matt Kassel was fairly bright when he was inserted into the midfield last night, coming forward to get on the end of several chances for the Union. While he is one of the last guys I'd really want on the end of those chances, he showed good movement and dedication in the final third. Again, I'm thoroughly confused as to what his role exactly is and what he can do in the midfield/defense, but he's another guy who hasn't featured much to really give any indication of what that is.
Therein lies the same problem: Hackworth hasn't given this squad enough rotation and chances to get meaningful minutes for the squad. There are 13 players on this team who have appeared in 16 or more matches for the team this season (the Union have played 19 matches total). That's a very exclusive group that Hackworth continually seems to rely on, while the rest of the squad hasn't had much opportunity in MLS play.
It's no wonder there have been struggles to fill these holes.
After three matches in seven days, the Union are limping back to PPL Park with two points from those three matches. If two minutes in the first two matches combined had gone differently, then the Union could have six points by now--perhaps nine if Hackworth had managed the rotation and squad better. In that time, they have been outscored 5-4, including 3-1 when playing up a man. Rather than being in first place in the Eastern Conference (if only temporarily), the Union sit precariously in fourth with several teams breathing down their necks.
Sporting and New York have jumped past them. Houston now sit a point behind with a match in hand. New England are three back with two in hand. Chicago suddenly has new life thanks to their hometown hero's return. The Eastern Conference chase is quickening its pace, as the finish line now is seemingly closing in faster than anybody realized. If this is a 15-round knockout fight, the Union are staggering a bit.
But this round is over and they are back in their corner. They are coming home--first to face an improving Chivas team on Friday, then to face a Portland team who just had their unbeaten run ended and are missing several Gold Cup players. Every game matters, so every game is an opportunity to make up for what happened before...to respond with their own "bounce back" mentality.
If John Hackworth wants his team to display true "Philly toughness", then they must assess what happened this past week. They must look at what was done right, wrong, and can be fixed. They need to regroup, meet, discuss, and put the two disheartening draws behind them--clearly, they were an influencing factor on Saturday's result. And Hackworth himself must show his own "toughness" and character by realizing his own tactical faults and finding a way to get the most out of his entire squad--not just a few select players.
And guess what else? Fabinho and Oka Nikolov are joining up this week...time to see what they can provide this team as far as competition and/or mentorship.
True toughness takes getting past what's knocked you down--but it also requires assessment of what went wrong. The Philadelphia Union need some of that as they return home.
Comment below with your thoughts on the match and analysis, tweet @BrotherlyGame, or tweet/follow me @JoelHoover.