As I watched the radar Friday morning and afternoon, I was startled to see this Tropical Depression-like rainmaker that seemed to be camped out over Delaware/Maryland/SE Pennsylvania. Clearly, this thing was not going to be moving out anytime soon, and clearly, it was going to swamp PPL Park for the Union's fixture with Chivas USA.
It wasn't a Sharknado or anything...but still, it wasn't pleasant. (By the way, I do not have Syfy, but following #Sharknado last Thursday during the movie was nothing short of hysterical. From the clips I've seen, it looks like it was an absolute riot.)
I've played in many matches with bad conditions. I can recall two consecutive weekends of a spring league I played in my 7th grade year where there was a driving rain in 40-degree weather. Needless to say, those two games were some of the most awful I've ever played in--we would literally run into the bathroom of our stadium at halftime to warm ourselves under the automatic hand dryers!
As we saw earlier this year at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, and even a few years ago against Seattle (look, it's Carlos Ruiz!), the beautiful game can be played in all sorts of weather. The problem? It becomes a bit less beautiful to watch--especially when the play on the field is declining and when you and your colleagues are watching rain fly in through the open air press box despite the protective overhang. (As we saw here and here. No joke, it was brutal in the first row of the press box.) But there we were, watching the Union and Chivas kick off in the pouring rain and wind.
And somehow--through some good fortune and a wild final ten minutes--the Union came out of it all with a 3-1 victory and hopefully a hot bath.
I honestly didn't know how this column was going to happen, but here we go:
1. FAR SIDE
For whatever reason, the side opposite to the press box/benches at PPL Park was getting absolutely swamped throughout the night, more than the rest of the field. From just beyond the center circle to the touchline, it was almost a borderline lake that was difficult to really do anything in. Just ask Ray Gaddis.
The Union and Chivas players certainly recognized this during the course of the first half. Most of the attacking and ball movement came through the near side of the field, especially via Danny Cruz for the Union, forcing Sebastien Le Toux to tuck inside to see the action more. Here's how the Chalkboard looked for the right wing in the first half as a result:
It's not incredibly pronounced, but you can see a line where Le Toux and Sheanon Williams were both attacking to avoid the puddle that stretched to the endline. I talked to both players about it afterward, and they both commented on the difficulty of having to play on that side when they had no idea when the ball would stop or go in the soggy pitch. Seba called it "tricky" and said that the plan became completely avoiding that side as a whole. (And really, who could blame them?)
In fact, here's a look at how much Le Toux tucked in during a counter that the Union made:
If that's not enough of an indication, I remember clearly seeing one goal kick where literally everybody was crammed into the middle of the park. The goal from both teams was to avoid playing down that far channel because of how sloppy the field was playing over there. Additionally, though it wasn't really in the same area, the far side of the field along the edge of the box was where Amobi Okugo slipped to allow Jorge Villafana to tee up Jose Correa for the opening goal.
Funny enough though, Williams told me afterward that he thought the Union pressed that far side too much come the second half, This was evidenced by Gaddis' ill-fated attempt at a run and the several instances where Cruz and substitute Fabinho tried to create things on that far end. It was sort of funny to watch, but in their attempt to open the game up more, the Union had to use that side of the pitch and just deal with the lake anyway.
The match was a unique example of how to make a tactical adjustment because this one was based not on something the other team was doing, but one that came from what the field was doing. It was fascinating to see how it played out, but also interesting to see that the Union built up to all of their goals from that far side--even if that puddle was in the middle of the field.
2. A TIGHT FIELD MADE THE MIDFIELD NECESSARY
With Danny Cruz and Michael Farfan back in the fold, John Hackworth got back to basics and reverted to the 4-5-1 that he had rolled out against Real Salt Lake--giving the Union much-needed bodies in the middle of the field. Given Chivas' tendencies to bunker down and get back to basics defending under new manager Jose Luis Real, it was very important to have a competent midfield that was going to press high and force the issue. Despite the conditions, the middle trio did what they needed to do:
Brian Carroll and Marfan both tucked in behind a roaming Leo Fernandes (almost making it a 4-4-1-1, though I wouldn't say Leo was that pronounced of a CAM), allowing themselves to get up and back at will. Quite the contrast to the Houston game last week, wouldn't you say? Carroll could now track a guy like Gabriel Farfan (who had a solid game by the way--very active and didn't look too bad playing CAM even though it's not really his spot), while Marfan would cut out any other Chivas midfielders pushing high, then look to press up next to Fernandes. Of course, it was Chivas USA, but it came off much smoother than it did the other week against RSL. Most importantly of all, everybody was pressed higher.
Fernandes has been a talking point over the recent matches because of his inconsistencies at CAM. He's struggled to create much of anything for the Union going forward and has been a real liability helping back. Friday's match showed much more positives though with good distribution to the wings and some nice movement underneath Casey and ahead of the other two midfielders.
It was still not a great performance from Fernandes, but he made the most of the little room he had on the tight field and gave Chivas something to think about with his timed runs next to Casey up front. It's been difficult in these recent weeks to pinpoint how much potential Fernandes has in an attacking midfield role for the Union, but he gives them a decent touch and some attacking bite from the midfield areas.
Getting back to my conversation with Williams, he told me that the gameplan was more centered around short passes to try and open up Chivas' tightly compacted defense. Fernandes was helpful in that regard, and the Union ultimately kept 56.4% possession, won 61% of their duels, and completed 73% of their passes.
After two straight games of watching the Union fail to take initiative (as we so often see them do on the road), they pressed and took the game to Chivas this time around. It was a hard go for obvious reasons, but it was nice to see the midfield trio working in tandem both in attack and defense and giving some extra bodies forward.
Yeah, having a midfield definitely helps--especially on a day where the field isn't going to play nice and you need guys who can control the game for you in the middle. So thanks for ditching the 4-1-5, Hackworth. Much, much appreciated.
2A. HOW ABOUT THAT?
Here's probably one of the most striking images from the match:
That is what Michael Farfan had to shoot over and past. 10 guys stacked up in a semicircle in front of him and along the goalline. Keep in mind, this was not a set play that the Union had ever prepared for or practiced--Hackworth and Farfan made that clear in postgame. And who could blame them? It's not every day that you get an indirect free kick on the edge of the six-yard box.
But SLT and Marfan came together and had a pretty good idea of what they wanted to do with it. When he gets a good contact on the ball and strikes it smartly, we've seen in the past how good Marfan is at striking the ball, but this was a completely different beast. While there was plenty of doubt over the decision and ruling, there was no doubt on the strike--that was superb technique and just placed perfectly.
3. LIVE AND DIE BY THE WINGS
The good work of the central midfielders last night does not dismiss the fact that the Union's success in scoring and creating chances is frequently becoming over-reliant on the wings.
Let's look at the season coming into Friday: the Union had scored 29 goals before the match, with eight of them coming from crosses and four of them coming from corners. It's no surprise that Sheanon Williams and Sebastien Le Toux each had seven assists, with Le Toux serving corners and crosses and Williams pumping in his long throw-ins.
Now, let's look at last night's goals. First, there was Le Toux's corner that Casey glanced toward goal and in off fortunate goalscorer Carroll. Then there was the bizarre pass back to Dan Kennedy (and referee Jorge Gonzalez definitely got it wrong, but that's an awful reaction by Josue Soto--man, how are the Union benefiting so much lately?), which resulted from this build-up. Finally, there was debutant Fabinho's beautiful delivery from the left side to tee up Casey for the final goal.
Le Toux is now up to nine assists, after teeing up Marfan for the indirect free kick. (Which was an absolute beaut...that's a very difficult shot to take with 10 guys rushing/standing in front of you.) The Union picked up their fifth goal from a corner this year and their ninth from a cross. Most of their highlights from last night were chances that resulted from work done down the wings, not in the middle of the field. This team has Route One written all over them with the way they use Conor Casey.
But look at it...it's working. The Union also now have 32 goals this season, tied for tops in the league. As reliant as the Union are on their wingplay, they have used it to churn out a plethora of goals despite a middle of the midfield that doesn't really do much going forward and only really works to distribute over the top and wide. Thanks to the speed of Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Cruz, as well as the ability of players like Le Toux and Williams to deliver balls into the box, it creates havoc and gives guys like Casey and McInerney a header's/poacher's chance.
Friday saw another wrinkle in it all though: the introduction of Brazilian
left back temporary left wing Fabio "Fabinho" Alves:
It was a brief, eventful 12-minute stint for the debut man, but he gave something that Danny Cruz at least practices (yes, I saw him doing it in warmups), but never actually does: deliver a cross from the left. What a concept!!! Imagine that...whether he would play left back or left wing, imagine Fabinho getting forward and delivering the kind of service from the left side that we have been so used to seeing all season from Le Toux and Williams on the right.
For once, "non-go at goal" play on the left-hand side was rewarded because it allowed for Le Toux to come inside and make a near post run, ultimately opening the door for Casey to go to the far post and tuck in an easy finish. We haven't seen much of Le Toux cutting inside off the ball this year, primarily because there is never any service from Cruz to begin with. However, Fabinho played a much more controlled game on the far left, bringing Michael Farfan into the mix and allowing for him to weave in and out of the middle like he enjoys doing. Farfan had some success doing that with Cruz during the match, but this time it yielded a cross rather than a low-percentage shot from distance.
I don't know how much we'll see of Fabinho coming forward on the outside, but much like Don Anding in the rare instances we've seen him, it was nice to see somebody with a left foot drive in a cross from the left side of the field for the Union. If this is the way that they are going to play and define themselves as an attack, then why not have more people who can play that kind of game on the wings? Rather than let Danny Cruz cut in and shoot haphazard shots, keep pumping in the deliveries that have given this team goals this year.
The Union are never going to win matches solely based on technicality and style of play--I'm pretty sure this season has been a definite indicator of that. The kind of players that John Hackworth plays and wants in this squad are hard workers who play tough and are athletic, not really good guys as far as technical ability is concerned. It's a difficult reality and it's kind of brutal to watch, especially when the Union play against some of the better teams in the league, but they attack fast and hit hard down the wings, where many teams lack ability in the back. If they can add that left side to the crossing equation, they may be able to add another wrinkle.
The middle of the field, however, remains a maddening question mark over consistency against the good sides.
4. CONOR CASEY'S LEGEND GROWS
Honestly, there is no stopping this guy right now. Chivas couldn't, and they're just the latest in a long line of teams who have failed to slow down this brilliant run of form "Big Country" is on right now. (Although Alejandro Moreno needs to cut down on how often he calls Casey that during the telecasts.)
Five goals in six matches now stretching back to last month with his strike last night. (Brian Carroll told me Casey deserved the other one too--could be six in six if it weren't for that deflection by the captain.) Seven goals on the year to go with four assists as well. I've been praising his form week after week in this column after questioning his place earlier in the year, and he has continued to respond with big games.
Friday night he was using the slick surface to turn and beat Mario de Luna and Walter Vilchez for chances. With the service that's been delivered in recent weeks from the wings, he attacks everything in the air and has been sensational at dominating the possession from out of the air. His runs are intelligent. His hold up is brilliant. He's picked up right where Jack McInerney left off for this team as far as influence in front of goal.
It truly is amazing to watch this guy continue to boss these defenses and run them ragged after he looked dead and buried earlier this season. With the Union's evolution into a wing-attacking, cross-happy team, it benefits a big guy like Casey who is primed to get on the end of such plays. Best of all, he's been doing it by himself up front in recent weeks and doing it quite well.
The other night against Houston showed that he can't play next to a guy who plays the same way as him (Aaron Wheeler). But with Jack McInerney, he gets a strike partner who takes the pressure off of him and allows him to operate and look for the headers. I can't wait for these two to be reunited again after the Gold Cup, especially if Jack brings any nuggets back from the time with the national team and Klinsmann.
To me, Conor Casey seemed past it when he first got it. Now he's in one of the best runs of form in his career, to the point where he created or scored 1.06 goals per 90 minutes over the course of June, taking his yearly mark to 0.77, just behind Antoine Hoppenot for tops on the team. This guy has just been remarkable.
The fact that it was Chivas USA is worth taking into account for Friday night's match and what to take away from it. Keep in mind though, this team was coming off of several improved draws and the tight field and conditions set up nicely to benefit them. Friday could have been a disaster--and for 45 minutes, it looked for certain like it would be.
But the Union pressed, rode their luck, stuck to what they seem to do best, and were able to adapt enough to the conditions despite Okugo's early error to pick up a vital three points against Chivas. It was far from pretty, that's for certain. But it was the kind of "Philly tough" victory that Hackworth says this team is all about. They will not get red cards every game though...or will they? This is just getting bizarre now.
Next up is Portland, fresh off a thrilling 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy at home that was snatched at the very end. Caleb Porter's side has been one of the stories of the season with their brilliant style of play, good tactics ability of Porter to get the most out of his players, and determination to get results. On the road, they are notoriously tough to beat as well.
It remains to be seen who they will have back from the Gold Cup, but next week is going to be another big test for the Union to see how they can handle a very good, technical side. John Hackworth will need to be on his game with selection. All the players will need to be on their games on the field. And the atmosphere will need to be a cracking one as well.
Provided the weather is good, there will be one less opponent next week. But once again, adjustment will be needed to be prepared to combat the other opponent effectively.