Preseason matches are like those dodgy sounding schemes your weird uncle starts bending your ear about when the extended family gets together at Thanksgiving - it's not really worth investing too much into them. There should be neither gnashing of teeth nor ecstatic high hopes. If nobody gets injured (Stop that! I know what some of you are thinking - and about whom...) then the game is a resounding success. Even though the U lost 2-1 to an essentially full strength New York Red Bulls team, there are a lot of positives and one or two insights that we can take from the game played at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida in front of about 5,000 or so fans (despite the Union being listed as the 'home' team, with a huge stadium mostly empty the Red Bulls must have felt like they were back at The Bed Pan).
First of all the big question (posed and theorized with aplomb on this very site not too long ago) was answered, at least for this game - remember though, preseason games are a time for experimentation and perhaps misdirection.
The U lined up in what appeared to be a 4-2-3-1 consisting of:
Williams Okugo Marquez Fabinho
Cruz Nogueira Maidana
Danny Cruz and Cristian Maidana regularly switched wings so if you go back and watch the game (available to stream on the RBNY site) don't start moaning that I don't know my left from my right. The question most folks might immediately pose upon reading the lineup is "What? We signed Rafa Marquez to play center back?" Unfortunately, or fortunately depending who you ask, the chap in question is in fact third round draft choice Richard Marquez (again, see the article on center back depth for more detail). Amobi Okugo will be dealing with a revolving door of partners in the middle as the Union technical team try to figure out who will play alongside our now veteran rock at the heart of defense. On this showing (again, let's not get too high or low) Marquez did a passable job without really imposing himself on the game. There were a couple of occasions where a quick pass played behind the back two caught both out. For the opening RBNY goal, hesitancy in challenging Lloyd Sam as he raced in to the box (by Okugo who had moved to the left of the pairing) is a concern, however let's remember that nobody wants to get injured at this stage and the majority of the blame for the wide open space lies at the feet of Fabinho, who lost the ball just over the half way line. For Marquez it is too early to call, so will we have to wait until there is a larger body of work to choose from. On the upside Marquez was rarely out of position and his decision-making looked solid if unadventurous. Overall I would grade his performance at a B minus.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah... But what about Maurice Edu?" I hear you cry. The biggest thing I took away from his minutes was a sigh of relief. It was such a beautiful feeling to see a midfielder that shows for the ball, comes deep to collect it, and most important of all looks 100% comfortable and confident in possession. At first I didn't know what the strange sensation was, but after a few minutes I figured it out - my insides were relaxed instead of all tense and in knots waiting for the previously inevitable stray pass, dribble down a blind alley, or stumbling in to an opponent and immediately being dispossessed. Edu looked strong and calm on the ball and he covered a ton of ground. The effect on Brian Carroll was obvious as the two of them covered for each other and supported the attacking three midfielders when in possession. Carroll dropped a little deeper when the U had the ball and this freed up Edu to carry the ball forward or look for an up field pass, safe in the knowledge that his behind was safe and sound.
Speaking of forward passes...
With the 4-2-3-1 formation naturally lacking true wingers - and many would argue that Cruz lacks a true winger's skill set - it was interesting to watch how many balls were played in to the channels (the 'channel' is the area on the pitch between the extreme sides and the central third). Last season's Union pretty much always looked to get the ball wide, drive down the wing, then fire the ball in to the middle. During the first half of the game Edu, Carroll, and Noguiera, often dropping deep to receive the ball, played a ton of balls in to the channels for Cruz / Maidana / McInerney to run on to. This is a very exciting development and augers well for folks who like a quick passing / possession game. Although the results were patchy, the embryonic stages of a proper footballing team are there and maybe the previous incarnation of Hacktics (i.e. simple counter-attacking route one speed ball) has been sent back to the NCAA where it belongs. Here's hoping.
The other big talking point of the draft / preseason was the selection of Andre Blake at number one, and the new lad came out to start the second half. Of the 45 minutes on show Blake looked fine, despite having relatively little to do. He did pull off a good save from about ten yards out (one you would expect a pro keeper to make) and despite letting the ball rebound in front when perhaps he should have parried it to the side, he showed good quickness and athleticism to get back up and make the second stop to deny a third goal. His kicking from the ground and from hand looks like it might be an improvement on Zac MacMath (low bar to jump over, I know) so this battle might just prove to be one very much worth keeping a close eye on.
Other talking points of note came from the lads up front. If you don't want to watch the whole thing you should at least check out Jack McInerney's goal (around the 27th / 28th minute) not only for the great strike but also for the comedy value of watching a professional goalkeeper get called for holding on to the ball for more than six seconds. Way to rock it old school, ref! (According to a tweet from Dave Martinez from Empire of Soccer, this is part of an initiative by MLS.) Forget the result, what is important is minutes for starters and clues as to how the new look U might line up and what sort of game they will play come the regular season.Faced with a ball just a couple yards inside the box, and at the top right corner Jack took the ball (remember folks, it is indirect) from Noguiera's layoff and blasted a laser guided rocket in to the keeper's bottom left corner. It is hard to strike a ball any sweeter and it put to rest some concerns I had about rust as Jack had fluffed a couple of good chances, including an early one-on-one where he had plenty of time to round the keeper but instead shot meekly at his legs. Maidana also had a couple of decent looks and perhaps with some more time the strikers can adjust their sights. The important thing was that the U created opportunities with good passing and movement off the ball by the front four.
Overall a solid effort and perhaps one that bodes well tactically. On the down side the prospect of relying on a single striker means that the thunder and lightning of Conor Casey and Jack up front might be a rare sight for 2014, but let's not get carried away. After all, this is just the preseason. Let's enjoy it for what it is - a snapshot of potential, and some light relief from the grim winter months.