As I rolled off of Route 322 onto the ramp leading down to W 2nd Street in Chester yesterday, Bon Jovi's song "We Weren't Born to Follow" was blaring in my car speakers as PPL Park came into sight. While it's pretty upbeat and was getting me excited for the impending match, it struck me as very fitting that a song about taking a stand, not giving in, and refusing to follow was playing as I came in view of the Union's home pitch.
How often within the Philadelphia Union's time in existence as a club have we seen the team conform to the way the opposition is playing, rather than trying to seize the game and play it on their terms? Maybe it's the strategy, maybe it's respect, maybe it's fear...whatever the case, it seems more often than not that the Union fail to take the initiative in matches, especially against bigger or more prominent clubs.
While they lack silverware in the trophy cabinet, the New York Red Bulls' prestige in players and status have made them one of those clubs. Not since Roger Torres swept home his first touch off the substitute's bench for a 1-0 winner on April 9, 2011 had the Union snagged three points against RBNY. Five straight matches: all losses. Looking back on the 2-1 loss to New York earlier this year, the possession, chances, and control was all in favor of New York. In short, it's been a struggle.
Until yesterday. Yes, Lloyd Sam's red card was questionable. Yes, Jamison Olave, Juninho, and (crucially) Tim Cahill were all out. And yes, there were shades of Columbus with how the game went. But the Union are back on top of New York after 90 minutes, level with them in the standings, and have a game in hand...and they did all of it fairly convincingly.
1. CONOR CASEY WAS ON POINT, AND NOT JUST IN FRONT OF GOAL
When the Union signed Conor Casey this offseason, I was definitely among those skeptical as to what he could bring to this team. Injuries and form had blunted a few strong seasons with Colorado for the big forward and now it just seemed like a cut-price way to add to the firing lines (cutting ties with Chandler Hoffman was a poor decision, I felt). I was never a great fan of his in Colorado anyway--not very mobile, gave hit or miss performances for the national team, and the injuries had begun to take a toll on him.
Even through the early months of this season, I wasn't convinced. He was still slow, his touch was poor, and I remember very vividly seeing Casey slip and fall miserably after he came off the bench against the Galaxy. It just didn't seem to be working out, which seemed to be why Hackworth dropped him to the bench for much of May.
All of a sudden though, things have been clicking very nicely into place these last two league games for Casey. His hold up play has been incredibly strong, his movement has been well in tandem with Jack McInerney, and he's finding himself on the end of opportunities that didn't seem to be there before. Let's look at Sunday:
The passing numbers don't necessarily need to be great with the position Casey plays, but the fact that he had three lay offs, three attempted flick-ons, and five headers shows that he was in total command of the air. He was doing exactly what a target needs to do in the middle of the field, then was getting himself in positions to create (and finish) chances.
It's surprising to me that, if you exclude his seven-shot effort against Toronto back on April 13, Casey hadn't topped three shots in a game until yesterday and had attempted just five in his last eight appearances (four of which came off the bench). His diving finish against Columbus two weeks ago was a welcome sight after a full month and a half without scoring, and he looked every bit as hungry to add to it yesterday.
From the very outset of the game, Casey looked active, engaged, and in good tandem with Jack McInerney, which allowed for those chances to be created. Even his (SLIGHTLY) offside finish on a through ball from McInerney in the opening three minutes was a sign of the intent he had and the ability the two showed to play off each other. A trademark bullet header a few minutes later (which may have actually come off Lloyd Sam) and a composed finish off a rebound (which was created by Casey flicking on for Keon Daniel in the box) were the kind of finishes that a target forward of Casey's kind loves, and he took them with real aplomb.
Of his five goals this season, three of them have come against New York, which already makes him the club's leading all-time scorer in this fixture. With Olave out, Conor Casey served notice to a well overmatched Markus Holgersson and Heath Pearce that he has every intention of continuing to torment this backline when the two teams meet again through his size and a growing positional understanding with his fellow forward.
2. KEON DANIEL: CAM
My heart sank a little bit when yesterday's team sheet came out and John Hackworth's hope of having Kleberson back at 100% did not manifest itself. As good as Brian Carroll did going two ways two weeks ago against Columbus, such a performance is VERY difficult to maintain on a consistent basis (the D.C. Cup game proved that). The Union are clearly lacking an effective CAM-type player who can create, push forward, and support the attack, which Kleberson does (though he has faults--for one, his speed).
Of all the people to step into the breach, it was Trinidad & Tobago Gold Cup call-up Keon Daniel. Whether he was celebrating that bit of news from this week or just aware of the importance of the fixture, Daniel was on his game in a major way yesterday:
That screenshot doesn't show it on the side, but Daniel also took two shots yesterday, proving his attacking intent in the midfield. In the first half, it was his shot that was deflected into the path of McInerney before Luis Robles pulled of a Save of the Year candidate. That second Union goal would not have happened if Daniel hadn't struck Casey's layoff for him, which forced Robles into a save and allowed Casey to be around for the rebound. Attacking midfielders give numbers in attack. Simple concept.
As the second half wore on, Daniel was more active (yes, having an extra man helped) and was able to switch with Michael Farfan on the Union left to keep the Red Bulls' right flank off balance. We've seen this a lot lately (and I'll talk about that more in a second), but we have not seen what the Opta Chalkboard shows us above: Daniel showing activity passing and shooting in the middle of the final third.
Kleberson's absence has deprived the Union of a true attacking midfielder. While he's not a world beater or a long-term solution, Keon Daniel did enough yesterday to relieve this problem and give the Union attack another body forward. Not only did it put pressure on the Red Bull midfield (allowing Daniel to make several key interceptions in the middle of the field--see the dark circles with "26" in them), but it also allowed Brian Carroll to do what he does best: sit deep and absorb pressure. Finally, they got it figured out (sort of).
3. THE INSERTION OF MICHAEL FARFAN WAS AN UNDERRATED PLUS
Once again, Danny Cruz's all-action spirit showed positives and negatives yesterday. On the one hand, it yielded a red card to New York's Lloyd Sam (which was highly questionable--after all, Cruz WAS the guy sliding in and Sam looked to be trying to pull up and avoid injury). On the other hand, that same play gave Cruz the knock that would end his afternoon prematurely in the 36th minute.
Enter Michael Farfan, the very man whose presence I was questioning a week ago. My, how the
turntables tables turn (couldn't resist a little Office humor there). Look at his board from yesterday:
Farfan's 50 completed passes were second only to Daniel's 58--and he played just 54 minutes of the match. Obviously, he does not play as wide as Cruz or Le Toux, but like Le Toux, he can come inside as long as somebody will switch temporarily with him (normally McInerney does for Seba, while Daniel does for Farfan).
I've been critical of the Union doing this recently when Farfan has been in action, but yesterday it actually showed some signs of working. The Red Bulls' midfield was in shambles and much of the Union attack was going down the left (go look at the full chalkboard for the team and it's pretty evident), so Daniel and Farfan switching just added to the chaos and made defending that much more difficult for the Red Bulls. Plus, Farfan's more of a possession and "keep the ball" kind of guy than the swashbuckling, shoot-on-sight Cruz: yesterday, such possession helped the Union close out the match (54.2% of it in the 2nd half, helped by 84.9% passing accuracy in the 2nd half).
Let's add another wrinkle to this switching idea:
In this sequence, Farfan has come centrally after knocking a pass, allowing Daniel to drop deeper (as he tends to do) alongside Carroll, while Ray Gaddis is pushed high down the left. It's another option the Union have as far as figuring out how they want to attack centrally when Farfan and Daniel are both on the pitch, though Gaddis is forced to do a lot of work down the left. May need some work.
It was a surprisingly effective performance from Farfan; it was likely helped by being up a man, but nevertheless very effective. He even snuck in a long-distance chip/curler that was reminiscent of his goal against Real Madrid for some people. Granted, he sometimes chose to slow the attack when the Union went to counter, but it was a much more assured, involved display from a guy whose form has disappeared much of this season.
4. THE RED CARD TOOK THIERRY HENRY OUT OF THE GAME
Lloyd Sam was the man sent off, but New York practically lost their talisman right then and there as the Frenchman disappeared into the midfield and misery. The image of an angry Henry sulking his way off the field and yelling at his teammates at halftime was certainly one that gave Union fans lots of glee and summed up the difficulties of what he was facing with his team down an early goal, down a man, and simply lacking any quality in the middle of the park.
Dax McCarty is a top-notch central midfielder, and can pull the strings on an attack very effectively. The problem was, without Tim Cahill pushing up ahead of him and with a very ineffective Eric Alexander in his place, McCarty was left to fight alone in the middle of the field against the high pressure. Henry was forced to drop deeper and deeper into the midfield to find the ball, which stranded Peguy Luyindula up front. Given the season Luyindula has had, leaving him alone up front isn't going to win you matches.
New York's energy after the red card was exactly the response they needed. McCarty (correctly) had a header from an Henry set piece ruled out for offsides, and there was plenty of pressure and possession to suggest that maybe the Red Bulls could snatch a goal and then bunker down. Without Cahill as their midfield link though, and with Henry dropping deeper and Carroll allowed to play in the middle without marking anyone, it made going forward a difficult prospect for the visitors. Out of halftime, the Red Bulls basically had lost any attacking intent they showed after the card, and they simply could not find any rhythm.
Eventually, the introduction of Fabian Espindola gave them the extra forward they needed to press the issue, but with three at the back at times, and with Henry either deep in the middle of the midfield or standing up top or on the touchline, the Red Bulls' midfield made it too easy for the Union to break them down and cut out their attacks.
It's also worth mentioning that Amobi Okugo had a very solid outing at the back, cutting out several final third passes and turning them into counterattacks, while also winning some crucial headers. Zac MacMath showed good command in the air on several crosses, and when your keeper don't have to face a single shot on goal the entire match, that makes getting his first win against your hated rivals pretty easy.
Once again, this is a win that must be taken with a few grains of salt. The Lloyd Sam red card definitely opened the Red Bulls up in the second half, but the Union had already been a goal up anyway with several other opportunities. Would New York have been more competitive with Olave, their top centerback, Juninho, a dead-ball master and strong passer, and Cahill, their attacking hub in the midfield? No question about it, but the Union also could have been slightly better with Kleberson (maybe).
Given how badly they lost to D.C. United in the Open Cup recently, the Union's last couple of weeks in June have been puzzling. A strong outing against Columbus, followed by the Open Cup flameout, and then a "Columbus 2.0" performance yesterday against a weakened New York side. It's hard to get a hold of where this side is mentally right now, but the break seems to have done them some good (and helped Antoine Hoppenot rediscover his scoring boots).
Where does it leave them? Second in the Eastern Conference, a game in hand on New York, while also being the top-scoring team in the East (imagine that!) with 25 goals. The East itself is hard to figure out right now: Montreal are certainly the class of the group, New York showed their vulnerability without Cahill and Olave, Sporting have suddenly seen the goals and points dry up, and Houston's dominance at home has ended. It's a tough group to figure out right now--almost as hard as the very team we write about here.
But the Union are suddenly getting goals from outside of Jack McInerney again (though he himself has growing to do in front of goal--yesterday showed that). They're showing capability in attack. The defense has a goalkeeping mentor coming in and has two straight league shutouts. It may not totally be the tactically vision John Hackworth has in mind, but they are showing bits and pieces of having some sort of idea: go down the flank with speed, get numbers forward, and fashion quick chances. Simple, but effective.
The Union were not a team "born to follow". With a performance like yesterday, where they NEEDED to take the game in their control, they finally did (after initial timidity) and showed for the second league match running that they can do very well when they play how they want the game to be.
As ever, leave your comments below or on my Twitter @JoelHoover.