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Tactics & Analysis: Short Two Points II

Finding a way through the tactical rubble of a 2-2 draw and nightmare conclusion at Real Salt Lake.


Words sometimes don't do justice to what has been witnessed in a given event. Words, especially when written, can only convey a fraction of the emotions that come with what was just seen. It doesn't seem totally fair--such words fail to encompass the tone, feeling, pace, and thoughts that come with them (among other things--this has a point, bear with me). In short, written words can't fully atone for saying everything you want to say and how you feel with them. Sometimes, the right words to describe a given event cannot even be found.

Do any of you have the words yet?

It has been a full 24 hours since the Philadelphia Union lost drew 2-2 with Real Salt Lake on the eve of Independence Day (actually, it felt like this...except we were England). I am now sitting at my computer attempting to find the words for what I just watched last night. This column may end up going far beyond any of the other ones I've written--simply because there's so much that can be touched on, and yet it is difficult to find the right words to describe last night.

And no, this is not just about the events that took place in stoppage time, which will each be addressed in time. This is about a 90+ minutes that rivaled the U.S. Open Cup Fourth Round for their poor quality and simply brutal football. It's about watching a guy who I felt a month ago was beyond his best, and now has suddenly found a new gear and looked like one of the only people engaged and knowing what to do last night. It's about four forwards in a 2-1 game and the other substitutions. It's about stoppage time--yes, quite a bit of it is about stoppage time. But it's also about how the Philadelphia Union got there in that position.

So let's take a word at a time, let's break down what happened last night and figure it all out:


Simply put, the Union midfield was just terrible last night. The failures of the midfield last night must be placed squarely upon both the players and the coaching staff--both are at fault for what took place.

For starters, it appeared as though the Union would remain in their typical 4-4-2/4-2-2-2. Sebastien Le Toux would move up next to Conor Casey, Michael Farfan was going to the left wing, and Leo Fernandes would slide into the middle next to Brian Carroll as a seemingly higher-pressing CAM.

At least, that's what we all thought...



In order, the first screen shot is SLT's distribution/shots from last night; the second is Leo Fernandes'.

Here's what seemed to happen (at least by my estimation): the Union switched tact and played a 4-1-4-1 with Brian Carroll tucked in behind Fernandes and Farfan, Le Toux still on the right, Cruz on the left, and Casey running up front on his own. I was initially optimistic that this could be done (I mean, doesn't the idea of Fernandes at CAM allowing for Farfan to pull the strings and Carroll to defend sound good? I thought it did because each player could then play to their strengths), but thinking and happening are two vastly different prospects.

Carroll played too deep behind the two higher-pressing midfielders, creating a disconnect between defense and midfield (with Carroll playing more of the former), especially since Farfan and Fernandes did very little to help out in terms of defending. In fact, Carroll seemed to take himself out of the game too by playing right in front of Amobi Okugo and Jeff Parke and getting swallowed up as another defender. If you don't believe me, go to the Chalkboard for the game and mouse over Okugo and Parke's heat maps in comparison to Carroll's--they have the same amount of activity in the middle of the Union defense, the two centerbacks just spent more time in the box. By the way, how do you let Luis Gil beat you like that for a header??

The point is, it created a bad disconnect, but not as bad as the one down the Union left (back to that later on). Bad soccer IQ and recognition of roles allowed for Real Salt Lake to take charge in the middle of the field and dominate the possession, while also facing little in the way of concentrated pressure from the Union when they took possession. Danny Cruz and Sebastien Le Toux were essentially rendered useless on the wings because of the Union's crowded middle, leaving Conor Casey to do the work all across the front.

Leo Fernandes has some nice raw talent (preseason showed us that), but it's a lot to ask of a young man who only played one MLS minute prior to tonight and one Open Cup game with Ocean City to pull the strings attacking against Real Salt Lake. As his Chalkboard shows, he was very much hot and cold last night--for every pass he was able to complete to help build an attack with Conor Casey, he would ship one to RSL in return. In a game where possession was at a premium for the Union (again, more on that later), Fernandes was giving it away far too often and too cheaply. Plus, if you look at the Chalkboard again, his involvement in the final third was lacking as well.

The crammed center of Fernandes, Farfan, and Carroll looked ill-equipped to be playing together, which really comes down to the coaching staff as well. These players need to have the soccer IQ to play their roles, but it can be challenging to do so when tactically it seems as though there was no preparation put in for such a formation with such players. The question must be asked to the coaches: why, coming off of a Saturday game with one player departing and another already gone, do you try and make such a tactical change rather than insert players into your system that's already in place?

A five-man midfield is a big beast--it needs control and a well-defined set of roles. Neither was in place last night, and the Union were simply swamped. The coaches need to bear some of the blame for it simply because they hadn't prepared the players enough for such a situation to know how to adapt technically and tactically to the new plan. Conor Casey did it. The rest seemed out of sync.

1A. CASEY. SIMPLY CASEY. On a night where performances and events left myself and others speechless for all the wrong reasons, Conor Casey was doing it for all the right ones.

Let's take stock of what he assist after a storming run down the right wing (including bamboozling poor Carlos Salcedo and his horrendous idea to slide on the endline), countless hold ups up front all by himself, mobility to spare, a goal plundered after some great work by Antoine Hoppenot, a nutmeg...


I nearly woke up my entire house when he did it, but it encompassed what a brilliant performance Conor Casey had last night. Hackworth made the right decision (one of few) to let Casey play the entirety of the match, and he was up for it. His mobility, hold up play, and general intelligence of play were simply superb. Jack McInerney has done the brunt of the movement and opening of lanes for Casey lately, but last night the big man did it all:


There's not much else to discuss here. It was simply a masterclass job up front from a guy who I was frustrated with a month ago, but who now may be the team's saving grace in attack.


The way the first 20 minutes started, it seemed almost inevitable that the Union would park the bus a bit once Le Toux opened the scoring 16 minutes in. Given the nature of the game (midweek, on the road, Houston on the road this weekend, etc.), it SEEMED like a decent enough plan, even if the game was bad to watch. Jeff Parke and Amobi Okugo were doing a solid job in defense cutting out anything through the middle, and even having Carroll back there gave some extra support for the "bus" at the edge of the area.

I'm willing to venture that part of this was due to the fact that like the Union, Real Salt Lake had a different system in place in their midfield and they didn't know how they wanted to play. This was expected coming in, given the Gold Cup call-ups RSL faced, but it was still interesting to watch because this is a fairly deep team who use their squad well (hey, WHAT A CONCEPT!) Without Alvaro Saborio to lead the line and provide his quality in the middle of the attack, Joao Plata and Robbie Findley both struggled to work in tandem, often pulling wide from each other to attack the wings more.

In the middle, it was even more uneven. Chris Wingert pushed up from left back to be heavily involved on the left of the RSL midfield, completing a game-high 65 passes in the process. This pushed Ned Grabavoy centrally, creating a logjam with Javier Morales (who was trying to hold it all together in the middle), holding mid Yordany Alvarez, and right-pressing Khari Stephenson. Yesterday felt like a case of two midfields who didn't know the identity and just sort of slogged back and forth, with RSL having more possession but failing to use it in the final third.

Kyle Beckerman is usually the organizer, but he of course was away too for the Gold Cup. So was Tony Beltran. So was Nick Rimando. This was the chance.

Here where the Union's bus broke down: the wings were getting hammered constantly, just about to the breaking point on Ray Gaddis' Union left. Khari Stephenson started it, Sebastian Velasquez continued it, and Javier Morales maintained it all night. Here's his map:


While he was active all across the field, Morales' activity goes up on his right (the Union left). Throughout the evening, it was a case of Morales or somebody else in the RSL midfield pulling Ray Gaddis inside and forward, then playing it wide for Stephenson, Velasquez (when he subbed on), and Lovel Palmer to raid the Union left for crosses and chances. In other instances, Gaddis would just get straight up beaten by one of them going straight at him, completely contrary to the Union staff calling Gaddis "one of the best one-v-one defenders in MLS". Maybe on the right side he is?

Velasquez in particular was a game changer coming off the bench, going right at Gaddis on multiple occasions and fashioning chances out of nothing for the home side. With Morales in support and Luis Gil keeping the Union honest in the middle, it was a complete nightmare for Gaddis. Of course, when Danny Cruz/Antoine Hoppenot is parked up top in the 4-2-4 (!!!!!!!!! I promise, I'm getting to that), there's going to be tons of space to exploit. Unfortunately, Gaddis was the man who was getting swamped.

Likewise, Sheanon Williams saw a lot of action from the wingback Wingert (that's ironic) and Morales occasionally, but in spite of a few hiccups, he handled himself well. Granted, there was little opportunity last night for Williams to go forward like he has recently (mainly because the Union were gifting possession like it was Jason Kreis' birthday). But he did an adequate job at the back, while his counterpart on the left struggled yet again.

While I love Gaddis' work rate, character, and ability (especially in his natural spot), I can't help but hope silently that Fabinho ends up being able to step in. I know he's there for depth (which, when you think about it, is a pretty lame excuse...why would you bring in a guy just to be in reserve? Let him compete), but I want to see if he can contribute out on the field. If it's possible, give it a try. Gaddis and the left just don't click right now, but he'd be perfect as a second option to Williams on the right if he needs a breather.


At some point in the course of this season, we were bound to see how the Union's depth could hold up. Last night proved two things: 1) John Hackworth has made a serious error not playing more of his bench this season, and 2) said bench is not prepared for situations like last night.

I'll be fair and start with the good: Antoine Hoppenot. He came in, was active, battled, and got himself a well-earned assist off the bench. Hoppenot is always in a difficult position because he never gets a start (unless it's a friendly) and only has about 20-30 minutes to work with every night, but he made the most of it against RSL. (By the way, that is another error Hackworth has made--if Hoppenot can't get an occasional start, how is he going to be prepared for a start or be able to make much of an impact off the bench? Just not enough minutes to work with...a little rotation in this team couldn't hurt.)

Hop isn't the most technical guy, but his work rate and speed paid tremendous dividends last night off the bench. Twice he stripped RSL's defense in their own half, narrowly missing on a pass on the one occasion (he really should have shot it), but assisting Casey on the other. While the decision to put Hoppenot on the field was "necessitated" by Michael Farfan's injury (really, no Roger Torres? Don Anding?) and maybe not the correct one, he still put in a strong shift off the bench.

Now, let's get to those other two...

First off, Matt Kassel, making his second appearance of the season. And he was asked to hold down the fort in the midfield for 25 minutes with first a 1-0 lead, then a 2-1 lead. His yield? Nine completed passes, just two tackles, and complete chaos as far as where this guy was playing. Did anybody else actually notice Kassel while he was out on the field? Didn't think so.

Tactically, this was maybe the "best" situational choice Hackworth made because they were defending a 1-0 lead and up a man by that point. Bringing on another defensive-minded midfielder was a good choice(he is listed as an M/D on the club roster--it's anybody's guess where his preferred spot is. Just look at Aaron Whee...oh wait, hang on...), but it sure does say a lot about where poor Roger Torres is placed in the squad right now. Man, the poor fella can't see a wink of meaningful action right now.

The only problem with this switch? It came for Danny Cruz, pushing Fernandes wide and dropping Kassel deep next to Carroll. The parked bus was basically asking for 10-man RSL to assault it.

Finally, Hackworth pulled off his masterstroke of baffling substitutions--perhaps the strangest one of the season (don't quote me on that--if you think of another, please share it). 86th minute: Aaron Wheeler for Leo Fernandes.



Sadly, I can't bring up the game highlights of a specific moment where I saw it besides this, but it was absolutely mind-boggling to watch Aaron Wheeler occupy what appeared to be a CF or CAM spot right behind Casey while Sebastien Le Toux ran down the right and Antoine Hoppenot ran down the left (I think...honestly, I lost track of how they were lined up by this point. I couldn't even handle it). The logic, I suppose, was to put Wheeler in to clear set pieces (he got a head on just one), but he wasn't dropped deep enough to even impact such plays. HE WAS PLAYING DIRECTLY BEHIND CASEY. Why not just play five in the back!?

So here's a quick recap: as the fateful five minutes of stoppage (heard that before?) rolled around, the Philadelphia Union were employing a 4-2-4. This included beleaguered and besieged Ray Gaddis at left back, Matt Kassel in one of the holding mid spots making just his second MLS appearance, striker/defender/attacking dynamo Aaron Wheeler tucked in behind Conor Casey up front, and Antonie Hoppenot down the wing. And the Union were leading 10-man Real Salt Lake 2-1.

John Hackworth has repeatedly said he wants his team playing attacking soccer. His tactics at the end of this match suggest that includes when you are leading 2-1 with four minutes plus stoppage to go. No really, that's what it says...not when they were up 1-0 and first went up a man, it was late in the game that he decided to go for that.

And finally...the biggest point of all...


How does this happen just a few days after seeing it happen against FC Dallas? How? Lighting literally struck twice for the Philadelphia Union watching Javier Morales' PK ping into the net off the post (just different means of accomplishing the lightning strike). It was all a culmination of the things already touched upon in this article, which was why I saved this point for last.

Here is a shocking statistic in light of last night's debacle: in their last five matches, the Union have been up a man in four of them. Four. During the time they have been up a man, the Union have been outscored 5-4. Last night, it was a 2-1 margin to Real Salt Lake when the Union went up a man following Lovel Palmer's very controversial dismissal.

When you look at the possession in particular, it's absolutely unbelievable. At halftime, RSL had about a 65%-35% edge in possession over the Union. Despite playing down a man for the final half hour, the final possession stats had RSL up 63.2% to 36.8% on the Union in possession. It was nearly maintained despite the Union being up a man. What's worse, RSL also out-passed the Union 147-93 during that final half hour being down a player. And through it all, they completed 81% of their passes. The Union completed 68%.

The introductions of Gil, Garcia, and Velasquez were just the spark RSL needed in their stagnant midfield to start generating offense. And isn't it incredible how things change on the road? As RSL did that, the Union remained content to bunker in on their win, rather than go for the kill like they did at home up a man. That's running scared right there--again, that falls squarely on John Hackworth.

You know what doesn't fall on him though? Carroll letting Gil beat him to a header on a corner, as the Union gave up another set piece-related goal. Nor does Ray Gaddis' play fall on him (he kind of is the only option we have there, though Hackworth can be blamed for getting rid of Gabriel Farfan, who was the only cover the team had there).

The substitutions didn't help much either because it felt like the Union were suddenly stuck between a defending identity in the manner in which they were playing, as well as an attacking identity with the personnel that they brought on. None of it made sense and it just didn't come off well at all, hence why they couldn't keep possession. Why oh why do you have what looks like a 4-2-4 when you are defending a 2-1 lead? It just makes no sense whatsoever...they should have attacked with such vigor when they were up 1-0, not THIS late in the game with just a one-goal edge.

And then there was this...


You cannot pin a loss on one play. It comes down to many plays made or not made. That is the reality of sports, but it's often lost on fans after a moment like this one.

Sebastien Le Toux made a big error, there is no question. Sometimes guys are able to get away with slotting past the keeper on such a breakaway because they have the technicality and finesse to pull it off. Le Toux is not in his 2010-11 form in front of goal. For whatever reason, after a 60-yard run by himself, he elected to go near post on big Josh Saunders, rather than go around him after a quick little move (by the way, give Saunders credit. He did what any goalkeeper needs to do there...was patient, gave himself space, and remained big).

This play did not cost the Union the game: it's a collection of other events that made that happen, many that we have discussed and some still to come. This one looms large though because it would have iced the match. And he simply made the wrong decision and cost them that chance. That much is still true...I mean honestly, why shoot near post when the keeper is that far away and you've just entered the penalty area?

Then came this...


Ray...why? The bump he got didn't seem like enough to throw an arm up. Was he looking for a foul? Who knows...once again though, it was a snap moment with major, major implications where one of the Union's players failed to properly execute or be smart in the moment. Arms at the sides...

Here's the thing though: the point of this final number point is to make the argument that the Union's draw last night was not the result of one individual play or person. It was the coming together of many things, big and small, that contributed.

Would Ray Gaddis' handball and the subsequent equalizer have mattered if Sebastien Le Toux had buried his breakaway? No.

Would Le Toux's breakaway have mattered if the Union had tactically shaped themselves the right way to defend out the game and plan for what they wanted to do? Maybe not.

Would the breakaway and tactics have mattered much if Brian Carroll had defended Gil on the corner? No. (By the way, could it kill you to dive there, Zac MacMath?)

Would that goal have happened if the Union pressed the issue being up a man, rather than sitting back and parking the bus deeper? Maybe not. RSL weren't playing very well themselves and only created a few chances on the edge of the area.

A result like last night is not down to one person or play. It's on the whole team--quite simply, it's two points that were dropped in a major, major way. Worse than Dallas because this was the top team in the West at home, down a man, and missing several key players. That's a major chance to pick up a statement win, but the Union came flat and finished flatter.

For the second match running, the Philadelphia Union leave deflated with only a point when three were just a minute away. All across the squad, from the coaching staff to the players, it's accountability time for the mistakes that made such a result happen. They must either face them together, figure out how to remedy them, and come to Houston emotionally prepared (despite being exhausted), or this road trip and its missed chances could end up having major implications on the final standings and story of the 2013 Philadelphia Union season.

Comment below with your thoughts on the match/analysis, tweet @BrotherlyGame, or tweet to me @JoelHoover.