With yet another week of three games in eight days, it is an extra long edition of game changers. We'll talk about the Union's 1-1 draw against the Chicago Fire, but first, let's talk about the exciting mid-week win that was the Union's 3-1 victory against New York Red Bulls at PPL Park.
1) New York fielding an inexperienced back 4.
Earlier this season when, the Red Bulls beat the Union 2-1, their back four that day was Kosuke Kimura (age 30), Jamison Olave (33), Ibrahim Sekagya (33) and Costa Rican World Cup quarter-finalist Roy Miller (29). On Wednesday, the Red Bulls' defense was Olave with Matt Miazga (turned 19 on Saturday), Chris Duvall (22) and Ambroise Oyongo (23). That's a huge difference in experience. While in ten years time those New York defenders may be among the best in MLS, right now they aren't. The Union had to take advantage of this inexperience, and they did on Conor Casey's first goal. Sebastien Le Toux spent the night running rings around this back line. While it is impossible to know whether or not New York would have won with their first choice back line, it probably wouldn't have looked as easy to get goals against them.
2) Ray Gaddis playing on the left instead of Fabinho.
I would doubt there has been a player in MLS who has improved in the last two years as much as Raymon Gaddis. Jim Curtin realizes how good his fullback has become and last Wednesday trusted him to shut down Lloyd Sam for 90 minutes. While Sam did have some success through the game, it wasn't as much as New York needed, and Gaddis has a lot to do with that. This was especially true in the first half, where all we really saw of Sam was when he lost his patience and pushed Gaddis after being fouled. While Fabinho may be better getting forward than Gaddis, there's no doubt in my mind that Curtin made the correct decision here.
3) The officials getting two decisions correct in a matter of minutes.
It's not often you hear me praising referees, as most of the time a good referee is one you don't notice. However, Baldomero Toledo and his bridge end linesman got two critical decisions, one after the other. While the ESPN replay was not great, New York's disallowed goal was correctly chalked off for offside.
Straight after that, the Union had a corner. While many may have missed this offence at first glance, replays showed that Toledo was correct in noticing Eric Alexander grabbing and pulling Maurice Edu, preventing from making a header. It was a great spot from the official, and Mr. Penalty Perfect Sebastien Le Toux made no mistake from the penalty spot.
At the time these plays happened, it was 2-1 to the Union. If the Red Bulls goal was allowed to stand, or the penalty wasn't called (like so many pushes and pulls in the box that aren't) then the outcome of the game is far less clear. Two wrong decisions from Toledo and his crew, and the Union may not have walked out of PPL Park with three points.
4) Zac MacMath making a great double save (and Sheanon Williams clearing off the line)
With 20 minutes left in the match, the Union needed Zac MacMath to make big saves and he was certainly up to the task, making a sublime double save.
Zac did well to get down for the first shot, and even better to be up fast enough to block the rebound. The ball then fell to the always dangerous Thierry Henry. However, after a deflection off of Edu, the ball was cleared to safety by Sheanon Williams who got back on the line to cover.
Any win at home is good, any win against the Red Bulls is great. To beat the Red Bulls and to score three goals in doing so is even better. Since the Red Bulls beat the Union 3-0 at PPL in 2012, the Union have beaten the Red Bulls 3-0 and 3-1 in Chester. The result has also given the Union realistic hope that making the playoffs is a possibility, especially as the Union beat a team also in contention for a low-playoff seed.
The Chicago game was a fairly uneventful, "boring" game to watch with little in the way of game-changing moments or performances. What caused this dull game? Aside from Chicago not being the most pleasing team to watch, the following helped contribute to the lack of events Saturday night in Bridgeview.
1) Going back to the Hackworth tactical formation with Casey being left alone up front.
Since Curtin took over as interim manager, Le Toux has been playing much further forward, and has been able to get on the end of touches from Casey to cause mayhem to opposing defenses. For whatever reason, that wasn't the case in Chicago. Most of the game, Le Toux was back in his own half. Cruz, on the other side didn't get on the ball much at all, and it meant that to get involved in play Casey also had to come back. This led to very little chances for the Union to score from the run of play. When the opposing keeper doesn't make a save all game, either something went amazingly right or quite wrong.
2) Maidana missing from the lineup.
The issue for the Union may well have been Cristian Maidana being injured. Curtin's answer to the injury was to put Vincent Nogueira in the position that Maidana would have been playing. For all Nogueira's ability, he isn't the type of player that would thrive further forward, just behind Casey. When the Union have played at their best, Maidana has been at the center of the attacks. His injury hurt the Union's play, though thankfully the Union are two weeks away from their next MLS game.
The other issue with Maidana being out was a reduction in the quality of set pieces. While Le Toux does deliver some great balls from corners and free kicks, the consistency isn't there. Maidana is much more consistent from set pieces, and in a game where the best chances may be from corners or free kicks, the reduction in delivery quality stung.
3) Maurice Edu forgetting (twice) to pick up Jeff Larentowicz on a corner kick.
First, i'd like to sarcastically thank Edu for having to write the name Jeff Larentowicz in this column. His name is one of those that is easier to say than spell, and writing about this instead of being on the DoopCast show and saying it is far hard on me.
Jeff Larentowicz isn't a goalscorer, however he seems to make a habit of scoring a large proportion of his goals against the Union. Maybe the fact he doesn't score many led to the first free header he got. Maurice Edu let him run off and blaze the header over the bar. However, having that scare should have made sure that Edu didn't do the same again. Fast forward to the 60th minute and it's another Fire corner. Yet again, Edu let Larentowicz make a run and this time the header went into the top corner.
There should be no excuse for losing Larentowicz so easily a second time. Other than Edu's lapses, the defense did a great job keeping the Chicago attack quiet, with most of the chances being long range easy saves for MacMath. It just goes to show that one slight loss of attention can be so costly at this level.
4) Geoff Gamble having no idea what handball is.
Law XII states that it is illegal if a player "handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area)"
That means that any time the ball hits your arm, and it is not a deliberate action by you, it is not a foul.
Segares had turned around, his arm was by his side, and while the ball did hit his arm, that does not mean it is necessarily a foul. Congratulations to Seba who appealed for the penalty, and got it because that must have been all the referee took into account.
Of course, that's not the only hand ball that Gamble "gambled" on getting right all game. There was one point in the first half that Mike Magee was breaking away, and Michael Lahoud handled the ball. Luckily for the Union, the referee didn't see it and then Magee was so upset at not getting the call he decided to harass the referee instead of playing on.
But the biggest game-changing bad decision from the referee however came in the 13th minute. While initial view of the game on MLS Live didn't show much, a few minutes later there was a replay that I managed to record here:
You can obviously see that a) the ball was going in, b) Shipp stops the ball going in, c) He used his arm to stop it, and d) It was a deliberate movement of his arm to do so. This is textbook hand ball, and even more so it was denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, and therefore should have been a red card.
And while an incident like this is easy to dismiss as the official not seeing it, that may not be the case. Check out this video:
If you watch the referee closely, you'll see that he actually pointed to the spot. Then he changed his mind. Therefore he did see the incident, and had at least initially thought it was a hand ball. Obviously something changed his mind.
That decision by Geoff Gamble was really the biggest game-changing moment from the last two Union games. It should have been a penalty (surely scored by Le Toux, right?), and it should have been a red card. Would Chicago have came back from one goal down a man? Probably unlikely, though it is worth noting the Union's franchise history of playing up a man is shoddy. Yes the referee made a decision in the Unions favor at the end, but two wrongs don't make a right, and that early decision may have cost the Union two points.