Things aren't exactly going smoothly in Unionland. Most people either hate the front office, the coach, or the players. It's quite possible some people hate all three. This season has given new meaning to the idea of a dismal start. The Philadelphia Union have played in ten matches yet have just six points, good enough for ninth in the Eastern Conference. The problem there? They've played in more games than any other Eastern Conference team. Sure, if the Union managed to win on Saturday against the star-studded Toronto FC they would've found themselves tied for fourth in the East. This is good, however, the Union have played three more matches than the team their tied with and already lost to them once this season.
The Union have no spark going forward. They seem lost in transition and, outside of Cristian Maidana, don't have any ideas about how to crack opponents defensively. It's frustrating to watch a team for 90 minutes attempt the same thing over and over again to no avail then wonder why nothing is going right. The most clear-cut chance of the game for the Union was a wide-open missed header from Fernando Aristguieta. How did he get so wide open? The play breaks down like this:
Eric Ayuk receives the ball out wide right and Toronto LB Ashtone Morgan to respect his run and hesitates. Ayuk feigns as if he's crossing the ball and plays it instead to Cristian Maidana who finds the space in between the backline and the midfield thanks to Ayuk's run. Maidana turns to goal and forces Nick Hagglund and Morgan to challenge him. With the defense frozen, Maidana with a deft ball, picks out the smart run of Fernando Aristeguieta. The Venezuelan striker just puts his header over the bar.
This play is the only time in the match I noticed anyone find space in front of the backline and behold it was the clearest opportunity on goal. The Union have always had this problem, no ideas going forward. I complained about this over and over again on Saturday. The issue is a team wide issue. The quality isn't there to relieve Maidana of the duty to not only collect the ball from the deep-lying midfielders, but to also distribute the ball to the next level. With Vincent Noguiera injured, Maidana was forced to not only collect, but also to distribute. The place where Maidana is most effective is playing that final ball and because he was forced to drop deep to collect it, either from Pfeffer or Edu, and then attempt to put the ball in play further up the field. Maidana has no outlets to distribute and no one finds the space between the backline and the midfield to receive the ball and continue play.
I cannot tell if it's apathy or if it really is a lack of ability going forward. I also know it's much easier said than done, but there was space to be had and there was no one taking advantage of it. It was not as if, despite the aggressive pressure put on by the Toronto midfield, the play of Michael Bradley and Benoit Cheyrou was so astounding the Union couldn't possess the ball. Controlling 65% of the ball including attempting 169 passes in the final third (completing 64% of them) is evidence that they were capable of controlling the ball, particularly in the final third. The passes attempted in the final third, especially towards the end of the match, we're almost all around the defense or crosses. The Union attempted just 5 key passes in out of 169 passes. Out of 30 attempted crosses, 27% were completed yet none were for shots. The Union played two bruising strikers in Aristeguieta and Conor Casey looking for an aerial opportunity. Having served in 30 crosses for the entire game, the gameplan was obvious and yet absolutely nothing came from it. The, at times, gaping space in front of the backline saw no Union players in sight. Maidana forced to distribute the ball to the wide players and then if no cross was available the Union swung the ball around the other side.
No penetrating runs, no showing for the ball in available spaces, and no new ideas. The Union were unreasonably underwhelming in this. The simple feeding of crosses into the box has never and will never be an effective means to create chances even if your team's strikers consist of two very burly men. The stagnation of the offense is very apparent and yes there are injured players on this team, but the consistency in method by the Union to create goal-scoring chances makes them predictable and ineffective. The consistency in method by the Union to create goal-scoring chances often leaves the backline with nothing to do besides clear crosses. The consistency in method by the Union to create goal-scoring chances is a clear cut lack of effective tactics and execution.
Toronto exploited a major weakness and gave the blueprint to beating the Union in perfect display. Sit back far enough, and the prowess of the Union counterattack becomes useless and exposes the lack of attacking ideas. I equate it to basketball really. The Union are fantastic offensively in transition and when they are forced to function in the "half-court offense" they simply become inefficient. Toronto exposed this and the Union changed very little to make the Toronto defense work.
The ability to create width should open up not only the chances to cross, but also shift the defense to expose space inbetween the midfield and the defense. Without movement off the ball to expose these spaces the offense becomes stagnant. The offense swings the ball around the bunkered-down defense expecting something to change, but no players doing anything different to enact such a change. This is what the Union showcased on Saturday. An ability to change the point of attack, but an inability to change the attack itself.
If the Union can't change this, and nothing suggests they can at this time, their season won't just be long, it will be catastrophically impotent.