An exciting few weeks saw a great win in the U.S. Open Cup followed by a tired looking loss against D.C. United on a Sunday. This week, the players should have had time to recover, and then there was the excellent news of the Tranquillo Barnetta signing. It seemed bound to end with a win against the rival New York Red Bulls, but unfortunately Tim Ream wasn't playing and the Red Bulls took advantage of their chances to win 3-1. How did the Union throw this one away?
1. Zach Pfeffer going high and wide.
Statistics can be a funny thing. The Philadelphia Union outshot the Red Bulls 17-8. However, the Red Bulls got 4 out of 8 on target (50%) and scored 3 goals (25% save rate). The Union got 3 of their shots on target (17.6%) and only 1 goal (66.67% save rate). That isn't good enough in terms of getting shots on target, and the chances the Union had weren't all that difficult.
Perhaps the worst offender in the lack of shooting ability was Zach Pfeffer. He had plenty of chances throughout the game to get a shot off, and every single time the shot went high, wide, and not very handsome. You could say that it was good defending by the Red Bulls to keep the shots from outside the danger area, but Pfeffer still has to put those on target and test goalkeeper Luis Robles. As the Union have found out to their cost, sometimes there are rebounds that can be simple tap-ins.
2. Waiting for substitutions to be reactive instead of proactive.
Jim Curtin once again got caught out in the substitution front and that's maybe where the game was lost. After a first half where the Union had the better of the play, without forcing a save from Luis Robles, Jim Curtin waited to change things around. The first substitution of the match was Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch bringing on Shaun Wright-Phillips, and the momentum changed. By the time any Union sub could positively change the game, it was 1-0 to the Red Bulls.
Not only did Curtin wait too long to change the players on the field, but the tactics didn't change either. The substitutions were to bring on Fernando Aristeguieta for Eric Ayuk and new player Tranquillo Barnetta for Zach Pfeffer. Those changes could have allowed a move from the 4-2-3-1 formation. However it wasn't until Conor Casey came on for Ethan White that any change to the formation was made.
One of the things that makes a coach a good coach is the ability to make changes to tactics, formation and the playing personnel that allow a positive impact on the game. Even bringing on the new signing to a fantastic ovation from the fans didn't manage to do that. Jim Curtin often says they learn a lot from games, but when the same things are happening it doesn't seem those lessons are being learned. To avoid another coaching change in future Curtin is going to have to start to learning on a much quicker timeline than he is currently doing.
3. Giving Shaun Wright-Phillips too much respect.
I don't think Shaun Wright-Phillips is that good a player. I never have. He is certainly fast, however I have never thought his decision making was elite, and the only reason he had as top level a career he did is because of his speed and relationship to Arsenal legend Ian Wright. He is now older, more injury prone, and will not be as fast as when he started.
That being said, no matter how good a player is, they can produce when shown too much respect. Think back to how well Sebastien Le Toux and Andrew Wenger played when the Portland full backs gave them too much room. I don't think Raymon Gaddis even tried to tackle SWP once. Ethan White was so mesmerized by his play that he watched as Bradley Wright-Phillips lost him and scored the second goal. That's not good enough for professionals playing in the highest league in the country.
4. Welcome to MLS Tranquillo Barnetta.
Poor Tranquillo. First minutes in to the first game for the Union, and new star Tranquillo Barnetta gives away a penalty. It isn't necessarily the fact that match speed rustiness forced a mistimed tackle, but Shaun Wright-Phillips showed his experience, slowed his run enough for Barnetta to be right behind him, and fell over. From the referee's viewpoint I could see why it was given. They have a hard job, and this was well done by SWP to win his team a penalty.
5. Fabinho not knowing what to do with the ball.
At 2-1, the Union were going all out attack. Casey was on for White and nearly got a goal. Time was running out and Fabinho had the ball on the left hand side. He could have passed to Le Toux to attempt to get a difficult cross in, he could have crossed the ball himself, but instead, he just allowed the ball to be taken away from him. At that point in the game, down 2-1, it's asking for a goal to be scored against you. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened, as the Red Bulls raced away and scored easily.
I'd never blame the team down 2-1 for going for it. However, Fabinho has to make sure he can get a cross in to the box when he has the chance. Doing nothing with it is always going to end badly.
The Union now have a few options for the rest of the year. They can continue to try and win every game, and possibly win nothing. They could give up on the very faint hope of the playoffs, and rest their players for the U.S. Open Cup games. Personally, I hope it is the second option.