Over the last few weeks, John Hackworth has spoken a few times about wanting the Union’s midfielders to possess the ball better. But he has also preached the value of having his midfielders play two ways, engaging in both attack and defense.
Those sentiments can be found among a lot of coaches in Major League Soccer. It’s certainly not a problem that only the Union face.
That said, if you think about it, the two values contrast with each other somewhat - and not just within MLS.
A good playmaker who can hold the ball up and distribute it well isn’t likely to focus much on defending. At the same time, the bluntness of a defense-oriented player often leads to an inability to keep the ball after a tackle.
You can find players who are very good in both aspects of the game, but you usually have to get to the world’s best leagues to find them. The best American example I can come up with is Michael Bradley. Beyond that, I think of someone like Real Madrid and Spain’s Xabi Alonso, or French national team legend Claude Makelélé.
There aren’t many players in MLS with that degree of versatility. The closest might be Patrice Bernier in Montreal, or Juninho in Los Angeles. That’s just two guys out of the hundreds that play in MLS, though.
It might be overstating things to say that possession and two-way play are mutually exclusive. But looking at Hackworth’s lineups so far this season, it has seemed to me that he has had to pick one style over the other.
During his press conference on Wednesday, I asked Hackworth if he has found himself faced with that choice. And given Hackworth’s long history of player development in the United States, I asked if he faced it with other teams he has coached.
Hackworth’s answer was quite detailed, and I think quite informative. Here it is in full:
Yeah, I think you do, and I think you have to know your team really well – their characteristics and their traits. I think our team, while we certainly try to play a style that is attacking-oriented and possession-oriented, we have tried to make sure that we did it – compared to last year at least – more efficiently.
And we’re doing that. I think when we look at some of our plays on Saturday, and the number of passes that it took to get into a goal-scoring position, it wasn’t that we had a slow build-up. We actually had a good rhythm, and were going to goal in far fewer passes than we were in the past.
Sometimes that’s an interesting statistic in soccer, because you think the team that wins the possession battle is going to have the better chances. That certainly wasn’t the case on Saturday, and I think it’s becoming a little bit of a re-occurring theme for our team.
We’ve been good when we’ve had the ball and we’ve been able to get to goal a little faster than we have in the past, and yet we haven’t had the overwhelming possession numbers that we had in some games last year.
I don’t think I walk back and look at possession and say hey, that’s a negative stat for us. It’s rather how we possessed it and how we created opportunities.
I followed that up by asking whether the dilemma that Hackworth faces might be a function of being in Major League Soccer.
There are two aspects of that theory, neither of which will probably surprise you. First, the salary cap restricts teams’ abilities to bring in the kinds of players who can play both ways. Second, the player development structure in the United States historically hasn’t emphasized that level of individual skill.
(You can argue endlessly about which of those aspects is more important to MLS’ future. I’d go with the second, but there are plenty of people out there that would go with the first. Anyway, that’s for another blog post.)
Here was Hackworth’s answer:
I think that it’s an interesting question. I don’t know that I would say that it’s a purely MLS or American quality, or lack of quality, or the salary cap or anything like that.
I think our league, through parity more than anything, means that teams are very close in terms of talent. When you have teams that are close in talent and well-coached, they’re going to negate a lot of the positives that a team can execute on an opponent.
I think you see that a lot in MLS games. It’s hard. A lot of the international guys that we bring into our locker room – Kléberson is an example of a guy who’s coming in, and he’s got to adapt to a much different style here in our league.
It’s not that it’s a poor style, at all. In a lot of ways, it’s just that there’s not a lot of time and space on the ball, and you have to adjust to that for sure.
Here’s more of what Hackworth had to say on Wednesday, including a look ahead to Saturday’s game against Toronto FC at PPL Park:
On preparing to face Toronto:
Toronto clearly is a much different team [from past years]. Credit to coach [Ryan] Nelsen and his staff. They’ve brought in some new guys who’ve added a lot to their team, and changed the way they play.
They’re a difficult team to get a result against, and they’ve proven that in the early stages of this season so far. I don’t think I would characterize them as being a team that does anything that scares you tremendously, but yet they’re really deceptively good at a lot of things.
They seem to be able to take advantage of opposing teams when you least expect it. More than anything they show a great resolve right now. Their character as a team - to come back from two goals down against FC Dallas to get a result. They came back from two goals down against L.A., and were a little unfortunate not to win that game.
So they’ve had some very good opponents so far, and they’ve done well.
We’re very close in the standings right now. You have two teams that last year weren’t really considered to be in the mix, and here we sit with Saturday being a really important game for both of us.
We have our own issues with getting through 90 [minutes] the right way. Clearly, we need to put balls in the back of the net when we have the opportunities. I think that’s the best way you take care of an opponent in a game like that.
You have to finish your chances, and you can’t let a team like Toronto hang around, because they’ve proven already that when they do that, they’re really dangerous.
On whether he’s satisfied with the Union’s tactical execution right now:
We like a lot of the things that we’re doing right now, and yet we know that there’s areas where specifically we have to get better. One of them is in our transition [game].
I would say we were really good at Columbus at times in our transition, and yet there were some very important times where, I wouldn’t say it was the transition, but I would say there is some execution that we have to get better on.
On whether he sees a lack of consistent effort from his team:
I don’t think there’s been a problem with [playing] a full 90 minutes, at all. I think on Saturday we saw a full 90 minutes. I think we played a really good opponent at home, similar to the week before [at New York], a very motivated opponent.
In those two situations, one game we let it slip away and in the other game Columbus got into it. But you’ve got to give them a lot of credit for getting themselves back in the game. And you’ve got to blame our team for not finishing our chances.
It could have been a much different game in the first half, and it could have been a much different game after they got their goal. We got some really good chances in the last 15 minutes of that game, and we were a little unlucky.
I like the way that we’re playing for 90 minutes. I think the fact that we got through that Columbus game and were not on our heels at the end, but were actually going for the win – similar to how we did in New York - I think you’re seeing our team mature a little bit and I like that about us.
If we can continue to do that then I feel like we’re going to be more successful than on the losing end of things.
We know we have to do a better job on that [finishing] end of it. In two games we put ourselves in positions to do that and we haven’t necessarily executed. That is, I think, the main thing that we have to improve on.
But if we weren’t creating chances, if we weren’t playing collectively on both sides of the ball, if we didn’t have the energy, if our players weren’t fit enough to play the 90 minutes, those would be concerns. But right now I think it’s about managing the game right and finishing our opportunities.
On the recent strong play of Jack McInerney:
Jack is playing well, and he’s doing it – like the rest of the team – not just with his offense.
His workrate, his ability to steal some balls in Columbus, his ability in both New York and Columbus for us to move him to a wide midfield position when we had to, there’s certainly a lot of trust and faith that he can play those minutes and play in different roles on our team.
He’s still the guy that’s getting the most chances. That’s the thing that he does best. He’s got to finish a couple of those chances. I’m glad that Jack is getting the recognition, but I know Jack very well and he’s upset that he didn’t get two or maybe even three [goals] on Saturday, because we had those opportunities.
If we score one of those, it puts us in a much different position right now.
On the availability of various players for Saturday:
Michael Farfan looks like he’s back and in training right now. The only guy that still is not involved is Matt Kassel.
Baky [Soumaré] is good. He’s training and is 100 percent health. I think our training sessions have been tough, and he’s doing well.
Kléberson is doing a great job. It’s interesting, because right now, all of a sudden, right now we’re seriously deep at a lot of positions. So we’re having to make, as a coaching staff, some very tough choices, and he’s one of those.
We thought about playing him last weekend in Columbus. In a couple of different situations, he would have been on the field. As soon as Columbus got their goal, it wasn’t the right time to put him in the game. So I think he’s certainly a guy that we’re thinking about this week.
On Danny Califf returning to Philadelphia for the first time since the Union traded him away last year:
I think he’ll probably get a lot of respect, because Danny is the kind of class individual who has earned that – especially from the fans here. I think the fans here appreciated the way he handled himself as a pro and a person, on and off the field. So I would expect that the fans here will pay tribute to Danny.
I would like to say the same from our end, but he’s wearing the wrong jersey on Saturday. So until after the game, although I like Danny a lot, he’s in the wrong jersey for me. So I’m going to try to put that out of my mind.
And I’m sure that the players - there are some guys in our locker room that played with him and are very close to him. Even a guy like Conor Casey, he and Danny grew up playing with and against each other on various teams. I would think there’s going to be an epic battle going on there Saturday.
Danny is one of those guys that I certainly have a lot of time for, and a lot of respect for. I’m very happy for him, and the fact that he’s now in a position where he’s an important part of a team that is successful right now. I think he deserves that as an individual, and as a pro the way that he is.
At the same time, just to be super-fair about it, that doesn’t to me one iota this week. Last week, maybe, but not this week. My concern is the guys in our locker room.