Thursday, April 17, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Take Two: Union at Toronto

Are the Union too physical?

Take Two: Union at Toronto

The Union have racked up seven yellow cards and two red cards so far this season. (Chris Young/Canadian Press/AP)
The Union have racked up seven yellow cards and two red cards so far this season. (Chris Young/Canadian Press/AP)

Normally I do this as a series of bullet points, but I only have two things I want to focus on. So let's get right to them.

First, a few of you asked why Roger Torres was substituted out in the 55th minute on Thursday. I couldn't really fit John Hackworth's answer into the video report I put together, so I'll give you the quotes now.

It's purely tactical. I told him when he came off, "This has nothing to do with you, Roger. You played great." And he knew that - we'd talked about at halftime that if we had to make an adjustment, it wouldn't be because of our attacking players not playing well. It would be because of something Toronto had done to change things.

At that point, we thought we'd taken a little bit of a gamble leaving three guys at the back. We felt like we had to get a fourth guy in the back. We were under a little bit of pressure there, we had over 30 minutes to go. So putting Shavar in was the option.

More coverage
Video: Analysis of Union's loss in Toronto

And for Roger, while he brings a ton of creativity - he's a great player - he's 18 years old still. So you make that change knowing that there's some guys on the field that have a little more experience than he does, maybe know how to manage the match a little better.

I also think being on the road had something to do with it. Maybe if the game was somewhere else, Hackworth would have left Torres in for a little longer. I would think Torres will play a full 90 minutes at some point soon. It will be interesting to see when it finally happens.

Now for the main point of discussion today. After you read it, I hope you'll share your thoughts in the comments.

Thursday's game was as physical as we all expected. Each team was whistled for eight fouls, and that's just the number that were called. There were also two yellow cards issued to each side, plus Danny Califf's red card in the 34th minute.

The only call I thought Baldomero Toledo really got wrong was the foul on Chris Seitz that resulted in the game-deciding penalty. I can see why Toledo thought it was a foul from where he was on the field, but Seitz really wasn't late to the ball. In a situation like that, the goalkeeper often gets the benefit of the doubt.

That play aside, I thought Toledo could have whistled even more contact during the game than he did. I'd rather see a ref call everything than nothing, because that's the only way to get players to play soccer instead of hockey.

Yes, that might be unfair to hockey, a sport which I really enjoy watching. But I think it's warranted in this case - and not just because I spent Thursday afternoon at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Danny Califf's elbow to Julian De Guzman would not have looked out of place at the Wachovia Center or the Air Canada Center, and Califf was rightly sent off for the offense.

Califf told the Union's website that he "made a mistake [Thursday] - and the team paid for my mistake."

Good for him for standing up. But it's still two red cards in three games for the Union, and that doesn't look good.

I usually hate it when people try to interpret soccer as hockey, so I really don't want to go too far with this. But the discussion is worth having, and it has some special relevance to Philadelphia.

We've heard the Union say on many occasions that they want to be a strong, physical team that leaves an impression on opponents. The inference - and sometimes it's been a direct statement - is that the Union want to play a style that appeals to a certain ethos of Philadelphia sports.

But just as hockey can be entertaining without fisticuffs, soccer is a much better game when skill on the ball is emphasized over physicality. Just as importantly, it has yet to be proven that skill and winning are mutually exclusive in soccer.

We've all seen by now that the Union are capable of playing some pretty entertaining stuff when they want to. In Cristian Arrieta, Fred, Roger Torres and the forwards, Peter Nowak has a stable of players who play well on the ball and with each other.

Just look at Jordan Harvey's goal Thursday. His finish was preceded by a string of six passes that covered almost the entire length of the pitch. There were a few nice through balls, a one-touch pass by Sebastien Le Toux, and of course Roger Torres' spectacular chip into the box that Harvey slammed home.

Of course a team needs a strong defense, and an expansion team might need that even more because of its lack of experience playing together. But as you watch the Union, think about other teams you've seen that emphasize strength and power in similar ways.

The first one that comes to mind for me is England's national team. We hear all the time from English players about the importance of courage and heart and getting stuck in to tackles and all that. But it hasn't gotten them much success in the last 44 years. English teams have dominated the Champions League in recent years, but with rosters full of players from across the globe.

I don't think this is an unfair criticism. The Union have done some good things so far, and will get better as the players get more experience together. But I worry that the team's emphasis on physicality is going to cause problems in the long run.

John Hackworth was asked after Thursday's game whether he thought the team had already established a reputation in the eyes of referees. Hackworth said he couldn't answer the question, and the reasons for that are obvious.

If I were a Union fan, I wouldn't be worried about the team's reputation at this point in the year. What I would be worried about is whether the style this team is playing is really the best way to go about it.

And I might think of another team we hear a lot about that has a similar reputation.

But I really am sick of the hockey references.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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