We've already discussed Chris Seitz's struggles in Saturday's Union game. So this post is going to deal with another part of the pitch: the midfield.
I've been criticial of Peter Nowak's starting lineups over the last few matches, because I've thought his midfields have lacked players who can play the ball forward on a regular basis. But during the second half on Saturday, we saw the dangers of the opposite end of the spectrum. Nowak deployed a midfield full of attacking players, and the result was a lot of gaps in the defense.
After halftime, the Union's midfield was comprised of Amobi Okugo, Andrew Jacobson, Justin Mapp and Roger Torres. When Jacobson came off, he was replaced by Jack McInerney, which brought Sebastien Le Toux into midfield. Once Alejandro Moreno replaced Mapp, the Union had three midfielders and three strikers going forwards.
That meant Okugo was the only defensive midfield player, and he had been pushing forward on a regular basis earlier in the match. Okugo is no stranger to the holding midfield role, but he's far less experienced than Stefani Miglioranzi and Eduardo Coudet.
In addition to the midfielders, both of the Union's outside backs like to get up the field regularly with overlapping runs and crosses. That led to even more open space for Wizards players such as left winger Ryan Smith to exploit.
Smith is a good player, and certainly a fast player. The Union don't have any true wing players like him. Mapp comes closest, but his specialty is cutting inside with his runs. Torres often plays on the outside, but as he told me Saturday, he's more comfortable pulling the strings from a central position. If either player come inside from the wing, that territory gets left unguarded.
A team can make up for that with box-to-box midfielders like Kyle Nakazawa and Andrew Jacobson. Mapp can cover a lot of ground as well. Torres, however, is not that kind of player. His role is to create and distribute from an attacking position. He does some defending, but positionally he does not drop that far back.
This creates a need for a defensive midfielder who stays in a deeper position. We see this on teams around the world. Think about Argentina's Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano, for example, or Christian Gomez and Brian Carroll on the D.C. United team that Peter Nowak coached to the 2004 MLS Cup championship.
If there isn't a dedicated defensive midfielder, then the outside backs have to stay home. If they don't, then a team is extremely vulnerable to counterattacks. That's what happened Saturday, and it's happened a few other times this season - most notably against San Jose and New England.
I mentionall this because of something Danny Califf said to me after Saturday's game. I asked Califf about Torres' role as a playmaker, and about how he changes the flow of the game. Califf had plenty of good things to say about Torres' touch and vision. But he also said that Torres has a tendency to float around, and to not always stick to one area of the field. As a result, the Union's defenders lose sight of Torres sometimes, and aren't ready to compensate for the gaps left in the field by his movement.
Califf was not by any means trying to claim that Torres should scale back his creativity. But Califf saw the gaps in the field just as much as everyone else did, especially the space that Smith exploited on the left side.
For as much as Peter Nowak likes his team to play attacking soccer, he also wants order and discipline in his system. The kind of movement that Califf described does not necessarily fit into that ideal. Again, this is not a bad thing, and even Nowak would probably say as much. Playmaking midfielders are often granted a degree of freedom that other players on the field are not.
But Califf's remarks got me thinking about Torres' future in Philadelphia. As the season starts to wind down, it's time to start discussing what role the Colombian should play with the Union next year.
Torres plays a position that good teams are often built around, and he has that instinctive ability with the ball that defines the playmaking role. This year's Union team, however, was built from the back. Danny Califf was the club's first big signing, and he remains the face of the team in many ways. Torres was one of the last players to join the roster, and he did not sign a contract until early March.
It's also important to remember that Torres is only here on loan, and from everything I know the loan is only for one year. So at some point relatively soon, the Union are going to have to decide whether to purchase his contract. Although MLS loan deals are often structured so that the price isn't unreasonable, it's still a consequential decision to make.
The fans at PPL Park on Saturday gave Torres a huge ovation Saturday when he came on as a substitute. They know what he brings to the field, and I know that the Union's coaching staff does too.
I've written a lot about Torres this season, even though Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga have been putting up all the big numbers. But Torres has so much potential, more than anyone else on the team except maybe Mwanga.
Adding to that sense of potential is the fact that Torres still has yet to play a full 90 minutes in any game this season. In fact, he hasn't played more than 45 minutes in a game since June.
The Union are 11 points out of the last playoff spot with eight games to go. That's an almost impossible climb to make, especially because the last three games are against MLS' three best teams. It's getting to be the time when players are looking to make an impression for next season as much as they are for this one.
Do you think it's time to give Torres the reins in midfield? Do you think he's ready for it? When the season ends, should the Union purchase his contract? And if it's necessary, should they make him a Designated Player? Share your thoughts in the comments.
I somehow overlooked this video about the Sons of Ben that Daily News videographer Michele Tranquilli put together last week. She was at the Chivas game, and the video accompanied Sam Donnellon's column about Union fans. I suspect many of you will find yourselves on camera. Enjoy.