Monday, October 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Union lose a game of Arena football

In honor (or perhaps dishonor) of the fact that there was only one goal in the game, I'm only going to deal with one talking point from Saturday night.

Union lose a game of Arena football

First of all, thanks to The Inquirer's Marc Narducci for checking in with some analysis late Saturday night after the game. Since we only have one soccer blog on the site, you're going to see posts from Marc and Kerith Gabriel of the Daily News on here every now and again.

I spent literally from dawn until after midnight Saturday watching soccer. It was a lot of fun, and a reminder of how lucky we are that there's so much soccer on American television these days. By my count, I watched seven games in a 17-hour span, and I caught highlights of quite a few others.

The one that you all care about most was the last of the bunch: the Union's 1-0 loss to the Galaxy late Saturday night at the Home Depot Center.

In honor (or perhaps dishonor) of the fact that there was only one goal in the game, I'm only going to deal with one talking point from Saturday night. But it is a very big one, and it's going to give us a lot to talk about. So here goes.

The Union won lots of praise for their tactical maturity in their first two games of the season. But maturity sometimes goes by another name: conservatism. That description came to mind as I watched this game.

Peter Nowak put out a lineup that was designed to blunt Los Angeles' attacking stars, and for most of the game that plan was effective. It seemed to me, though, that Nowak's strategy played right into Galaxy coach Bruce Arena's hands.

Yes, the Galaxy have Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Juan Pablo Ángel. But the team's biggest strength is the ability of Juninho and Chris Birchall to keep possession of the ball in midfield, and supply the attacking trio with service going forward.

Bruce Arena does not play attractive soccer. He can fool you into thinking he will, but you're much more likely to see a 1-0 result from his teams than a 3-2 result.

Faced with that style of opponent, Peter Nowak responded by deploying a 4-3-3 formation. It had some strengths, but it also had some glaring weaknesses - and those weaknesses were exploited throughout the game.

All three midfielders were holding-type players: Brian Carroll, Stefani Miglioranzi and Kyle Nakazawa. Each one is perfectly capable of playing that position. But none of them is very good at being the kind of player who links the midfield to the attack, and that role was sorely needed throughout the night.

Of the Union players who were on the field, Sebastien Le Toux was the most capable of being a linking midfielder. But instead of playing that role, he was positioned on the left side of the forward line, with Carlos Ruiz in the middle and Danny Mwanga on the right.

That left a big hole in the middle of the field, and made it more difficult for the Union to retain possession of the ball.

Even Taylor Twellman, the color analyst on the Union's television broadcast, saw what was missing. Twellman deserves a lot of credit for describing the situation honestly and effectively. You don't always see that from local broadcast crews, whether in MLS or other sports leagues.

A 4-3-3 formation is not easy to run effectively. It can be done, as we've seen from teams throughout history in Europe and South America. But in order for the formation to work well, the players involved have to be versatile.

The three midfielders have to be able to win the ball defensively and play balls forward to the front three. The two outside forwards have to be able to bring the ball forward on the ground, serve it from the wing, and take a good shot on goal themselves.

We've already discussed the Union's midfielders, so let's look at the forwards. Sebastien Le Toux has the skill set to work well in a 4-3-3, but Danny Mwanga is much more of a pure striker than he is a combo-type player.

If one side of the field works well but the other doesn't, then a team runs the risk of being unbalanced. We saw some of that on Saturday too.

Once you get all of the right players on the field, you still have to stop the other team's midfield from being effective. In this case, the opposing midfield was one of best in MLS: Birchall, Juninho, Donovan and Beckham. That is no easy task no matter what formation you play.

There are not many teams that do really well with 4-3-3 formations in the present day. You are more likely to see a 4-5-1 that can be disguised as a 4-3-3, but doesn't actually have three forwards.

English club Arsenal play a formation that is sometimes a 4-3-3 and sometimes a 4-5-1, and they've produced some really attractive soccer under Arsène Wenger. But the Gunners have a lot of trouble actually getting the ball in the net, which is why they haven't won any trophies in six years.

The most effective 4-3-3 formations I've seen recently have been played by Barcelona and Spain's national team. It's no coincidence that both squads are anchored by a trio of players that are truly among the world's most talented and versatile: Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Pedro.

(It's also not a coincidence that Arsenal is at its best when another Spanish superstar, Cesc Fàbregas, is in the heart of the midfield engine room.)

I hate to break it to you all, but I think we can safely assume that the Union will not be signing Iniesta, Xavi of Fàbregas any time soon. It is more likely that the club will have to find players who can fit the roles from within the current roster.

Whether from Twellman on TV or many of you on Twitter, I heard the same message many times Saturday night: the Union had a problem in midfield that needed fixing. The team could not move the ball from the midfield to the forwards effectively.

So what should the Union do in a a situation like that - especially when up a man with over half an hour left to play?

Here's my unsoliticed advice: If you have a problem, fix it. And since I'm feeling charitable, here's another suggestion: You don't have to wait until the other team has a player sent off to do so.

It took 62 minutes for Roger Torres to get onto the field Saturday. Once he got there, he had an immediate impact.

In case you aren't keeping track, this was not the first time that Torres made a difference in his time on the field. If you are keeping track, let me know how many times this has happened, because I've lost count.

Of course, it helped that Chris Birchall had been sent off in the 53rd minute for throwing an elbow into the back of Carlos Ruiz's head. That gave Torres more space to work with in the middle of the field. Perhaps not coincidentally, Torres also came into last weekend's game against Vancouver after Eric Hassli was red-carded.

A few minutes after Torres' introduction, Peter Nowak went for all-out attack, as Jack McInerney replaced Sheanon Williams. That turned the Union's formation into a 3-4-3, and the ball started moving forward quite a bit.

With all 10 Galaxy players behind the ball most of the time, Philadelphia had no choice but to throw everything at the Los Angeles net. There were a few chances, but in the end, there were no goals.

Watching the Union try to break through the Galaxy's defense, I couldn't help wondering what would the result have been if the Union had played that kind of soccer for all 90 minutes.

Not necessarily a 3-4-3, because that leads to a lot of defensive liability. But let's ask: what would have happened if Torres had started instead of being a second half super-sub?

We know Torres brings a creative element to the field that no other Union player has, and we know he gets better the more he plays. From where I sit, I think it's time to give Torres the proverbial keys to the car, and let him drive the Union's attack as a starter.

I am well aware of how often I write about Torres, and the fact that I've said those words before. Believe me, I would like to write about someone else just as much. But there weren't any other really distinguishing performances by Union players on Saturday.

Yes, Saturday's game was boring, and the Union's attack wasn't that much better than it was in either of the other two games this season. Still, I still think that this game was there for the taking - especially after Birchall's ejection - and the Union didn't take it.

Now Peter Nowak and company have to prepare for one of the biggest home games of the season, against New York on Saturday night at PPL Park.

Like the Galaxy, the Red Bulls are among the favorites to win this season's MLS Cup. That has become even more the case now that Dwayne De Rosario has joined New York's midfield. With the Canadian playmaker and goalscorer in the fold, the Red Bulls have perhaps the most dangerous stable of attacking talent in MLS.

But the Red Bulls aren't nearly as physical as Los Angeles or Vancouver. The Union will have time and space to be creative - if they want to be, and if Peter Nowak lets them.

The Union have shown they can play with any team in MLS, and I think Torres has shown that he's ready to be a big-time player. Saturday night will provide a chance for us to find out what Torres and the rest of the Union are really made of.

A national television audience will be watching on ESPN2, and there's no doubt that the atmosphere at PPL Park will be electric. It's the kind of game that fans of other soccer leagues will be checking out to get a taste of what MLS is like.

I'm not here to be a fan of the Union, but I think it would be disappointing if the game ends with another 1-0 scoreline. I wonder if you feel the same way.

So tell me: are you satisfied with what you've seen from the Union so far this season? Do you care whether the score ends 1-0 if the Union win?

Let me know by posting your thoughts in the comments.

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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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