Two weeks into the 2014 season, Philadelphia Union are seconds away from having collecting six of a possible six points from two 2013 playoff teams. But it is the quality of the play that rightfully has Union fans more excited to watch their team than they have been in quite some time.
To put it more simply, the 2014 Union pass the eye test.
Whether you're a fan of ball movement, pace, physicality, nimble dribbling, or stout defending, the Union have something to offer. While it is obviously too soon to start prognosticating about where this team will be at year's end, it is fair to say that with a little more time and polish, no one will be looking forward to seeing John Hackworth's team on their upcoming schedule.
After out-Portering Caleb Porter in Week 1, the Union are showing that they already have a pretty solid grasp on how to move in the final third. This is no longer the team that pins 2, 3 or 4 players to the opposing defense and waits for luck or a mistake to see them through on goal. Jack McInerney's development has been critical to this evolution, and he was involved in many of the Union's best chances again on Saturday. While he still prefers life on the back shoulder of a center back, especially a new one like Andrew Farrell, McInerney continued to show his maturity by dropping into the midfield and making space for others.
With Sebastien Le Toux no longer being asked to play a traditional wing role and Leo Fernandes thrust into the starting lineup due to Brian Carroll's illness, McInerney was partnered with two willing runners. Both reacted quickly and ruthlessly to take that space for the Union's goal. With McInerney dropping in to take part in the buildup, the Revs' defense found themselves too high and relaxed when Fernandes and Le Toux popped up at the top of the box.
The way forward?
No one wants to see any player miss matches due to injury or illness, but on Saturday the Union were left to cope without their captain, Brian Carroll. After the 10 minutes it took to get Fernandes fully incorporated into proceedings, the team turned in a first half showing that was better than any period of play ever seen at PPL Park.
Maurice Edu owned the midfield, directing traffic and breaking up play, while the industrious Vincent Nogueira buzzed around him, doing all the dirty work to keep the Revs frustrated and without the ball. Up front, adding another attacking player allowed the Union to wheel and deal even more. Fernandes strode forward to support McInerney, tucked under Le Toux when he took his chances in the box, and slid wide temporarily to allow Maidana and Le Toux to make plays in the center of the pitch.
It was truly a sight to behold, and it begs the question: With which set up should the Union proceed?
Here's another question: Do they need to pick just one?
Against a team like Columbus, who they face on Saturday (6 pm, TCN, MLS Live), it seems perfectly plausible that Hackworth would favor Carroll over an extra attacker. That would allow the Union captain to wage a one-on-one battle with Federico Higuain and free up Edu and Nogueira to shut down the rest of the Crew's relatively narrow attack. Now that he has seen how free-flowing and aggressive his team can look, Hackworth may consider resting Carroll on a home game here or there to allow his offense to open up and go after teams.
That pedal next to the brake
John Hackworth likes to talk about how the Union's attack comes from their high pressure. It's a true statement, one with which the Revolution would certainly agree. In the first half, the Union were absolutely flying. Not only did chance after chance come their way, but New England simply looked like their self-belief was gone. If they won possession, they knew they were not going to keep it.
After the break, the game changed, however. The Revs added a striker in the form of Jerry Bengtson, and the Union sat back and ceded the possession and momentum they had so easily won in the first half.
There were extenuating circumstances, namely that they were protecting Aaron Wheeler, a brand new center back. But Hackworth wants to see pressure, and that means a continued commitment to the attack. That much is on the players and should come with time as their chemistry improves and they develop the confidence to press high as a unit without fearing becoming stretched at the back.
Hackworth himself must shoulder some of the blame for the Union's lack of second half punch, as he waited too long to make his substitutions (apart from the injury enforced one for Austin Berry). Maidana and Fernandes had run their races by the 60th minute, yet Hackworth chose to wait until the 82nd minute to take off McInerney and the 87th to remove Maidana. Because of that, the Union played a large portion of the second half with two sets of tired legs in their midfield.
One final point
When it comes to "stretching a defense," Jack McInerney does it. Antoine Hoppenot does not.
This is no knock on Hoppenot. As mentioned above, McInerney is an off-the-last-shoulder kind of player, one who forces a defense to sit deeper than they would prefer, creating a pocket of space in which his teammates can operate. Hoppenot, on the other hand, is far better collecting the ball in that pocket of space and running at a tired defense, where his pace and agility can either see him tear cleanly through or at least win fouls.
By taking off McInerney, rather than a tired Fernandes or Maidana, Hackworth cost Hoppenot his effectiveness. Trying to alter his game to be a last-shoulder striker like McInerney, Hoppenot needlessly strayed offside three times in the final 10 minutes and looked nothing like the efficient time-waster he was in Portland.
Zac MacMath – 8
An 8 may seem high for a goalkeeper who was rarely tested, but considering the shear importance and big-gameness (it's a word now) of his point blank denial of Fagundez, MacMath deserves it. After finally breaking the deadlock, a defensive stumble could have gifted the Revolution an equalizer. A goal like that can crush the confidence of any team, but MacMath closed the door, ensuring that Fagundez will wake up every morning shaking his head for at least the next week.
Ray Gaddis – 7
Night and day from his performance in Portland, Gaddis was a lights-out defender against the Revs. He held his space confidently and even pushed the play up field, offering Nogueira and Maidana an outlet in New England's half of the pitch.
Amobi Okugo – 8
Wearing the captain's armband for the first time in his career, Okugo turned in a complete performance. He controlled play out of the back with smart, clever passing, while maintaining a strong shape in his defense, despite Wheeler's unexpected inclusion and the Union's second half sag. As usual, he threw in a few critical interventions, just for good measure.
Austin Berry – 6
Played with the solid, simple fundamentals that appear to be his natural state but looked slightly troubled by the pace and physicality of Bunbury. Was unlucky to be forced off with a leg injury that hopefully won't prevent him from starting against Columbus.
Fabinho – 6
Attacked with fervor and aggression, though most of his crosses left a bit to be desired. His aggression translated into his defensive play, where he was tough in the tackle, though that led to his being exposed a handful of times through poor timing. A match like this seems to be about what Union fans can expect from Fabinho: He's an all or nothing type player, on both ends of the pitch.
Maurice Edu – 8
Turned in a tremendous showing in the center of the park after being asked to sit in and defend the midfield only minutes before the match. His leadership, both through his play and vocally, kept the Union in an ideal attacking shape in the first half. Two matches into the MLS season, Edu has been even better than advertised for the Union.
Vincent Nogueira – 8
Nogueira's quickness and guile is proving a perfect foil for Edu's power and directness. With passing numbers that Union fans are usually only used to seeing Michael Bradley turn in for the USMNT, Nogueira put in an astonishing amount of work. He rarely concedes the ball, whether by a missed pass or being dispossessed, and was always available for the front four as a safe, convenient outlet.
Leo Fernandes – 7
Had he been taken off when he began to show a lack of 90-minute fitness, his score would have been even higher after a first half in which he excelled in the Union's new midfield. He exchanged space well with McInerney and made himself available checking back for the ball. He took his assist well and showed a deft touch in midfield to keep play moving and the Revolution chasing.
Sebastien Le Toux – 7
Put in a lung-busting shift that was a return to vintage Le Toux performances for the Union. Reveled in his freedom to run off of McInerney and had little troubling slipping past Soares to score what would prove to be the match-winner. For all the good and hard work he did, Le Toux loses a point for twice missing out a wide open teammate – first McInerney, then Hoppenot — on the counter. The easy, early pass would have sent both players in unchallenged, but both times Le Toux shaped to shoot, only to rethink his decision and fire a late pass behind his teammate.
Jack McInerney – 6
Forced Shuttleworth into his best save of the match when he redirected Fernandes' shot on target in the first half. McInerney was always around the action and had a series of good looks at goal. If anything, he was far too unselfish when he laid off for teammates when he should have looked for his own shot. Still, considering the quality of movement, his vastly improved efficiency with his back to goal, and the positions he gets himself into, McInerney will be very confident in the bright start he's had to the campaign.
Cristian Maidana – 6
Managed to show off his amazing technical quality but remained a peripheral figure to the match, as he is still adjusting to his role on the right flank. Whether he is on the left or the right, however, Maidana shows tremendous commitment to his teammates, chasing the play back into his own half to make defensive plays.
Aaron Wheeler – 6
Considering the circumstances, Wheeler did about as well as Union fans could have hoped. He simply looks like a big, athletic, soccer player playing uncomfortably out of position. Wheeler had three important step-up interceptions to slow down the Revolution attack, but he also turned the ball over on half of his passes and allowed himself to be dispossessed at the back. That simply cannot happen at this level, as teams should, and will, make him pay for those mistakes in the future. Hopefully, Berry's injury proves to be minor, and the Union never have to explore that avenue.
Antoine Hoppenot – 4
Unlike last week, when Hoppenot's time-wasting and foul-winning skills were on full display, the substitute attacker made little impact in the closing minutes against the Revs. Given his fresh legs and speed compared to tired defenders, there is no reason he should be caught offside once, let alone three times. That said, he still would have rounded out the performance with an insurance goal had Le Toux passed him the ball in the final moments of the match.
Danny Cruz – N/A
Was only on the field long enough to take a heavy whack from Fagundez. Considering that the replacement referee, Kevin Morrison, was unable to read his watch and ended the match before the allotted added time, it proved to be quite an effective time-wasting measure.
Kevin Morrison – 2
Unlike the composed, steady performance of last week's replacement referee, Ioannis Stavridis, Kevin Morrison was an unmitigated disaster. Not only did he show absolutely zero consistency in his calls, he also didn't seem to know what constituted a foul and even went so far as to overrule his assistants.
There was the terrible: Andy Dorman running through Nogueira's back only for the foul to go against the Union. And there was the bizarre: Jerry Bengtson handling the ball directly in front of the assistant, who flagged it, but was overruled for a phantom foul on Wheeler. Then there was the terrible again: Waiting to the 70th minute to issue his first, and only, yellow card on A.J. Soares in a late attempt to curtail the Revs Hack-a-Everyone game plan. Morrison had a nightmare performance.
Please do not read this as a suggestion that the calls only went in one direction. That would have attached a logical bias to Morrison's decision making. There was none, and the Revolution will have plenty of their own gripes (though if any of them are about the handful of low brow dives from Lee Nguyen, they should probably keep them to themselves).
In the end, the only reason he scored above a 1 is because, thankfully, he had no effect on the outcome of the game and the better team won.
Preferred Starting XI for Saturday's trip to Columbus Crew
MacMath; Williams, Okugo, Berry, Fabinho; Carroll, Edu, Nogueira; Le Toux, McInerney, Maidana
As mentioned above, Carroll's inclusion allows the Union to clamp down on Higuain and stop the flow of their offense through the middle of the park.