What’s wrong with the Philadelphia Union?

This evening, I went to my first Philadelphia Union game of the year with my family. (As expert readers of the blog know, I went to quite a few football games while in Britain, but this is my first in America.) The Union pulled out a 2-1 win in the U.S. Open Cup — the American version of the FA Cup — over a fourth-division semi-pro team from Ocean City, N.J.*, that was playing only their fourth competitive match together. The Union looked sluggish and wasteful in the final third, never quite able to crush a group of amateur college players. Here’s an excessively long analysis of what’s wrong with the team right now.

A mysterious lack of depth

The Union have 25 players on their active roster, but there’s basically no squad rotation going on. This week is the second consecutive stretch where the team will play three matches in eight days. This would be a time for the Union to find out what depth they have on the bench. Instead, the Union traded one of their top three central defenders (Bakary Soumare) and a versatile LB/LM (Gabriel Farfan) away. Manager John Hackworth is completely unwilling to give the full range of his squad an opportunity, instead rotating the same fourteen players every week. (And no, throwing Leo Fernandes out there tonight does not count.)

There might be three negative consequences of this rigidity. First, Hackworth’s squad is going to suffer unnecessary wear and tear. He says these players are his Best XI — but if we believe this, then the worry has to be whether these players can survive a full season. Jeff Parke, coming off a hamstring strain, took a number of whacks in the game tonight that he could have avoided (particularly at age 31). Second, squad complacency might set in. What incentive do these guys have to work for their place in practice if there’s no evidence Hackworth will play his backups? The team also falls into the trap of being predictable — opponents can gameplan to take Danny Cruz’s speed out of the equation, completely neutralizing his value.

What would I be doing differently? For starters, we shouldn’t have traded Farfan and Soumare without picking up a quality MLS player in return, because our options are severely limited. But I’d be giving more playing time to Roger Torres and consider recalling some of our players on loan at Harrisburg, particularly Cristhian Hernandez, Greg Jordan, and Don Anding. Here’s how I would have set the lineup for the Open Cup tonight.

MacMath

Williams — Okugo — G. Jordan — Anding

Fernandes — Torres — Carroll — Kassel

Casey  — Hoppenot

One caveat: I don’t know what the USOC rules are on cup-tying, so I’m assuming any Union players on loan to Harrisburg City who played in the second round are ineligible.

Who killed Roger Torres?

Hey, do you remember Roger Torres? Little guy, from Colombia? Notched an assist on the first Union goal of all time in 2010, tallied three goals and eight assists across 2010 and 2011 (including his first in MLS, which downed the Red Bulls in April 2011), easily the most exciting and creative midfielder on the team?

John Hackworth has, almost literally, chained him to the bench. Last year, Torres’s minutes dropped from 930 per year to a measly 180 — admittedly, Torres was recovering from injury at the time. In the offseason, Hackworth challenged Torres to show up to camp fitter and more prepared to deal with the physicality of MLS. By all accounts (including Hackworth himself), he did that, dazzling in his preseason minutes in Disney and (in my eyes) performing as the best player on the pitch.

And then… poof! He’s gone! Roger hasn’t even made the 18-man roster for the last two games, hasn’t played since garbage time of the opening day drubbing by Kansas City. Hack has, at times, made various excuses for this: it wasn’t the right moment in the game, he’s got to learn to play in the system. Tonight, it was simply that Roger has to “play better” in practice. If I were Torres, I’d be banging my head against the wall, trying to understand the incomprehensible American manager who seems to believe that Danny Cruz brings more to the team with his leaden touch and low soccer intelligence because “he always runs hard.”

It might be time for the Union to part ways with Torres. But I’ll be really sorry when it happens. And John Hackworth deserves the blame for ruining the career of this promising talent.

The Colombian Question

Torres isn’t the only Colombian whose disappearance from the Union has had negative consequences on the squad. Carlos Valdes, the team’s captain, best player, and MLS All-Star last year returned to Colombia on loan, which was presented as a necessary move to secure World Cup qualification and a place on the team in 2014. Obviously, this is a lifelong dream and I’m happy the Union were able to help him chase it — and it didn’t seem to be an issue with the U’s defensive depth in Jeff Parke, Amobi Okugo, and Soumare. Of course, Soumare isn’t on the team anymore, Parke has been good but not great, and Okugo has regressed slightly from last year. The Union are weaker up the middle without Valdes and his aggressive defense harassing opponents all around the box.

The bigger departure to me, though, is Faryd Mondragon. Mondragon is a legendary, if ancient, keeper from Colombia who played in Turkey and Germany. He is perhaps best known for standing on his head and almost saving Colombia in the 1998 World Cup. Mondragon spent 2011 as the Union’s starting GK, immediately being named captain and leading the team to the playoffs. What he lacked in reflexes he made up for in vocal leadership, commanding a backline that became known for its stinginess. To be honest, I absolutely loved the guy. He was a little crazy, but I loved that he wore his heart on his sleeve and seemed completely dedicated to the Union and its fans.

Mondragon returned to Colombia before the 2012 season, where he joined his childhood team Deportivo Cali. Faryd has also worked his way back into the national team as a backup and talisman for the young Colombians. In his place, Zac MacMath has been the Union’s unchallenged number one. MacMath is a good shot-stopper, but he shows none of the leadership qualities that Mondragon brought to the table and struggles immensely with crosses of all types. The decision to not have an experienced veteran backing him up and pushing him for playing time hasn’t helped his development.

Over the last two years, the Union defense has collapsed from one of the best in the league to a group that regularly gives up four (vs. LA) or five (vs. Montreal) goals per game.

The way forward

John Hackworth makes me angry. But, although he’s been the team’s manager for one year, he’s only had one offseason to mold the team into a contender. Though I hate large chunks of the team he’s put together (don’t get me started about Cruz, Keon Daniel, or our LB situation), he deserves time to make the team work. To me, there’s only one situation in which Hack doesn’t get another year with these guys — if the Union finish a distant seventh or eighth in the Eastern Conference this year. The MLS is a league with lots of parity, and the Union have the talent and fan base to not accept mediocrity. Make no mistake — I believe John Hackworth is a mediocre manager, and if the results this year bear out my belief than he should be on the first train to manager purgatory, waiting for a phone call from D.C. United.

*Correction: The Nor’Easters play in New Jersey, not Maryland. Why are there so many places named Ocean City on the East Coast? Probably because there’s an ocean right there. Nevertheless, my bad; thanks to @ventur514 on twitter for pointing it out.

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15 comments

  1. elliscarver · May 29, 2013

    Faryd wanted to go back home, and Carlos wanted to play in the Copa Libertadores. Torres not playing has nothing to do with those two situations.

    Torres doesn’t play because we don’t have a spot or role for him. His lack of defense and size (5’5″, 140) makes it impossible to play him anywhere but attacking midfielder, and we already have Le Toux at that position. We can’t even start him anyway because he’s never shown he can play well for more than 30 minutes at a time. He started at central midfield against Pumas, and that team ran roughshod in the middle of the field. He was awful.

    This isn’t to say I think he stinks. He’s probably a better player than Cruz and Daniel. He’s just an asset we have no use for. Unless we’re down a goal late in a match, I see no reason to play him. And this is coming from someone who finds him to be the most exciting player to watch on the roster, oddly enough. I’m just not sure he’s suited to play many minutes in a physical league like MLS.

    • Moscow · May 29, 2013

      Le Toux is not an attacking mid. He doesn’t have the quality and/or technical ability to play CAM let alone wing. Even the coaching staff says his only real position is a second striker. The Union don’t unitize a real CAM. Kleberson is a DM, Keon probably best LM. Marfan best RM.

  2. Tony Gravato · May 29, 2013

    The Nor’Easeters are from Ocean City, New Jersey not the Ocean City in Maryland.

  3. Carlos · May 29, 2013

    Would love to see what a midfield comprised of Mike Farfan, Roger Torres, & Kelberson could do for us.

  4. tomkurzeja · May 29, 2013

    You betray your own lack of soccer knowledge in this article. Hackworth’s intent was clear with last night’s lineup: the drubbing in Montreal demonstrated a clear need for more chemistry, and while third-round Open Cup matches do present the opportunity to evaluate some reserve talent, Hackworth had to get this group ready for tough matchups against Toronto and Columbus.

    Hoppenot up top with Casey? Hoppenot cannot play ninety minutes. Parke has won the Open Cup three times, needs his match fitness back, and provides much-needed leadership to a shaky back line – one could argue that Parke is in fact the antidote to a young goalkeeper lacking the leadership provided by a goalkeeper with a 20-year career and World Cup experience.

    I also find it curious that you didn’t mention the importance of Gaddis in the attack last night. Gaddis came forward boldly, deep into the opponents’ penalty area, winning several key corners and making runs that challenged the wits of the Ocean City defenders.

    You did see Danny Cruz at home last week? he was brilliant, willing to shoot from distance, and effective in attack, as the scoreline demonstrated. Fernandes earned his place in the side, and his performance last night means we’ll probably be seeing more of him. Hackworth took Fernandez off in the 88th minute for a reason: the quality of his play last night warranted the ovation he received.

    To be sure, the Union did not sparkle last night, but they played an altogether different style, more devoted to attacking and creating opportunities. If they can play league matches with that style and that lineup, they’ll be very dangerous indeed.

    • Alex · May 29, 2013

      Good comment. Did forget to mention in my own comment below how odd it was to see McInerney out of the preferred lineup with…Antoine…Hoppenot?…in his stead.

      Good point about Parke, but I can’t agree with your point about Gaddis. He plays better than one would expect, but that’s all–he should by no means be the starting left back in a professional soccer team. Backup right back? Maybe. The dude has no left foot. I never understood all the criticism (well, the level of criticism) of Jordan Harvey when he was with the team…you could say he was the first of the “huh?” Union departures, and maybe the one with the least buzz surrounding him at the time. He could have been one of the lesser defenders on the squad, but the left side looked a hell of a lot better at that time than it does now.

      Same sentiment about Danny Cruz. Admittedly, he was better than par vs. LA (or Chicago? I remember he looked pretty dangerous in one of those games, whichever you’re referring to), but that is not saying a great deal. I totally get the value of “running hard,” but at the end of the day, Cruz is a player who came to soccer when he was in his late teens, and is not the up to the quality that I want to see at the Union. Certainly, I don’t get why Lionard Pajoy was traded for him–that dude got nothing but flack from fans at the time but I would take him seven days a week above Cruz.

      • Elliscarver · May 30, 2013

        Pajoy was a striker that never took shots on goal. Especially when you consider the caliber of strikers we have now, that trade was a definite win for the Union.

    • Moscow · May 29, 2013

      I guess hacks Mom just had to reply.

  5. Football Fan · May 29, 2013

    This is the most intelligent article I have read on the union. Figures it was not written by an American. Hackworth is a typical American coach who follows a system religiously. A creative player like Torres is benched because he is unpredictable with the ball, does carbon copy a system. I decided to give up my season tickets after Seattle came to town. As long as the team has eurotrash wannabes lapping up every terrible player like Cahill and le touex this team will be unwatchable.

    • Elliscarver · May 29, 2013

      God what a snob comment.

      Torres being unpredictable with the ball is such ridiculous hyperbole. You talk of him like he’s the second coming of Xavi. He’s never been good for more than 30 minutes at a time. He was unremarkable against KC, and he was awful against Pumas. Pumas midfielders were running circles around him and owning the middle of the field. Torres does the flashy stuff well, but he doesn’t do the stuff that most fans can’t see or don’t care about.

  6. Moscow · May 29, 2013

    The Philadelphia Union: where creative “CAMs” go to die or languish in purgatory.

  7. Richie The Limey · May 29, 2013

    Fernandes was poor last night. He had one good run but apart from that he was off the pace – and this was against a fourth tier team. The 11 we had on the park should have stuck five past OC but there was so little attacking verve and intent it was painful to watch.

  8. Alex · May 29, 2013

    Good post! Agree with pretty much everything.

    I haven’t been to a Union game yet this season, after having been a partial season ticket holder for the last two seasons. For a number of reasons, including quality of play, I got turned off by the end last season–my last game was 0-3 at home vs. Red Bulls, when the PA system wasn’t working and the visiting fans shouted us to shame.

    My fear is that we are witnessing a fast, fast decline of your typical American soccer team waiting to be folded. As a Sons of Ben cardholder and a supporter from day one, I hope that’s not the case, but with every game gone by, I feel like we play soccer beaten by an ugly stick. I understand that it’s easy to criticize American soccer, when for less than, $10 per month you can watch pretty much any creme-de-la-creme soccer game from around the world, but your opening comment about the Nor’Easters “fourth game of the season” really puts the Union’s -unacceptable- mediocrity into perspective.

  9. Pingback: Reading’s US Open Cup run ends, US falls badly to Belgium, more news
  10. K. Murphy · May 31, 2013

    Hackworth could be/ is a Hack ?

    How about giving another Goalie a try?
    MacMath cannot stop Set Pieces, particularly corner kicks.

    Carrol is out of gas.

    Fail.
    Start :

    Le Toux McInerney
    Casey
    Okugo
    Kleberson
    anyone but Carrol MarFan
    Gaddis Parke Williams
    Konopka

    Give it a try for a game or two…they could gel.

    Limit the amount of “Punting it away” that the keeper does,
    instead of keeping control, and working it up from the defense.

    I think Hack may have inherited the tendencies of the Previous coach…
    getting nervous about losing so much, and afraid of being called on it,
    he is turning into minor “Cartman” with “Respect my authoritaaay”….

    We shall see how it plays out.

    They have the talent to make the playoffs.

    If they do not, time to give another Coach a try.

    Peace.

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