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.
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.