The late-game conundrum, or there go two more points (with video)
As Union fans have come to know all too well, things change quickly, so instead, here goes.
There are a variety of late-game strategies the can be employed by soccer teams. Some go big and burly. Some go for possession. Some for aerial proficiency. Whatever you want to call the plan from the Philadelphia Union at the moment, it’s not working. It’s certainly creating exciting soccer, as the dramatic 2-2 draw with Real Salt Lake Wednesday reinforced.
But while the fans may be glued to their seats, the sight of points flying out the window as they did again at altitude against 10-man RSL is anything but encouraging.
Here’s what we do know: The Union have struggled in late-game situations, especially with a man advantage. This season, they’ve conceded four goals with a man-advantage and scored just seven. That’s despite drawing eight red cards, a disproportionate share of the 37 issued in MLS this season. The Union have also allowed a staggering 19 goals in the final 30 minutes of the game, compared to a mere 11 in the other 60 minutes. (For perspective, the Union have allowed more goals in the last 30 minutes of games than Kansas City, New England, Houston, Salt Lake, Portland and Seattle have all season over the full 90s).
So the question quite clearly becomes that of why: Why can’t the Union close games?
The answer, simply, is the personnel. Look no further than the final minutes of the latest late horror show. The Union finished the RSL game with four forwards on the field – Casey, Sebastien Le Toux, Antoine Hoppenot and Aaron Wheeler. Sure, Wheeler was helpful in clearing the initial danger of the corner kick that eventually became the game-deciding Ray Gaddis penalty call and Hoppenot set up the second goal from Casey.
But it’s a risky posture. Put four attacking players out there against a team down to 10 men and pushing men forward for an equalizer, and what you’re saying is that we’re going to try to win this game 3-1. And they would’ve had a stunned Le Toux not gotten stoned by Josh Saunders on a 1-v-1 situation in stoppage time that should’ve put the game away.
So when the goal doesn’t happen, what are you left with? Scrambling after possession, Casey trying to play the role of a central midfielder and desperation defending with a low degree of success.
But that situation is only borne out of the fact that the Union have few other options. Matt Kassel did well after coming on for Danny Cruz to try and calm things down defensively. But who else is there? Is a player like Roger Torres who has barely seen the field this season really to be depended on to maintain crucial possession and not risk a bad tackle in a key situation? We saw how Chris Albright provided fuel to the fire with the tackle that led to Dallas’ equalizer last Saturday. And let’s not forget that this is to support a backline that is at best shaky under pressure, as Gaddis showed in allowing the Union’s first penalty of the season at the worst possible time, and a goalkeeper who has yet to show an ability to steal games.
With Michael Lahoud still injured and Keon Daniel on international duty, those are your options. And they’re not working.