Ho hum, it's all the skillful player's fault

By Paul Gardner

I can't say I think much of the uniforms that the Philadelphia Union sported at its game against the Red Bulls. Dreary, frankly, when they surely ought to be cheerful. From what I know of salesmanship, which may not be a great deal, I’d have thought the idea was to radiate brightness and optimism wherever it can be put on display. And where better than the uniforms?

Natural khaki and dark navy -- those are the official color words, I got them from the Union’s web site -- are definitely not radiant colors. So come on guys, lighten and brighten up!

What makes these blah colors even more regrettable is that -- certainly in this Red Bulls game -- their lack of dash was in no way a reflection of the team’s play.

The Union played well. It played with an attacking spirit, it kept the ball moving on the ground, it took risks (some of them unintentionally, no doubt).

At least, it did in the first half. In the end, it lost the game, 2-1, lost it to a penalty that probably should not have been given, for Michael Orozco’s handball could not have been anything but accidental. But referee Kevin Stott called it, and Juan Pablo Angel scored the winning goal -- the second time in two games at Red Bull Arena that the Bulls have won on a PK.

Union assistant coach John Hackworth shrugged and smiled philosophically when I asked him about the penalty, telling me that Orozco had simply lost track of the aerial ball (not difficult, for the stadium’s floodlights are situated low, on the rim of the roof) and commenting that “I wasn’t surprised when it was given.”

Coach Peter Nowak was equally calm about the penalty, dismissing the matter, and preferring to concentrate on his team’s mistakes -- a word he repeated a number of times, and a topic that Hackworth also emphasized.

At which point (well, it had to happen sooner or later) I part company with both coaches and what I had until then found to be their exemplary attitudes.

Nowak and Hackworth are, of course, talking about mistakes by the players. I felt that they should have been a bit more up front about what I saw as a coaching mistake.

That became apparent when the Union took the field for the second half. No Roger Torres -- he had been replaced by Nick Zimmerman. A standard, orthodox player (we know something of Zimmerman here, he played for the Red Bulls last year) had been sent on for a player who had, arguably, been the Union’s best player in the first half.

Torres had been very busy probing the left side of the Red Bulls’ defense. Not with aimless long balls, not with easy lateral passes, but with an assortment of incisive penetrating passes and chips and lobs. All of this was happening right in front of the press area, which was right behind the Union bench. So I guess Nowak and Hackworth and I got a very similar view of things. My feeling was that Torres was a menace to the Bulls’ defenders, that they never worked out how to contain him; on two occasions, one a lob, one a ground ball, he came within inches of supplying a perfect assist. Much more of that, and a goal seemed very likely.

Both Nowak and Hackworth defended their decision to replace Torres in terms that I simply found incomprehensible. They said nothing about his positive qualities, merely rambled on about passing lanes and channels and defensive problems, stuff that sounded as though it came, word for word, out of some rigid coaching manual.

So Torres, with his subtle and unusual skills, went to the bench. Zimmerman, with his mobility and anything-but-subtle skills, came on and charged about and missed a good scoring opportunity. And the Union lost the game. I must also point out that the Bulls’ first goal came from a cross from the left side of the Union’s defense -- the area that was presumably supposed to be strengthened by the insertion of Zimmerman.

What I find disturbing about this episode is that it appears to be yet another example of coaches having no patience at all with a player who wants to display some creativity and ball skills. Forty-five minutes was what Torres got, during which he was apparently guilty of some amorphous crimes that both Nowak and Hackworth had difficulty in defining. Yet it’s not as though the coaches here don’t show have patience with players who make mistakes -- it evidently depends on the type of player.

The Union has suffered in its games this season from a series of pretty bad misjudgments from goalkeeper Chris Seitz. But Nowak has let it be known, forcefully, that he has faith in Seitz who will continue to be the Union’s first choice. That a coach should help his players through bad patches is totally praiseworthy. But the double standard needs to be explained. Seitz is allowed to go on making egregious errors -- he made another bad one in this game on the Bulls’ first goal -- coming out late to punch away a cross, missing the ball completely and clocking one of his own players as Ibrahim Salou headed into the net. But Torres commits mysterious tactical misdeeds and is quickly hooked.

On the basis of its first half display, the Union did not deserve to lose this game. It went into the locker room with the score at 0-0, and had actually looked the more likely team to score. Mistakes cost the Union at least a tie. But whose mistakes were they?

7 comments about "Ho hum, it's all the skillful player's fault".
  1. Craig Schroeder, April 26, 2010 at 8:44 a.m.

    Torres reminds me a lot of el Pibe, Valderrama, with his ability to get the ball frequently, play crafty passes and one-twos, and is exciting to watch. He shoots more than Valderrama, but that doesn't appear to be a good thing at first blush, as Torres has the same shooting shortcomings as his mop-headed countryman. In any event, I'm glad he's on our squad. Torres should be a starter, as he has been, and it was a mistake to take him off this past weekend.

  2. Oswald Viva, April 26, 2010 at 8:56 a.m.

    Your comments are right on. I too was very surprised to see Torres replaced at the start of the second half. I agree with you that he had been the best player in the first 45 minutes. My only criticism of him was his lack of positioning as he roamed all over the field. Was this what caused his replacement? If it was, it shouldn't have been because simple instructions from the coach could have solved the problem. It is obvious that fans like the way Torres plays; the coaches need to keep this in mind too.

  3. beautiful game, April 26, 2010 at 9:56 a.m.

    Nothing new here, technical players are not respected by many MLS coaches...physicality rules the pitch...beat the ball upfield and hope.

  4. Ted Westervelt, April 26, 2010 at 10:31 a.m.

    Per usual with SA, the deepest and most probing journalism possible in the MLS era, which begs the question - are we splitting hairs when we should be splitting heirs? On one hand, diving into the minutia of player/coach accountability is good. On the other, with no David and Goliath stories here in MLS (purposely invoking Fulham here) No owners on the line in relegation battles, no epic battles for CCL slots, that's as deep as you can go. That's the way the single entity heirs drafted it.

  5. Joe Hosack, April 26, 2010 at 1:36 p.m.

    Adidas reports that Philly unifom was the fasterst selling MLS uniform this Winter/Spring. After 15 years we really don't care about the COLORS.

    Paul - you like Barca PINK?

    We love NOWAK, We love Seitz
    Its a new team.
    Did you ever coach Paul?
    I'm too young to know.
    Ted W - you have it right, you are on to something!


  6. Brian Herbert, April 26, 2010 at 5:34 p.m.

    Torres is 5'5" and 140lbs, Zimmerman is 6'0" and 184lbs. In 757 minutes played for New York, Zimmerman, a "quick, right-footed winger" according to his bio, had ZERO goals and ZERO assists. I get the feeling that Philly would sit Leo Messi as well, after all he's too small and has too high a goal and assist to minutes played ratio for the MLS.

  7. Jim Miller, April 26, 2010 at 9:19 p.m.

    I was shocked when I heard Torres was subbed out. He linked up well with Moreno to give LaToux the ball up front. If anyone should have been subbed it should be LaToux. Replaced by a striker with skill. LaToux couldn't get out of his own way Saturday. I'm not a Philly fan (I live in Austin) but I enjoy watching them because of Torres.

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