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 No Roger Torres -- he had been replaced by Nick Zimmerman.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?