Midsummer friendlies are controversial in nature. Fans point to the extra workload on first team players as being detrimental to the league, especially during what are often the hottest weeks of the year. In yesterday’s friendly at PPL Park in suburban Philadelphia, a mixture of Union first team and youngsters proved too much for visiting Everton, as 17 year old Academy product Christian Hernandez scored in the final 5 minutes to secure a 1-0 result.
While certain friendlies can become offensive displays (see the Manchester United 7-0 drubbing of Sounders or Cristiano Ronaldo scoring 3 against Chivas de Guadalajara), it all depends on the team. I’ve seen Union blogs give low marks to Everton for their play yesterday. While they didn’t have their best match, it’s also important to understand the Toffees tend to favor the counterattack even in their Premier League encounters.
The Union played their favored diamond formation, but with a mixed bag of first team and reserves to start. Peter Nowak’s opening XI included most of the starting defense, minus Danny Califf, who was replaced by Stefani Miglioranzi (being groomed by Nowak to add reserve center back to his repertoire as a defensive midfielder). They sided towards 4-3-1-2 when defensively organized, but Justin Mapp and Keon Daniel (two first team players) would push forward in possession to help spearhead the attack. Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerney played as strikers. Mwanga, who is one goal behind Carlos Ruiz for the team lead, has seen most action this season as a second half substitute, but he got a full 90 minute run-out in this friendly.
Manager David Moyes played a fairly strong first XI. Notable was the absence of United States international goalkeeper Tim Howard, who was just returning from a holiday delayed by the Gold Cup. Jan Mucha took his place. Above is their original formation, a 4-4-1-1, but they changed shape throughout the first half. The right side of the Toffee defense was the weakest, with John Heitinga and Seamus Coleman both as second-choice defenders. The central midfield was strong with Mikel Arteta and captain Phil Neville. Out wide, Everton featured Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and 20-year old French winger Magaye Gueye. Tim Cahill sat behind Jermaine Beckford, looking to build on an up-and-down 2010 campaign.
The main factor that played into this match was the weather. The match started in the upper 90’s, with nearly unbearable humidity. It became evident that the match fitness of the Union would be a marked advantage over the Merseyside squad, and they did rule possession in the first half. Moyes said after the match about Philadelphia, “I thought the Union played well. They passed it much better than (we did), and kept it better. They look as if they are an improving team.”
Everton appeared to be conserving energy, not particularly interested in chasing the ball as the Union played short, controlled passes between the midfield and strikers who were dropping to connect the play. In that regard, solid organization when out of possession was the order of the day for Everton. Mwanga commented after the match, “They were very organized at the back, and you have to work to create chances. It forced us to play quicker, and be more creative. Even with it being preseason, you could tell they were very experienced and strong.”
Formationally, Moyes had the Toffees alter their shape, plying them in at least three different arrangements. From the initial 4-4-1-1, Cahill was asked drop next to Bilyaletdinov in the central midfield at around the 20th minute, and the familiar midfield V of the 4-5-1 shape took form. Neville played deep, with Arteta to his left and Gueye on the wing. Later on, Cahill moved right next to Beckford, and Gueye and Bilyaletdinov swapped sides. This brought them to a straight 4-4-2, but they would also alternate having Neville and Arteta play an advanced role to pressure holding midfielder Amobi Okugo.
As far as offensive chances, the Union were dominant, and Carlos Valdes’ contributions may have been most surprising. Not only did he generate scoring chances from set pieces as he moved up front, he also made several dashes from the back, one of which saw him remain onside and barely missed the right post with a header from a Roger Torres cross. Everton’s best movement came from a counterattack. Cahill received the ball on his own side of the half. After dribbling forward, he crossed to Beckford, who niftily heeled the ball from the wrong side to his front. He had a clear shot at Zac MacMath’s goal, but he couldn’t put the hard shot on frame. Everton’s favored method of attack was crosses, primarily from their standout left fullback Leighton Baines. While the service was excellent on most of these passes, Beckford and Cahill were unable to connect on most of those opportunities.
The second half saw some changes for Everton, with Neville dropping to right back, Heitinga taking his place at holding midfield, and Coleman moving to the right midfield role where he spent most of 2010. Sylvain Distin came in to play center back. This brought Everton into a more comfortable deployment of their players. A number of youth players entered the match for the Union throughout the half. These youngsters played very confidently, spurred on by a raucous crowd anxious to see these prospects for their own eyes. Noteworthy were Zach Pfeffer and Jimmy McLaughlin, who brought a ton of energy to a midfield which had worked hard on a sultry summer’s evening.
Everton nearly opened the scoring in the 75th minute, as substitute Ross Barkley made space inside the area, and hit hard shot was deflected by striker Apostalas Vellias onto goal, but reserve goalkeeper Thorne Holder matched the Greek’s effort to turn it away.
It was Hernandez that stole the spotlight though, in the 87th minute. A scramble near the edge of the area left the ball rolling slowly towards the US U-17/18 Development Academy Player Of The Year, and his left-footed strike snuck inside the left post. The crowd of over 18,000 celebrated a monumental moment in Hernandez’ development, and also the rewards of a match well played for Philadelphia.
The final moments in stoppage time were marred by a second yellow card for Heitinga on a rough tackle of Hernandez. Nonetheless, everyone seemed to endure the miserable weather without major injury, which is often the most important result in a friendly match.
This was the first friendly played at PPL Park against a Barclay’s Premier League team. When asked about the environment at the suburban Philadelphia stadium, Neville remarked, “I’ve played at Salt Lake twice, in New York, Seattle and Houston. Tonight was more like a European-type atmosphere, I thought. The flares and the jumping up and down, it was more European than MLS.” The ardent fan base, led by the Sons of Ben supporter’s group, take pride in their displays, and the impression was left. “Tonight was more about the football, and it seems this is a really good football city. They have a good manager, and a good young team.”
Philadelphia faces a sterner task on Saturday night. They will be taking on global powerhouse Real Madrid, who have outscored their opponents 7-1 in their previous two Herbalife World Football Challenge matches. The match will start just after 9 PM from Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, and it can be watched on either Comcast Sportsnet locally or ESPN3.
Everton will also be in action on Saturday, looking to improve in their match against DC United. The match will be televised by Fox Soccer channel, and the action starts from RFK Stadium at 7:30 PM.