John Smallwood: Union comes up empty when it comes to solving scoring drought

Young players such as Jack McInerney (above) and Danny Cruz have found scoring next to impossible this season for the struggling Union, which has fewer goals than games played. DREW HALLOWELL / GETTY IMAGES
Young players such as Jack McInerney (above) and Danny Cruz have found scoring next to impossible this season for the struggling Union, which has fewer goals than games played. DREW HALLOWELL / GETTY IMAGES
Posted: September 23, 2012

It's one of the great debates in soccer.

Is the ability to finish goal-scoring opportunities an innate ability or a teachable skill?

With the future direction of the franchise at a crossroads, the Union better hope it is as much the latter as it is the former.

On Thursday, the Union continued its mastery of missing the back of the net by again going scoreless in a 1-0 loss to D.C. United.

Going into Sunday's game at PPL Park against the Houston Dynamo, the Union has now been held scoreless in four of its last eight games and totaled only four goals.

With 26 goals in 27 games, Philadelphia joins Chivas USA (21 in 28) as the only teams in MLS averaging less than a goal a game.

It's little wonder that both sit near the respective bottoms of their conferences and out of the hunt for a playoff bid.

"A little bit of me feels like we can't buy [a goal], no matter what," Union manager John Hackworth said.

A lot of me feels as if the only credible finisher this franchise has had in its nearly three-season existence was high-energy striker Sebastian Le Toux - whom former manager Peter Nowak sent packing in the worst of his failed deals to upgrade the team.

Other than Le Toux, Union goal scorers have been a mix of unrealized young talent and veteran, big-ticket gap-fillers who never delivered up to their billing.

Maybe it was just salt in the wound that traded forward Lionard Pajoy, who failed miserably with only five tallies in 20 games for the Union before being traded to D.C. United, scored the only goal on Thursday.

It's been an existence-long search for the Union that has featured colossal misses.

Le Toux traded. Forward Danny Mwanga, the Union's first-ever draft pick taken No. 1 overall in the 2010 MLS Super Draft, traded.

High-priced signee Carlos Ruiz never fully seemed happy and was allowed to transfer away after a half season.

Now Hackworth, who replaced Nowak, is sorting through an incredibly young roster of forwards trying to find at least one who can be a consistent scoring threat.

Against D.C., Jack McInerney (age 20), Danny Cruz (22) and rookie Antoine Hoppenot (21) started up front, with rookie Chandler Hoffman (22) and Josué Martinez (22) coming in as substitutes.

As has been the pattern, the Union created a lot of chances but finished none.

"All we can do right now is just keep giving guys opportunities and see how our combinations are," Hackworth said. "We tried something new, and while it created, the quality at the finish was not there."

Nowak did a lot of player movement - much seemingly without a plan - before he was sacked, and it's up to Hackworth to use the remainder of this disappointing season to see what he has, going forward into 2013.

Because of the youth of the Union's forwards, innate or teachable is the huge question.

If these guys don't instinctively know how to put themselves in opportune positions and then bang the ball into the back of the net, can they improve with experience?

McInerney (four goals in 19 games) has shown flashes, but until Hackworth took over, he didn't see enough consistent playing time to assess his upside.

The seven overall pick in the 2010 Super Draft was the Parade 2009 High School Player of the Year and scored 11 goals with 11 assists in 15 starts with the U.S.' Under-17 Residency Program.

Again, McInerney has shown some things but not enough to say right now that he is destined to be a big goal scorer.

Strikers are supposed to be like scorers in basketball - no matter how bad things are going, they never lose confidence that the next goal is the next opportunity away.

Frankly, McInerney seems as if he could use some of that Allen Iverson unconscious mentality about scoring.

McInerney said he is frustrated about his goalless streak of eight straight games and 11 of 12.

"You can work on shooting all you want, but unless you come through and do it in a game, it doesn't make a difference," he said.

"You need a little bit of luck. Sometimes, you need a bounce to go your way. But once you get one, you kind of relax and the rest start coming. Right now, it's kind of frustrating."

The playoffs are done for the Union, but there is a lot to play for in these final seven games - particularly as it pertains to next year.

"Everybody is fighting for a job next year," said onetime prodigy Freddy Adu, who has averaged about $200,000 for the five goals he's scored in 33 games for the Union. "I've got to earn my spot like anybody else."

That is a point of emphasis with the Union strikers as McInerney and Hoppenot (2) are the only players listed as forwards on the current roster who have scored a MLS goal this season.

Opportunity can knock for only so long before it passes by.

"Both," Hackworth said when asked whether scoring is innate or can be taught. "I think you have to have players who have confidence and have that mentality.

"I think we do. I think those goals are going to come with those young players. The hard part about it is that this is their opportunity.

"For young guys like this, when they get these chances, they've really go to seize them. We're going to keep on teaching them, but, at some point, those guys have got to create those opportunities and finish them."


Contact John Smallwood at smallwj@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/JohnSmallwood.

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