The Philadelphia Union are a playoff caliber team. It’s true. The league’s most valuable player (official or not), two of the most exciting young offensive prospects in MLS, an endless supply of young, talented midfielders, a driven coach, and an assistant coach who made his name as a player development guru.
The Union are so, so close.
In the off-season, there are three major things for the boys in blue and gold to address.
Sheanon Williams has been a revelation since joining Philadelphia. His marauding runs up the right side have taken advantage of space that has been there all season. When Shea Salinas was healthy he would make the same runs, pinning back opposing defenses. The Union play with dribblers on the wings. Fred and Justin Mapp are at their most effective when they take players on and exploit the holes that develop as defenses scramble to shut them down. The most gaping hole that develops is in the space that Mapp and Fred (and Roger Torres) leave behind.
But the Union haven’t had the personnel to step into that space and expand the attack. Jordan Harvey, his early goal aside, is a stay-at-home defender. Michael Orozco-Fiscal and Christian Arrieta were both central defenders playing out of position on the right. They aren’t ready to run box-to-box. Sebastian Le Toux finds space on the wings, but this often leaves Danny Mwanga or Alejandro Moreno isolated in the middle against two central defenders.
The offensive wingback is a staple of the current European soccer style. The 4-2-3-1 that dominated the 2010 World Cup is most effective when the wingbacks get forward and create numerical mismatches. For all of Spain’s offensive talent, they never abandoned their system with two deep central midfielders. Why? Xabi Alonso and, in particular, Sergio Busquets, were required to provide cover when Sergio Ramos got on his horse. Brazil’s Maicon follows in the footsteps of the visionary Cafu, who galloped out of Brazil and AC Milan’s defense long before it was so fashionable.
The Union need to explore the free agent market for wingbacks and wide midfielders who can run into the space that the dribblers leave behind. Danny Mwanga will be a year older and a lot stronger next season, and he has the height to become a serious aerial threat. Improved wing play is the key to getting Mwanga and Le Toux the service they need to improve on an impressive first season.
Justin Mapp looks like the best bet, but Roger Torres has the talent to emerge. The Union need someone to consistently link between their deep-lying central midfielders and their big threats up top. In theory, this is why Fred is making the big bucks. But if you think that Fred is the answer to the playmaker question, I’ve got a Seitz to sell you.
Jonathan Wilson has been exploring the changing nature of the playmaker in his book “Inverting the Pyramid” and on his blog. Wilson designates Luka Modric as the first “modern” playmaker. Modric played centrally when he joined Tottenham Hotspur, but his move to the wing upon return from injury coincided with the team’s climb up the ladder to a Champions League place. The Philadelphia Union have players with a similar game to Modric in Torres and Mapp. They have the ability to take people on, slide balls through to the strikers when they check in, and drop weighted balls over the top when the defense plays high.
The inverted outside midfielder system carried Bayern Munich to the Champions League final, but Munich has two of the best outside midfielders in the world in Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. If the Union want to improve next season, Mapp, Fred and Torres (or someone new) needs to take a big offensive step forward. Mapp’s left foot should be a threat that goalies respect. Fred’s shooting, when it happened, was erratic and didn’t pull defenders from the strikers.
The other option the Union can explore is deploying Torres or Jack McInerney in a central playmaking role. This could create a formation that fans of Chelsea will find familiar: a central playmaker with two defensive midfielders and a single wide player. It sounds lopsided, but an aggressive wingback like Williams will step into the space and turn the 4-4-2 into a 3-5-2 when in possession. There is a caveat upon which the success of this system would hinge, and it is the emergence of Amobi Okugo.
The Union have a plethora of central midfielders, and most of them are defensive-minded or just immobile. Claude Makelele is often cited as the player who created the box-to-box holding midfielder role, but it is Michael Essien who has perfected it. Okugo is no Essien, but he needs to perform the same function as a forceful defensive presence who also spreads the ball around with confidence going forward.
Do I need to cover this? Is there anything that hasn’t been said yet? I’ve already taken a shot at Chris Seitz, and we all know he isn’t the answer going forward. Brad Knighton has exhibited a lot of confidence charging out of goal and he has earned the team’s only league shutouts of the season. But his punching has been suspect from the start and it would be fair to say the position between the pipes needs to be addressed in the offseason. Anybody know what Brian Perk is up to?
The Union don’t need a goalie to come in and set the world on fire. However, it would be nice if the goalkeeping situation didn’t make the fans want to set things on fire. As nice as it would be to find a young diamond in the rough—like former UIC goalie Jovan Bubonja —the best move might be a version of something PSP contributor Eli proposed earlier this year when he threw Shay Given’s name into the mix. Why not use a designated player spot on the goalkeeper position? The big European teams hide their young prospects in the lower divisions by loaning them out year after year. Scott Carson and Chris Kirkland toiled in Liverpool’s reserve side for years before West Brom and Wigan Athletic recognized their potential and gave them starting jobs.
And let’s not forget the Tim Howard story. While Seitz should be done in Philly, goalie is a confidence position, and he could be rejuvenated somewhere else. After Howard made a much-publicized move to Manchester United, the American number one struggled for consistency on the big stage. A move west to Everton allowed Howard to flourish, and he will be the best American player in the EPL when Brad Friedel retires in 2087.
It will be tough to sell the Philly fan base on a “project” goalie after the Seitzperience of 2010, but the option should be on the table. Fans may worry about Nowak and company’s ability to evaluate goalkeeping talent after this season, but John Hackworth would be the first guy any team would call if they were looking for a hidden gem.
The Los Angeles Galaxy are one of the best teams in MLS this season. As we watch the game this Thursday, let us look at the Galaxy not only as the team to beat in 2010, but a team to beat in the future. What will the Union need to put on the pitch next season to end up near the top of the table? For the Galaxy it was a combination of good drafting, reigniting Edson Buddle’s career, and, of course, David Beckham’s magic abs.