Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz
With the signing of Lionard Pajoy, the Union may just be nearing the end of their offseason transactions (at least for outfield players). In a set of three installments, PSP’s Eli Pearlman-Storch outlines the most likely formations for the Union in 2012 and how the roster, as currently composed, is suited to play in each.
Following the 2010 campaign in which the Union never struggled for possession but often lacked the creative and forward thrust to convert the final ball, I proposed a 4-3-3 as the Union’s potential formation for 2011. Getting more bodies forward into the attack was a must, yet although the Union at times operated with all three of Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Mwanga and Carlos Ruiz on the pitch, it was in a more defensive 4-4-2 alignment, favoring the long ball option over the strong build up play that had defined the team in its rookie season.
With another year on the books and the Union still in need of a consistent system, I believe that the 4-3-3 is still the correct setup for the Union. Let’s explore.
4-3-3 for 2012
Cupboard full of young strikers, check.
Defensive midfielders with passing range, check.
Rock solid defense with aggressive outside backs, check.
With a roster including equal numbers of strikers and defenders and an attacking force that can count only Freddy Adu with more than two years MLS experience, utilizing a three striker set will go a long way in keeping too much pressure from falling on the shoulders of any one player. It will also fulfill Peter Nowak’s desire for fluidity with all attacking players having the freedom to pop up all over the field and back into the midfield, looking for work.
The Union’s SIX strikers
With Wednesday’s addition of Colombian striker, Lionard Pajoy, the Union are now essentially capable of rotating two full lines of strikers. Every Union supporter awaits 2012 with an eagerness to see Danny Mwanga ascend into the role of a dominant center forward in MLS and should he get out of the blocks quickly, Pajoy will likely be relegated to the substitutes bench. While Mwanga and Pajoy will be expected to hold up play and win the ball, both on the deck and in the air, they will have the option of four different speedy wingers around them, all of whom will require the constant attention of any MLS defense. New additions Josue Martinez and Chandler Hoffman, along with Jack McInerney and Freddy Adu, are all ideally suited to open up MLS defenses if given an inch of space.
Freddy Adu, a striker? Yes. The beauty of playing one of the wing forward positions in a 4-3-3 is the ability to roam freely in search of the ball. In 2011, Adu showed his desire to pop up on both wings in an effort to free himself and, without the center-of-the-pitch shackles of the CAM (center attacking midfield) role, Adu would be free to not only exploit wide space put to also drop deeper or even sit behind the central striker to find the ball and create chances.
This sort of free-flowing motion among forwards has been a hallmark of the Union under Peter Nowak. With all three forwards constantly on the move, looking to find the ball, and each other, the Union can finally use their motion to expose slower MLS defenders, rather than simply confuse themselves.
Michael Farfan. Having turned his disappointment at dropping into the second round of the 2011 MLS Draft to becoming a solid Rookie of the Year candidate, Farfan’s entire skill set should have the PPL faithful very excited for 2012. Look for him to assume more of a leadership role in the offense, having forced his way into the starting lineup late in 2011 with hard work and tremendous quality. He just noses out Roger Torres, in my opinion, because he is a bigger, stronger option than the diminutive Colombian. While Farfan lacks the elite speed of a true winger, the 4-3-3 allows others to do that work. A move inside suits him perfectly because it would allow him to pull the strings and set the table with his smart passing and guileful trickery on the ball, rather than race up and down the touchline, serving in teasing crosses that were rarely met by a teammate last season.
As for Torres, he still has a major part to play in 2012. From 2010 to 2011, Torres showed massive improvement in terms of his maturity on the ball. He was far more clever with his passing arsenal and showed a vastly better work rate when it came to attending to his defensive responsibilities. Should the Union be in need of more offensive punch, the removal of a holding player and the introduction of Torres would give the Union No. 8 the freedom to take over a game while Michael Farfan would fall in as a more box-to-box type player role, maintaining the strong possessing abilities in the heart of the Union midfield.
The Holding Duo
While new Union signing Gabriel Gomez has shown excellent leadership and strong ball distribution as the captain of Panama, Brian Carroll and Amobi Okugo are still the right guys for the job of filling out the defensive responsibilities in the midfield of a 4-3-3. The reason is simple: range. While Gomez is an excellent provider for the attack, he tends to hover around the center circle, directing traffic and dictating play. In a system where the Union allow four players to loot and plunder high up the pitch at any—and hopefully every, moment—the two players left to hold down the fort must be those who can cover the greatest amount of terrain and serve as the team’s primary ball winners. Simply put, this is what Brian Carroll does. Create pressure and win the ball back for the Union. He would also provide defensive cover when outside backs Sheanon Williams and new arrival Porfirio Lopez go tearing down the field to join in the attack.
The ever-improving Okugo appears set to shed his GA status and feature heavily for the Union in 2012. Offseason training stints with Bundesliga club Freiburg, a GA tour of the Netherlands, and strong camps with the US U-23 squad all yielded positive results for a player looking to have a breakout season for both club and country. Where Carroll acts as a more purely defensive force, Okugo will be called on to advance play with his excellent vision and passing range. The higher both he and Carroll can hold their line, the easier it will be for Michael Farfan and/or Roger Torres to drive the attack forward.
Second round draft pick Greg Jordan provides additional depth at the DM position, as does Keon Daniel, whose experience a central midfielder for Trinidad & Tobago could mean he will vie for time with Gomez for the box-to-box job when Okugo departs to join the 2012 US Olympic team.
More of the same please. The addition of Porfirio Lopez to an already stout defensive backline means that the Union can now threaten from either wing with an explosive counterattacking burst. But the defensive notes here are not for the back four, but for the front four. In a highly aggressive formation like a 4-3-3, you MUST have the ball. That means that relying on your defense and holding midfielders to do 100 percent of the defensive work and ball-winning is simply not in the cards, despite how good both of those units are for the Union. Cranking up the defensive pressure once the ball has been lost begins with the forwards and, if they show the tenacity to put high pressure on in the midfield and in the attacking third, opponents will always struggle to build from the back, as their defenders and distributing midfielders will be constantly under threat from the Union’s hard-running strike force.
The 2012 Philadelphia Union are deeper than ever in their history. With a bench that could include Pajoy, McInerney, Gomez, Torres, Daniel, either Gabe Farfan or Ray Gaddis for defensive cover, and a backup goalkeeper, the Union will have solid options to change their approach mid-match that they have not had before.
Need more speed in attack? Jack McInerney can add the second half surge of energy if the Union need to find a winner or equalizer. Lionard Pajoy can bring aerial presence and veteran goal-scoring experience into a match that requires a late goal to tilt the tie back towards the Union. Physical match in need of bigger bodies to see out a result? Gomez and Daniel fit that bill. Roger Torres is a game changer whose late introduction always speeds up the game for the Union, as he tirelessly looks to create chances in the final third.
That is not even to mention rookie hitman Chandler Hoffman, speedy winger Nizar Khalfan, and Philly’s own homegrown prodigies Zach Pfeffer and Jimmy McLaughlin, all of whom will get a look in 2012, especially once potentially five of their teammates, Okugo, McInerney, Adu, Williams and Zac MacMath pack their bags first for Olympic qualifying and then, hopefully, London 2012.