Photo: Paul Rudderow
What do you with a center midfielder who plays little defense but scores on more of his shots than nearly any player in the league?
That’s the question when it comes to Gabriel Gomez, the Union’s second highest paid player.
The Panamanian international came to Philadelphia highly touted by those who signed him, and American soccer fans remembered him from his solid, goal-scoring performance in Panama’s upset of the U.S. last June in the Gold Cup.
But what else was there?
As it turns out, a journeyman with a nose for the goal, technical proficiency, and a disinclination to hustle. He has the league’s fourth highest scoring percentage (goals per shot) among players with at least 15 shots, but it’s not clear he has a role on the Union squad.
Gomez hasn’t fit into the Union lineup from day one.
Former Union manager Peter Nowak tried to pair him with defensive stalwart Brian Carroll at defensive midfield, only to find the two didn’t mesh. Gomez liked to sit deep in the middle but interpreted the role as more of a (very, very) deep-lying playmaker who would occasionally make good, late runs toward goal. Carroll liked to sit deep too, but he did it more as a shield for the back line. With both in the lineup, Carroll got pushed forward out of his comfort zone and was forced to play away from his strengths (defense) and toward his weaknesses (attacking). Meanwhile, Gomez didn’t offer the defensive coverage Carroll did, and the two often filled the same spaces.
Since John Hackworth replaced Nowak, he has seldom deployed the pair in the same way, choosing instead to move Gomez around the field in hopes of finding a place where he fits. He has proven too slow for the flanks. The central attacking midfield role looks to belong to Michael Farfan, unless Freddy Adu is to nudge him over to the flank next year.
So what’s left? Target forward? That outside-the-box (and maybe off the wall) idea seems about all that’s left for Gomez. He’s good in possession, he hits the net when given the ball, and he shows confidence on one-time shots.
But then, Gomez’s goal-scoring this season is somewhat of an aberration. His seven goals in all competitions in this year are double his previous career high. Can he repeat or improve on that tally given more time and a role that fits him?
It’s a conundrum for Hackworth, which explains the experimentation with Gomez at alternate positions. He is the Union’s second highest player, at $294,703 in guaranteed compensation, on what is probably a two-year contract. Prior to joining the Union, Gomez had played for four teams in four leagues in just two years. Whatever the rationale for signing Gomez, whether you like him or not, Hackworth has to figure out something to do with him.
Gomez has just three more games to show he’s worth keeping before the Union have to make some off-season decisions.
Is his finishing enough to warrant his contract? On another team, maybe.
On the Union, the team’s three highest paid players — Gomez, Adu and Bakary Soumare — have all fallen well short of expectations this season. Together, they tie up about a third of the team’s salary budget. Soumare is likely to get a chance to recover from injury, because his past performance in MLS more than warrants his salary. Adu is another issue altogether (worth a column in his own right).
As for Gomez, he looks like the latest technically adept but physically slow Latin American player to fail to transition to the rapid pace of Major League Soccer. For every Fredy Montero or Carlos Valdes, you find a couple of these. Considering Carroll and Amobi Okugo were already here when Gomez joined the Union, it leaves people still asking the question of why Gomez was signed in the first place.