Editor’s note: Questions have been paraphrased
On Amobi Okugo’s growth
I think Amobi continues to steadily develop as a top professional in our league. It’s a long-winded answer if I talk about all of the stages of development but, in the big picture, I think you see Amobi going from a young player who gets an opportunity — does well, has a lot to learn — to last year being a very consistent pro, to this year king of again taking another step up. And it’s early, but he has to continue that to really being, hopefully, one of the best center backs in the league.
On how preventable the two goals scored by Columbus were
The first one, absolutely. That’s a set piece that is just, you know, we had a guy lose his mark and, unfortunately, that’s happened to us a couple of times so far in the young season. You also had a chance to clear that ball as well so, kind of two mistakes. But you can’t lose your role and your matchup in those situations. Columbus clearly had that designed and we had worked on defending that exact play all week long but then fell asleep on it a little bit.
The second one is a different kind of goal all together. First off all, Anor hits a bomb and I don’t know in the big picture if Zach would have been in great positions or Amobi would’ve been in a better spot if they’re gonna stop that. What could have been prevented is that we had the ball, and we had possession of it, and lost it in a dangerous spot on the field. And we lost it on a one-touch pass that we constantly are talking to our players about not turning over balls in those areas of the field, and in particular one-touch. Because the one-touch is easy, it’s more risky to pass the ball that way and if you’re in the defensive half of the field you know anything square or back is the same kind of thing that we want to jump on: you know, if our opponent goes square of back, we go hard. So you can’t lose it in that situation, that’s just a bad turnover that resulted in a little bit of shock that we lost it there and then the guy hits a tremendous shot.
On how Leo Fernandes has improved from last season
Similar to Amobi, just continued development. He obviously has proven that he belongs here this year. He, in preseason, was definitely prepared for the opportunities that he was given and played well. I say this all the time, but players have to be ready for when they get their name called. And Leo, early in this season so far, has had his name called twice and has played very well. So a great sign for him, a great sign for us, too.
How do you see Fernandes fitting in, as a sub or starter?
Right now I think we have competition. I try to tell the guys in the locker room this all the time, that it shouldn’t be the thought that we have this starting XI because that’s the wrong way to think about it. We’re a team and whoever gets their name put on the board on that day has to go represent the Philadelphia Union. You see clubs all around the world have the same kind of situation. We are at a point now where we have depth, where you can literally put Leo in place of somebody else and, theoretically, we wouldn’t miss a beat. I think we’re starting to see that, not only from Leo, but from a couple of other guys on our roster. That comes down to how our staff manages those minutes and what we think are the best matchups on the day for our team. It’s a fine line because you’re trying to balance having guys that are really confident and feeling good about themselves, and guys that are pushing really hard and competing in training and earning that right to be on the field. That’s a good thing, it’s a good problem to have.
How concerning is it that the goals the team has allowed have been preventable?
The one thing that’s concerning is that we gave up two goals in extra time. Obviously, the one late in the Portland game, and one late in the first half versus Columbus. And those are preventable.
The good news is that, if you take that aside, we haven’t given up very many chances to our opponents this year. So, our collective defense has been good but we have to take care of those moments, and clearly we’ve been vulnerable on defensive re-starts — two corner kicks so far.
Do you expect Austin Berry back this weekend?
He’s back in training, so that’s good, but I want to be careful with Austin. When you have a soft tissue injury like that, you want to make sure a player is a hundred percent healthy, otherwise they risk continually kind of going through this chronic pattern of tearing it again.
So, he’s back, that’s good, it means we have some more competition in training but, at the same time, Aaron Wheeler had a good performance on the weekend so I think that even steps up the competition a little more in that position.
What is the status of Sheanon Williams?
Sheanon is back as well. Very similar to Austin: if those guys are a hundred percent, then it’s a tough choice for our staff to make. If they’re not a hundred percent, then we’ll probably be conservative because the guys that have been playing have been doing well.
On Ray Gaddis looking “at home” on the right
That’s Ray’s natural position. We — at the Philadelphia Union, our fanbase, and around the league — have seen him play much more as a left back because that’s where he got his opportunity last year. But he is a true right back and has done extremely well. It’s hard for me not to praise Ray and the way he approaches the game every single day, but he’s a true professional and he always wants to try to improve and get better, and I think you see even from the first three games he’s continually improved. So, that’s been nice.
On Aaron Wheeler
We limited a very dangerous attacking team, we didn’t give them very many chances. I don’t have the stats right in front of me, but I think we had 18 shots and I don’t think they had nearly as many and they didn’t really force Zac into a save playing through us. And when you do that as a defense, especially with a central defender, that’s good.
There were things that Aaron can improve on. There’s situations where he is a little late recognizing certain things but he actually improved in game — he certainly improved in the second half — and that allowed us to really push our outside backs farther up the field. As a result, you saw us keep Columbus on their heels in the second half in that game.
Did Conor Casey health keep him out of the game or was it a tactical consideration?
Part of it’s that. Conor hasn’t played a minute so far. Part of it was the game situation and certain moves that you have to make. You’re down a goal late in that game, the weather in Columbus on the day was not a mild day, so you have little concerns. But then, if you can make moves in other places on the field and still end up — we ended up pushing Aaron Wheeler up for those last ten minutes, we needed that target guy. Columbus had kept dropping farther and farther back so then the need for at least a choice was do you put two No. 9s in that position to just battle with balls in the air, or do you continue to try to play? And we were having success playing through them, and have the option to still play to a target’s head. So a little bit of it played into both.
I want to make sure that Conor, just like everybody else, is a hundred percent. I think he could have played in that game, probably 15 to 20 minutes, but there’ve been other guys and, as a staff, we decided that was not the best option for that game.
How will Casey fit into the new look team?
That’s still remains a little bit of a question. I have all the confidence in Conor, alright, but we are playing differently and we are much more mobile on both sides of the ball right now. That’s a good thing, we don’t want to get away from that. So, I think Conor’s got to be ready, a hundred percent ready. He’s getting back to that, for sure. I think if we go through another week of training the opportunity for Conor to play more minutes this Saturday has increased significantly. And then it’ll be a situation whether we think it’s the right thing.
Is there a preference for Casey or Jack McInerney given how the midfield is now constructed?
It depends on match ups, to be honest with you. And it depends on who’s in for ‘em and whose able to tactically execute the way you want your game plan to work. I think, in the big picture, you’re gonna see Conor over the long haul, you’re gonna see him in a lot of games this year. And the reality is that might move McInerney out wide, or it might be that you’re putting Conor in straight up for Jack. I’m not unhappy with Jack so that — part of it when you have these tough player selections, you literally want to be making sure you’re not putting a guy on the bench that is playing well. You gotta balance that out.
It’s a dangerous kind of game for us, in particular the fact that they have Di Vaio coming back, and this will be his first game available. I don’t think we’ve seen — and I should say Romero’s coming back as well — so you have two very good players that will make their team much different than what we’ve seen in the first three weeks of the season. You also have a team that now is feeling probably like they deserve more and is gonna have to go out and prove it. So you get a very motivated Montreal team coming in here to Philly this week.
That aside, we’ll have to deal with Di Vaio and all that he brings. On the same token, we’re feeling like we should have earned some points last weekend so we are super motivated to be back home, be in front of our own fans, and go out and prove that we’re a better team than our record shows right now.
What is it about Montreal that present trouble for the Union?
They have basically a similar roster to what they had last year, so I think they’re gonna be a team that, over the long haul, is competitive in the standings. Right now, obviously, they haven’t had those results go their way. Di Vaio certainly I think gives, if not the best the best striker in our league at peeling off the back shoulder of a center back — and having his teammates recognize exactly how he wants the ball — and then he’s just a deadly finisher. So, having that goalscorer, obviously, is important.
But then you’ve got other guys. Justin Mapp is, I think, playing his best soccer in his whole career right now, and every time he gets the ball, he’s getting the ball in a spot where he can literally go one-v-one. And he’s good, either going to his right or left, and that presents some problems.
For us, we’ll have to try to concentrate on what we’ve been doing well and seeing if we can execute a little better in front of goal. I think that’s still gotta be a key for us. We don’t think we’re giving up chances, we think we’ve had enough of the ball, but you look at three games and in those three games we’ve only scored one goal in each. So, we’re gonna concentrate on — not to not worry about Montreal — but to make sure that we do things better on both sides of it this week.
Where do you see Fred fitting into the team?
Fred gives us another option in the midfield, more depth, but also good leadership. I think he can play as a No. 10, I think in certain situations you can play him a wide position, even as a No. 8 — it’s not like he doesn’t have the engine to go up and down the field. But Fred’s creativity and ability to open up a game are certainly more valuable as an attacking midfielder, so he gives us that option there.
Fred’s also a fantastic — you know he makes training better, he’s a better guy in the locker room. There’s a lot of things that Fred brings to this team that right now, nobody probably recognizes.
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…it’s like we drew up exactly what we wanted but we didn’t make the play. At halftime we talked a lot, “Look, we did all the right things and we made the wrong choice at the wrong time on a number of counter attacks.
In the second half that changed, and we created a ton of really good opportunities, but the execution just wasn’t there. At the same time, you gotta give Columbus some credit. I mean, their goalkeeper makes a couple of really good saves, their defenders throwing bodies, blocking balls, and then we just didn’t execute. You think about the ball Ray Gaddis puts in over for Vincent and he’s at the far post open — more open then Anor was on their goal — and Vincent puts it high and wide. Some of that — and I’m not trying to point at Vincent or anybody else — but, a lot of that just comes down to execution. I would be worried if we weren’t creating those chances, but the fact that we literally had 18 shots in that game, and had plenty — I think they’re gonna start to fall.
How does whether Di Vaio will be playing affect the decision of whether Austin Berry starts?
I would say that the answer is the exact same that I said earlier, that he has got to be a hundred percent so that we have no fear that he is gonna potentially have a pulled hamstring again. There’s no way to truly quantify that except for you see how long a guy goes through rehab and when they’re back on the training field that they pass every test they can. Most of that has to be in real game situations — making a 30 yard, hundred percent sprint back to cover a guy.
Interestingly enough, the same thing happened to Austin against Montreal in preseason: Di Vaio makes a long run from midfield — we had them kind of pinned in their half — and literally, they spring Di Vaio from midfield, Austin chases him for 40 yards, and we had to end up making a substitution.
So, we’re a little cautious in that regard, and he has to be a hundred percent because we don’t want to keep doing this to Austin, and it’s not fair to him or our team for him not to be a hundred percent.
Are you game planning with the expectation that you will face a Montreal with one or two strikers up top?
It’s a really interesting question. I think that our staff has been talking a lot about their options now with Di Vaio coming back. You mentioned Wenger and he is playing well, and he is dangerous. So, we they now have their full complement of players back, knowing that they’ve played a certain system and haven’t had success, it means it’s gonna be interesting to see how they line up on Saturday. We’re gonna prepare for both because you gotta be ready for a team like Montreal where you know they have a lot of quality and now the job is, similar to ours, how are they putting those pieces on the field?