Philadelphia Union went into 2016 with hopes of moving up from the bottom of the Eastern Conference toward a playoff spot. Instead, they shot up the standings and clung on like action movie heroes, beaten and battered, to the final postseason berth in the East. It was an unexpected run up to the top and a precipitous fall back to Earth. And now, it leaves fans wondering exactly what kind of team they’ll see in 2017.
Changes: Minor or major?
The biggest question going into this season is whether Philadelphia Union’s offseason moves have actually made them a significantly better squad. Here’s what MLSsoccer.com’s Matt Doyle wrote about the Union on February 13: “Anyone who claims they know what’s coming from the Union in 2017 is lying. I could see everything working out and them claiming a top four seed in the East, but I could also see injuries, age and inexperience alternately ravaging this team.”
Doyle — and all sentient Union watchers — listed a Designated Player-type striker and a Targeted Allocation Money-type holding midfielder as Philly’s two glaring needs going into the winter break. Instead, Earnie Stewart dipped into the English fourth tier and dropped a striker with a checkered scoring history into the breach. Then he snapped up a world class passer with Vitorian mobility to sit in front of the back four.
There’s more than a whiff of Arsenal in the Union’s moves. Oh, it’s clear we need a defender and a holding midfielder? Well, here’s another pair of small attackers and a teenager with rough edges. Trust me…
Another way of putting it is that the Union’s off-season may be best summarized as adding quality while sacrificing identity. In other words, this team has the depth and talent to successfully pull off a number of modern tactical systems, but they don’t seem particularly well-suited for the one they played all of last season.
Quite simply, Earnie Stewart has, on the surface, done the expected by adding a striker, a holding midfielder and defensive experience. Yet in doing so, he appears to have upended the tactical system Philly stuck to so assiduously in 2016.
High risk, high reward?
After two off-seasons and a mid-season transfer window, it’s become clear that Earnie Stewart believes he can succeed by making high risk, high reward bets rather than looking within MLS for proven, if unexciting, answers.
Instead of seeking out a Jeff Parke-type veteran defender for depth, the Union signed gigantic — and gigantically talented — Oguchi Onyewu. Though he ticks the boxes as a veteran, a potential leader, and good size in contrast to Josh Yaro, Onyewu brings exactly zero MLS experience and a recent track record emptier than a Jurgen Klinsmann quote. In preseason, he has looked appropriately dominant in the physical aspects of the game, but lacks agility and is as slow to read the game as one would expect from a player who has barely played in the last two years.
Now that Yaro is out for roughly half the season, the Union’s central defense looks, alarmingly, every bit as vulnerable as the unit that lost confidence and positional discipline during the latter half of 2016.
That said, Onyewu is potentially a steal if he can quickly adjust to the league and provide the stability that allows the rest of the defense to overcome inevitable rough patches.
Stewart also acquired Gilliano Wijnaldum to push the aggressive but one-dimensional Fabinho at left back, and so far the Dutchman has looked like a far more composed figure on the ball but a bit at sea positionally.
The existential “who are we now” questions really set in when the Onyewu move starts to look like a template for the rest of the team’s off-season. Up top, Jay Simpson brings the potential for a mouthwatering 25-goal season with him. But the reality is that he has scored a total of 25 goals the rest of this decade. Already, comparisons are being made to noted unicorn Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has thrived in a system — and in front of a stellar midfield — built to fit his mobile, distributional game. Simpson may prove to be the double-digit finisher Philly craved, but he embodies, again, a high risk strategy. As detailed below, the Union now have a fairly expensive midfield that is, almost to a man, aging. Factoring in a league adjustment period, is Simpson truly the striker to step into the breach on a squad desperate for goals from the number nine spot? He may be, but he’s far from a sure thing. In preseason, he has moved well but looked rusty on the ball and unable to find his way into matches, though he has hardly had the service necessary to showcase his abilities in the box.
Mess or might in the middle?
With Tranquillo Barnetta returning to Switzerland, Philly has opted to shift the gravity of their offense deeper, and onto the gifted left foot of Haris Medunjanin. The Bosnian giant is hypnotic on the ball but moves like a Carnival Cruise ship without it. Provided he can find time and space, Medunjanin instantly solves the Union’s franchise-long problem getting the ball out of the back and into dangerous areas of the pitch. Watching Medunjanin shift the ball and immediately update passing angles is breathtaking, but his defensive awareness and mobility were exposed to a stunning degree by D.C. United in the Union’s final preseason match.
In short, the Union went into the off-season ostensibly looking for a mobile, athletic controlling midfielder. They came away with a real talent, but one that appears to force them to change the nature of their aggressive midfield pressure.
For all Medunjanin’s polish, he is almost certainly a deep-lying player. To the extent he can face upfield, he provides an ingenious answer to high pressure, picking out unlikely passes that should allow well-positioned, aware teammates to advance the ball.
Yet Medunjanin’s presence also leaves the Union without a clear playmaker around the final third. While the rest of MLS was busy snapping up players they hope will become the next Nico Lodeiro, Philly looks to be auditioning Alejandro Bedoya, Roland Alberg, and perhaps Fabian Herbers in the attacking midfield role. Bedoya brings industry and Alberg power, but neither looks to be the skeleton key that can provide Simpson with the type of balls Sacha Kljestan puts through to former English lower-tier striker Bradley Wright-Phillips.
Instead, the Union appear to be relying on the nifty feet of the newly slim-n-trim Ilsinho. The Brazilian offered little end product to pair with his cirque de soleil skill but, in keeping with the roster’s theme, he certainly has the potential to be a game-changer.
Defensively, Medunjanin’s own shortcomings aren’t the only question. If the big Bosnian is to sit deep, who plays beside him? Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle offer little going forward, and in preseason Alejandro Bedoya has shown all of the qualities and questions that marked Tranquillo Barnetta’s cameo in a deeper role. Specifically, his extremely high workrate bounces him around in the Union’s loose shape, opening as many holes as it closes.
In the final preseason match, when Bedoya stepped forward to close down Jared Jeffrey and Marcelo, D.C. simply passed around him and let Luciano Acosta cosplay Nightcrawler around Medunjanin’s long legs. The results were predictably disastrous, with Acosta on the loose and both Union center backs caught in unfriendly positions throughout the opening half.
On a broader level, Medunjanin forces Philly to retool their midfield pressure completely. The dream of athletically dominating opponents never came to fruition last season, and the Bosnian’s signing was the final nail in its coffin. The Union may still have the legs to harry opposing defenses, but they must do a far better job of reading triggers and picking their moments, because there is simply no way they can expect the second level of defense — or the Yaro-less third — to stay close if they press high.
Ideally, a methodical, tight defensive shape will give way to transitions that establish Philly in the offensive half and provide Medunjanin with attacking positions from which he can use his superpowers to deliver what will surely be much-needed final balls.
The one area where Earnie Stewart has unquestionably succeeded is in building a far deeper roster than last season. Three strikers, Picault-for-Restrepo as a speed option, at least two-deep in both fullback positions, and wildcards like Adam Najem and Marcus Epps hanging around hoping to make a mark. Picault, Wijnaldum, and Derrick Jones should all push for significant minutes early, and the ability to use C.J. Sapong off the bench provides Jim Curtin with the type of tactical choices he never had the ability to make last season.
Perhaps the two areas where the Union still seem thin are center back — where Yaro’s long-term injury immediately thrusts Ken Tribbett into the first-off-the-bench role again — and goalkeeper.
Kevin Kinkead has made a compelling case that Haris Medunjanin should be the centerpiece of a three-back system that allows the Bosnian to sit deep with protection from a pair of mobile number 8s. Undoubtedly, three-back shapes are returning to prominence as teams increasingly recognize that playing through offensively-skilled advanced wingbacks provides the same sort of difficult angles to defend that players on the half-boards create during power plays in hockey. And with Yaro healthy, Philly has — on paper — the personnel to pull off an innovative shape that could be the competitive advantage their roster needs to compete at the top level of MLS. Certainly, Toronto was able to hit new heights in 2016 by freeing up Michael Bradley to spray the ball about in a three-back shape that provided excellent width.
But two major issues should cause wariness.
First, every successful iteration of the three-back systems right now relies on an extreme level of positional discipline. For all of Jim Curtin and his staff’s positive attributes as coaches, they have not shown the ability to imprint disciplined, highly repeatable patterned movements on their squad. Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino are so demonstrative on the sidelines because there are incredibly specific locations each player should be on the pitch given the position of the ball and the defense. Wingbacks must not get caught forward, the defensive line must not drop too far, and on and on, because if any element is out of alignment, the back three become stretched or the wingbacks get pinned deep and the attack has no width. It is notable that Columbus Crew has experimented with three-back shapes this preseason in part because Gregg Berhalter has shown the ability to successfully impart a system of highly patterned movements in the past.
Second, the type of system Kevin points to — Conte’s brilliantly devised shape at Juventus — both provided Andrea Pirlo with defensive support and allowed the Italian passmaster to act as a decoy that opened space for Juventus’s technically-gifted center backs. The YouTube video Kevin screenshots in his article goes on to discuss how Juventus’ use of long, diagonal passes was a function both of Pirlo’s vision and his ability to provide Leonardo Bonucci with time to spray passes of near-Pirlo quality. Now at Chelsea, Conte surprised many by splashing for enigmatic defensive liability David Luiz.
Yet, Luiz has been superb because, at the middle of a back three, he receives less direct pressure and can use his uncommon passing gifts to break defensive lines and find Eden Hazard in space.
The Union can point to only Josh Yaro as a player approximating the passing nous required to truly open space for Medunjanin. If teams know that Tribbett, Marquez, and Onyewu will all struggle to provide the same kind of field-opening balls as Medunjanin, they can still focus their pressure on the Bosnian creator.
Another workable solution for Philadelphia is a narrow 4-4-2 diamond that pushes Medunjanin further up the pitch so he can focus on finding that elusive final pass. In such a system, Philly could still use two workhorse number 8s outside of a deep-lying number 6, and they could take advantage of their fullbacks’ attacking qualities.
Additionally, a narrow 4-4-2 diamond means Philly doesn’t need a great technician as a number 6, but can instead use the mobility of Bedoya and – hopefully – Maurice Edu to alternatingly drop deep as a first option out of the back. This shape also lets the Union control the center and push teams wide, which should be helpful with two gigantic central defenders in the mix.
Further up the pitch, the Union can pair Simpson’s anticipated finishing with Sapong’s physicality and work rate or they can introduce the speed of Charlie Davies to open up a match.
In the end, the Union have neither taken a clear step forward after barely sneaking into the playoffs in 2016. Instead, they have retooled with another off-season of signings that offer as many questions as answers. After adding Alejandro Bedoya in the summer — a superb player who, nonetheless, does his best work in the middle third of the pitch — the Union’s 2016-17 off-season is remarkable for having moved on from the system that got them to the postseason. The 2017 Union cannot simultaneously build around Medunjanin and pressurize opponents in their own half. They can win and return to the playoffs, but they will have to do it with a different plan than they used in Earnie Stewart’s first season in charge of the club’s fortunes.
There is a lot of potential on the Union’s roster, but as ever, even more uncertainty. Once again, it appears as though the team’s success will hinge not so much on talent living up to expectations (how high should expectations be for Jay Simpson? Nobody should put forth a guess) but on the coaching staff finding ways to make the most of the options at their disposal. Much like last year, Jim Curtin and his team sound as though they understand what they want to do, and what they want their team to do. But the biggest question looms: Can they show them how to do it?