Season Previews

The No. 10 position remains an enigma as the 2018 season begins

Photo: Ryan Griffith

Editor’s note: This is the latest piece of PSP’s season preview on Philadelphia Union. Read the other posts of the season preview here.

There are three major questions about Philadelphia Union’s advanced midfield position.

  1. How does Union head coach Jim Curtin want the role interpreted?
  2. Who is going to play there?
  3. Why am I asking the second question a year after it became clear there was no good answer on the Philadelphia Union roster?
What is the No. 10 role in Philly?

A volume player.

Ask Jim Curtin what the attacking midfielder in Philly’s system does and the answer is volume: Get on the ball often, support the front three, and make smart decisions in transition. Defensively, link C.J. Sapong to the midfield and prevent access to the center in buildup, either by shadowing passing lanes or high pressure.

The Union do not need a ball-dominant creative force in the No. 10 role, but they do need somebody that can pull defensive attention off of Haris Medunjanin through movement and quick passing. Additionally, they desperately need somebody that can make good decisions in transition.

Notably, this job description does not include gaudy creative numbers. Medunjanin’s deep distribution offers a wonderful excuse for a spendthrift club to seek out an attacking midfielder that can bring involvement and energy without the final passes that tend to drive up price. Think Vincent Nogueira, but without the odd fear of entering the box.

Who is going to play there?

Anthony Fontana, at least for one match.

Ilsinho’s injury clears the way for Fontana, a huge talent coming off an injury-plagued season, to step into the breach. The homegrown teenager did not clearly separate himself from Adam Najem during preseason, but there were key aspects of his game that elevated him above the former Red Bulls prospect.

First, Fontana is a far better pressing defender, though this comes with a big caveat. Fontana closes space extremely well, and he reads and responds to the game in front of him quickly. That energetic defensive approach, however, can be exploited by opponents that build out of the back well. In preseason, Fontana showed a tendency to lock into seek-and-destroy mode, which meant that when the ball was played past him, he would follow it instead of finding his defensive zone. This resulted in him pressing into Ale Bedoya’s zone and leaving a huge gap through the center. Although this was not exploited often in preseason, it will be once teams have more tape on the young midfielder.

From AmericanSoccerAnalysis. Expected Assists is on the vertical axis.

The second reason Fontana is likely to beat out Najem to the starting role is that he’s simply a more physical player. Najem’s superior creative ability is enticing, but Curtin can lean into Fontana’s skill set because David Accam is expected to make chances from the wing.

At this point, it’s important to recognize the context of Curtin’s choice: The Union were not a high possession team in 2017, and they may not be in 2018 either. But with two technical center backs, Bedoya, and Medunjanin (and perhaps Keegan Rosenberry), Philly can draw opponents into the middle then play wide. In preseason, though, involving the attacking midfielder has greatly improved the success of these buildups. The attacking midfielder’s ability to drop into the center and quickly move the ball laterally means Philly can drop Medunjanin into the back line and space the field. Both Fontana and Najem can handle this responsibility, but where the former separates himself is in his ability to then join the quick-forming attacks Philly wants to create once they move the ball to Medunjanin or out wide. Najem would be the clear choice in a possession-heavy system, but that’s not likely to be the 2018 Union.

Bořek Dočkal

Bořek Dočkal appears to have the tools to play attacking midfield in MLS. A sensational right foot and good positioning sense in the final third may turn the Union into a team that can close out games with possession and ball movement rather than, well, the chaos theory that reigned supreme in 2017. Even if he does not turn out to be at the level of Tranquillo Barnetta or Vincent Nogueira, Dočkal is likely to bring a level of consistency that Fontana, Najem, and — quite frankly — Ilsinho cannot.

Why are we still figuring this out? 

At the start of 2017, Alejandro Bedoya operated in an advanced role with mixed success. Perhaps the clearest issue with Bedoya’s interpretation of the role was that the Union captain operated at a different speed than the rest of his team. Sliding forward to press, drifting wide in anticipation of a trap — Bedoya’s do-everything attitude put him out of sync with a team that did not have its pressing sufficiently organized. As a result, the team’s only Designated Player was rarely near the ball, and this was poison to a squad that needed experience in the buildup phase. Accordingly, Bedoya’s production was not enough for a team without many players that could manufacture their own shots. One key pass per 90 minutes, less than one shot, and a virtually non-existent Expected Assists number attests to the difficulty Philly’s best player had finding the game.

Of course, it later became clear that Jim Curtin’s team had expected Roland Alberg to push for the attacking midfield role, but the Dutch blaster cannon had shown the same dedication in the offseason that he often showed on the pitch. The Alberg Explanation is certainly… an explanation. But there was little beyond Dutchman’s right foot that suggested he would have been a suitable answer even if he could run. The defensive workrate and inability to quarterback a transition meant that even as a slimmer peg, he was going to struggle to fit into the Union’s biggest hole.

Yet, the transfer deadline passed, then the offseason began, then the preseason. Ilsinho, who did not show enough in 2017 to earn the role, appeared set to retain it. Adam Najem and Homegrown stud Anthony Fontana fought for backup minutes.

Then, an injury to Ilsinho thrust Fontana into starting role, and — quite suddenly — the Union had an internationally capped attacking midfielder in camp, albeit unsigned.

This is all very confusing. It has now been clear for almost a calendar year that Philadelphia Union lack an attacking midfielder, and only at the tail end of preseason did the club acknowledge this issue through action. Even if you grant that the club strongly believes in Fontana and Najem, entering 2018 with Ilsinho, Fontana, and Najem would have been indefensible. The Eastern Conference has improved to a tremendous degree this offseason: Toronto remains a juggernaut, Atlanta’s scorched Earth attack is bolstered by a $15 million teenager and Darlington Nagbe, Orlando and D.C. United had active offseasons, and the Red Bulls, Columbus, and Chicago remain better teams on paper than Philadelphia. After drifting around the playoff periphery for most of the season and clearly missing a creative presence in transition, assuming David Accam can take on those duties to the point of leaving the attacking midfield position untouched would have been continuing a tradition of inexplicably leaving glaring holes unfilled.

Dočkal is — though far too late — a move that signals, at minimum, recognition of the issue. Even if the Czech midfielder is a bust, he represents an attempt to fill a role with a player that, well, plays that role.

It is what many expected after Tranquillo Barnetta left. And it has the potential to make the Union competitive in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture this season.


  1. This reminds me how much I’ve missed your analysis Adam. I not sure if I’m more excited for the season, or for your write-ups about it. Hopefully you won’t have to sound like a broken record this time around.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    Chaos Theory. Yes. Everything you write is why I like Najem better. Guess we will see and ultimately hopefully Dockal is a blend of them both.

    • My hope is that in a year or two you see a midfield of Jones, Fontana, and Aaronson starting for this team. Najem definitely can fit in there he just doesn’t seem to demand the ball enough yet from what I have seen the way Fontana does. Hopefully we get some decent looks at all of them this year.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      +1, re: Najem.

  3. Zizouisgod says:

    “This is all very confusing.”

    well put, Adam.

  4. The Accam expected assists number looks like such an outlier on that chart.

    If both him and Dočkal were the targets. Not sure how to rationalize the late signing of Dočkal vs. signing an alternative.

    If Dočkal was who they wanted, should we fault the U for not negotiating with his parent club faster or recognize them for not settling?

    A lot of it presents interesting math from the Union if they are big fans of Fontana. If they think he is the future, do you sign someone to a 3 year deal or try to get your player (Dočkal) and accept the risk of not getting anyone?

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