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Union’s youth on display

Amidst all of the glitz and the glamour of opening night in MLS, 4 teenagers suited up in Navy and Gold. Facing down last season’s U.S. Open Cup Champion, Amobi Okugo (19), Jack McInerney (17), Roger Torres (18), and Danny Mwanga (18) stepped onto domestic soccer’s biggest stage. All four factored in on the pitch, as Coach Piotr Nowak saw fit to run each out to their MLS debut. Torres, it should be noted, made his professional debut in Colombia last year for America de Cali, but all 4 players are young, with great talent and lots to learn. Let’s take a closer look at the performance of each in the Union’s inaugural game against the Sounders.

Roger Torres, M, #20, Started, 70 minutes played

Torres started the game attacking from the midfield and turned in the Union’s most solid attacking performance. Torres was quick on the ball, moved well without it, and was responsible for most of the times Union players found themselves in dangerous positions. Though he played well, Torres seemed to be on a different page from the other midfield and forward players as his passes were sometimes unexpected and his vision was not matched by his teammates. Good combination play with Sebastien Le Toux and Alejandro Moreno will come in time, but the flare and creativity in Torres’ game is already there. He will be an interesting player to watch this season. We will presumably get a different wrinkle from Nowak in the Union’s April 10th game vs. D.C. United as Fred, the veteran Brazilian playmaker, comes off of suspension. Will Nowak use the two in combination, or will they share playing time orchestrating the attack?

Jack McInerney, F, #19 – Substitution, 6 minutes played

Union Jack made the shortest appearance of the 4 Union teens, but intrigued nonetheless. While it may not be fair to grade his performance based on the waning minutes of the game and stoppage time, McInerney made himself a nuisance for the Sounders in the time provided. Constantly testing the depth of Seattle’s defense and motoring about the 18, McInerney showed why he has had success at the youth international level despite his 5’8″ frame. Without much time on the ball to evaluate, Jack did well to put himself in dangerous positions and used his fresh legs to harass defenders. McInerney even attempted a bicycle kick on a ball played over the top — a play which requires a level of ambition that will endear him to Union fans. If his skill on the ball and distribution compares well with his work-rate and poaching instincts, Jack will prove a valuable asset to a team in need of scoring threats.

Danny Mwanga, M/F, #10 – Started, 45 minutes played

Mwanga’s game is hard to grade as some would say he was played out of position. Deployed as a forward in college, Danny made a name for himself scoring breakaway goals and distributing well in the open field. Coach Nowak has asked Danny to help breakdown defenses from the middle of the field and his hesitancy was visible last night. Mwanga looked uncomfortable throughout the first half and passed the ball laterally or backwards most times he touched it. Danny did not play well off of fellow teen Roger Torres, but all told, he was not a negative to the Union performance, but rather an also-ran. Danny has the skills to succeed at any level but will the require experience to develop the confidence and decision-making ability that a midfield maestro requires.

Amobi Okugo, M, #14  – Substitution, 20 minutes played

Though he played a decent length of time, it is also difficult to really say anything definitive about Amobi’s performance. He looked confident on the ball around midfield, but was put in a difficult position as the Union were sloppy in possession and turned the ball over often. Most often deployed in central midfield, Amobi is a ball-winning grinder of a midfielder with a great motor. His true test as a developing player will come in his ability to be effective over the length of a game winning balls, making angled passes, and setting the tone of the game. Okugo entered the contest with his side already down a man, and was kept back as the Union pushed forward centrally and on the wings. Amobi should feel confident about his performance and will get a break from Union training as he goes to play with the U-20 National Team in Mexico this week.

All things considered, it would be difficult to say that any of the Union teenagers showed poorly on opening night. Each showed flashes of their ability, though Torres considerably more than the other 3. As the season goes on, I would expect to see the most of Torres as each of the other Union teenagers is signed to a Generation Adidas contract which will limit their playing time somewhat. GA players graduate from the program if they make too many appearances or play too many minutes. While they maintain the label, their salary does not count against the cap and they are unable to be selected in an expansion draft. Both factors are important for a growing team and one which will face a double-edged expansion draft in November. I will be keeping tabs on the Union teenagers throughout the season and providing progress reports from time to time. Coach Nowak and the Union front office have invested in the future of the team and the Union’s success in the foreseeable future will likely have to do with the progress and development of these young starlets.

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