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4-3-3: Go BIG or go home.

New season. New faces. New roles. New tactics. As we move ever closer to the start of the 2011 season, the PSP takes a look possible tactical formations the Union might employ. Today, Eli looks at going for the gusto with a 4-3-3 with two defensive midfielders anchoring a swarming 4-man attack.

While Adam and Mike played it conservative, dealing with “probabilities” and “likelihoods,” taking their best guesses at the formations the Union coaching staff will employ once March rolls around, I’m looking at the Union starting XI I want on the field. I love defense—tough-tackling, lung-busting defense. I love quick ball movement almost as much as I love watching those away from the ball sprinting at every conceivable angle to wriggle free from the clutches of a defense. I love watching teams make their opposition chase shadows and bow their heads under unrelenting pressure. For that reason, I would LOVE to see the Union walk out onto the PPL grass on March 26 in a 4-3-3.

4-3-3: IT'S GO TIME

Okugo and Carroll – A duo to build around

While I agree with the venerable Mr. Servedio about the holding midfield pairing, there are other reasons that make these two the best option. Firstly, to take nothing away from the 2010 campaign Stefani Miglioranzi put in for the Union, but with the acquisition of Carroll, his role is made redundant. Carroll, a veteran of eight seasons, has won MLS’ top prize twice and owns eight US National Team caps. Combine the savvy play of Carroll with the athletic, energy of Amobi Okugo and you have an engine around which to build any formation. Carroll brings poise, technique and experience, while Okugo offers range, speed and aggression. As the window of Carroll’s National Team career slowly closes, his example and leadership can only serve to strengthen his partner’s future for the USA. Where I will disagree with Mike is, when the Union attack, my preference would be for Okugo to be the midfielder dropping in between the center-backs. He has played matches in the heart of Thomas Rongen’s defense for the U-20s and with his passing range from deep he is well suited to stay at home while Carroll joins what hopefully is a seven man attack.

Nakazawa-Pulling the strings

Did someone say CAM?

With a solidified midfield pairing, the Union would then be free to deploy a true central, attacking midfielder. This task ultimately comes down to Kyle Nakazawa, who wore the no. 10 shirt for UCLA before joining the Union, and Roger Torres. While Torres’ moments of brilliance shine the brighter of the duo, his decision-making and durability remain question marks and, at 19 years-old, being used more consistently as a substitute, bringing spark off the bench seems—at least for this season—the best place for him.

Nakazawa struggled early in 2010 with the pace of the professional game, but found his feet as the season wore on, proving that he belonged. He also proved valuable in set pieces for the Union, announcing himself as by far the most viable option to step up in dead ball situations. During the run of play, Nakazawa often found himself playing too undefined a role in too undefined a midfield formation, causing him to appear tentative and slow. But, unfettered by defensive responsibilities, Nakazawa could become the driving force through midfield, sitting behind Danny Mwanga, linking with his target striker and spraying passes out to the onrushing fullbacks, and through to the raking runs of the wing forwards. Forwards playing wide? Yeah, I said it.

Le Toux and McInerney-Why don't you try and stop them? (Photo: Nicolae Stoian)

Who wants some width?

The detriments of the Union’s narrow shape have been well documented. Asking your outside fullbacks to gallop 80 yards up and down the touchline without players to support or overlap simply does not work and, since the roster remains replete with central midfielders, the width must come from elsewhere.  The insertion of Jack McInerney on the left and Sebastian Le Toux on the right opens up a lot of options for the Union in attack. In his brief cameos, McInerney was at his best off the ball, slicing through the box to receive through-balls and burying them beyond the keeper. Le Toux gravitated toward the right side of the pitch and was often asked to fall back into a midfield role.

Mwanga- Focal point of the attack (Photo: Nicolae Stoian)

With everyone putting such a considerable onus on Danny Mwanga to improve as a target forward, why not give him some help? With McInerney and Le Toux pressing high up the field, opposition defenses will struggle to retain their shape while keeping their biggest bodies focused on Mwanga. Forcing the oafish centerbacks of MLS to cover wide and slide laterally takes them out of the best parts of their game, exposing the channels between them and the space behind them.

And with this, comes chances. Not the arc of short passes, skirting sheepishly around the opposition’s 18 yard box, a sight to which Union fans grew far too accustomed. Operating in the gaps between the midfield and fullbacks, McInerney and Le Toux are afforded room to roam as they can either drop deep to receive the ball, or run sharp angles off their wings, latching onto seeking balls from Mwanga or Nakazawa. The high pressure also serves to keep opposition wide players, fullback or outside midfielder, honest. With Le Toux’s lethal strike rate and McInerney’s speed and nose for goal, opposing fullbacks would be foolish to allow the Union wide men to get behind them even for a second, reinforcing the maxim, “The best defense is a good offense”.

Safety in Numbers

Despite the ambitious, attacking philosophy inherent in a three striker formation, periods of duress—be they spells of possession for the opposition or ball insecurity through the midfield—will inevitably occur and simple adjustments to the 4-3-3 can provide midfield cover. Just as Sheanon Williams and Jordan Harvey are asked to fly all the way up the field, so too can Sebastien Le Toux and Jack McInerney return the favor and drop back in support. The resultant 4-5-1 allows the Union to pack the midfield, slow the ball down and regain possession. From these deeper lying positions Le Toux and McInerney can turn providers as they look for Danny Mwanga or serve the overlapping runs of their fullbacks.

Houapeu- Levi, please be good. (Photo: Nicolae Stoian)


In a like-for-like scenario, Jacobson for Okugo, Miglioranzi for Carroll and Torres for Nakazawa provides an excellent second unit for your midfield triangle without reshuffling the formation. On a night where the Union find themselves either protecting a lead, or struggling for a break through, Justin Mapp enters the fray for McInerney and the formation reverts to a more classic 4-4-2. Up front, the Union’s lack of striking depth is a major concern. If Levi Houapeu or Nick Zimmerman can prove themselves deserving of minutes, either could come on for a wide forward, giving them room to use their speed to run at defenders. Better yet, the Union could use their remaining roster spots (and maybe some of that Bimbo dough) to go after a veteran striker to take some of the load off of Mwanga and to provide depth in the event of an injury.

While the focus of this formation is on the six men up front, the arrival of Carlos Valdes into the team has added significant competition at the central defender position and, along with holding midfield, it looks to be the deepest spot on the Union roster. At 6′-0″ tall, Valdes is in direct competition with Michael Orozco Fiscal to partner Danny Califf. While many have been quick to give Valdes the starting nod, this seems more than a little unfair to Orozco Fiscal, one of the standout contributors in 2010. With his play alongside Califf, Orozco Fiscal solidified a ragged back four as the 2010 season drew to a conclusion. Until Valdes has seen significant minutes with the team and has proved his merits, Orozco Fiscal is not a player to be simply overlooked.

Look to Die Mannschaft

German coach Joachim Loew defied German soccer convention in the 2010 World Cup. Out went many of the old guard and Germany arrived in South Africa with a young, inexperienced side. Missing their influential captain, Michael Ballack, because of injury, the Germans had carte blanche to establish a new identity and they took every advantage of it.

It is hard to disagree with the argument that the Germans were the most exciting spectacle from last summer’s tournament. And what formation did they feature? The 4-3-3, of course. Anchored by the best holding midfield tandem around, Madrid’s Sami Khedira and Munich’s Bastian Schweinsteiger (perhaps the planet’s most underrated player), the Germans then handed the keys to the car (let’s assume its a Benz) to 21 year-old, then-Werder Bremen starlet Mesut Ozil. Freed to roam by his ball-hawking teammates, Ozil popped up everywhere, providing a steady pipeline of service to Lukas Podolski, Miroslav Klose and Thomas Muller. Organized around the powerful, if aging, Klose, Podolski is a direct player who crashes hard into the box to hunt for scraps and serve square balls to onrushing teammates. Muller is a much more technical player who will drop deep into the midfield searching for the ball and always seems to find himself in the right place at the right time.

When it was all said and done, Germany made the semi-final playing the tournament’s most up-tempo, entertaining soccer, the 20 year old Muller won the Golden Boot, and their front three shared in scoring 11 goals.

In Closing

If the Union throw caution to the wind and adapt a 4-3-3 the 2011 season will be an exciting affair. Will they score goals? Yes. Will they concede goals? Yes. But when it all shakes out, adapting such an aggressive stance and turning last year’s possession into this year’s goals has to be a major priority. The search for balanced goal-scoring is going to require greater returns from everyone not named Sebastien Le Toux and pressing more and more players into dangerous attacking opportunities will see the work load spread out amongst the hungry forwards.

Has the season started yet?  I’m getting antsy.  UNION!!!!!

(Featured Photo: Nicolae Stoian)


  1. I love this midfield. I love it. I also love Jack Mac over Mapp.
    What I don’t love about this or Mike’s formation is Mwanga alone up front. I hope I am proven very wrong this season, but last year I saw nothing to suggest that Mwanga has the cerebral side of the game down to the point of playing as a central striker. Can he pass? Does he make runs to open space? Does he check back and hold off defenders?
    Mwanga is still raw, as his inconsistency and (sorry Danny) laziness showed last season. Do you guys think he’s ready for this task?

  2. I really want Houapeu to succeed. I want a reason to buy that jersey.

  3. Andrew Stoltzfus says:

    The problem with this formation is it leaves us with no striker substitutions. If Jack, Danny, or Le Toux get hurt we have no one to bring in as a striker. The fact that we have no depth at the striker position points to the fact that we most likely will be playing with 1 up top or 2 the most.

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