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2011 Union roundtable, part 1

There have been a lot of season previews out there, some good, some bad. Good or bad, they mostly seem to end with a lot of “ifs.” Rather than throw another preview into an already crowded field, we at the PSP thought we’d have a round table discussion about some of the questions we’ve been asking each other as the preseason comes to a close. We hope you’ll join in the discussion by posting your own thoughts and questions in the comment section below. You can read Part Two here.

What are the chances the Union play with three in the back?

Ed: There seemed to be indications they were experimenting with three in the back in Greece. But, because the Union never released lineup details, thinking they were experimenting with three in the back was based largely on what could be surmised from what little information could be gathered from other sources such as pictures on the Union Facebook page. It could have been that they were always playing four in the back and trying different guys in different defensive spots who normally play in other positions. We all know, for example, Okugo has played in the back with the US U-20 team. As it turns out, the answer may be that they were not: a post went up on the Union website on Monday confirming Michael Farfan and Ryan Richter have been playing defense in the preseason with Farfan at right back. Although that makes me nervous because it feels like a stop-gap given the Union’s present small roster size, converting players can work: Williams, who turns 21 on Thursday, was a midfielder and I read on the MLS site earlier in the week that apparently Dallas have started using Brek Shea as a central defender, which is pretty interesting from a national team perspective.

Questions for the Union defense. (Photo: Nicolae Stoian)

Adam: I’m very wary of three in the back. The Union had a tendency to get bogged down in the midfield with only four midfielders last season. It makes sense from a roster/depth perspective because the Union are so thin in the back, but MLS is a league that tends to reward a strong counterattacking team and a counterattack can destroy a three-man back line. There is a reason that successful MLS sides feature all-star holding midfielders. These guys (Brian Carroll?) can break up an offense and have the vision to start a rush the other way. Given the Union’s level of defensive organization last season, three men in the back could be playing with fire. Then again, our defense was awful last year and we have no idea how it has looked in preseason. Maybe an experiment is the way to go.

Eli: I’m with you Adam. It just seems like an enormous leap to take rather than simply acquiring cover at the fullback position. Three-man backlines really require three players who are big, physical AND can distribute, in order to be effective. That said, if the Union were to experiment, I would prefer to see Amobi Okugo in the backline outside of Califf, operating opposite of Valdes to make certain that both sides of the pitch are supplied with adequate service. While not a defensive liability with four defenders on the field, Harvey’s lack of physicality combined with concerns about his distribution would make any three-man defense in which he takes part hopelessly one sided.

Mike: I don’t think so either. Nowak seems to be a man of habit and we’ll see four in the back much in the same manner as last season. The lack of personnel for the back makes it tempting, but it doesn’t seem worth the risk. And as Ed said, learning that Farfan and Richter have been experimented with playing outside back confirms that we’ll see a flat four again.

What happens if Mondragon gets hurt?

Mondragon need to stay healthy. (Photo: Nicolae Stoian)

Ed: Tears. Lots and lots of tears. What if he, gasp, is a bust?

Adam: The goalie is expected to have his best game every game. That’s what makes the position so tough. It’s as mentally stressing as sports can get to stand between the pipes for 90 minutes and only turn your fast-twitch muscles on every 15 or so. It really is unfair to ask a kid out of college to perform consistently at a high level in a league like MLS. If Mondragon gets hurt though, that is what will happen.

Eli: MacMath will make mistakes. It’s just the nature of the job. And while we’ll be angry and frustrated when it occurs, no one should blame the young goalkeeper. He’s not ready, nor should he be. He’s 19—that’s like 8 in keeper years. By selecting him in the first round, the Union made him our man for a long time. That means his leash is a long one. Burying Seitz or Knighton for their errors was perfectly acceptable because they had put in their time as backups, played at the professional level and should have been ready to act the part. With MacMath, we need to temper our emotions, supporting and pulling for him regardless of any bumps in the road. It will certainly add to the excitement and nerves in the air when he makes his debut, because even if Mondragon stays healthy for the entire season, MacMath will be given a chance at some point.

Mike: We hope it doesn’t happen. One of the things I was most frustrated with last season was the goalkeeper situation (I was the only one, right?). But it just didn’t make sense to me with such a young team that there was no veteran presence in goal. Mondragon doesn’t have to be amazing, just confident and capable. Simply having an experienced goalkeeper should feed confidence through the squad. If he goes down, we just hope MacMath lives up to the hype and can make the guys in front of him confident that he can handle the responsibility.

How will Carlos Ruiz fit in?

Ed: With no footage of him playing with the Union, it is so hard to say. All I’ve seen of him are highlight reels. They’re pretty impressive but that’s what they’re supposed to be. Nowak must see something in him since the Union have been after him since last season. He’s got that reputation of being a bit of a wild man but an article written by Chris Gbandi, his former teammate at Dallas, says Ruiz has re-dedicated himself and is no longer the party animal he once was. After getting him on a free transfer, you’ve got to think Nowak would drop him like a hot potato if he gets out of line.

Mike: Well, I hope, but who knows? There was often a lot of the possession for the Union last year ending in barely a glimpse at goal. I think he brings in the experience and confidence of a goal scorer which, outside Sebastien Le Toux, was often lacking in the squad. He’s had issues with diving in the past, and we have to hope that is behind him. If he can find rhythm with Le Toux and Mwanga, the goals might start to flow.

Eli: His runs with and without the ball will be the key to his success this year. This sounds obvious, but we have yet to see if he still possesses the speed and quickness of his earlier MLS exploits. If he is able to create his own space and take defenders with him the floodgates could open for Mwanga and Le Toux. The Union’s top two scorers in 2010 were often forced to live on scraps when it came to quality service and together they fashioned some remarkable goals out of thin air. If he is on his game, the speed and tenacity Ruiz brings can only help to crack open the attacking third, but if he struggles for pace or gets lost in his well-documented theatrics, he could quickly go from ineffective to problematic.

Setting Le Toux free. (Photo: Nicolae Stoian)

Where will Le Toux play?

Ed: Given his work rate, maybe we should be asking where won’t he play? Nowak told Soccer America the other day he likes Le Toux playing in “a free role, popping up in different spots” and that they have “arranged the structure to give him a little bit more freedom.” I like him working the angles behind the two strikers up top, most likely Mwanga and Ruiz.

Adam: I think Le Toux will get a lot more freedom at home than away. I fully support this idea of giving a player freedom, but with so many defensive breakdowns last season, the team has to put more emphasis on defensive shape and discipline in 2011. When the boys in blue lost the ball in midfield last season, the sense of where to be defensively was not as intuitive as it must be at this level. Le Toux should have as much freedom as the team can handle, but no more. And the coaching staff has to step up and figure out where to draw the line.

Mike: I agree, he’ll be free for much of the time. I think you’ll see him started as a right winger/midfielder. But the man does not stop. He’ll be making runs behind the defense on both sides. He’ll be clearing space for the strikers making runs to the corner and creating chances for himself moving behind the opponent’s back line. And I agree with Adam that he’ll get more freedom at home. On the road, look for him camped out on that right side a little bit more, probably behind Mwanga and Ruiz.

Eli: Home and away, I think Le Toux goes wherever he wants. While I am purely divining now, I feel like Nowak likes the look of the defensive core of Mondragon, Califf, Valdes and Carroll and feels that they will provide the structure that was lacking last year. That means all sorts of freedom for attacking players and that can definitely benefit the hard-working Le Toux who will be able to play one-twos from a deeper-lying midfield role or streak-in behind any defense that takes their eyes off him.

Will the Union play three up top?

Ed: If a roaming Le Toux counts as a third striker, yes. Anyway, they’ve changed his position on the Union roster from what I seem to remember as “M” or “M/F” to “F”. That said, he was referred to as a midfielder in the recent “Five Questions”  post on the Union website.

Adam: I don’t actually think they will play too many three striker sets. It forces the strikers wide and, Le Toux aside, the team has a set of forwards who like to be in the box. Additionally, the Union don’t have the box-to-box midfielders to fill in the center if they push strikers wide. There are a lot of maybes—Nak or Okugo could become full-field players—but the proof isn’t there yet.

Eli: I’m expecting the same roving pack of forwards scenario we saw last season, simply swap Ruiz for Moreno, with all three front men spending portions of the game dipping into the midfield to maintain possession and to create space for each other. For all his hard work, Alejandro Moreno is still an undersized, back-to goal-forward and where Ruiz can be a major upgrade for the Union will be his ability to attack with the ball at his feet. Running at players will allow Mwanga, Le Toux and McInerney lanes to cut in behind defenses.

Mike: Only if they are down a goal late. I doubt that we will see Ruiz, Mwanga, and Le Toux all put out as strikers. Le Toux will be roving, and will make runs beyond the strikers, but he’ll also be counted on to track back a bit more. Down late in games last season, Nowak occasionally added Jack Mac to Le Toux and Mwanga to look for a goal.

4 Comments

  1. Great read, really liked the round table format and getting the different views on the the questions i was thinking about for the new season. CANNOT WAIT FOR THE NEW SEASON!!! UNNNIOOONNNN!!!!

  2. Let’s end the controversy, and just change the letter after Le Toux’s name on the official roster to “E,” as in Everywhere and anywhere he damn well pleases.

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