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10 questions for the 2012 Union: Part I

Photo: Paul Rudderow

With the SuperDraft behind us, thoughts now turn to the nitty-gritty of the 2012 Union season. Naturally, questions arise. Over a two-part series we pose ten questions to our Union beat reporter, Eli Pearlman-Storch, beginning in part 1 with a focus on formation, roster depth and leadership roles within the starting XI.

1. Midfield Madness

The Union are flush with talented midfielders. In 2011, the team started with a conservative setup that featured three central players behind the front line. As the team sought to improve offensively they pushed players wide but often preferred inverted wingers to true width. By the end of the season we were arguing about who fit best atop the loose diamond that became a default formation.

The defensive spot is Brian Carroll’s to lose but Amobi Okugo needs minutes. Gabe Gomez can play multiple positions while Josue Martinez is likely stuck on the wing unless the Union go three up top. And Michael Farfan has to fit in somewhere, right?

Eli, are there any automatic starters in the Union midfield?

Initially, I believe that Brian Carroll is the only man guaranteed to have his name on the roster card. But both Okugo and Gomez will be pushing hard for minutes and the Union will likely experiment again with two holding midfielders, meaning that two of those three players will be on the field together. Whichever tandem finds the best chemistry could become the go-to pairing for Peter Nowak as the season moves on.

In the attack, Nowak must find a place for Michael Farfan. The now-second year player proved his worth late in the season, winning a starting spot and proving to all of the teams that passed on him in the first round of the 2011 MLS Superdraft just how big a mistake they had made. But where he ends up playing could change depending on other circumstances. With the status of Freddy Adu and Roger Torres surrounded with uncertainty, Week 1 could see Marfan lined up in the center of the park in the attacking midfield role. Despite his excellent chemistry with Sheanon Williams out wide, his crosses are rendered less effective by a lack of aerial ability in the forward line and Farfan’s lack of elite speed might mean that a life in the middle of the pitch will better suit him as he matures.

2. The Seba Spot

Sebastien Le Toux is a striker, right? To take nothing away from his versatility, the guy is a stud up top but an average winger with subpar crossing abilities.

Eli, is there any reason to push Seba to the wing? Is the prospect of a HoffMwan frontline too good to pass up?

No. There is no reason to do push Le Toux wide. Le Toux the winger was deemed surplus in Seattle and Le Toux the winger endured the epic slump that  all of us remember all too well from 2011. One thing that must not be forgotten is that the Union have very few veteran players in the front six and while the inclination is to give consistent minutes to Mwanga, Hoffman, Martinez and McInernery, Sebastien Le Toux has proven his worth both as a goal scorer and a leader for the Union. Veteran leadership on the pitch is a very important and often overlooked part of a team’s construction and, in addition to his tremendous goal scoring record, Le Toux serves as a model for the young strikers in terms of hustle, work rate and heart.

Personally, with so many strikers on the roster, I am in favor of Le Toux leading a three man frontline. With any pairing of the four young strikers alongside Le Toux, none will feel overly pressured to be the main man and all three players will be able to move freely through the formation—a staple of Nowak’s offense—in order to make space for themselves and their teammates.

3. Are reinforcements needed?

Porfirio Lopez and Raymon Gaddis will bolster the thin back line. One has to assume that Greg Jordan will be groomed as a center back, right? RIGHT?? Can the Union make it through another year on a wing and a prayer with very little defensive depth?

With the lineup as is, the Union are fine for defensive depth. Both Gabe Gomez and Gabe Farfan can spell Porfirio Lopez if need be at left back. And out right, Gaddis is the natural backup for Williams, with Ryan Richter deputizing in a pinch. In the center of the park, the Union are still high on Joe Tait as the third choice centerback. Sheanon Williams has shown that he can slide inside in a bind, and yes, I believe that they’ll give Greg Jordan a look in the center of the defense. Hopefully they’ll bring him along a tad slower than Toni Stahl.

4. Pauno

Do the Union risk bringing Veljko Paunovic back in 2012? The Serbian did everything one could ask of a mid-season veteran signing last year. He scored, he said the right things, he was a great teammate, and he treated the fans with the utmost respect (there are few nicer people anywhere on Twitter). That said, should the Union risk going back to the well once too often? The front line is crowded and Pauno was not more than a 50 minute per game player in the midfield.

Eli, do you want more Pauno on your plate?

Yes. They should DEFINITELY bring him back—although not in a starting role. When he arrived last year, the concern was that he would take minutes away from the youngsters (which he did) but throughout the season he proved his steel as the Union’s sole aerial threat up front, throwing his body around with reckless abandon. Young players need to see that, he is a model professional and, as you mentioned, an excellent locker room guy. With four young strikers all in need of grooming, having a player like Paunovic on the practice field providing guidance and leadership is invaluable.

As far as on the field, I am hopeful that Paunovic’s role moves from a consistent starter to dangerous bench presence. When used for more than 50 minutes, his effectiveness trailed off dramatically, through no fault of his own, and therefore bringing him in late in games once the defense has begun to tire will allow him the best opportunity to score goals and influence results for the Union.

5. The US Open Cup

Big changes to the Cup format this season, not that any of it matters to the Union unless they actually, y’know, win a game in this competition. Peter Nowak put out a strong lineup last season and only some bad reffing and the luck of the draw that is penalty kicks kept the U from advancing past DC United.

Do the Union need a good showing in the US Open Cup this season or should they load all their marbles into the MLS chute and let the McLaughlins and Pfeffers handle Cup competition?

Good question. Naturally, with so many youngsters on the roster, the more games that can be had, the better. But to win those games, the Union will likely need a team with more experience and wisdom than a gang of Homegrown Players, rookies and other teenagers can provide. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nowak mixes up his side, perhaps with veteran defenders holding down the fort for a youthful midfield and attack in order to provide support and structure to any Cup tie. Progressing in the Cup would be an excellent outlet to get minutes for some of the Union’s talented young squad, but one wonders whether the coaching staff sees the competition as a distraction from the MLS season and would rather focus all of their resources on going deeper into the playoffs in 2012 in search of the club’s first shot at the MLS Cup.

Click here for Part 2. If you have your own questions to add to the discussion, please send them to info@phillysoccerpage.com and we will do a special post answering as many as we can.

9 Comments

  1. I love this question and answer format between Adam and Eli. All the juicy questions we fans talk about are brought up, and Eli’s analysis, as much as I hate to admit, is spot on. If only the brass was reading…

  2. next season, potentially, we have 5 center forwards, and one central attacking midfielder. (Michael Farfan)

    And for me, a midfield 3 of Carroll, Gomez, and Paunovic is just too slow, and clearly is not a dribbling threat to unlock defenses.

    As much as Freddy’s said the wrong things, and never really got his feet playing wise, it’ll be a huge loss to lose him and Roger.

  3. Soccerdad1150 says:

    nice stuff guys…well done

  4. sign Roger Torres!

  5. I still prefer the Union use 4 midfielders, in the diamond with Roger or Freddy (sub the one that doesn’t start) on top of the diamond. I could see Piotr use Farfan and Gomez (Garfan sub) on the wings, with Carroll behind. Then put Le Toux and Martinez up top (Mwanga sub).

    The reasoning is that Le Toux seems to play better in the 4-4-2 and Mwanga isn’t a good fit on the wing of the 4-3-3. Personally, I’d like to see the Union deal Carroll and start Gomez or Okugo at CDM, with Marfan and Daniel out wide, just so that we can move the ball around better. I know I’m probably in the minority, but I think a better-passing CDM is essential to our transformation to being a top side that can control the ball.

  6. My main question for the 2012 Union is what internationals will be cut? I agree with all of the arguments for keeping Paunovic but to me he seems to be one of the weaker links in our pool of younger international players such as Torres Daniel and Martinez.
    So with our abbundance of internationals, who gets cut?

    • Nobody yet, because we simply don’t know who’s returning yet. Torres and Daniel are not yet locks to return. Neither is Freddy Adu, and while he’s not an international, his departure could prompt the acquisition of a foreign player. Khalfan isn’t a lock to make the roster. And then there’s the prospect of trades and drafting another international, such as Evans Frimpong, in the supplemental draft. So it’s wide open, and a lot could happen between now and March.

  7. By all accounts, JackMac has excelled on the wing in Caleb Porter’s 4-3-3 system during the U-23 camps. I’d love to see that employed with something along the lines of:

    Faryd
    Williams-Valdes-Califf-Gomez
    Carroll-Okugo
    Adu
    McInerney-LeToux-Farfan

    What’s gonna be great is the amount of competition on this team. It’s going to make for a competitive preseason.

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