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Four under 22: The Union strikeforce?

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Pauno is gone. That much we know. Le Toux’s status? Training with Bolton with the potential of a deal. Basically, completely up in the air. That makes this as good a time as any to look at the four strikers who will be battling to win playing time throughout 2012. All are excellent prospects, but who can be the breakout star to lead the Union line this year?

While I have my own opinions on these players, I will do my best to leave those out until the “Subjective Conclusion.” This is a discussion that ends in a question mark. Why? Because all of the sudden the Union’s offseason activity appears to be far from over…

Danny Mwanga

The Numbers

6-2, 175 lbs, 20 years old

Through injury, dipping form, and the arrival of veteran strikers like Ruiz and Paunovic around him, Mwanga was unable to match his rookie year totals from 2010 when he netted 7 times to go along with 4 assists over 1,461 minutes. That rookie year saw him start 17 matches and appear as a substitute 7 times. In 2011, his overall minutes rose to 1,535, though most came as a substitute. Mwanga only started 13 times this past season, while coming off the bench in 15 different occasions.

Pros

Mwanga is at his best when he is confident enough to drop into the midfield to receive passes, allowing him space to run at defenders. His elite speed and strength make him a constant danger man for the Union because he can either run past a defense or, starting level, can dash in behind to finish a goal-scoring opportunity. Additionally, Mwanga shows veteran composure inside the box and, while he did not finished as many chances as Union fans would hope, it is not for a lack of composure. He worked hard after his rookie campaign to improve his hold up play, and with another offseason under his belt, he will continue to improve with his back to goal.

Cons

Confidence, work rate, finishing, and staying healthy. The first three are common concerns among young strikers, but after an appetite-whetting rookie campaign, his sophomore slump was troubling for many who expected the No. 1 pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft to be the Union’s breakout star in 2011. While all concerns can be addressed with time and experience, the fourth issue is the most troubling: The Union need Mwanga to be available 100 percent of the time in order for him to become the star that so many expect him to be.

Subjective Conclusion

Assuming a clean bill of health—and with Mwanga’s history, that is an assumption—2012 can be an excellent year for the third year player. Strikers that rely on strength rather than pure speed generally take more time to develop because their bodies are constantly changing and maturing. A 20-year-old Mwanga is by no means a finished product, but he has shown sparks of becoming a stud in MLS. As the most physical of the Union forwards, Mwanga is the natural choice to pair with any of the other three players on this list, and he will need to prove his durability in order to build chemistry, no matter with whom he is matched.

Jack McInerney

The Numbers

5-10, 151 lbs, 19 years old

Entering 2012, McInerney has still yet to break 1,000 minutes for the Union over his first two seasons. Like Mwanga, McInerney played more minutes in 2011, 558 compared to 350 in his rookie year, but scored fewer goals, with just 1 goal in 2011 compared to 3 the year prior. He has yet to record an assist in his Union career. With the near certainty that his Generation adidas status will expire this season, there should be no financially imposed minute restrictions on the Union’s young attacker.

Pros

Running without the ball, getting behind defenses and communication. When McInerney gets himself on the field, one thing is certain: He is going to cause trouble for the opposition wherever he goes. Despite being the youngest of the Union’s crop of forward, he is mature well beyond his years when it comes to ghosting in behind defenses. And that is not to say that he is sneaky. Quite the contrary, unlike many of his teammates, McInerney is demonstrative and deliberate about demanding the ball, pointing to the spot where he wants service and using his excellent acceleration and smart lines of running to burst into the opponent’s box.

Cons

Finishing. Poachers score goals. Jack will be a poacher, but not until he begins to finish the large number of chances he creates for himself. And that, as with all young strikers, comes with time and minutes played.

Subjective Conclusion

Jack deserves a chance. No GA status worries, another year older and an extremely exciting U-23 camp, all lead to the expectation that McInerney will get more opportunities to showcase himself in 2012. Perfectly suited to partner with a bigger, stronger forward like Mwanga who can occupy the central defense’s attention, McInerney’s slicing, dynamic runs will put him into the space he needs to capitalize on the service of distributors like Michael Farfan, Roger Torres, Freddy Adu and Amobi Okugo.

And for the record, McInerney is NOT a midfielder. The few instances where he has been dumped out on the right side of midfield, he has looked lost and devoid of ideas. He needs to live life higher up the field, constantly pushing the offside line.

Josue Martinez

The Numbers

5-10, 159 lbs, 21 years old

Martinez joins the Union after coming through the C.D. Saprissa youth system and spending over two seasons with the first team of Costa Rica’s top club side. Martinez scored in his debut, Nov. 15, 2009, and went on to appear 25 times for Saprissa, logging 1,602 minutes and scoring 8 goals. In 2010, his minutes and production decreased, with 23 appearances yielding 1,092 and 5 goals. This past campaign, his appearances again decreased, this time to 18, though he found the net 6 times over 1,393 minutes.

Pros

Experience, speed and versatility. The young Costa Rican arrives in Philadelphia having logged over 4,000 minutes in the professional ranks with C.D. Saprissa. Not only has he featured in the Costa Rican domestic league, he has had the opportunity to test himself in the CONCACAF Champions League. Additionally, after starring in the 2009 U-20 World Cup, in which Costa Rice claimed fourth place, Martinez has gone on to earn 16 senior caps, with 2 international goals to his name. Similar in stature to McInerney, Martinez uses excellent pace to get in behind defenders, though he is more likely than his Union counterpart to attack the defense with the ball at his feet. Scouting on Martinez suggests that he can operate as a central striker, in a withdrawn role, or even as a winger. This versatility will have certainly pleased Peter Nowak, who no doubt will be looking to Martinez to be a spark in 2012.

Cons

Finishing. The curse of the young striker. Yet, one of the knocks on Martinez is that Saprissa allowed him to leave based on an inability to convert goal-scoring chances. Statistically, he scored once every 3.5 appearances, which on Costa Rica’s elite club side means he more than likely spurned a great number of chances.

Subjective Conclusion

The Union faithful will have to wait to see how his skill set translates to MLS and whether another year of maturation will lead to a more polished finisher. It is hard to project exactly how he will cope with the rough and tumble soccer that is MLS, but his versatility should suit him nicely in Nowak’s flowing, rotating system, allowing him to pop up wherever he chooses to make an impact.

Chandler Hoffman

The Numbers

6-0, 160 lbs, 21 years old

Hoffman arrives in Philadelphia as a Generation adidas member for the class of 2012 after falling to the Union as the thirteenth pick overall in this year’s draft. In Hoffman’s final collegiate season at UCLA, he led the Pac-12 with 18 goals, which was also good for fourth in the country, making him a MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist. In his three-year career with the Bruins, he finished with 29 goals and 9 assists in 54 games.

Pros

Finishing. College is an entirely different ballgame than the pros, but while plenty of highly rated draft picks earned their selections through potential, Hoffman finishes his chances. Whether he can translate that production into MLS is the big question, but his goal tally from this fall is nothing to scoff at.

Cons

Lack of pro experience. All three of the Union’s other young stars have two or more years of professional experience under their belts. Obviously, this is not a knock on Hoffman’s ability, but it will factor in personnel decisions as Peter Nowak will handle the rookie with more care than his other strikers, regardless of age.

Subjective Conclusion

While Hoffman projects as a potentially dynamic contributor to the Union offense, he will likely be last on the depth chart in 2012. The retention of his GA status for another year will be important to the Union and Peter Nowak is always slow to break in young players. Hoffman will get his shots, but is unlikely to feature as a consistent starter.

In Summary

Speed, check.

Ability to run in behind defenses, check.

Strength in the air, negatory.

Hold up play? Mwanga, but that’s about it.

This is a foursome with a great number of similarities. They all prefer to face goal, either with the ball at their feet or running into space to receive it. Chandler Hoffman has shown an exceptional ability to do the dirty work around the opponents six yard box to create goals, but he, like Martinez, will have to prove they can adjust to the speed and physicality of MLS. Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerney, on the other hand, must prove that despite disappointing sophomore seasons, they can hold up while playing increased minutes and continuing to improve. That means converting chances and becoming double-digit goal scorers.

Glass Half-Empty Scenario

Who is going to be the leader up front? Mondragon, Califf and Valdes have the back sewn up tight, but what about in attack?

Paunovic proved an excellent veteran presence as a mentor both on and off the field for younger players, while Le Toux was the consummate leader by example. If neither is to return, the Union attack is simply too young, and the pressure to succeed is too great. If we are to assume the Union play a two-striker set formation, that means there are over 6,000 minutes of playing time to be divided. Mwanga has yet to prove that he can stay healthy, Martinez has never hit the 2,000 mark, Jack hasn’t even hit 1,000 and Hoffman’s minutes will be tightly monitored from a GA status perspective. Besides, none of the four players mentioned above has shown adequate ability or desire in the air. Thus, the Union needs to go out and acquire a veteran target striker, whether from within the league, Central or South America, or even Europe. Finding a player to help the Union develop both on and off the field is critical to the team’s continued development and success.

Glass Half-Full Scenario

Let’s go for it! The Union have never been a team that plays with natural width anyway. So why not stretch the full length of the field and kill them with speed? Playing narrow and clogging the center of the pitch with dangerous attackers and playmakers will provide ample chances for our young striker core to torture the larger, more stationary defenses of MLS. Besides, a tandem of Mwanga and McInerney (or Martinez) is exactly what the fans have been clamoring for and, while it may take some time for the two to start producing at full speed, once they do, look out! Additionally, should he return, Freddy Adu can slot in as a withdrawn striker to further augment the attack.

It took three years, but let’s give the young kids the keys to club.

So? How full is your glass?

18 Comments

  1. I hear the JPA still hasn’t come to terms with Chivas regarding his contract. Unite him with best friend Mondragon and we have a veteran target man who has an aerial presence.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      Luca Toni is unsettled at Juve. He’s only 34 and apparently in talks with Montreal. We could probably highjack that move too.

      • Eli, I hate you for suggesting this. If Luca Toni pulls on the Union sweater I will use my last dollar to hire someone to hold a small black rectangle over the portion of the television around which Toni is oafishly lumbering. I don’t care how good of a fit he is. I don’t care how many headers he would win. You’ll pay for this, Human Storch.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        He could be MLS’ Mario Gomez.
        Check and mate…

      • THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE MARIO GOMEZ!!!

    • From Nowaks position, It’s pretty clear that the Union value youth and potential. Why would they decide to get rid of the teams only true start who is only 28 and then bring in some half hearted old man who won’t fit on the team?
      In fact, the only real bad move they have made personnel wise the first two seasons was Ruiz, and why would they repeat that mistake again?
      And from my perspective, I would MUCH rather watch our young talented players grow (and witness growing pains and all!) than watch some beached whale lumber around the field and suck up minutes like a vacuum.

  2. Josh T. of Kensington says:

    When I heard Le Toux and Pauno were leaving, I thought, shucks, kids for a strike force? However, if it makes Mwanga a regular starter I’m for it. I think the Mwagic is better than this league, and given time on the pitch, he will know it better, and thus demonstrate it more. And then all these mighty MLS defenders can look on the Congolese and despair.

  3. Rolando de Aguiar says:

    “Finishing. The curse of the young striker.” Conventional wisdom. But is it true? At least in MLS over the past couple of years, the data seem to lean that way. If we operationalize “finishing” as “percent of shots that become goals,” then older MLS players convert more often. Obviously a ton of noise in the data, but still: http://5050ball.tumblr.com/post/16122701266/turns-out-that-accuracy-is-the-curse-of-the-young

  4. I’m still optimistic about this season, especially if we have young forwards to watch. I think if the biggest complaint about them is that “they’re young” then we can’t be that bad off, the talent is clearly there and constant minutes can only unlock it faster.
    I would also like to point out – the “In Summary” section lists ‘Hold Up Play’ and ‘Aerial Prowess’ are the negatives. Well, those are still negatives even with Le Toux here.

  5. Gonna be especially tough when Jack Mac goes to the Olympics. Time for ohdannymwanga to step up.

  6. I have faith in the finishing abilities of these kids. What concerns me is the creation of chances. Torres is a real talent, but is he sticking around? Mapp is gone and Adu created very little.

    • Very good point. Hopefully Marfan continues to grow and Nowak implements a consistent, structured midfield that has time to grow and mesh.
      Of course if we do the same thing as last year and have 147 midfield combinations we could be in for a long year.

    • We have plenty of Farfans to cover Mapp’s departure, and hopefully, the return of Keon Daniel. Then again, maybe Nowak will play Pfeffer for no reason.

  7. The expectations are much higher for Mwanga this year, with or without Le Toux – he needs the opportunities and the minutes to produce. And Piotr needs to leave him out there – no more 2 games and sit him if he looks out of it. Problem solve on the field.

    Are we ready for the Danny and Jack show? I think that would be a valuable learning experience for both of them, but what are the expectations for Jack come the olympics? No guarantee he makes the qualifying roster or the olympic roster (which are two different things) but I think the qualifying roster is a definite possibility. Are we ready for the Josue and Danny show then? Thats definitely a no, BUT, we got young players to play them, not to sit them.

    Le Toux played every minute last season – losing him would be a big loss in many many categories, but it also opens up the necessary space in the 2nd forward role for Jack, Josue, and Chandler to see the field. With him out there, the opportunities for that crew remain limited.

    I think if Le Toux goes, we need another forward to push Mwanga, not to start every game. Competition for places is essential and Danny is the only bigger-bodied player up front. Piotr kept Brian Ackley around Reading and Harrisburg last year but I don’t think he’s the answer. Interested to see who’s in preseason at forward when we open up camp.

  8. Can Gabriel Gomez move up top temporarily during the olympics when our kids are away? I know he’s versatile and can play in the back, but did I read somewhere that he plays forward too? Or just on the Wing?

  9. …what about Michael Farfan moving from the wing and playing up top with Danny Mwanga?

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