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4-3-3: GO BIG or go home, take two

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

With the signing of Lionard Pajoy, the Union may just be nearing the end of their offseason transactions (at least for outfield players). In a set of three installments, PSP’s Eli Pearlman-Storch outlines the most likely formations for the Union in 2012 and how the roster, as currently composed, is suited to play in each.

Following the 2010 campaign in which the Union never struggled for possession but often lacked the creative and forward thrust to convert the final ball, I proposed a 4-3-3 as the Union’s potential formation for 2011. Getting more bodies forward into the attack was a must, yet although the Union at times operated with all three of Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Mwanga and Carlos Ruiz on the pitch, it was in a more defensive 4-4-2 alignment, favoring the long ball option over the strong build up play that had defined the team in its rookie season.

With another year on the books and the Union still in need of a consistent system, I believe that the 4-3-3 is still the correct setup for the Union. Let’s explore.

4-3-3 for 2012

Union Starting Lineup 2012

Cupboard full of young strikers, check.

Defensive midfielders with passing range, check.

Rock solid defense with aggressive outside backs, check.

With a roster including equal numbers of strikers and defenders and an attacking force that can count only Freddy Adu with more than two years MLS experience, utilizing a three striker set will go a long way in keeping too much pressure from falling on the shoulders of any one player. It will also fulfill Peter Nowak’s desire for fluidity with all attacking players having the freedom to pop up all over the field and back into the midfield, looking for work.

The Union’s SIX strikers

With Wednesday’s addition of Colombian striker, Lionard Pajoy, the Union are now essentially capable of rotating two full lines of strikers. Every Union supporter awaits 2012 with an eagerness to see Danny Mwanga ascend into the role of a dominant center forward in MLS and should he get out of the blocks quickly, Pajoy will likely be relegated to the substitutes bench. While Mwanga and Pajoy will be expected to hold up play and win the ball, both on the deck and in the air, they will have the option of four different speedy wingers around them, all of whom will require the constant attention of any MLS defense. New additions Josue Martinez and Chandler Hoffman, along with Jack McInerney and Freddy Adu, are all ideally suited to open up MLS defenses if given an inch of space.

Freddy Adu, a striker? Yes. The beauty of playing one of the wing forward positions in a 4-3-3 is the ability to roam freely in search of the ball. In 2011, Adu showed his desire to pop up on both wings in an effort to free himself and, without the center-of-the-pitch shackles of the CAM (center attacking midfield) role, Adu would be free to not only exploit wide space put to also drop deeper or even sit behind the central striker to find the ball and create chances.

This sort of free-flowing motion among forwards has been a hallmark of the Union under Peter Nowak. With all three forwards constantly on the move, looking to find the ball, and each other, the Union can finally use their motion to expose slower MLS defenders, rather than simply confuse themselves.


Second half punch, just add flair, speed and a finisher

Michael Farfan. Having turned his disappointment at dropping into the second round of the 2011 MLS Draft to becoming a solid Rookie of the Year candidate, Farfan’s entire skill set should have the PPL faithful very excited for 2012. Look for him to assume more of a leadership role in the offense, having forced his way into the starting lineup late in 2011 with hard work and tremendous quality. He just noses out Roger Torres, in my opinion, because he is a bigger, stronger option than the diminutive Colombian. While Farfan lacks the elite speed of a true winger, the 4-3-3 allows others to do that work. A move inside suits him perfectly because it would allow him to pull the strings and set the table with his smart passing and guileful trickery on the ball, rather than race up and down the touchline, serving in teasing crosses that were rarely met by a teammate last season.

As for Torres, he still has a major part to play in 2012. From 2010 to 2011, Torres showed massive improvement in terms of his maturity on the ball. He was far more clever with his passing arsenal and showed a vastly better work rate when it came to attending to his defensive responsibilities. Should the Union be in need of more offensive punch, the removal of a holding player and the introduction of Torres would give the Union No. 8 the freedom to take over a game while Michael Farfan would fall in as a more box-to-box type player role, maintaining the strong possessing abilities in the heart of the Union midfield.

The Holding Duo

Union Goon Squad. Only the fullbacks are under 6'

While new Union signing Gabriel Gomez has shown excellent leadership and strong ball distribution as the captain of Panama, Brian Carroll and Amobi Okugo are still the right guys for the job of filling out the defensive responsibilities in the midfield of a 4-3-3. The reason is simple: range. While Gomez is an excellent provider for the attack, he tends to hover around the center circle, directing traffic and dictating play. In a system where the Union allow four players to loot and plunder high up the pitch at any—and hopefully every, moment—the two players left to hold down the fort must be those who can cover the greatest amount of terrain and serve as the team’s primary ball winners. Simply put, this is what Brian Carroll does. Create pressure and win the ball back for the Union. He would also provide defensive cover when outside backs Sheanon Williams and new arrival Porfirio Lopez go tearing down the field to join in the attack.

The ever-improving Okugo appears set to shed his GA status and feature heavily for the Union in 2012. Offseason training stints with Bundesliga club Freiburg, a GA tour of the Netherlands, and strong camps with the US U-23 squad all yielded positive results for a player looking to have a breakout season for both club and country. Where Carroll acts as a more purely defensive force, Okugo will be called on to advance play with his excellent vision and passing range. The higher both he and Carroll can hold their line, the easier it will be for Michael Farfan and/or Roger Torres to drive the attack forward.

Second round draft pick Greg Jordan provides additional depth at the DM position, as does Keon Daniel, whose experience a central midfielder for Trinidad & Tobago could mean he will vie for time with Gomez for the box-to-box job when Okugo departs to join the 2012 US Olympic team.

The D

More of the same please. The addition of Porfirio Lopez to an already stout defensive backline means that the Union can now threaten from either wing with an explosive counterattacking burst. But the defensive notes here are not for the back four, but for the front four. In a highly aggressive formation like a 4-3-3, you MUST have the ball. That means that relying on your defense and holding midfielders to do 100 percent of the defensive work and ball-winning is simply not in the cards, despite how good both of those units are for the Union. Cranking up the defensive pressure once the ball has been lost begins with the forwards and, if they show the tenacity to put high pressure on in the midfield and in the attacking third, opponents will always struggle to build from the back, as their defenders and distributing midfielders will be constantly under threat from the Union’s hard-running strike force.


Potential lineup during London '12

The 2012 Philadelphia Union are deeper than ever in their history. With a bench that could include Pajoy, McInerney, Gomez, Torres, Daniel, either Gabe Farfan or Ray Gaddis for defensive cover, and a backup goalkeeper, the Union will have solid options to change their approach mid-match that they have not had before.

Need more speed in attack? Jack McInerney can add the second half surge of energy if the Union need to find a winner or equalizer. Lionard Pajoy can bring aerial presence and veteran goal-scoring experience into a match that requires a late goal to tilt the tie back towards the Union. Physical match in need of bigger bodies to see out a result? Gomez and Daniel fit that bill. Roger Torres is a game changer whose late introduction always speeds up the game for the Union, as he tirelessly looks to create chances in the final third.

That is not even to mention rookie hitman Chandler Hoffman, speedy winger Nizar Khalfan, and Philly’s own homegrown prodigies Zach Pfeffer and Jimmy McLaughlin, all of whom will get a look in 2012, especially once potentially five of their teammates, Okugo, McInerney, Adu, Williams and Zac MacMath pack their bags first for Olympic qualifying and then, hopefully, London 2012.


  1. 100% right. So should I send this to Nowak, or will you?

  2. I already sent it to him! Everyone should.

    • Then consider sending the next two pieces of the series too. 🙂 I’m looking to see what Eli’s 4-2-3-1 piece looks like. Adu as a No. 10: Will anyone ever do it?

      • MikeRSoccer says:

        I was just about to post that I would really like to see the Union employ a 4-2-3-1. With the surplus of quality CDM’s that we have I really think we should have two deployed as much as possible so we get our money’s worth. Whether it’s Carroll/Gomez/Okugo is besides the point because we can use who ever is on form and also start a rotation if need be to keep players fresh. I’m nervous about employing a 4-3-3 because our strike force is composed of 3 players whose playing styles all lean towards the poacher (Pajoy, JacMac, Danny) and if we are using any of them as wing players rather than striker we might as well keep Garfan at LB while were at it. If we use the 4-2-3-1 we can end up with either Torres or Adu as the CAM, keep Marfan on the RW to preserve that dangerous relationship of him and Williams and on the LW we can use Daniel, Martinez, Khalfan, or even Adu/Torres given that they are both left footed. Moving to the 4-2-3-1 gives us a formation that any of our players on the entire team can easily slot in to either as a sub or in case of injury. It gives the team a system that plays to it’s strengths. I’m looking forward to seeing Eli’s perspective on the formation.

      • I’m nervous to let you all see me arguing against myself. I generally like to keep those debates muffled inside my head.

  3. Sounds and looks good in theory! Im thinking you will be getting to the 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 tomorrow which would be my perferred lineup with the players at our disposal. Carroll/Gomez running the midfield is mouthwatering to me.

  4. You forgot to mention the part where we sign Miglioranzi the day before the season starts and play with 3 centerbacks again (don’t lie to yourselves; in the back of your minds, you’re all secretly afraid this could actually happen).

    • I’m totally with you on that fear…but that said, at the moment our third center back on the depth chart is…our right back? We definitely need some depth at center back (NOT Migs of course) that does not involve playing someone else out of position.

  5. This is what I see as our Depth Chart right now.

    RB – Williams, Gaddis, Gomez
    CB – Valdes, Califf, Gomez, Jordan
    LB – Lopez, Garfan, Gomez
    CM/DM – Carroll, Gomez, Okugo, Jordan
    CM/AM – Marfan, Torres, Adu, McLaughlin, Pfeffer
    LM – Adu, Garfan, Daniel, Marfan
    RM – Marfan, Khalfan, Garfan, Gaddis
    ST – Martinez, Pajoy, Hoffman, Mwanga, McInerney

    Just my opinion. Gomez is probably our go to 3rd string center back as he’s played there a few times, as did Jordan. He’ll probably be our go to most defensive positions really if injuries/suspensions ever bite us in the ass.

    Depending on the formation we’re running (most likely a 4-3-1-2 in my opinion, 4-3-3 is worthless with our players, Adu on the wing is like Mapp on the right side) we can expect to find Carroll, Gomez, and Marfan in a 3 mid line with Gomez and Marfan playing the offensive center mids (or in desperate situations Torres/Garfan and Marfan).

    As for forwards. Mwanga just is so not impressive to me anymore. The fad is over and I barely want to call him a SuperSub anymore. Hoffman edges him in my eyes, especially when being paired with a player like Pajoy or Martinez who are creative and like have good ball skills.

    I expect to see (4-3-1-2
    Williams – Valdes – Califf – Lopez
    Gomez – Marfan
    Pajoy – Martinez

    Maybe one of the mids exchanged for Khalfan who is a spark off the bench with his speed.

    • Isnt your 4-3-1-2 really a 4-3-3 or a 4-1-2-1-2?

      • 4-3-3 = 2 wingers and a lone striker. (Much like Barcelona or Inter a few years back)
        4-3-1-2 = 2 forwards and an attacking mid. (Chelsea ran this for a few games this season, and they used to run it a few years ago with Mikel the holding mid and Lampard/Essien playing attacking roles).

        Totally different than a 4-3-3 and a 4-1-2-1-2

    • i think you are going way overboard in overvaluing the new strikers. Settling in MLS takes time. And in Martinez’s case, if he was an excellent finisher, they wouldn’t have been so ready to part with him. Hoffman also has to be fifth on the depth chart. We’ve seen the way the Union cling to a players GA status and Hoffman will be no different.

      • +1. There is no way Hoffman is getting minutes before Danny. Mwanga is due to make 500k next year if still around, so I expect Nowak to feature him prominently, especially since he isn’t going to the Olympics.

  6. I know I’m in the minority but I hate this lineup. Adu is useless as a winger. And after seeing Gomez against USA, I also think Gomez is the best CDM we have. I believe the diamond midfield makes sense and will allow us to score if the wingers actually play as wingers.

    • Maybe I’m not seeing it, but for the style the Union plays, the CDM has to be a ball-winner first and foremost and that’s not really Gomez’s game. It looks like Okugo will be the one to lose out though because he is probably the best of the three as a complete player, but with so few veterans on the team Carroll and Gomez have to get minutes.

      • I haven’t watched him enough to form a definitive opinion, but Gomez seemed to make strong tackles against America and from the few highlights I’ve seen. Even if Carroll starts at CDM, I expect to see Gomez as a “winger” (in the way that Nowak played Naka as a winger) with Michael Farfan on the other side, despite the fact that it makes no sense.

        My biggest issue though is with Adu. I see him playing his best, by far, when sitting underneath the strikers in the middle of the field. I just see a lot of standing around and not enough passing through the midfield with this particular midfield in the 4-3-3. Carroll simply is a terrible passer. If you wanted to stay the 4-3-3, I actually think we would be best off with a midfield of Gomez, Okugo, and Adu/Torres. Marfan can be very strong in that winger role because he has so much more movement than Adu. helping to set up a strong attack. Anyway, just my two cents.

      • Completely agree on Okugo and Gomez before Carroll, but that’s not the way it will play out. I was attempting to balance my own beliefs with the truths we have come to accept about this team.

      • Carroll deserves more credit. He is an automatic starter in the Union side. When it comes to passing, he’s no Sergio Busquets, but he does a good job. I don’t know how any other midfielders I’ve seen in Union past (Andrew Jacobsen, Kyle Nakazawa, even Okugo) can possibly rate as better passers.

        Gomez is talented, but given the fitness issues that are being floated around, I can’t see him starting most games. Even in fantasy soccer, I’m not convinced that Gomez would start in Carroll’s place.

        Further, Okugo will need to start most games for the sake of the team, but that may or may not happen. For me, if the Farfans impress in training, than Okugo could be relegated to the bench. Both twins are better in wider positions, but if Garfan does well, he could take that responsibility, and Marfan, who can play unnaturally in a centrally position–though very well, as we saw during a stretch last season in which he played just ahead of Carroll and to the left–could very well become Okugo’s direct competitor. The ideal situation, I think, is a certain shape of Eli’s Carroll-Okugo-Marfan triumvirate, but I’m not sure how likely it is.

  7. I will start this out by saying I am a dumbass, I admit it. With that in mind can someone tell me this, What is Freddy Adu’s purpose on this team is? I know he plays midfield but I can’t really see what his role is on the team or what he is trying to accomplish when he is out there. Because now according to you he can now be a forward and I haven’t seen him do anything well at this point or anything that can suggest he can be a forward.

    Ok you may now flame away.

    • No flame. I just think you need to give freddy a clean slate going into 2012, as hard as that may be. Given the salary he is paid and the notoriety he receives, it’d be foolish to think that he will not feature prominently this year. Also, with the Union’s rotating fluidity, he would not operate like a true winger, no one expects him too. Adu is at his best when he can drop behind a striker and exploit the space between the DM and the fullbacks. From there he can be effective playing diagonal balls through the back 4 to create goals. He can also sneak in and poach goals from the backside. I know this seems crazy given what he brought to the table in 2011, but it is what the Union will expect out of him in 2012. If he doesn’t come through, then sure, boo the crap out of him.

      • Spot on.

      • Maybe this rant was out of residual bitterness over the Le Toux trade. In my mind it boils down to the organization choosing Adu over Le Toux, and that kind of drives me crazy because for all the hype Adu hasn’t done anything of note. It’s kind of like watching your grandmother spend all of her Social Security money on lottery tickets and waiting for publishers clearing house to show up with a giant oversized novelty check and some balloons.

        …. maybe today Adu, Maybe today.

        on the plus side I think the team is better on the whole than it was last year, just a lot of If and potential.

      • So, they’ll play him because they pay him too much to sit? Great…

  8. I actually wrote a post about this too here: http://www.brotherlygame.com/2012/2/1/2765148/a-hybrid-formation
    But I use the 4-3-3 in my fifa (which I know isn’t the be-all-end-all) career and I’ve found a great deal of success with Mwanga in the center and Adu on the right wing although i will say my 4-3-3 started with one CAM on CM and one CDM (a slightly offset triangle) and with all our u-23 players playing this style as well i think that has some benefits for the team

  9. Williams-Valdez-Califf-Lopez
    ——–Chips Pajoy——-

    How bout this?

  10. Can’t go wrong with the defense and I think the midfield, if perhaps a bit wishful, is pretty forward-thinking; definitely, the right players are selected.

    I don’t see how our squad’s forwards can round out a 4-3-3 du jour–mostly I expect more of a 4-5-1 than a 4-3-3. Hoffman and Martinez strike me as players whose games are 99% in the box, in front of goal. Mwanga and, based on what little I’ve seen of him, Pajoy can play deeper, but I can’t imagine them playing wide. Adu and McInerney seem like they could play wide, but I think both would be better closer to the middle.

    I don’t expect to see more than two of any of these six on the field at any given time–more likely, I think guys like Daniel, both Farfans, and possibly Khalfan to take the spots of any hypothetical third “forward,” because I don’t see three forwards (“our” three forwards) lending themselves to build-up play on the wings. Seeing as Williams certainly, and Lopez possibly, are not really attacking forwards–I have no idea why so many people see the former in particular as such given his play last year–we would be a very narrow team with three of our strikers on the field.

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