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2012 Union roundtable, part 1

The PSP writers discuss how the Philadelphia Union look ahead of the start of the 2012 season. You can read part two here.

Despite the Union defense finishing second in the league in 2011, we’ve  seen some defensive tinkering in the preseason. What formation can we expect to see most?

Ed Farnsworth: You gotta hope it is the straight back four that saw the team through most of 2011 so well, right? We saw some tinkering in Orlando but I don’t know what to make of that. It’ll be interested to see how smoothly Lopez meshes with Califf and who ever plays in front of him.

Greg Orlandini: I think we will see Valdes and Califf return as one of best center back tandems in MLS with Williams and Lopez at fullback. It is the most logical set up and I think will produce the best results.

Eli Pearlman-Storch: Ultimately it’ll all shake out and they’ll end up with the expected alignment across the back. Califf and Lopez will mesh well because while Garfan didn’t get forward all the time, Lopez will be better prepared to pick and choose the moments to bomb forward.

Dan Walsh: Predicting Peter Nowak’s formations is like predicting which way the wind will blow in a tornado. At the very least, we can expect a back four with at least one holding midfielder. So far, it looks like the old 4-2-2-2 might return, but your guess is as good as mine.

Mike Servedio: I think it’s a straight back four with Lopez replacing Garfan at left back. I expect to see too many two defensive midfielder formations again this season unfortunately.

Adam Cann: As strong as the Union’s defense was last season, the team struggled to possess the ball in the opponent’s final third. Getting the outside backs involved in the possession side of the offensive game would be a huge leap forward for this team. I expect to see a back four that expands and pushes Williams high up the pitch behind Adu or Marfan when the team has the ball. I hope the central middies can push higher this season as the Union seek a post-Le Toux offense that sees more of the ball.

Is there enough defensive depth?

Ed: In a word, no.

Greg: I don’t believe so. You have some youth and you can slide guys into different positions as stop gap measures, but overall no. I do like the pick up of Chris Albright, but I’m not sure what he has left in the tank. You worry a bit if you had to ask him to play more than a few games in a row.

Eli: Between Ray Gaddis, Chris Albright and Gabriel Farfan, the fullback positions are fine for depth. Center back is another issue. Lopez and Williams are your back ups there, and it should go without saying that if your backups are starters elsewhere on the field, then you’re very thin. Greg Jordan looked composed in his 30 minutes in Orlando, but he’s still a number of reverse appearances away from being a realistic option.

Dan: No. The Union still don’t have a true center back to fill in for Danny Califf or Carlos Valdes in case of injury or suspension. If Sheanon Williams has to slide inside again as a fill-in center back, it hurts you at two positions. Amobi Okugo can play center back, but should he? Ideally, probably not. The fullback positions are fine.

Mike: Would love to see one more veteran center back added to the roster. There are options at the outside positions but if Valdes or Califf goes down, I’ll be nervous.

Adam: I say go with what you’ve got. Greg Jordan was drafted to be a center back. You could play him and Amobi Okugo back there without even breaking up your starting midfield tandem. All this team needs is quality finishing and they will be fine. Defenders will be available when needed.

How will the goalkeeper situation pan out? (MacMath’s youth, what if he gets hurt?)

Ed: I’m thinking it’ll be something like this: Between the kind of errors we saw from Mondragon last season because he was 40 years old, and the kind of errors we’ll see from MacMath because he’s 20 years old, it all comes out in the wash. I think MacMath will do fine. If he get’s hurt, well, wouldn’t fans of most teams get nervous if their first string GK get’s hurt?

Greg: Zac has all the tools to be a top notch goalkeeper. I think he will have a good season, with the occasional growing pain thrown into the mix.

Eli: The Union have no choice now. With Chris Konopka signed, these are our three. MacMath will play every minute he’s capable of, regardless of form. If he’s hurt, the Union will struggle, mightily. There is no doubt the fanbase should be tremendously disappointed in the Union’s moves here. Veteran keepers are inexpensive and readily available. Giving MacMath an older, more experienced goalkeeper to train and study with would have been immense in the young keeper’s development. Mondragon was an ideal mentor for MacMath in 2011 and it is frustrating to see no one acquired to fill that role in 2012 and serve as a realistic safety measure if MacMath is forced to miss any minutes.

Dan: MacMath has more confidence and a better back line than Chris Seitz did, so he’ll likely fare better. He appears to have the talent to be a top goalkeeper. But what happens if he hits a few bad games, or if the center backs get hurt and open MacMath to more shots on goal? Will his confidence take a hit too? The backups are unproven at this level. Maybe they will eventually prove themselves, but they haven’t yet.

Mike: I expect big things from MacMath this season. I was impressed with his performance last season and think he is capable of having a superb sophomore season. Having never seen either of the other two goalkeepers, I will be very nervous if MacMath goes down.

Adam: MacMath is as good as anything that was available this offseason. He was as good as Faryd Mondragon last year and he will be the real deal in 2012. Bringing in a vet at this point could undermine MacMath’s confidence, so you go with what you have and trust that your defense will keep the shots to a minimum again.

Who will score the goals?

Ed: In 2010 it was one guy other than Le Toux scoring five or more goals (Mwanga had 7) with seven other goal scorers; in 2011 it was two guys (Mwanga had 5, Ruiz had 6) with 13 other goal scorers. We’ll all be expecting Mwanga to to have double digit numbers and we’ll expect Pajoy, and Martinez to a lesser degree, to be close to that because that’s why they were brought here. If the rest of team also continues to pickup goals, we should be good.

Greg: This is the biggest question mark going into the season. By default, Mwanga. He is the only striker left on the team with double digit career MLS goals. It is his line to lead as of right now.

Eli: Fair or not, it’s Mwanga’s team now and I believe that given consistent minutes he will thrive. His numbers may not be golden boot winning, but I’m expecting double digit tallies from the third year man. His and Lionard Pajoy’s back to goal play and the creativity of the Union midfield will be key in releasing both Josue Martinez and Jack McInerney in 2012. Both players can finish, but need others to set the table for them. If Freddy Adu, Roger Torres and Michael Farfan are on form, they can generate chances with the best of them. The Union will need contributions from all over their forwards (and some midfielders), but ultimately I’m confident that Danny Mwanga will be the breakout player of 2012.

Dan: Michael Farfan could prove to be the best Union attacker — and player — this season. But will it be with goals, creation, or both? Mwanga has the tools to be a stud in MLS. But who will score the goals? It may be that no one will score enough to make this team a top-tier team. We just haven’t seen enough of the team to know.

Mike: I have no clue. I know that Mwanga, Jack Mac, Marfan and Torres have goals in them. Hopefully the new strikers have some in them too. Pajoy should be the hold up man, but hopefully will be an aerial threat as well.

Adam: The midfielders will score the goals. The Union will get good production from Marfan, Adu, Torres and Gomez. Martinez and McInerney will chip in (please, sweet Peter, give McInerney the chance he deserves). If the past is any indication, the Union will score in unconventional ways and through fast counterattacks. The team’s ability to possess and create chances through offensive pressure will be the key that allows the midfielders to rise to the occasion.

Will the Union play three up top?

Ed: I think they will some of the time but I’ll defer to the more tactically knowledgeable on this one…

Greg: I think they will at times. Martinez reportedly can play wide. Adu is playing some right wing for the U-23. It’s so hard to talk formation when it comes to this team. Last year they played nearly every formation possible and rarely stuck with one for more than a couple games. Will we see a three man front? Yes, I’m just not sure how often.

Eli: Yes. They will. And they’ll play two up top. And one up top. That’s the certainty of the Union. They’ll play every possible formation at some point. With Gabriel Gomez, Brian Carroll and Amobi Okugo all as excellent holding options, I think the Union would do well to play a 4-3-3, implementing a narrow midfield, with Williams and Lopez providing attacking width. With two center forwards in Mwanga and Pajoy, and plenty of wide options in Josue Martinez, Jack McInerney, Chandler Hoffman and Freddy Adu, the Union could show a great number of very aggressive looks. And in the end, they are still the Union, so all forwards will rotate and take their chances in the center of the park.

Dan: Yes, they will try to, at times. But Nowak will continue to shift formations throughout the season, depending on the opponent and situation. He likes to tinker too much to expect him not to. The question is whether a three-man forward line may not work to the advantage of some of the forwards, particularly Jack McInerney. If Lionard Pajoy is the target forward, how will Danny Mwanga fare on the outside?

Mike: Probably not to start most games, but Nowak has shown he’s not afraid to throw on as many strikers as it takes to get second half goals. But who knows, maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised with a 4-3-3 positive line up at home sometime. A guy can dream…

Adam: Given the options at wide midfielder, chances are the team will be playing three or four up top whether they say so or not. If you stick Adu and Martinez or McInerney in those wide positions, you might as well just call it the 4-2-4 it is. I think that the Union will fail if they try to play a traditional 4-3-3. Danny Mwanga is a fine player, but he is not even at Juan Agudelo’s level yet. Agudelo was active in the U-23 USMNT win over Mexico and still found chances hard to come by. A successful 4-3-3 for the Union will involve three strikers willing to move all over the pitch, weave, read each other, get hit from behind, and do the dirty hold up play just over the halfway line. Mwanga has shown a willingness to do this. Will the rest of the strikers step up?

Where will Adu play?

Ed: Other than London in July, I really don’t know. He looked fantastic on the wing against Mexico last week.

Greg: I think he’ll swing around a bit. He’s been playing wing in the Olympic camp. I think behind the striker is his most comfortable position.

Dan: He belongs at center attacking midfielder or as a (very) withdrawn striker. Expect to see him outside, however, unless the Union deploy a 4-2-3-1, though even that is no guarantee to get him deployed centrally. Gabriel Gomez and Brian Carroll will be in the center of the field, and that may nudge Adu outside, depending on the overall formation.

Mike: I think we’ll see him all over the midfield. He’s been good on the wing for the U-23s and the Union could certainly use some quality outside midfield play. But I expect to see him slotted behind the strikers in the center of the pitch just as often.

Eli: When the Union acquired Adu, he seemed like the natural fit at attacking, central midfield, since the Union were lacking a player to consistently run there offense. Yet, Adu has played nearly every position OTHER than central midfield in his brief tenure with the Union despite Peter Nowak never having found his full time creative playmaker. Roger Torres certainly looked a skilled option, but Nowak sat him down for the stretch run in 2011. Deploying Adu wide right seems like the most likely situation for 2012 even though it unsettles Michael Farfan and the excellent chemistry he had built up with Sheanon Williams. But, Nowak has never been one for nostalgia and it seems he is ready to move on from the successes of 2011 by tinkering and retooling the Union yet again.

Adam: Adu has been effective internationally as a modified false nine. He plays between the lines… but wide. It’s an interesting take on the outside mid/wide striker position but one that seems to suit Adu’s mercurial skill set.

Carroll, Okugo, Gomez, Torres, Adu, Jordan: Where will all these center mids play?

Ed: Seems like the consensus is that it will be Carroll and Gomez together. After that my head starts to hurt with the possibilities of who should be out there. Adu being away so much with the US U-23s and then, hopefully, the Olympic team, is an opportunity that Torres. I think Okugo is ready to go but he won’t see consistent starts until next season (Please, oh please, Union, do not let him get away!)

Greg: Gomez is your starting defensive mid. Carroll will likely start next to him with Roger in front of them. Okugo may see more starts this season, but will likely be lost to the Olympics for a stretch. I think Adu plays some wing or off the striker. I want to see Adu and Roger together on the field this season.

Dan: They won’t. Jordan won’t get much time. Gomez is a lock to start. Carroll will likely pair with him. Okugo will likely rotate with them. Adu and Torres will probably be pushed out to the flanks in roles akin to the 4-2-2-2 that we saw often in 2010 and (less often in) 2011.

Mike: I don’t expect to see Jordan in a lot of league matches this season. Carroll and Gomez will partner when Nowak wants two defensive mids but hopefully Amobi works into that rotation somewhere as well. Adu and Torres should be further up the pitch and won’t be surprised to see either of them pushed wide at times.

Eli: Gomez is a guaranteed starter. Between his physical presence, excellent distribution skills and leadership, he needs to be on the field. Should the Union deploy two holding midfielders, Amobi Okugo should be the man to play beside Gomez. He has the best defensive range of the Union’s midfield options, and has already shown that he can be the midfielder to drop deep during Union counterattacks to hold down the fort. When it comes to the possession game, Brian Carroll simply does not have the necessary ball skills to contribute to a free-flowing, offensive unit. That said, I fully expect Carroll to start alongside Gomez the majority of the time. Carroll is a Nowak guy and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

Adam: Amobi Okugo is ready to go. But the Olympics gives the Union a mulligan on figuring out what to do with their young stud. Gomez has won nothing but rave reviews and Brian Carroll is going to be leaned on for leadership more than he was last season. Only an injury or run of very poor form will break up that tandem. Jordan is a center back, call him such. Torres is a mystery. He deserves a regular run but he is likely to see it during the dog days. The Union have always come out of the game with a stoic setup and that doesn’t favor Torres’ style of play.

Who will step up to be the offensive leader in 2012?

Ed: All I can say is that it is time for Mwanga to silence the doubters.

Greg: Mwanga is the man to lead the line.

Dan: Gabriel Gomez. Mwanga and Michael Farfan have the potential to emerge as stars if given enough time, but Gomez will lead the team as a calm link in the midfield.

Mike: Mwanga has to score. But Adu needs to be the engine.

Eli: I’m putting my trust in Danny Mwanga.

Adam: I believe it will be Gabriel Gomez. As the player in the middle of the pitch with a calm set of nerves and a sweet lob at his disposal, the Panamanian will be at the heart of the Union’s new-look offense if it’s going to have any real mojo.

Part two will appear on Wednesday.

17 Comments

  1. Josh of Kensington says:

    Mwagic is going to happen in PPL.

    • I’m with Adam and Dan in the goals department. If Mwanga gets to double digit goals, it will because the midfielders (Gomez, Marfan, Torres, Adu) are making dynamic runs, scoring goals, and attracting attention that will create space for Pajoy and Mwanga. Ideally, I would like to see that midfield group come up with 12+ goals, and 15 would be better to take the heat off the unproven forward line.

  2. Adam Cann says:

    Eli you are just never gonna give MacMath the freedom to be himself. He can’t always be looking at a vet over his shoulder!

    • He’s 20 years old. And a first year starter. He should be given all the help and mentorship they can possibly provide him. 2012 will not be his best year as a pro and anything that the Union can continue to encourage his development is a great idea.

      • Adam Cann says:

        Two words, one name: Rob Vartughian. You don’t want any aged, yesteryear vets contradicting the goalie coach.

      • Vartughian can do a ton for MacMath, but having a heady veteran around can influence a young keepers training, study and preparation habits away from the field and can become a resource that is not a direct member of the coaching staff.

  3. I am very worried about where the goals will come from. Have hope but am not convinced that Nwanga or anyone else will come through.

  4. Reading through this roundtable just reinforces my disappointment that Carroll is going to start. His inability to start the attack out of the back really undermines our chances of being a possession team. Please Peter, start Gomez and Adu as our CMs and let us take the game to the opponent.

  5. Gabriel Gomez is Panamanian……

  6. Section 116 says:

    Any thoughts about a veteran midseason loan? Maybe a stud European keeper pulls a “reverse Donovan” and comes over for a summer loan to mentor McMath?

  7. I think everyone is vastly underestimating Pajoy and Martinez and vastly overrating LeToux. I know he scored some goals, but if you take away his PK’s his numbers are not all that great, especially last year when he didnt he put one in forever

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