Offseason Issues

Offseason Issues: Edu and Okugo

Photo: Earl Gardner

In 2013, Amobi Okugo played defense, and he played it quite well. Okugo was so good, in fact, that he played himself out of the defensive midfield role he coveted. With Brian Carroll’s prime behind him, the Union then went out and completed a complicated loan deal for Maurice Edu.

But the 2014 season got off to a disastrous start. Austin Berry, brought in to replace Jeff Parke, suffered injuries and confidence-killing mistakes as Okugo’s partner in back. He was replaced by striker Aaron Wheeler in a move that will always mark the nadir of John Hackworth’s tenure as Union head coach. Hackworth was fired, and Jim Curtin decided Amobi Okugo was a midfielder once more.

The only problem: Edu, Vincent Nogueira, and Cristian Maidana were already in the midfield. And they looked good.

Philly tactics — how the midfield functions

If there is a single thread that tied together the tactical setups of John Hackworth and Jim Curtin, it is a willingness to let the attacking central midfielder roam the pitch in search of space.

The role of the attacking midfielder, then, is not to combine with the deeper players to control the game but to quickly find runners and start counterattacks. This means the sitting midfielders must be able to both control the center of the pitch by themselves and pick out long passes to the roaming creator.

The Union have three such holding midfielders: Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira, and Amobi Okugo. Nogueira is different from the other two. He can link play or punch the long pass from a deep position, offering a range of offensive skills unique on the Union roster. There are few players in MLS so adept at creating their own space and switching fields.

In short, Nogueira will play when healthy. And according to both the player and his coach, Nogueira is more comfortable in a deep role than as an attacking midfielder.

This leaves one spot in midfield for Maurice Edu and Amobi Okugo.

A big deal

More than in most leagues, central midfielders in MLS need to be treated like center backs. That is, they need time to jell and understand how to read each other. Major League Soccer is a much improved product from even five years ago, but it remains a mess tactically. Few teams have the creativity to execute a dangerous offense and the discipline to recover to a safe shape after a turnover. Those that see the light — RSL, LA, KC for most of the past two seasons — become perennial playoff contenders.

A consistent defensive midfielder or pair of deep-lying central midfielders can provide the spine that holds a team together when it gets disjointed. Look at Jermaine Jones in New England, Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander in New York, or Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani in Columbus for evidence. Look at Kansas City without Uri Rosell.

Best position — player’s perspective

But consistency has never been a close friend of Philadelphia Union. A combination of injuries and coach’s decisions produced a plethora of midfield alignments in 2014. So many, in fact, that it is still unclear whether the Union are a better team with Okugo or Edu next to Nogueira.

Both Amobi Okugo and Maurice Edu are starting caliber players. To get them both on the pitch, Curtin would often push Edu back to defense. Though both Okugo and Edu say they are happy doing whatever it takes to help the team, both clearly see themselves as midfielders first.

That either player can slide into defense without missing a beat is a boon for the team, but should it really be a preferred option?

Best position – coach’s perspective

Based on Jim Curtin’s decision in the biggest match of 2014, the answer is no. Against the best team in MLS, in a Cup final at home, Curtin dropped Okugo to fit Edu into the midfield. It was not a definitive “this-guy-is-better-than-that-guy” statement, but it was a clear preference.

Current options

Thus, there is a conundrum. When push came to shove, Curtin preferred Edu in midfield. Injuries to Ethan White and Carlos Valdes forced the Union interim head coach to move Edu into the back line week after week, avoiding awkward midfield choices in the process.

It won’t be so easy going forward. Curtin will either have to convince Edu he is a defender, or Philadelphia will need to make a choice between Edu and Okugo. Both players deserve to be on the pitch in MLS. Unless Edu returns to defense, it is difficult to conclude anything other than that either he or Okugo will be plying their trade elsewhere next season.

The best option: Moving Edu to defender

Unfortunately, the best option is also the least likely option. Convincing Edu to become a defender will be a difficult sell, particularly when he could find work in a midfield elsewhere in MLS and has no real reason to switch positions just to make the club happy. Edu played in back without complaint last season. But the turmoil of 2014 is over. A permanent move to the back is a much different request.

Should Edu be open to such a move, it is absolutely the best outcome for all parties. Okugo needs a full season in midfield to prove he can fulfill his vast potential, the Union need a stable central defensive pairing, and Edu likely needs a position change to become relevant to Jurgen Klinsmann.

The likely outcome: Okugo’s departure

Last week, Okugo said “no offers have been put on the table” by the only club he has ever played for in MLS. That speaks volumes about how the Union think the offseason will play out. It makes an Edu-centric midfield a near certainty next season.

Players like Okugo do not become free agents in MLS very often. He is a developing piece who can become a foundational presence for a club looking to stabilize its midfield with youth and leadership. The Union may be engaging in a strange, late-in-the-game negotiating tactic, but it is more likely that after keeping Okugo on the sidelines for years, and in the backline for another year and a half, they simply do not want to put in the time to find out what he looks like at his peak.

The fallout

Maurice Edu is a good player. In fact, he is a very good MLS player. And he will be better with a full season under his belt and a more defined role in 2015.

He will also be expensive, both now and in the future. It is unclear whether he still harbors ambitions of a European return.

Unfortunately for Edu, if he is seen as a player that was chosen by the club over Okugo, he may become symbolic of the Union’s lack of commitment to players the club should be developing. That stigma would be unfair to Edu, even though the perception that the club has failed to give young players the the opportunity to reach their potential would be justified.

Furthermore, questions remain as to whether Vincent Nogueira will be in Union colors next season. Should any two of Okugo, Nogueira and Edu leave, the Philadelphia midfield will look much less like the foundation of a playoff team — at least on paper — than it did this season.


In an ideal world, Maurice Edu partners with Carlos Valdes to become the most athletic, offensively talented central defensive pairing in MLS. Amobi Okugo is finally given a season in midfield to prove he can do at the professional level what he did in college and at every national team level except the big one.

But this is not an ideal world.

At this point, it seems likely that Maurice Edu and Amobi Okugo will both be midfielders next season.

But it may not be for the same team.


  1. Personally I don’t think any best solution includes moving a player out of position. Yes Edu looked good at CB … just like Okugo did during his CB honeymoon period.

  2. ‘Those that see the light’ are well coached sir. A that is the 1,000,000 question.

  3. I am of the opinion that that either Okugo or Edu has to go.
    Lets face it between Mboli Valdes and Edu(not to mention back up keepers) we would have probably the most expensive defense in the league. How much money our penny pinching front office are going to have back there? Especially when you need help in our strikeforce.
    So if Edu doesn’t play Central Defense then you have to play Edu and Okugo in defense or sit one of them. If you play both you are resigning yourself to having two Dmids. If you sit one you are sitting one of your best players on the bench.
    You have holes in your lineup that need to be filled, young kids that need to see the 18 and a limited budget. Keeping Okugo and Edu is a luxury that doesn’t make sense for the Union.
    Personally if I had to choose I pick Okugo.
    But Edu staying makes more sense for the team, the league, Okugos career goals and possibly even Edu.
    So I think Edu is staying.

  4. The Chopper says:

    This all comes down to dollars. Based on the Union’s restricted budget, keeping Edu at last year’s salary at jettisoning Okugo makes little sense. Edu is the better player at any position, but Okugo still has upside plays the midfield well enough and the money spent on Edu can be utilized elsewhere.

    The Union are probably dealing with the Edu issue now and are looking to resolve it before making any other moves. Yes, they would like him back, but at what cost? And would he consider a switch to CD? When they have those answers they can start letting the rest of the dominoes fall.

  5. I can’t understand why i am constantly reading here, on the PSP, about how it is questionable if Nogueira will be back next season. I’ve seen/read nothing anywhere else to give any clue to him possibly leaving. Where is this coming from?

    • I think it is neurotic conjecture. Are you a native Philadelphian? Many along the Schuylkill Corridor are forever preparing for the worst. The ghost of Reggie White and one more part of the pathos.

    • Ed Farnsworth says:

      Aside from the fact that the terms of MLS contracts are not disclosed (recall, for example, the speculation over whether or not Nogueira was a DP) and so we do not know how long his deal with the Union is, this is coming from various reports linked to in our news roundups. Here’s a Nogueira quote from an ESPN report back in April, that was based on an interview he did with French sports outlet L’Equipe:

      “The USA is the life I wanted to try. It won’t last a thousand years. Perhaps in two or three months I’ll say that I’m coming back. I don’t want to look too far ahead. I’m enjoying myself. Perhaps I’ll go to an exotic league, perhaps I’ll retire…But now, I have made the choice of liberty.”

      By the way, the headline of the ESPN article is “Vincent Nogueira doesn’t rule out switch”.

      In an interview on the Union website from a little more than two weeks ago, Nogueira said this when asked about his future with the team:

      “I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t really think about my future. My future as a professional, my future in Philadelphia, yeah, I don’t really think about it. I left France because I wanted to have fun and play soccer in a country and discover something completely new. I am doing that now with my life and I’m happy. I love playing for Philadelphia and I guess the only thing I can say about the future is that I hope I continue to perform well and play a lot of games here.”

      Perhaps, as Joel said, this is simply the kind of neurotic conjecture that goes with being a Philly sports fan. But when players are asked about their future and talk about perhaps returning home, or moving to an exotic league, or how they don’t have a crystal ball, well, no matter how much they also talk about enjoying their time in Philadelphia, some doubt may be reasonable, don’t you think?

      • you make me sad

      • Old soccer coach says:

        A technical point at least for print journalism as it has been. Headlines are not written by the articles’s authors. They reveal most how the sports editor thinks he can attract a reading to make an advertising sale. Headlines are not trustworthy sources of information.

      • Ed Farnsworth says:

        Hence me providing Nogueira’s actual words.

      • The Union FO better put a lot of time in convincing Nogs to stay. Without him on this squad at this point, the Union start at square one and have a long way in becoming a legit MLS team in my eyes.

  6. I think they both are gone.
    Both depart for Europe.
    Edu, to expensive to keep for what he produced
    Okugo, wants to try greener pastures

  7. 1. The Union are cheap.
    2. Garber loooooves Mo.

    Can U sign & trade within MLS where Edu could play CDM for a good club – maybe the Quakes under Dom – closer to home & (if important) Klinsy?
    Re-sign Amobi short term with a nice bump to showcase him for Europe. Apply the savings ($350k?) to a striker.
    Live with Berry/White + Valdes.
    Hey, Nick: No charge! Now find investors! Good boy!

  8. OneManWolfpack says:

    I think the Union are foolish to not spend he money to keep both players. I get we aren’t Seattle or LA, but this would be a chance to spend the money on proven, quality players, that the fans LOVE. If we add a striker and return Okugo, Edu (at CB, obviously), Nogs, and Chaco, we are instant contenders in the East. The salary cap will be going up, maybe the DP threshold goes up and we can figure it out… I don’t know.
    Look, I know the Sixers winning the NBA title this year is more likely to happen, then having BOTH guys stay, but is is where the organization should realize the value of both players on and off the field.

  9. Old soccer coach says:

    Edu is superior to Okugo as an offensive player in MLS because he can beat people one v one in the central midfield channel of the pitch. So far, Okugo does not do that. I refer everyone to the final vs Seattle.

    Has anyone ever thought to try Edu at attacking center mid? He is a significantly better athlete than Maidana, and MLS is an athletic league. Whether he has Maidana’s vision when Maidana’s head has not been Forced down by pressure is the question.

    • The “superior” offensive player Edu scored 3 goals and 3 assists last season. Okugo 2 goals and two assists. Just saying. The suggestion to replace Chaco with Edu in attacking mid is really adding to the ongoing confusions we know enough.

    • The “superior” offensive player Edu scored 3 goals and 3 assists last season. Okugo 2 goals and two assists. Just saying.

    • Well if that is the case Old Soccer Coach then Edu has failed. He has been suspect in the midfield this year and when has he beaten anyone this season one on one? Better athlete then Maidana? You might have a point there but he definitely has shown that he does not have the mindset or creativity that Chaco has. Edu could not play the defensive mid role good enough this year in my eyes. With the hype he got from the Union FO and from the MLS, Edu has really underachieved in my opinion.

      • I’m inclined to agree Union5. While Edu played quite well at CB, I found his midfield play to be completely underwhelming- at times good but never, “wow, that’s Maurice Edu- thankfully he chose the Union cause we are way better for it,” – and not creative enough up top to impact play on a regular basis and marginal in the DM hole which he more often than not was jauntily cruising back behind the ball carrier waiting for his CB to make a play because he was too inclined to get into the attack.
        Which is all fine, but that’s a lot of money to spend on someone who truth be told had “zero impact” on this team finishing any better than, well, sitting on their hands during the playoffs and watching from their Samsung. Have a nice career Mo. I can move on from you. Thanks for stopping by. Please resign Okugo as your holding midfielder for the next 3-5 seasons. Soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *