Feature / Players to watch

Player to watch: Haris Medunjanin

Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Editor’s note: To read each post in the Player to Watch series, click here.

Haris Medunjanin is the answer to the question Philadelphia Union have been trying to answer for eight months. The question is just how good an answer he’ll be.

Philadelphia Union have been trying to replace midfield fulcrum Vincent Nogueira since the Frenchman suddenly departed the club last June. At the time, they were 6-3-5 and near the top of the standings. They went 5-11-4 the rest of the way and backed their way into the playoffs.

With Nogueira, they were a team that could work the ball upfield on the ground, switch fields as good as anyone in MLS, and hold possession to give their back line a break and allow their attackers to get into good scoring positions. Without him, the Union defense often had to skip past the midfield to find target forward C.J. Sapong with long balls, taking the striker out of dangerous positions and forcing a vey different style of play. It hurt them offensively and defensively.

In Medunjanin, they appear to have a player who could be close to a like-for-like replacement for Nogueira, which raises hopes that the Union could replicate their early season success from last year.

  • Both are deep-lying, possession-oriented midfielders who like to get on the ball.
  • Both fill similar areas of the field and like to look for the long ball.
  • Both show patience in possession.
  • Both leave a little to be desired defensively.
  • Both can pose issues in finding the appropriate center midfield partner(s), since each likes to sit deep in possession and control tempo, but neither is a defensive No. 6 stopper. So they may require a partner in center midfield who can be a defensive destroyer who also likes to fly upfield in attack.

But there are definite differences, ranging from height to quickness, and the question will be just how well Medunjanin can replicate what Nogueira did well and exceed what he did not without creating new problems in the process.

Why to watch Medunjanin

Medunjanin may be the key to the Union’s fortunes this season.

The Union need him to slow the pace of the game, cycle the team’s ball movement, drop deep to provide his center backs a reliable outlet against high pressure, and generally provide vision that starts and links to the attack. Nogueira was fantastic at all this.

We haven’t seen much of Medunjanin in a Union uniform, but we’ve seen enough to raise expectations and questions.

In his first preseason outings, he seemed to be filling Nogueira’s shoes, although he did it just a bit differently. He hasn’t shown the tendency to switch fields like Nogueira did so brilliantly, but he has demonstrated an inclination to look for the killer key pass more than his predecessor.

On the other hand, he was mostly invisible in the Union’s final friendly, a 3-2 loss to D.C. United, and he seems to be about as fast as Oguchi Onyewu currently is, which is to say not fast at all.

Which is the Medunjanin we should expect? The 31-year-old Bosnian international has a good track record overseas, but MLS is not every other league. The travel schedule is unforgiving, and Medunjanin, 31, hasn’t really had an off-season after playing a half-season in Israel.

Best case scenario
  • Medunjanin adequately replaces Nogueira.
  • Derrick Jones and eventually Maurice Edu hit the field as advanced and very fit destroyers to support Medunjanin in defense and fill the spaces farther upfield in attack while the Bosnian sits deep. Warren Creavalle provides depth till Edu comes back.
  • Alejandro Bedoya and company adequately man the No. 10 role ahead them and adequately link with Medunjanin.
  • Medunjanin stays healthy and yields to Brian Carroll (or some other center midfield combo) for regular rest to keep the newcomer fresh, accounting for his lack of an off-season.
Worst case scenario

In center midfield, you’re only as good as your chemistry. Who can forget the problems that Vincent Nogueira and Maurice Edu had, whereas Nogueira and Cristian Maidana seemed to share a telepathic link?

Medunjanin is neither your standard deep-sitting, hard-tackling No. 6 defensive midfielder nor your typical, motoring box-to-box No. 8. His vision is offset by his lack of quickness.

If the Union can’t find the right center midfield trio, Medunjanin could find himself as frustrated as Nogueira sometimes did. If they play him at the No. 6 next to Bedoya, as they did against D.C. United, they could leave a porous midfield that doesn’t adequately shield the back line, much like the Union found last year when they moved Tranquillo Barnetta to the No. 8 to accommodate Roland Alberg in front of him.

The talent is there. The question is whether they’re healthy enough and deployed in the right roles. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle without directions. The Union coaching staff has to figure it out.


Union sporting director Earnie Stewart let the Union cycle through options on the roster last year while he patiently looked for the right replacement for Nogueira.

Medunjanin looks like a fair analogue who lacks the quickness but adds size.

The question now will be lineup chemistry.

Based on the lineups he sent out in preseason, Union head coach Jim Curtin will likely spend the first several weeks of the regular season toying with his central midfield trio to find the right combination. It looks like he wants to find a way to get Bedoya, Medunjanin and an attacking midfielder all on the field together, and you can’t blame him for seeking a way to put his most talented and dangerous 11 together on the pitch, particularly with Derrick Jones untested in MLS. However, that doesn’t always produce the best unit, chemistry or defensive shape, as we saw last year when Curtin tried to get Alberg, Barnetta and an overweight Ilsinho on the field together last year.

Don’t be surprised if Jones is the chosen one to pair with Medunjanin. This may provide some bumps in the early going, as Jones didn’t look MLS-ready last year, but he definitely impressed enough in USL and in MLS preseason this year to make you wonder if he can be the guy to bridge the gap as the Union wait and hope for an Edu return.


  1. “Alejandro Bedoya and company adequately man the No. 10…”
    Before a game is played, I think we can point to this as an area of major concern: We don’t have someone to naturally fill possibly the most important position for our formation on the field.
    Maybe I’m still shell-shocked by the DC game, but there are holes/weaknesses that did not get remedied in preseason workouts.

    • I’d almost rather have Ilsinho try the #10 role and Bedoya go out to the wing like he does for the nat’l team with Jones/Haris as the 6/8 until Creavalle is healthy. Ilsinho likes to weave inside anyways so you can put him there since he has the most skill with the ball of anyone on the team. His shot looks very good this preseason as well and may be our best option at that spot.

      • Keep in mind that despite the fact that we’re used to seeing him on the right, he predominantly played as a 10 in a major European league.
        He also had a great performance filling in for Barnetta in the regular season game @ Toronto last year. I for one though that was one of our better performances of the season.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    For me Derrick Jones is unquestionably the 8 until Edu recovers… how can he not be?
    What are they doing if he isn’t? TBH I have no idea why both Carroll and Creavalle are on the roster but that’s me.
    The 8Mixmaster #21 is gonna make mistakes…. I’m not too concerned about it to be honest. In my opinion a box to box midfielder is just about the easiest position on the field… live high speed games with ‘high stakes’ will hone his erratic passing– I sure as hell hope because it should. Beyond that I’ve seen enough in the times I’ve watched him- the kid can flat play.
    ….The whole team has displayed an inclination for untidy play at the moment in my sample size. New players in all sorts of positions. To expect them to come out Saturday with immediate chemistry is absurd so vet the young kid and let him get comfortable… that way in a year when maybe Edu leaves or whatever Derrick Jones is your rock 8 going forward… and you have successfully fully integrated an academy player into your roster.
    I watched so many games abroad the last two weeks with in many cases teenagers playing in high stakes tournament games… maybe Derrick needs some seasoning… guess what add a pinch of salt and let him play. Let him understand this is professional footy at the highest level…. in America.

    • I agree. Jones should be starting until Edu gets back at least. It’s really the only option in my book unless they really wanted to sit back on the road or something (which I am against).

    • Definitely. Jones should absolutely be out there before Creavalle or Carroll.

    • the caveat I would offer is match-up, because he did not play against Acosta of DC.
      To my extremely limited knowledge of Vancouver, they have no such comparable player at the moment, so JOnes would not be challenged by that level of skill and sophistication.

    • With Oguchi Onyewu’s lack of pace, I see Edu at CB upon return and us watching Jones grow in the midfield.

    • He’s 19 and unpolished, that’s how.

      But I think he’s the guy too, actually. I just see plenty of reason to justify why not.

  3. Atomic Spartan says:

    My biggest fear about Haris is that with him coming in after a half season in Israel, he suffers a July/August swoon when time, heat and humidity take their toll. Add to that JC’s history of running players into the ground (Rosenberry?), and lack of substitutional awareness – you have to be wary of adverse consequences. Hope I’m wrong.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head. Major potential issue. More on that later in the week in our Questions to Answer series, in the piece focusing on the coaching staff.

  4. OneManWolfpack says:

    Play Jones. He has earned a serious look and having homegrowns step into the lineup is exactly how the Union want to build the team. If Jones falters, you have Creavalle or Carroll as a back up. This assumes Bedoya at the 10, which really isn’t the best idea…
    … so this leads me to think the Union have a real problem finding someone to lead the attack. Curtin needs to manage better than he ever has to get this right for the first month or so of the season.

  5. Play the best man at their best position

    • Seems simple enough…

    • That is the big question right?
      What is Bedoya’s best position? Alberg can only really play the #10, but that pushes everybody else around.
      Harris is somewhere between a #6 & a #8, so do you pair him w/ Creavalle or Bedoya?
      This is where Curtin earns his money. He has a deeper squad than ever before, can he get the most out of his lineup?.
      On paper we have a much stronger squad this year. Curtin needs to step his game up now, or we need to strengthen that position as well.

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