Questions to answer

Question to answer: Will the midfield click?

Photo: Earl Gardner

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

For the previous three seasons, the Union built their midfield around Vincent Nogueira. As long as the Frenchman was healthy, he played a free-range role as the team’s shuttler, a passer who could pop up anywhere on the pitch and keep the ball moving. If you pair him with a ball-winning, more defensive partner (Brian Carroll, Michael Lahoud, Warren Creavalle) and insert a creative type (Cristian Maidana, Tranquillo Barnetta), that’s a competent midfield.

When Nogueira left the team last June, the Union’s season effectively ended. No one on the roster could fill the passing hole that Nogueira left behind.

This season, the Union will look to fill those three positions — for convenience, I’m just going to call them the 6, the 8, and the 10 — without Nogueira for the first time since 2014.

The question is simple: Will it work?

Building blocks

Let’s start with personnel. Alejandro Bedoya, the million-dollar U.S. international who’ll captain the Union this season, and Haris Medunjanin, the veteran Bosnian international brought over from Maccabi Tel Aviv, are sure-fire starters at two of the midfield spots.

That’s not simply because Earnie Stewart invested a lot of cash to bring them to the States. These two are the team’s most talented field players. Bedoya shows quality on the ball as well a relentless drive, a willingness to be physical, and the occasional obscene wonder goal. In just two preseason games, Medunjanin impressed with a range of lethal, precise passes from all over the pitch. They could start on any team in MLS.

Yet things get very complicated very quickly once you try to decide which third player should complement them, because Medunjanin and Bedoya appear to not complement each other perfectly.

  • Medunjanin does not appear to be very fast or have much defensive ability. This suggests he should be the 8, paired with a ball-winning defensive partner.
  • Bedoya stated this week that his preference is to play the 8, and there’s little evidence from league games that he can play the 10.
  • The Union do not have a proven defensive partner to start at the 6, unless you count Warren Creavalle.
  • The Union have quite a few options at the 10, though the manager seems unimpressed by all of them.
Where does Jim Curtin go?

It feels like the kind of logic puzzle that a math professor would torture students with, doesn’t it?

Put Medunjanin at the 6 and Bedoya at the 8, and the defensive situation might get hairy. It was only preseason, but the Union shipped three goals in a half to D.C. United in this shape and could easily have been called for two penalties.

Further, Jim Curtin seems unimpressed by his options at the 10, such as Roland Alberg. Alberg, seen here making a big impact in preseason, appeared to lose the trust of the coaches toward the end of 2016.

Okay, then put Medunjanin at the 8 and Bedoya at the 10. You’re suddenly left with more questions than answers at the 6.

Is Derrick Jones ready to make the leap to MLS? Is Warren Creavalle capable of filling a specific, disciplined role? Is zombie Brian Carroll capable of playing 90 minutes? Will Maurice Edu ever be healthy again?

Two ways to play

In the early part of the season, it makes sense for Jim Curtin to go conservative. With a new defensive pairing in front of Andre Blake, putting another player with a defensive mentality on the pitch should offer some stability.

That person should be Derrick Jones. After receiving the bulk of the preseason minutes, it’s time to see what the kid can do. That’s why he was signed to an MLS contract, after all. Keep Creavalle or Carroll on the bench in case Jones needs to be subbed, and keep Alberg fresh in case you want to go to a more offensive look late in a match.

You can kind of see it, if you close your eyes and squint a little bit.

A crunching tackle from Jones, a quick 1-2 with Medunjanin, a long ball sprayed 30 yards downfield to the wing, Bedoya crashing towards the 18 at full speed ready to strike.

Or the Union pinning the opposition deep in their half, with Medunjanin imperiously pulling the strings. Bedoya pops up to receive the ball, makes a man miss, and while driving toward the end line cuts back to the rocket-propelled left boot of Alberg.

Neither approach would maximize every player’s individual quality.

But it might maximize the midfield’s potential as a group.

And that’s what will determine whether the Union make some noise this year.

28 Comments

  1. The answer needs to be Derrick Jones.

    If its not, we can question this teams commitment to youth for the first time.

    There is no reason to ever see Carrol or Craevelle on the field again.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      I’ll disagree with part of this. Jones should be your first choice, but the Union don’t want to run him into the ground. Plus there is the possibility that Jones misses time with the U-20’s. So spot games for C or C make sense. (Plus one should be in the 18 in case of injury which would be another reason to see the field.)

      • I still think Creavalle is a great MLS bench player. Dude can fill in defensively at the 8 and 6 and can fake OB well enough to be the emergency sub there. That’s good versatility for the sports limited bench. But I hope he only starts a few games this year.

    • DERRICK JONES AMANIAMPONG will play no matter if he is the worst player on the field because the Union got so much money invested in him and the academy its time for them to bear some fruit

  2. I hope it works. I believe it can.

  3. Adam Schorr says:

    So, this may be a dumb question, but if Medunjanin is the 8, and Bedoya isn’t a 10, why don’t they try him at the 9? I feel safe saying that, in general, he’s a better player than Simpson or Sapong. Isn’t “high work rate and willing to be physical” a good start to the lone striker? Is he just not attack-minded enough? I feel like pushing Bedoya out to the wing kinda minimizes his impact.

  4. I don’t know about Brian Carroll the zombie, but I might be convinced there is portrait in his closet that he has never seen…

  5. pragmatist says:

    (Sorry to hi-jack a midfield article, but it’s kinda of related):
    .
    It seems like one of our biggest questions is what to do with Alberg.
    .
    I have a serious question: Why not play him at striker? Are we so enamored with CJ and Simpson? Or do they truly add things that are not outweighed by Alberg’s offensive capabilities?
    .
    I’m just thinking out loud, and I may be well off the mark, but it seems like he could be a much more effective version of Jack Mac – a poacher who is also capable of getting off his own (rocket) shot.
    .
    …maybe I’m wrong. Just throwin’ it out there…

    • This is more fodder for a 3-5-2 (second striker) conversation.

    • Alberg is my biggest question, too. The potential is so striking. but he just doesn’t fit the mold of player Curtin wants. I wish I knew more about what those shortcomings are, but I understand Curtin would never tell anyone as long as Alberg is on the roster. All I can think of is that Curtin just prefers an athletic profile up top that Alberg doesn’t fit.

      I’m with you on Alberg as striker. He was placed there in a false nine once or twice and didn’t produce, but you need consistency in that spot especially to produce. I think he may be an expensive insurance policy for if/when Pontius can’t play 34 matches.

    • 4-1-3-2?
      .
      KG–OO–RM–Fabs
      ——DJ——-
      -AB—HM—CP-
      —-RA—JS/CJ—-

      • pragmatist says:

        That’s a version of what I think would work. Alberg could platoon with Herbers or Davies, if CD is able to return to his old form. But yeah, let Roland play off the #9. It makes the most sense.
        .
        I don’t care if you call it a 4-1-3-2, or a 4-4-2, or whatever…but a 2-striker set fits the personnel that we have on this club.

      • yeah, wasn’t sure what most people call that formation. I strayed away from deeming it a 4-4-2 because it is less of a diamond cause HM would still sit pretty deep.

      • Outside the Box says:

        Since it is preseason and we are dreaming!:

        KG-RM-Fab
        -DJ–Edu-
        -AB-HM-CP
        –RA-Ils–

        I’d love to see the one touch connections with these fellas!

    • Looks like RA will sub for a wing if we need a goal. Surmise his work rate, defense – plus unexpectedly strong 2016 from CP – keep him in reserve for now. If he doesn’t show well by mid-season, on the trading block?

  6. the alberg link!!!! +100

    • pragmatist says:

      LOL! I didn’t open it until I saw your comment. That’s so wrong…and so funny.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      round of applause… the mind of a mad scientist.

    • HopkinsMD says:

      Ha! I clicked it, closed it and tried it again… three times… before I got the joke. Funny!
      .
      In fairness, I recall a clip of him assisting CJ, who finished a strong volley in traffic.

  7. Atomic Spartan says:

    Someone labeled the Union’s lineup as being made up mostly of “Misfit Toys,” a metaphor that looks like it might stick. That makes JC the young elf who would rather be a dentist and Earnie a pre-Rudolph Santa.
    .
    Please Santa – Rudolph’s out there somewhere. Better find him and hitch him to the sleigh because the elf is only going to pull teeth in the 65th minute.

  8. I apparently remain among the minority who think that Mo Edu will return and claim his rightful spot in the lineup. A center midfield of Mo at the 6, Haris at the 8, and Ale at the 10 sounds mighty fine to me, even if it isn’t Bedoya’s favorite spot. Possibly even better would be to put Ilson Jr. at the 10 and move Bedoya to the wing. With Pontius on the other side, that is a strong group.

    As for Alberg, he is a second striker on a team that doesn’t play a second striker. He simply cannot play up top by himself, as he doesn’t make space for himself, nor hold the ball up, nor play the kind of forward defense that Curtin wants. I am not a fan of 1-striker sets altogether, and I wish the U. would play with 2. But that’s not what we built for in the off season. And I expect Alberg to be trade bait.

    • scottymac says:

      I admire your indefatigable optimism in the face of a long string of incontrovertible proof otherwise. 41 league, cup and playoff games missed in a row now. Figure he’s out for the first month or two at least, almost 50 matches gone. But sure, he’ll be effective.

    • I got two words for you: Chris Pontius.

  9. So despite Ale Bedoya saying that he prefers playing the 6 or the 8 no one here thinks he should play either role?

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