Players to watch / Union

Players to watch: Players we watched

One of the Philly Soccer Page’s preseason series was called “Players to watch.” Prior to the beginning of this season, PSP identified four Philadelphia Union players who would be key contributors to the success of the 2017 Union campaign.

Having a game under our belt, there is now real regular season information to go with preseason analysis and speculation.

Oguchi Onyewu

The oft-capped, physically imposing defender came with every intention of starting for a team in need of poise and calm in its defensive end, although with players in his way. Injury vaulted Onyewu into the first 11 in Vancouver, and the summation of what to watch for in my Player to Watch piece on Onyewu was this: “Onyewu’s goal should be to make sure that his position [isn’t a question mark], as quickly as possible.”

Data point: Gooch played calmly and smoothly with the ball against the Whitecaps, truly bodied several opponents off their feet and out of possession several times (sometimes for good, sometimes for less than good in conceding a free kick and very nearly a penalty in the second half), and was generally played to his strengths by a Union team that duly earned their first point of the season, far away from home.

Derrick Jones

Moving back to front, the next intriguing Player to Watch in Union blue and gold was midfielder and Union Academy product, Derrick Jones. The expectation for Jones was that the 20-year-old would “start against Vancouver as a competent, complimentary placeholder for the rehabilitating [Maurice Edu]” and then step aside when the once and future Union captain returns.

The unwritten rule that a player can’t lose his spot to injury didn’t apply to players like Tom Brady or Cal Ripken, Jr., both of whom took their turn in front of injured players and never looked back. Whether Jones ends up even sniffing that rarefied air is a long way off, but the young man took his chance over the weekend and took it well.

Data Point: Jim Curtin said of Jones, after the team’s 0-0 draw in The ‘Couve — Yeah, some people call it that; they also call it “Van” and “VanCity,” but “The ‘Couve” sounds funnier to me — that he “thought [Jones] was the best player on the field, both teams.”

It’s hard to disagree, both because Jones looked mature beyond his years on the fast and bouncy turf “in a Van down by the Couver,” and because there weren’t many other standout performances in a match which featured jetlag, midweek fixture fatigue, and a start time that makes people with two kids under the age of three swear under their breath as they cede half of their bowl of Cheerios, which they poured only for themselves, to their kid who said he specifically didn’t want Cheerios, only Lucky Charms, even though I hid the Lucky Charms so that he wouldn’t steal them from me in the first place. (Damn you, Pacific Time!)

Haris Medunjanin

Vincent Nogueira left everyone at the proverbial altar in 2016, dressed in last year’s very boring, all-white away kit, single tear slowly dripping down everyone’s cheeks, holding the flowers for the most technically gifted player to ever wear Union blue. “Better to have loved and lost…” as they say.

Scooping the fan base up on the rebound came a smirking Earnie Stewart and his prized off-season signing, Haris Medunjanin, described by PSP as “a fair analogue [for Nogs] who lacks the quickness but adds size.”

Data point: Nogueira and Medunjanin share both a difficulty in spelling their name correctly the first time and a talent in settling, holding, and distributing the ball and everything precious to their MLS side. Nogueira’s sample size was large enough to know what was possible, even in matches where he did little that would make a highlight reel.

Medunjanin’s game Sunday night in the great white north was of a similar ilk: The midfielder did everything necessary for a scoreless draw but was not able to manufacture enough to change the outcome for the better.

Fabian Herbers

One of Jim Curtin’s draft darlings of 2016, Fabian Herbers earned his way into the lineup last season in part because of Ilsinho’s nagging injuries. Herbers took his opportunity and ran, writing his name on the Union score sheet three times, in addition to dropping seven dimes (worth ~$0.70, depending on the strength of the Yen).

Those numbers notwithstanding, the 2017 edition of the Union squad added depth at every position, especially his. Though “he [had] the tools to be a very successful attacker,…” PSP noted accurately that Herbers would “need to look to be the creator of the offense” in addition to a cross-hitter and “occasional goal-poacher” if he wanted to keep his regular spot.

Data point: In this, their seventh season in the top flight, I just figured out the subtle “VW” brilliance of Vancouver’s logo last night, which says a lot about me and my perceptiveness. It may take many Union fans that long to figure out exactly how to use Herbers most effectively on this roster.

Very much like Union all-timer Sebastian Le Toux, Herbers’s work rate is top notch, he gets into good spots, and he even helps on defense (often found double-teaming opponents, as well as tracking behind Keegan Rosenberry when the latter gets caught forward). Yet, his contributions still somehow seem lacking as a player with so much speed and a tactical requirement to push toward goal. Perhaps it was the nature of the stalemate, the lack of chemistry with a new striker and two new midfielders, or something else entirely, but Herbers ended up having a good if unspectacular match.

Alejandro Bedoya

The most expensive Union signing of all time (eat your heart out, Rais M’Bohli!) and its “best player… period” has a job to do in 2017: play like it, game in and game out. Bedoya’s soccer intellect and skill often gets lost between Goal of the Week-level onion bag-bulgers (say that five times fast), like the one he chipped in against Toronto in 2016, and borderline-reckless challenges that result in cautions. The Union require a lot more of the former and fewer of the latter, but without losing the teeth needed from every great midfielder. Indeed, to truly reach their potential this season, “[they] may need Bedoya to score in double digits.”

Data point: Bedoya played well in Vancouver but was not able to translate that mostly effective effort into what many have called “a goal.” Like that of his teammates, it was not his best game, but it was one in which he helped them perform the ultimate job: They did not lose. In the cases where a team “[does] not lose,” the statistical likelihood of said team winning or tying, and for Atlanta United media members, this is called “a draw” in MLS) is nearly 100 percent.

Outlook

The Union were pragmatic in their opener, eschewing a third offensive substitution, such as Roland Alberg, for deepening their possession advantage and seeing out a vital draw. As such, it’s hard to have too many opinions on what they could have done better because points are points are points.

When Toronto FC come to town Saturday, though, the Union will have to match that pragmatism with an offensive killer instinct, one which was lacking in Vancouver. It’s unlikely that a team who also took a scoreless point on the road in the Western Conference will settle for a zero on their score line again this week, but remember that Toronto scored seven goals against the Union in three games last season.

Look for Jones and Medunjanin to continue to partner effectively in the middle, the former protecting the defense (and particularly Onyewu, allowing him to continue to do what he does well) and the latter finding those deep runs that are so particular to Herbers’s game, allowing him to hit that dangerous, low cross that has been such a crucial part of the Union’s scoring history. Expect Bedoya to begin to grow into his new leadership role, and, should that happen, the team’s success to follow.

One Comment

  1. A thought on Herbers. Most effective when allowed to run, pulling defenders into spaces where they aren’t comfortable. I think the best use for him maybe isn’t as a primary scorer (at least not yet) but to clear space for someone who is and who seizes very well on open space (Alberg is the best at that on this current roster).

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