Commentary / The search for a No. 10 / Union

Hang (up the) 10: Forget a signing and let the kids play

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of posts this MLS preseason focusing on the Union’s major question mark, their search for a No. 10 creative attacking midfielder. 

In light of Philadelphia Union’s (years-long) search for – and continual lack of – a competent No. 10/central attacking midfielder/playmaker/whatever you want to call it, we here at PSP are running through the team’s options at the position as the 2018 season quickly approaches.

With preseason already in full swing, the Union’s answer to the question may have already arrived in town long ago:

They’re going to play the kids (no matter what Earnie Stewart says).

Adding Accam to the equation

The addition of David Accam to the Union creates a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Accam and his wing counterpart Fafa Picault are two of the fastest players in Major League Soccer. Accam, especially, pulls defenses apart with, not only his speed, but combination play, stretching back lines and pulling center backs wide to help defend the clever Ghanaian.

The hopeful result? C.J. Sapong will have more time and space to operate up top, and a worthy partner to play to in his holdup play. 2017 saw Sapong make marked improvements in his distribution; if he can continue to create for his teammates, the field will open up for the Union attack.

Route 1, baby

Haris Medunjanin is no ordinary central midfielder. For all the Bosnian international’s formational quirks, the noted regista‘s ability to hit inch-perfect long balls to streaking runners is truly unique in MLS. Accam’s addition to the team would indicate the Union plan to rely on Medunjanin’s singular skillset more than they let on.

If Medunjanin is pulling the strings, then, do the Union even need a No. 10? Not necessarily. The Union can be a solid team through a good ol’ fashioned, American bunker-and-counter strategy: Sit back, cause a turnover, get the ball to Haris and let him hit Fafa, Accam, or C.J. upfield. Boom.

It might not be pretty, but it is the best fit for the Union’s current roster.

Let the kids play

If the Union do rely on a counterattack strategy a la 2016 Leicester City, having a talented No. 10 simply isn’t necessary. Between Medunjanin’s gifted left foot, C.J. Sapong’s magnetic hold-up play, David Accam and Fafa Picault’s game-breaking speed, and Alejandro Bedoya’s “shuttling,” the Union have all the pieces in place for a direct long ball attack.

With all those pieces, there is bound to be some space in the middle of the field for a youngster to find his footing in MLS.

If the Union stick to their 4-2-3-1 formation (hint: they will), the central attacking midfielder could have little pressure on him, thanks to Medunjanin and Bedoya’s presence and experience and the constant threat of the Union’s wingers. Head coach Jim Curtin should have no problem throwing both Adam Najem and Anthony Fontana onto the field when so little would be expected of the position. A reduced role would give both needed MLS minutes, without the expectation to be the main catalyst of the attack.

The other option, of course, is flipping the midfield triangle in the 4-2-3-1 so there actually is no No. 10 at all in the formation. This makes way for Derrick Jones to act as destroyer behind the defensively dodgy Medunjanin. The 20-year-old has shown signs of serious potential both with the Union and the U.S. youth team and absolutely deserves minutes with the first team in 2018. If Medunjanin is pulling the strings and the team plans to play counterattack soccer, they should add Jones to the XI for defensive support and let Medunjanin do his thing.

What have you got to lose?

With Eastern Conference foes Toronto FC, New York City FC, and Atlanta United all remaining behemoths and other clubs like D.C. United and Orlando City SC stocking up in the off-season, expectations for the Union are again low.

A playoff appearance would be great, but if the long game is attracting and grooming young talent, the club needs to put their money where their mouth is and play the dang kids already. The current roster lends itself to a counterattacking style that opens up space and learning opportunities for talented young players like Najem, Fontana, and Jones. Jim Curtin has seemed reticent to put any in big games – and why should he with his job on the line? – but if the club truly wants to commit to the youth movement, it starts with easing young players into the lineup. The acquisition of David Accam and the reliance on Haris Medunjanin as the main playmaker present the perfect opportunity to finally play the kids. It’s about time.


  1. I see the logic in your piece, but I have two concerns.
    1) Jim Curtain has shown he is resistant to playing the kids. It is much more likely to be an ineffective Ilsinho at the 10.
    2) What happens if a team does not high press us? Will there be the chance for a quick long ball counter attacks if the opposing team just plays a compact defense?

    • el Pachyderm says:

      I have a visceral feeling, we are all going to see a very different approach by Jim and Earnie this season.
      Sit tight.
      Youth movement in route.

    • Which kids has Jim Curtin been resistant to playing? Rosenberry? Yaro? Elliot? Herbers? Epps? This narrative is false and needs to stop.

      • Pete Mazzaccaro says:

        Najem and Jones should have gotten more minutes last season. I would have started Epps in place of Pontius more often, too.

      • Jones got hurt for a while and didn’t look great after (speed of play increase as year goes on, see Rosenberry 2016) and our 2 best players play the same position. Epps maybe should have started more and Najem played the whole year with Steel and wasn’t dominating. I’m just saying lets not act like he never plays they kids, especially since the roster he was given was insanely old

      • The season was effectively over by August last year, yet Najem, Jones, and Epps barely played. Instead, we kept sending out veterans that we knew would be gone at the end of the year. How is the “narrative” false? He consistently played one young player last year. One, out of what, 7-8? And there was nothing to play for…

      • Jones and Najem were constantly playing in Bethlehem. Yaro was hurt almost the whole time. He was working on getting younger at both OB spots but the young guys didn’t want to claim them. He worked Marquez back into starting and got Epps time on the wing. Honestly other than Jones (also blocked by our 2 best players) and maybe Najem are we even worried about the “young” guys on the roster last year.

      • Marquez and Rosenberry each had a lost year last year, and may never recover (see every previous youth player the Union have tried to develop). Yaro was hurt for the first half of the year, but was actively benched for the second.
        My main disagreement with you though is on the issue of playing pontius, Ilsinho, and Alberg over Najem, Jones, and Epps though. Playing at BS is better than nothing, yes, but there is no reason they did not play the last 2-3 months of the MLS season. There was nothing to play for and they need MLS minutes NOW(they are not that young). Their development should not be sacrificed so that lame duck vets can pad some stats.

      • I offer the observation that Najem and Jones were integral to the Steel managing to make the USL east playoffs. While no spokesperson would every say so, that may have influenced decisions.
        Also, by the end of the season Adam Najem was playing the #10 role well. The he and Moar were on the field together, they were quite creative.

  2. Pete Mazzaccaro says:

    I would only support this under circumstances that I know are impossible: A tactical switch from the 4-2-3-1. And even then, I’d accept this situation with a high degree of skepticism. Curtin would have to organize very compact and defensive minded back 4 and have all 4 midfielders (assuming 4-4-2) park ahead of them a la Sean Dyche’s Burnley. It would be an identity that is completely at odds with what Curtin has been promising for the past 2 years. I don’t see it.

  3. Well Ingtar, they don’t need to high press for the U to counterattack, ala Leicester, as Steven said. There are still enough opportunities from the run of play and off set pieces. The key is staying disciplined in the back, something the U is not noted for, and taking our chances when they do arrive.

    • I hope you are right. I guess I just assumed that the reason Leicester fell back down to Earth is that teams adjusted and took away the quick counter.

  4. Hint: Curtin will never play them, Ilsinho will be the 10.

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    I have No Problem with ‘Route 1 Baby’ when Haris is pulling the string. That IS a Regista as you state.
    If you punt that puppy over his head all season…. I’m Out.
    It is unacceptable. Jim is safe. You are safe. MLS is safe. We are all just one big ‘hap-hap-happy’ family hop[efully with a bunch of kids getting vetted.
    Play the right way.
    I have ZERO problem watching you pull the ball out of the net a few times a year because it all fell apart… so in two years I can watch the team dominate possession…especially at home.
    I repeat I am perfectly okay with a mid table bottom of table youth movement that has tactical nous and an honest attempt to play out of the back. Ceding possession when you just had possession is the worst offense in the game next to cleating someone.
    You played ‘a lovely 12 week stretch’ when The Calm and Vincent were healthy together.
    Let’s go.

    • The 12 week stretch is what gives me hope for this team/coaching staff.

      • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

        The coaching staff has no where near the midfielders now that Tranquilo And Nogs were…

      • You don’t think that Bedoya and Medunjanin are anywhere near them? We don’t have an attacking threat like Barnetta was, but that’s not either of their positions. Based on talent it’s not really any different.

      • Dan C( formerly of 103) says:

        No, I don’t think the current crop is anywhere near the former two. Not even comparable.

      • Barnetta did the running Bedoya does, plus he made smart attacking runs/shots/passes/dummies/triangles . Nogs could pass like Haris and play more defensively. Agree not even close.

      • Eh, I see Nogs and Medunjanin as the same. I mean if Nogs could play so much D why did he always require a CDM next to him? I think we are looking back a little too fondly on him. He was a really good player but MLS is better now and if anything Medunjanin influences games more. As for Barnetta and Bedoya I agree that Barnetta was a better 10 but that’s not what Bedoya is supposed to be. Remember when we had Barnetta playing as an 8. It worked for one game and then we got run over hard. Saying the talent level between Barnetta/Nogs and Bedoya/Medunjanin isn’t close is laughable.

      • I’m saying Barnetta at his postion gave you defense and offense. With his offensive prowess being way more of a contribution to this team. Barnetta’s defensive contribution was slightly less than Ale’s from Ale’s own position, but on the average considerably greater than other players in the league at his position. Look how long it’s taken them to replace him. They require a two-way #10 in this organization and they really don’t seem to grow on trees. Hell Barnetta was a converted winger.
        Maybe I’m looking at it more in their worth/value/contribution to the team rather than “skill” level?

      • Ah I feel that. I think Barnetta was my favorite player ever on the Union and we haven’t even come close to replacing him.

      • Maybe it’s just rose colored glasses, and 20/20 hindsight, but I really think we may have underrated/appreciated Barnetta a bit. And I know most if not all loved him. He’s a guy with skill, and did all the little things while producing at opportune moments. Rare. Very rare.
        #2 Union Hall of Fame for me, after Seba of course. Class of 2.

  6. I’m so torn by this. I want them to play the kids. I don’t want route one soccer. Who’s going to fight for the ball when C.J. heads it into no-man’s land? Fafa? Accam? Little Najem? Really? If they invert the midfield, maybe Bedoya will win some.
    Yes I know not all passes will be aimed at C.J.. Just 90% of them.

    • I think the Route 1 style should mainly be Sapong dropping a little deep to receive ground passes while Accam and Picault try to take the top off.

  7. One thing Curtin pointed out at the open practice last Saturday was that the Union went from being the 3rd oldest team in the league last year to being the 4th youngest this year. So maybe he is planning to play the kids more.

  8. If we are going to play counter ball like 2016 Leicester City, somebody better turn into the MLS version of Kante.

  9. OneManWolfpack says:

    Bedoya as the 8 – Jones as the 6 – Haris as the 10… Accam and Fafa on the wings… CJ up top
    I mean, I want a #10, but I don’t hate that to start the year.

    • Medunjanin has stated that he’s not comfortable that far up the field. He was pretty withdrawn in his play for B&H.
      Like Bedoya, I don’t think he likes to play with his back to the goal.
      With Jones in there, it would probably be more similar to how we started last year, but then again, Bedoya doesn’t want to be up there either.

  10. I have no problems with the kids on the field! Its fun to watch them grow into this game we all love. I’m by no means a footy tactical expert. I’m just a fan who wants to root for my home team. If the youth makes mistakes, so be it! As long as its not the same mistakes,its ok. Play the kids! It will have awefull moments, but it will also have some magic mixed in!

  11. Yo, this organization is pathetic. Three transfer windows to fix their biggest hole – still nothing. Zero tactical flexibility from the coach. That promised increased in spending from owernship… nothing.


    We’re going to see more Ilsinho, Creavalle, and Gaddis. Prepare yourself.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      To be clear I am not ok with not signing a 10. It’s a flat out disgrace they haven’t done it. I am just trying to look forward to the season the best I can. It hasn’t moved me to re-up my tickets after this year. Only a real 10 signing and results on the field will do that

  12. John P. O'Donnell Jr says:

    I defiantly want to see Ilsinho in pre-season if we haven’t signed a new number 10. Last year was the first time he really played the position he said. At sometime during the season he could be used at that position for whatever reasons.

  13. Or they could act like a normal frranchise and, you know, sign a legitimate #10.

    • No, never. We’ll read more stories about lowering our already low expectations… and the U will continue to come up short. It’s sorta our *~thing~* around here.

  14. Good article, I could see any of these scenarios playing out this season.

    I think that people need to realize that “playing direct” at a professional level doesn’t always mean that the ball needs to be in the air by booting it forward to find the head of a target forward. It means that there is less build-up play and sideways passing with more vertical passing used to advance the ball forward quickly.

    • If the second part is what we are talking about, then that’s fine. Not jumping for joy but ok. I just don’t want the punt it forward hope to get the 2nd ball, crap, anymore.

  15. Wow, love this site. Reading about fantasy players and things that can not happen is kind of fun. Everything is so hopefully overated here. These players are pretty poor. Tactics are non existant. Things are still shambolic. Ah well, another wasted year.

    • It’s part of a series of posts on the No. 10 search, with different perspectives. This is one of those perspectives.

  16. Forgetting the 10 is absurd. The only time the Union played well in the last few years was when Barnetta was on the pitch. There
    is no reaon to expect that to change. GET ONE!

  17. If I’m correct, the Union have been the “bunker and counter” team for a few years now. It always makes me wonder when people use the term counterattacking team. Every team is actually a counterattacking team, it’s part of the game. You have to be a possession team, a bunker down team, and a counterattacking team. I think it comes down to how affective your offense can progress forward. Maybe with the right pieces on the field it could work for this team. As of late , it hasn’t been very affective. The 1st aspect they need to work on is possession. There were so many times last year, and years prior that they would lose the ball on their counter attacks. If they can keep possession and let the attack build on its own and be patient I think that they would find themselves having a lot more opportunities in scoring positions.

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