Friday, April 18, 2014
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What should the Union's starting lineup be?

Manager Peter Nowak has some serious decisions to make.

What should the Union's starting lineup be?

Sebastien Le Toux is likely to play in midfield this year now that the Union have signed Carlos Ruiz. (Ron Cortes/Staff file photo)
Sebastien Le Toux is likely to play in midfield this year now that the Union have signed Carlos Ruiz. (Ron Cortes/Staff file photo)

It took a while to get done, but now the Carlos Ruiz signing is finally complete. With their new star striker on board, the Union will fly across the Atlantic Ocean tonight for two and a half weeks of training in Greece.

When the club gets back to the United States, there will be just nine days until the season-opening game at Houston. Between now and then, manager Peter Nowak has some serious decisions to make about what his starting lineup should be.

Not all that long ago, it would have been a fairly straightforward exercise. But at this point, the only thing we know with any certainty is that Faryd Mondragón will be the starting goalkeeper.

So let's go from that part of the field forward. I'm going to work from a 4-4-2 formation, because it leads to the most balance between attack and defense.

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On the back line, the central defensive pairing that makes the most sense to me is Carlos Valdés and Danny Califf. Although Juan Diego González and Michael Orozco Fiscal improved in the later stages of last season, Valdés and Califf are definitely better players.

At the outside back positions, Sheanon Williams and Jordan Harvey had the right and left sides pretty well locked down last year. Both players showed an ability to get up and down the field, though Williams was better than Harvey at the "down" half - i.e., tracking back to defend after going forward.

Orozco Fiscal has played left back in the past, including for Peter Nowak's U.S. Under-23 national team at the 2008 Olympics. Playing Orozco there would limit the back line's mobility, but that might not be a bad thing. In fact, given the Union's defensive struggles last year, it would probably be good for the back line to stay home more often.

As such, I think the best combination of outside backs is Michael Orozco Fiscal on the left and Sheanon Williams on the right.

We move on to the midfield, and the alignment here ties right into the Orozco Fiscal decision. This is the part of the field where the Union have the most depth, so there are probably going to be platoons at many positions. Here is the set of players I would go with first.

Tactically, I think a diamond-shaped four-player midfield makes the most sense. It plays to the strengths of the players involved, and it accounts for the most territory on the field.

I would play Brian Carroll at holding midfielder. He is younger than Stefani Miglioranzi, who held the position last seaseon, and has a reputation for being a tireless worker on the field.

Miglioranzi was very good at reading plays and positioning himself - you might recall last season that after some games I said we never heard his name called. That was a good thing in its own way, but Carroll brings other strengths. He will be a less subtle presence, but that won't necessarily be a bad thing.

Now things get fun. I would put Justin Mapp on the left wing and Roger Torres on the right wing. Torres could play on either side or in the middle, but Mapp is so left footed that he has to take that side of the field.

This combination would bring speed, creativity, and a lot of good service into the box. The one down side is that neither player is a really great defender. That makes it even more important to play a back line that stays home, which goes again to playing Orozco Fiscal over Harvey. 

The attack would be topped off by playing Sebastien Le Toux in a hole behind two strikers, Carlos Ruiz and Danny Mwanga. I know I've said on a number of occasions that it would make sense to play Torres in the hole behind Le Toux and Mwanga, but the Ruiz signing blows that up.

You could play Le Toux and Ruiz together, but that would take Mwanga off the field. Although Peter Nowak tried to play Mwanga in midfield early last season, it quickly became clear that Mwanga is a striker. If he's going to play, he has to play with Ruiz, and I'm pretty sure Ruiz isn't here to be a substitute.

Playing Ruiz and Mwanga together would finally give the Union two pure scorers on the front line. Alejandro Moreno contributed in many ways last year, but he only scored two goals. You can't have that little output from a starting striker. This season, the Union won't have that problem.

When you put all the parts together, the lineup looks like this:

------Mwanga-----------Ruiz--------
-----------------------------------
-----------------------------------
-------------Le Toux---------------
Mapp-------------------------Torres
-------------Carroll---------------
-----------------------------------
-----------------------------------
Orozco----Califf--Valdés---Williams
-----------------------------------
-------------Mondragón-------------


Now let's ask a question: could the Union play three at the back? Possibly, but it would require a different outlook on the game.

The resulting formation would probably be a 3-4-1-2. It would be centered around two holding midfielders, Carroll and Miglioranzi.

Sheanon Williams would be the player left out in the move from four in the back to three. Each defender remaining on the field would have a lot more responsibility, so all three of them would have to be willing to stay behind the play almost all the time.

For the rest of the midfield, Mapp would remain on the left and Le Toux would remain in the middle. Torres would move out wider on the right. The lineup would look like this:

-----Mwanga------------Ruiz--------
-----------------------------------
-------------Le Toux---------------
-----------------------------------
Mapp-------------------------Torres
-------Miglioranzi--Carroll--------
-----------------------------------
-----------------------------------
----Orozco----Valdés----Califf-----
-----------------------------------
-------------Mondragón-------------


It's not a bad lineup, but I think it would be a waste of Torres' creative talents. He would be playing wide enough in a four man midfield, but with a five man midfield there would be even less space for him to move around

When Torres has the ball, he looks to pass it first. When Torres doesn't have the ball, he tends to drift around, and often towards the center of the field. It would be hard for him to get the ball with so many players already in that space, and probably just as hard for him to find space to play passes through.

If a five-man midfield is used, it would probably be better to not play Torres at all than to have him stuck way out wide. Kyle Nakazawa would work well in that role - and he'd be a big help on set pieces too.

------Mwanga----------Ruiz---------
-----------------------------------
--------------Le-Toux--------------
-----------------------------------
Mapp-----------------------Nakazawa
------Miglioranzi--Carroll---------
-----------------------------------
-----------------------------------
----Orozco----Valdés----Califf-----
-----------------------------------
-------------Mondragón-------------


That lineup would be more defensive - or at least less creative - than the 4-4-2 I first proposed. It would probably work well, though, against teams that have a lot of their own firepower. New York, Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake come to mind right away.

I'm sure we'd see plenty of Nakazawa in a 4-4-2 as well. He would be one of my first substitutes off the bench, along with Jack McInerney at striker.

Whatever formation Peter Nowak ends up deploying, he will definitely have a lot of options at his disposal. That versatility will be very helpful over the Union's 34-game season, and I think there's enough talent on the roster to get the club to the playoffs.

Now I'd like to hear from you. What do you think the Union's starting lineup should be, and what formation should they play? Have your say in the comments.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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