Amobi Okugo and Maurice Edu: Contract talks and crowded midfields

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Union midfielder Amobi Okugo is in the last year of his contract. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports)

How many of you were surprised to see Amobi Okugo sitting on the bench for the U.S. Open Cup final? I was. 

That was Tuesday night, when the Union original and shoe-in starter failed to make the starting 11, with the entire roster fully healthy for the first time since March. 

So here's the question that's been floating around on social media ever since: 

"Would you rather re-sign Amobi Okugo, or bring back Maurice Edu on a permanent deal?"

Consider the following:

1. Amobi Okugo is on an expiring contract
2. Maurice Edu is on an expiring loan deal
3. If it wasn't for Ethan White's injury, Okugo would probably be starting on the bench again in D.C.

So here we are in September, weighing the value of each player, assuming that re-signing both is not a reality. 

What's up with Okugo's contract?

We spoke with Amobi on Saturday. He couldn't reveal much about the contract issue, but he was good enough to take some questions. 

Here's the transcript: 

Kinkead: "Jim basically just said, look we've got everybody healthy now, it's just a matter of trying to fit everybody into positions, and that we've got Maurice, and Vincent, and Chaco there. Is it disappointing not to be in the starting XI these past two games?" 

Okugo: "Yeah, it's disappointing because I don't feel like it's based on my play. It's the coach's decision. You've just got to keep your head down and keep moving and keep playing."

Kinkead: "Obviously he sees you as a midfielder. Is that sort of the way you want things to be, whether you're starting or not? Would you prefer to be starting at center back if you could be on the field." 

Okugo: "No, I just feel like wherever coach needs me, I'm willing to play. I've played center back in the past, and I've played center mid in the past. I feel like I've played both at a high level, so whenever coach calls my name, I'll be ready." 

Kinkead: "Some people were saying some stuff, sort of wondering about your contract being up at the end of the year. Is there anything you can say regarding that, and regarding not playing?" 

Okugo: "Yeah. That's my agent and my family's decision. It's not an issue right now in terms of the future, because we're focused on the present and we're focused on trying to make the playoffs. At the end of the season, we'll have more of a clear understanding on [the contract]."

What's going on the in the midfield?

We've talked before about the struggle to fit six players into five positions.

Six players: Amobi Okugo, Maurice Edu, Carlos Valdes, Vincent Nogueira, Cristian Maidana, Ethan White

Five positions: RCB, LCB, DM No. 6, CM No. 8, and AM No. 10.

I've said from the start that this is the best look a full strength Union team could provide: 

You have Nogueira in his best position (No. 8), with Chaco Maidana free to roam and Okugo moving the ball quickly and efficiently in a deeper role. The CB pairing of Edu and Valdes can be the best in Major League Soccer, playing in front of Rais Mbolhi and flanked by Sheanon Williams and Ray Gaddis. 

Jim Curtin has gone the other direction, moving Edu to his natural center midfield position, pairing Ethan White and Carlos Valdes, and dropping Okugo to the bench. 

Ethan White has done a really good job this season, and it really makes you wonder what the hell John Hackworth was thinking back in April. One of the best things Jim Curtin has done is to keep things simple by putting players in their best positions. I don't agree with the Ribeiro move, but Curtin has done a nice job of fixing the defense and tweaking the midfield.

But can you drop Okugo for White? 

Whether or not Maurice Edu wants to play center back is a different story, but for the purposes of winning games and competing, he looks better in defense. Edu tends to push up a bit too far when he plays in the midfield, which leaves Nogueira with a lot of defensive responsibility on the counter and in transition. Nogueira has the skills to play as a deep-lying distributor, but he doesn't have the same defensive shield as a typical regista in a 3-5-2 or a slower-paced league.

Think about this:

1. Amobi started the season as a center back under John Hackworth,
2. Jim Curtin took over, moved him into the midfield, and instead used Edu on the backline.
3. Carlos Valdes returned, Ethan White got out of the dog house, and Edu was moved back into the middle at Okugo's expense.

There's a touch of irony to this whole thing. 

Now that Okugo is finally in his natural position, he's behind his good friend on the depth chart. 

Here's what Curtin had to say about the Okugo's omission from the starting 11 after the Houston game: 

"I think Amobi's a great player, but at the same time he's not displacing Vincent, he's not displacing Chaco and he's not displacing Maurice Edu at this time in our group. So that was the decision. Three guys that play midfield for us that you've all seen, he's the odd man out unfortunately. Again, I think highly of Amobi, I think he's in great form, but for these two games this was the lineup tat we went with and I think this was our best midfield." 

Jim Curtin got the shape right. Many have been calling for Nogueira in a deeper role for a long time now. You could certainly pair Okugo and Edu in the midfield, but who sits on the bench? You can't put Maidana, Wenger, or Le Toux on the pine. You're then stuck with a boring 4-2-3-1 that takes away the best abilities of Chaco and Vinny Nogs.

How does this play out?

Amobi Okugo is 23 years old and making a guaranteed salary of $228,000. Edu is 28 years old and earning $600,000. 

Okugo is the young Union original with seemingly infinite upside. Edu is the veteran international who is thriving in his MLS return. 

Both players are excellent athletes who could probably start on any team in Major League Soccer.

That said, there are a few different things that could happen here.

1. Okugo moves on, and Edu signs a permanent deal;
2. Edu leaves and Okugo signs a new deal with Philadelphia;
3. Both players take off;
4. Both players remain with Philadelphia, Okugo starts in the midfield, and Edu starts at center back.

It's hard to say whether or not Okugo's contract issue is affecting his playing time. It could certainly be the opposite, with the demotion possibly motivating an exit from the club. But if the Union can pull off scenario No. 4 above, it would certainly give you one hell of a defensive spine in 2015.

Get more coverage of the Union and the rest of the Philadelphia soccer scene at The Philly Soccer Page.