Edu, Okugo put Union in position to improve

WHEN A NEW coach takes over a team, changes occur. The Union’s managerial transition from John Hackworth to Jim Curtin has proved no exception.

But while Curtin’s first MLS lineup certainly differed from Hackworth’s last, the key modifications had more to do with positioning than personnel. The most noticeable adjustment involved two of the Union’s marquee players.

In a 3-1 win at New England on Saturday, Curtin swapped the positions of Maurice Edu and Amobi Okugo. Edu, acquired in the offseason as a box-to-box midfielder, moved to center back to help stabilize a shaky back line while Okugo, utilized by Hackworth as a center back, was pushed up to his natural position in the midfield.

Both played effectively, and more importantly, the Union (4-7-6) put forth one of its most impressive efforts in a mostly struggle-filled season thus far.

“[Curtin] just felt like that was needed for the win,” Okugo said. “We proved his case and we proved his decision right. So who knows moving forward?”

The Union is back in action tomorrow night in a road match against FC Dallas (6-7-5). It remains to be seen whether the positioning will look similar to Saturday’s — Curtin has said the decision will be made “game by game” — but this much is certain: When the squad kicked off its week of training on Tuesday, Edu was still practicing at center back.

For Edu, a veteran of the U.S. national team, Saturday marked his first start at center back since Aug. 15, 2012, when he started next to Geoff Cameron in a historic 1-0 USA win against Mexico at Estadio Azteca. Before that, the 28-year-old’s last experience on the back line came during an October 2010 U.S. friendly against Poland.

Okugo, 23, last played midfield on a consistent basis in 2012. He filled in at the position once last season, when Brian Carroll was sidelined, but mostly played defense.

After Curtin took over on June 10, he spoke with both Edu and Okugo. Edu then started at center back for the team’s June 17 U.S. Open Cup win against the Harrisburg City Islanders, while Curtin made Okugo sit and watch from the sideline. The next game, the June 24 win against the New York Cosmos, Okugo played the midfield.

“Part of it is we were giving up a lot of goals, so something had to change,” Curtin said. “It happened to be that Maurice was a guy who has a lot of the attributes of a center back — the speed, the heading ability, a little more size ...

“They both stepped up and have done really good jobs in consecutive games now, which always is the key for me. Anybody can put together one good game. But they’ve put together multiple games now.”

The reality is that Edu playing on the back line is likely more of a short-term answer, a stopgap until the team brings in reinforcements after the World Cup or finds a different in-house solution. It’s quite possible that Edu and Okugo finish the season playing together in the midfield.

“Being able to play multiple positions, it can never be a bad thing,” Edu said. “I think at the end of the day, Amobi’s similar to me. He just has a passion for this game. He has a passion and a will to win.”

“Most importantly, we’re just focused on trying to get the win — whether he’s playing center back or I’m playing center back,” Okugo said. “We’re just trying to sacrifice for the team.”

Free kicks

Midfielder Vincent Nogueira trained again yesterday but his status for tomorrow’s game is not certain. “Is he a starter? Is he a sub? I’m not positive on that yet, but we’ll assess that [today] and go from there,” Jim Curtin said. “That’s a good player to bring in for 25 minutes at the end of a game; that is for sure.” ... Center back Austin Berry (rib) is back healthy and has performed well in training, according to Curtin.

On Twitter: @jakemkaplan