Thursday, October 23, 2014
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What will the Union's lineup look like in 2012?

With all the moves that the Union have made this offseason, now is a good time to take a look at how those parts might come together for manager Peter Nowak in 2012.

What will the Union's lineup look like in 2012?

Peter Nowak has made some major changes to the Union´s roster this offseason. (Sarah J. Glover/Staff file photo)
Peter Nowak has made some major changes to the Union's roster this offseason. (Sarah J. Glover/Staff file photo)

So it's Christmas Day, and the day after the Eagles' season officially became irrelevant. I hope the spirit of the holiday season is strong enough to overcome whatever ill will you hold towards Andy Reid and company for their failure to make the playoffs this year.

But if that isn't the case, here's something that might take your mind off the gridiron brand of football for a while. With all the moves that the Union have made this offseason, I thought today would be a good time to take a look at how those parts might come together in 2012.

The Union have made three major international signings so far: Costa Rican forward Josué Martinez, Panamanian midfielder Gabriel Gomez and Costa Rican defender Porfirio Lopez.

They also acquired Tanzanian winger Nizar Khalfan from Vancouver in the Waiver Draft; and brought in Malvern, Pa., native Jimmy McLaughlin as a Homegrown Player for yet more midfield depth.

Here are all the players on the Union's roster as of now:

Forwards:
Levi Houapeu, Sébastien Le Toux, Jack McInerney, Josué Martinez, Danny Mwanga, Veljko Paunović

Midfielders: Freddy Adu, Brian Carroll, Keon Daniel, Michael Farfan, Gabriel Gomez, Nizar Khalfan, Morgan Langley, Jimmy McLaughlin, Kyle Nakazawa, Amobi Okugo, Zach Pfeffer, Roger Torres

Defenders: Danny Califf, Gabriel Farfan, Porfirio Lopez, Joe Tait, Carlos Valdés, Sheanon Williams

Goalkeepers: Faryd Mondragón, Zac MacMath

That is a lot of talent, and it gives the Union some serious depth. The club's midfield, which has perennially been the team's biggest strength, should be even better next year.

But with all those players to choose from, which should be in Peter Nowak's starting lineup? Here's a starting XI that I think would work well:

        Martinez   Le Toux        
                                  
               Adu                
Gomez                    M. Farfan
             Carroll              
                                  
Lopez   Califf   Valdés   Williams
                                  
            Mondragón    
         

This lineup assumes that all three of the Union's big signings are good enough to start. I think that's a more than safe assumption. Martinez and Gomez have considerable international experience, and Lopez is the true left back the Union have needed since Jordan Harvey's departure.

The combination of those signings and Justin Mapp's departure will give Peter Nowak the opportunity to deploy the best and most versatile midfield he's had with the Union.

Although you might infer otherwise from my past criticisms of him, Nowak is not averse to having creativity in his midfield. It's just a question of how much.

With Gabriel Gomez and Michael Farfan, Nowak finally has something he hasn't really had yet with the Union: two-way midfielders on both flanks. Justin Mapp was one, but the other side of the field never quite had that same kind of presence.

That's not to say there was a lack of skill; indeed, there was quite a bit of it at times. But I don't think you would call Adu, Roger Torres or even Veljko Paunović a two-way player. Nor do I think you would call Okugo or Nakazawa major attacking threats.

Nowak's most successful midfield, the 2004 era D.C. United squad, definitely had those two-way players. Ben Olsen was the perfect example. So was Earnie Stewart, even if the peak of his career had passed when he came to MLS. Josh Gros, now the Union's technical director, also played that role well coming off the bench.

With that said, if Nowak wants to deploy an attack minded roster, he can put out a lineup that will scare just about any coach in the league.

Here's a formation I could see Nowak using if he wants to slam on the gas pedal:

        Mwanga     Le Toux        
                                  
             Torres               
Khalfan                       Adu
             Carroll              
                                  
Lopez   Califf   Valdés   Williams
                                  
            Mondragón             

By contrast, here's a lineup I could see Nowak going to if he wants to play more defensively:
 
            Adu      Le Toux        
                                  
             Paunović             
G. Farfan                   Okugo
             Carroll              
                                  
Lopez   Califf   Valdés   Williams
                                  
            Mondragón      
       


All three lineups so far assume the same formation: a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield. Nowak has used that formation for much of his career. But at times, Nowak has preferred to go with a narrower midfield. In that scenario, I could see him deploying this lineup:

        Martinez   Le Toux        
                                  
     Paunović           Adu       
                                  
         Gomez   Carroll          
                                  
Lopez   Califf   Valdés   Williams
                                  
            Mondragón    
         

The biggest challenge that Peter Nowak will face next year is figuring out how to account for players who will leave the team to play in the Summer Olympics.

Five Union players are currently in the United States Under-23 national team camp: Freddy Adu, Zac MacMath, Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo and Sheanon Williams. If the U.S. qualifies for London, I would expect all but McInerney to be locks for the final roster. Adu, MacMath and Williams are likely starters.

It is possible, but highly unlikely, that the Union could also lose Gabriel Gomez. First, Panama would have to reach the knockout round of CONCACAF's qualifiying tournament, and upset either Mexico or whichever team finishes second in Mexico's group in the semi finals.

Then Panama would have to select the 26-year-old Gomez as one of the three players over the age of 23 that each team in the Olympics is allowed. Furthermore, clubs are not required to release overage players for the Olympics.

So it's a pretty safe assumption that Gomez will be available all summer. The Union also won't have to worry about losing Martinez or Lopez, since Costa Rica failed to advance from the first round of Olympic qualifying.

With that in mind, here's a lineup I could see the Union deploying during the Olympics:

       Martinez   Le Toux        
                                  
             Torres               
Gomez                    M. Farfan
             Carroll              
                                  
Lopez   Califf   Valdés  G. Farfan
                                  
            Mondragón  
 
          

It should be noted that if MacMath goes to the Olympics, the Union will have to bring in some kind of temporary backup to Mondragón. They could also get a third goalkeeper in the SuperDraft. Let's assume for now that they will do something, and we can come back to the subject down the road.

As I went through those possible lineups, you probably noticed that there were a few names I didn't mention.

The most significant among them is midfielder Keon Daniel. That isn't just because his visa situation still hasn't been resolved yet.

I have not been as sold on him as others have - especially the Free Keon caucus in the River End. Given the choice between Daniel and Michael Farfan, I'll take Farfan's edge in creativity over Daniel's edge in pace.

Part of that creativity is a willingness to cut in from the wing and shoot. From what I've seen of Daniel, he seems more likely to serve a cross from the wing than make a run towards goal with the ball.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about: Farfan's goal against D.C. United at PPL Park in September. Jump to about the 6:25 mark in this video, and pay close attention to where Farfan starts his run from:

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Historically, the Union have not had much in the way of aerial prowess in the box. There isn't anyone like Conor Casey or Kenny Cooper on the roster who can routinely score from headers off crosses into the 18 yard box. So having midfielders who can score becomes even more important.

Speaking of forwards, another guy who I haven't mentioned yet is Jack McInerney. We've seen flashes of him every now and again, but he has yet to step up to the next level.

You can make a case that it's hard to do that when not receiving regular playing time, and it's true that McInerney only played 558 minutes over 18 league games in 2011. But I would say the same thing about McInerney that I would say about Danny Mwanga: when the chance is given to you, it has to be taken.

If that means you have 15 minutes as a substitute to score the winning goal, then those are the breaks.

Unfortunately for Mwanga, there were more of those 15 minute opportunities than 90 minute opportunities in 2011 - at least in the proverbial sense. Of the 28 games in which Mwanga played last season, the second year forward started just 13.

Many observers expected Mwanga to be playing more consistently by now. But as happened last year when the Union brought in Carlos Ruiz, Mwanga once again finds himself knocked down the depth chart by a foreign signing.

As I said above, I expect Josué Martinez to start given his pedigree. It might take a little while for the Costa Rican to adjust to the physical nature of MLS, but once he gets there the goals should come.

Having said that, I'm sure that Mwanga will still get plenty of chances to live up to his potential in 2012. That will be even more true if the Union are able to get a U.S. Open Cup win for the first time in club history, after exiting at the first hurdle in 2010 and 2011.

From Mwanga, we transition to another player who is stuck in a depth chart traffic jam: Amobi Okugo.

He has gotten a considerable amount of playing time with the Generation Adidas touring squad and the United States Under 23 national team. But even though Okugo is probably going to play for the U.S. at the Olympics, the perception is that he can't seem to get on the field regularly for the Union.

That isn't entirely true. He played 15 games in 2011, starting in 10. But he didn't record as many minutes or games played as Kyle Nakazawa or Stefani Miglioranzi. Jordan Harvey played in just one more game for the Union last year than Okugo did, but logged 400 more minutes before being traded to Vancouver.

If there's one person who I think will be most affected by the Union's offseason moves, it's Gabriel Farfan. There's a real chance he will go from being the team's starting left back to being a bench player.

I think Farfan will get his most regular playing time during the Olympics. There's a risk in that he hasn't played as much time at right back as at left back, but I think he's versatile enough to be fine there. And it's only a temporary situation in the end.

It will be interesting to see where Farfan plays the rest of the time. If he doesn't play as a back, he'll have to fight hard for time in midfield.

On the whole, there are plenty of reasons for Union fans to be optimistic right now. The biggest among them is that Peter Nowak has competition at every position on the field. So whoever makes the starting lineup will really have earned it.

The offseason is flying by. In just over two weeks, I'll be in Kansas City for the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention, including the Major League Soccer and Women's Professional Soccer drafts.

After that, it won't be long before MLS teams convene for winter training camps. Then the countdown will be on to early March, and the kickoff of the Union's third season.

For now, though, I offer best wishes for a happy holiday season, and a healthy new year. May your winter be full of good memories, even if they don't involve the Eagles.

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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