Five Tactical Storylines for Philadelphia

What to watch for when the Union take the field in 2011

Earlier this year, philadelphiaunion.com took a look at 11 storylines to watch in the upcoming 2011 season. Among those topics: success in the Superdraft, offseason signings, and learning how to win on the road. 

With the season now just six weeks away, it's time to take a more specific look at tactical storylines and on-the-field questions surrounding the 2011 Union. 

Attacking structure

The loss of Moreno means the Union frontline will look a lot different this year. Considered a target man, rather than a goal scoring striker, Moreno was successful at doing the small things – holding up the ball, drawing fouls, and finding teammates who took advantage of the extra space to make off-the-ball runs. While he only scored two goals last year, Moreno tallied seven assists and drew 53 free kicks for the team.

We saw several different looks up top throughout Philadelphia's expansion campaignSebastien Le Toux and Moreno were often paired together. Other times, Le Toux played more of a free role on the flanks. This allowed him to ghost from left wing to right wing, while Moreno and Danny Mwanga did the work up top. Towards the end of the season, Le Toux and Mwanga were occasionally paired together, while Justin Mapp moved into Le Toux's winger role. We also saw this formation towards the end of games as substitutions were made and players moved around the pitch.

It's likely that we'll see that Le Toux-Mwanga combination up top this year. While the pair combined for 21 goals last year, it will be interesting to see how they function together from the start. Will they be able to muscle off stronger defenders? Or will their speed, passing and movement be enough to create space and generate goal scoring opportunities?

The departure of Moreno also means that more minutes could be available for Jack McInerney, who made 17 appearances last year but started only once.

Sorting out the backline

A recurring theme in 2010 was backline inconsistency, both statistically and personnel-wise.

Installed at left back, Jordan Harvey played in every match last year, starting in every one of those fixtures save for the August 8 trip to Dallas. Captain Danny Califf held a permanent role in central defense, logging 2,464 minutes.

But other spots were much less settled. Michael Orozco Fiscal moved back and forth between right back and central defense and was the only player besides Harvey to play left back. Juan Diego González was picked up midway through the season and also contributed important minutes in central defense. 

Earlier in the year, Cristian Arrieta was acquired and temporarily settled into the right back role. Then Sheanon Williams was brought into the fold and locked down the spot for the remainder of the year. Even former Union winger Shea Salinas earned starts at right back. And don't forget David Myrie, who played the position in Philadelphia's very first game before being released. No spot on the field had more turnover last year than the right back position. 

While there figures to be far less movement in 2011, the addition of defender Carlos Valdés makes for an interesting situation. The Union ended the season with a foursome of Williams, Califf, Orozco Fiscal and Harvey, a unit that showed encouraging chemistry.

Both the players and technical staff have stated that they expect fierce competition for starting spots this year. And no matter who ends up starting, the added depth provides more options over the course of a 34-game regular season.

But still, who's the odd man out on opening day? 

Bridging the gap

Many of the best clubs in MLS have playmakers in the midfield  creative distributors with keen vision and incisive passing skills. Look no further than 2010 MVP David Ferreira, who scored eight goals and added 13 assists as FC Dallas made the MLS Cup Final. Playing behind Jeff Cunningham and/or Atiba Harris, Ferreira worked the center of the field to perfection, pulling the strings all season long.

The Union are looking for that playmaker to emerge this year, a player who can bridge the gap between the defensive third and the attacking third.

Fred saw the most minutes in that role last year, but he contributed just one assist to go along with his four goals.

Only two other pure midfielders tallied assists last year, and the majority of those assists came from the flanks  Roger Torres had six, Mapp four.

The player who assumes the attacking midfield role doesn't necessarily have to be a goal scorer, especially if Le Toux and Mwanga find their 2010 form. But while the Union receive strong service from the wings, finding a central playmaker would only diversify the squad's attack.

Defining roles

In other sports, the term "role player" is used to describe an athlete who isn't a superstar but makes a specific contribution to the team. In basketball, we might refer to a role player as a strong rebounder, a shot blocker, or someone who spreads the defense with 3-point shooting. The Los Angeles Lakers use the role player to perfection, with the likes of Ron Artest and Luke Walton complementing superstars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. The end result? Back-to-back NBA titles.

In soccer, you don't hear the term as often, especially since managers only have three substitutions. But MLS has seen its share of role players over the years. At the end of his career, Danny Dichio was a guy who couldn't go a full 90 minutes, but came off the bench late in the game to give Toronto a big threat up top. Dema Kovalenko became a player who could fill the "enforcer" role for Los Angeles, giving the club that physical presence when necessary. 

Even starters can be role players. You don't expect guys like Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz to score, but they control the midfield and let Conor Casey and Omar Cummings do the work. That dynamic led the Colorado Rapids to the MLS Cup title last year. It's also a major reason why the Union brought in Brian Carroll from Columbus.

While you don't want to stunt the growth of young players by limiting them to specific roles, it's important to identify their strengths and how they can most effectively impact a match.

Good teams are able to make substitutions that affect the dynamic of a game. Maybe a substitute can allow you to change your formation. Or perhaps a quick striker with fresh legs could open up the defense. Or, in a physical game with an abundance of fouls, maybe it makes sense to bring in your dead ball specialist.

Once Philadelphia's starting lineup becomes relatively stable, determing how to best utilize the remaining players on the roster could make or break the season. McInerney, Torres, Amobi Okugo, Kyle Nakazawa, Andrew Jacobson, and rookie Michael Farfan all come to mind as potential spark plugs off the bench, assuming they're not starting.

Formation options

After some initial tweaking at the start of the season, Peter Nowak employed a 4-4-2 for nearly all of the 2010 campaign. The 4-4-2 is soccer's most common formation and is used by nearly every MLS team. 

But in the Union's first win, a 3-2 victory over DC United, the team actually came out in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Moreno was up top as a solo striker, while Fred played a central role behind him. Le Toux, who scored his famous hat trick in that game, was employed on the left side of the formation. Stefani Miglioranzi and Torres sat in front of the backline, while Arrieta played center half and Orozco Fiscal featured at right back.

While the 4-4-2 is unlikely to go away, the additions to the team do give the coaching staff other options. With the speed of Williams, running wing backs out of a 5-4-1 or a 5-3-2 is a possibility. You could also use two holding midfielders in the aforementioned 4-2-3-1, provided your lone striker is able to work off of the three players behind him.

There's a fine line when it comes to formations, and certain arrangements will naturally look different as the game progresses and players work to find space. It's not uncommon to see a 4-5-1 turn into a 4-3-3 if your wingers press higher into the final third. You might also see a 4-4-2 turn into a 4-4-1-1 if one of your attackers falls back to the second striker role.

Analysts can talk about these strategies all day long, but the important thing to consider is that the Union technical staff has more options this year. With more depth, a few key offseason additions and increased understanding of players' strengths and weaknesses, the tactical door is wide open in 2011.

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Related:

Moreno Ready to Turn the Page After Union Departure

Philly Still the Top Priority for Orozco Fiscal