The Run of Play: Examining the 2012 Union midfield
When it comes to midfielders, the 2012 Union roster is stacked with talent. There are as many as a dozen players on manager Peter Nowak's squad who can contribute in various roles this season.
Here's a look at some of the possibilities.
The two most experienced midfielders on the Union roster are both defensive-minded.
Brian Carroll is your consummate holding midfielder, a virtual shoe-in for the starting XI and one of the most consistent performers in 2011. Carroll covers ground as well as anyone in MLS. He eats up the space in front of the back four and plays high percentage passes while maintaining positional discipline. He covers for Danny Califf and Carlos Valdes on Union corner kicks, and he's able to perform well in different formations and personnel groupings.
Newcomer Gabriel Gomez is a "field general" of sorts, a bigger player who can do a little bit of everything in the middle of the park. He uses his body extremely well and has the size to win physical battles. He's not a volume goal scorer, but he does have vision and skill going forward. With an unbalanced schedule this season, and multiple games against Eastern Conference foes, we'll get to see Gomez tangle with the likes of Teemu Tainio, Rafa Marquez, Shalrie Joseph, and Torsten Frings on a regular basis.
Amobi Okugo continues to earn experience with the U-23 U.S. National Team, often serving as captain. Okugo's minutes nearly doubled for the Union in 2011, and he made 10 starts over the course of the year. While the third-year rising star will likely miss a chunk of time due to international duty, he'll look to cement a regular role with the Union in 2012. Add 2012 second-round pick Greg Jordan to the mix and you have two talented youngsters bringing quality depth to the defensive midfield position.
There's no shortage of options going forward.
Start with Freddy Adu and Roger Torres, who are each in a position to play bigger roles in 2011. Adu was slowed by an ankle injury last year after joining the club in mid-August, while Torres was primarily used as a substitute, providing a spark off the bench.
The pair are both comfortable in central positions, though they have combined together with one playing centrally and the other out wide. Both possess creativity and vision, and they'll be relied upon to play decisive balls in the final third to newcomers Lionard Pajoy, Josue Martinez and Chandler Hoffman, as well as returning strikers Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerney. With the departures of Veljko Paunovic and Kyle Nakazawa, one central midfield starting job is there for the taking.
Other candidates for starting spots include Michael Farfan and his brother Gabriel. Michael was exceptional in the midfield last year, especially when given room to run in the 4-5-1 formation that also featured Carroll and Paunovic centrally. Both of the Farfans have terrific skill on the ball and can play in wide areas effectively. With the signing of Porfirio Lopez, we're likely to see Gabriel move up from his left back position and spend more time in the midfield this year. The twins could potentially play in the middle at the same time, with any combination of Adu, Torres, Carroll, and Gomez.
The return of Keon Daniel is another big positive in the center of the park. Daniel is especially calm on the ball and was a good facilitator from the left wing in 2011. He effectively slowed down the pace in Philadelphia's favor, playing short passes and establishing the possession game in the opponent's half of the field.
Another thing to consider is Daniel's dead ball ability. With the departures of Sebastien Le Toux and Nakazawa, Daniel and Adu might be the top candidates for hitting corner kicks and set pieces this year. Between Daniel, Adu and Torres, there are three players who can strike quality left-footed set pieces. Add Gomez's right foot and there are a lot of options in dead ball situations. The Union can effectively hit in-swinging corner kicks from both sides of the field this year.
Then you have your Homegrown players, Zach Pfeffer and Jimmy McLaughlin. Pfeffer got his first starts last season, in important games against Columbus and New York. McLaughlin played very well in Reserve League and friendly matches. Each will likely see the field on select occasions this season.
Round out the pack with Krystian Witkowski, a promising Supplemental Draft pick out of Marist College, and you have twelve players capable of contributing in the midfield.
One of the keys to this year's midfield will be building chemistry between Carroll and Gomez. In a formation with two defensive-minded midfielders, you would expect Carroll to drop a bit deeper than Gomez, with the Panamanian taking on a more advanced role.
Nowak has used formations with two defensive midfielders on many occasions, running both the 4-2-2-2 and 4-2-3-1 last season. The 4-2-3-1 was especially popular in the World Cup, and was a formation that a lot of MLS teams, including the Union, used on the road last season.
But the Union have more options on the forward line this year, so a single-striker set might not be as common as it was in 2011. With the departure of Le Toux, we're likely to see more combinations up front, while other strikers conceivably play from the wing.
The unique thing about the 4-2-2-2 is that it plays differently depending on which players are on the field. The Union started 2011 in this formation and allowed just one goal in their first three games. On the other hand, the team only scored two goals of their own. The formation allows two defensive midfielders to control the center of pitch, while relying on two wide midfielders to stretch the field. If your wingers aren't receiving the ball, they tend to drift into the middle, which "narrows" the formation and makes you more vulnerable to wide play. Conversely, if you have fullbacks like Sheanon Williams and Porfirio Lopez playing a high line, you can allow your midfielders to vacate that wide space and slide inwards.
The Union also played a successful 4-1-3-2 last season with Carroll in the holding role by himself. The formation sacrifices defensive numbers, but the addition of a second striker provides more punch in the final third. It's a formation in which Carroll and Gomez can both shine individually, should one miss a game due to injury or suspension.
Nowak was also successful in the later stages of the year playing a 4-5-1. With Michael Farfan and Paunovic in front of Carroll, Le Toux was able to latch onto direct balls over the top of the opponent's defense.
The Union have typically not run a traditional 4-4-2 with a "diamond" midfield. That shape normally includes two wingers, a defensive midfielder, and an attacking midfielder. A good example of a team that runs a typical 4-4-2 is Real Salt Lake, with Kyle Beckerman in the holding role and Javier Morales pulling the strings.
The only other way to get more midfielders onto the field is by dropping a defender. The 3-5-2 is not common in world football, but it's also not unheard of. Some clubs will run a five-man defense with two flankers pushing up liberally, similar to the Union's strategy in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals last season.
It will certainly be interesting to see what combinations the Union technical staff utilize and how minutes are distributed throughout the season.