[This is the second in a three-part series analyzing the Union’s roster as it stands now ahead of Saturday’s season opener against the Houston Dynamo. Yesterday’s part one looked at the defense, and tomorrow’s part three will delve into the forward corps.]
In 2010, the Philadelphia Union had a revolving door of midfielders coming in and out of the lineup. Coach Peter Nowak had a hard time deciding which four players to start in his 4-2-2-2 formation, which includes two defensive midfielders and two advanced ones.
Sometimes he’d play Sebastien Le Toux at right attacking mid and sometimes he’d use him as a forward. Occasionally Kyle Nakazawa would start but sometimes Nowak would opt for Roger Torres instead. Michael Orozco Fiscal even started a game at defensive midfielder. The only real mainstay in the midfield seemed to be Stefani Miglioranzi, but even he missed 4 games due in part to injuries and in part to a red card suspension.
That all began to change when the Union acquired left winger Justin Mapp from the Chicago Fire. Mapp took the left-sided attacking midfield spot in Nowak’s preferred formation, and refused to relinquish it. His game-winning goal against the New England Revolution gave the Union one of only two away wins all season and seemed to cement his spot in the starting eleven.
This trend of stability continued after the season when Nowak and his staff traded for defensive midfielder Brian Carroll from the Columbus Crew. Carroll, like Mapp, was a U.S. national team veteran who has made the playoffs in each one of his MLS seasons and has won two MLS Cups, including one with Nowak back in 2004 when they were both DC United. Carroll provides leadership and can be penciled in as a surefire starter at one of Nowak’s two defensive midfield spots from day one. But that leaves two more spots for this season. Who will take them? Find out after the jump.
Late into this offseason, the Union signed Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz. This acquisition will also have a huge impact on the team's midfield in 2011, as it will allow Sebastien Le Toux to permanently occupy the right attacking midfield spot in the Union's 4-2-2-2. From this deeper position, Le Toux will be able to create opportunities to score both for himself and for the Union's talented group of forwards.
So with Mapp, Carroll, and Le Toux essentially being locks to feature in the Union’s optimum starting lineup, only one spot is left. Ironically, this spot is the one that Stefani Miglioranzi held in 2010, when he was a clear starter. But the Union have improved their midfield dramatically, and Miglioranzi’s spot is no longer guaranteed. While he will have a good chance of retaining it, young Amobi Okugo is breathing down his neck, and could take the starting job by the end of the season. Luckily for Miglioranzi, though, Okugo will be spending large amounts of time during the 2011 season with the U.S. under-20 national team.
Other players could have been in consideration for this other starting job, but the Union’s midfield has experienced a large amount of turnover this offseason. Andrew Jacobson, Eduardo Coudet, Fred, and even Toni Stahl were all capable of occupying this role, but have been let go one way or another by the Union. Other midfielders that preferred to play wide also left the team, including Shea Salinas, J.T. Noone, and Nick Zimmerman. The void left by these players isn’t exactly negative, though, as the team probably had too many midfielders last year.
Kyle Nakazawa is another candidate to start in the center of the field alongside Carroll, but he is more of an attacking-minded player and doesn't fit too well into Nowak's vision for the central midfielders. Nakazawa is not yet good enough at defending and ball-winning to succeed in this part of the field for the Union, but he has reportedly been focusing on improving these areas during the preseason.
Other players will contribute to the Union as sparks off the bench or as reserves. Roger Torres will frequently be the first substitute off the bench for the Union, whether it comes from Nowak taking a striker off and moving Le Toux up, or if Nowak simply wants to go for it and removes a defensive midfielder. Michael Farfan will also fulfill a similar role to Torres, but the former UNC star has been playing right back throughout the preseason and may be required more as a defender given the Union’s lack of depth in that area. His twin brother, Gabriel, has now reportedly been signed by the Union as well, and could replace Mapp late in games or even play as a striker or left back.
Levi Houapeu has yet to be signed by the team after being selected in the third round of the 2011 SuperDraft. If signed, he would provide a level of speed off the bench that no one else on the team possesses. Houapeu is also capable of playing as a striker. Chris Agorsor and Ryan Richter also can feature as wingers, but the team seems to consider them more as forwards. It also remains to be seen if the Union will officially sign Keon Daniel, the former Puerto Rico Islanders midfielder and Trinidad & Tobago national team veteran who has been on trial with the team.
The final midfielder on Philadelphia's roster is Zach Pfeffer. The Union's first homegrown signing isn't expected to make huge waves during his first season, especially considering he's only 16 years old. But Nowak has suggested that Pfeffer might not be too far away from the starting lineup as we have been assuming. The young attacking midfielder certainly displayed his fine finishing ability with the 40-yard wonder goal he scored in a preseason friendly against the University of Central Florida.
No one can deny that the Union's midfield has made significant improvements from the group that started in the team's debut game against the Seattle Sounders last year. A starting quartet of Mapp, Carroll, Miglioranzi, and Le Toux is right up there with any midfield in the Eastern Conference, and with some game experience behind them could develop into one of the better groups in the league.