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What the rest of MLS is up to: Philadelphia

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A familiar face: Philadelphia Union head coach Peter Nowak (via <a href="http://www.faccphila.org/images/Union%20Coach.jpg">www.faccphila.org</a>)
A familiar face: Philadelphia Union head coach Peter Nowak (via www.faccphila.org)

A little while back, I took a look at New England and New York in an effort to discuss our future opponents. I've arbitrarily chosen to move in geographical order from east to west, which leads us down 95 to the land of cheesesteaks, The Roots, and sports teams that are hated in the DMV (Eagles, Flyers, and Phillies, all despised). Follow beyond the jump as I run the rule over MLS's newest team, the Philadelphia Union.

 

Philadelphia Union

 

Expansion draft: Brad Knighton, David Myrie, Shavar Thomas, Jordan Harvey, Shea Salinas, Stefani Miglioranzi, Andrew Jacobson, Nick Zimmerman, Alejandro Moreno, Sebastien Le Toux

Draft: Danny Mwanga, Amobi Okugo, Jack McInerney, Toni Stahl, Kyle Nakazawa, Brian Perk

Signings/traded for: Chris Seitz, Danny Califf, Fred, Michael Orozco

Peter Nowak stuck with a couple variations of the 352 in DC, but he's not the kind of guy that will stick to something whether it works or not. If Philly gets into camp and they can't find a good combination in midfield and defense, Nowak will ditch it fast. He may be thought of as stubborn, but his drive to win at all costs is too strong to stick with a broken system. At this point, though, Philly looks set to start in a 3412 very similar to what we all saw in DC after Christian Gomez was acquired. This is what I think it'll look like at this point (given that the article about their one friendly, a 5-0 win over the University of North Carolina, has no lineup information):

----------------- Mwanga ----- Moreno

----------------------------- Fred

Harvey ----- Miglioranzi ---- Okubo ---- Le Toux

---------- Orozco ------- Califf ------- Thomas

----------------------------- Seitz

There are some question marks in that lineup. Harvey didn't impress in the same position when Colorado was forced to switch to a 352 down the stretch last season. It could be that Le Toux ends up elsewhere, either on the left side of midfield or up top, where he'd probably be their craftiest forward. In that case, look for Salinas or Zimmerman to be the right midfielder. Miglioranzi was had a very impressive season in LA before injuries saw him lose his spot to Dema Kovalenko, so expect him to be the more cerebral of the Union's dual holding midfielders. Okubo, to justify all the post-draft hype, will have to be a starter right away (and he doesn't even turn 19 until next month). However, if taking him at #6 in the draft ends up being a rash decision, Nowak will have the promising-but-raw Jacobson and Finnish rookie Toni Stahl waiting in the wings.

Elsewhere, while I'd be shocked if Seitz didn't win the starting job in goal, we are talking about Nowak here. DC fans should remember his approach to picking keepers, which can be summed up as asking the GK coach who the best guy is, starting him until he lets up a soft goal, and then replacing him with the #2 in the very next game. Nowak made no bones about the fact that Mark Simpson told him who to start in goal, and the only reason Troy Perkins got time as a rookie was because Nick Rimando and Doug Warren let up goals they shouldn't have. If Seitz doesn't truly earn the job, Brad Knighton (who looked good for the Revs this past season when Matt Reis was unavailable) will be right on his tail.

However, to me the biggest question mark is Fred. We're all familiar with Fred's undoubted technical gifts, just as we all know his penchant for making the wrong decision all too well. A surprising number of United fans came out of the woodwork after the Perkins trade saying that they wanted to see Fred take over as our playmaker this season. I know the stories of his success in the A-League in such a role sound really enticing, but let's be realistic. Fred struggled with the more simple decisions he faced as a wide player. Generally speaking, players in the middle tend to have higher soccer IQs than wide men, and there are virtually always a higher number of people clogging the middle than either flank. I don't think Fred's going to be a disaster for the Union, but I fail to see how he's going to be this great player people say he could have been here. It's a vastly more complicated role, and the simpler job he had in DC was tough enough for him.

There is also the possibility that the Union will come out in a more conventional 442. From that UNC writeup, there were some indications as to where certain people were playing. Le Toux was apparently playing as a forward against UNC, with rookie Toni Stahl getting a run out as a center back alongside Danny Califf. Fred set up a goal from a cross on the right wing (which could mean he was on the flank, as he was used in DC, or simply that he wandered out there...bare with me until more details come out). If that's the case, then we might see something closer to this:

-------------- Le Toux --- Moreno

????? --- Miglioranzi --- Okubo --- Fred

Orozco ---- Thomas ---- Califf ---- Myrie

------------------------- Seitz

There are more questions here. I list Myrie as a starter at right back based solely on once reading that he might be able to play out there. Other than him, there's no one on their roster that I've ever seen or heard of playing right back before, which is obviously a big issue. Left midfield is also a problem. Do you put the Shea Salinas (a poor man's Josh Gros) on the right and play Fred on the left? Do you see if Zimmerman can play on that side (as he did, I believe, for a couple games in NY last year)? They might be best off using Le Toux on the left, but he might be too important as a forward for them to make that move (a similar issue arises in the 3412: Le Toux on the right, or up front with Salinas starting? It all depends on Mwanga).

Obviously, I think Philly has a lot of things to work out. However, that shouldn't indicate that they're going to be useless. There are some fairly certain, reliable starters on this squad. Guys like Thomas, Miglioranzi, Moreno, Le Toux, Califf, Fred, and Orozco aren't going to lose you games. Add in the high work rate of every player Nowak's taken, and this is going to be a very difficult team to break down. Going forward is going to be a problem with the lack of reliable creativity, but defensively they'll be sound. I'm going to venture a guess that they'll finish no worse than mid-table in terms of goals against, and they should probably be aiming higher than that.

For United fans, we should be expecting our games with the Union to be tight, scrappy affairs. I won't go so far as to predict that the games look like street fights, but I would not be surprised if that's the kind of intensity Nowak's troops bring. They're going to have to win the battle of wills every time out given the attacking players they've brought in thus far. Something tells me that a city that has embraced the ignominious "Broad Street Bullies" Flyers teams of the past will have no problem getting behind a blue-collar group like this.

As more info comes out about the Union's plans, I will do my best to update this post. Plan on seeing an updated version as the season gets closer. If you know more about Philly's team than I do, link me in the right direction so I can give a more complete picture.