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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

RSL preview: A new starter must emerge

The math isn’t favorable for the Philadelphia Union.

No, this calculation has nothing to do with altitude or travel times or anything like that. It’s all about who’ll be on the field Wednesday night at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Could Antoine Hoppenot make his first MLS start
of 2013 Wednesday night against Real Salt Lake?
In 17 matches this season, the Union have had 16 players start, tied for the lowest in MLS. Exclude goalkeeper Zac MacMath, and you’ve got 15 outfield players. Two of those players, Bakary Soumare and Gabriel Farfan, have been traded. Two (Keon Daniel and Jack McInerney) are on international duty, and two (Michael Lahoud and Kleberson) are likely out due to injury.

Do the subtraction and there’s one inequality that stands out for the Union: Nine players who’ve made starts in 2013 in line for 10 outfield starting spots Wednesday. It means someone who has yet to start this season will have to make their bow. So just who is that?

First, it’s worth looking at the stats for the Union in terms of games played. The Union have had 11 players start at least 10 matches; only Houston (11), FC Dallas (12) and New York (13) can say that. And the Union are tied with the Dynamo for least players to start a match at 16.

If you don’t think there’s a correlation between number of players to start a match and team success, consider that the five teams with the most starters – Chivas (28), Toronto (27), D.C. United (25), Colorado (25) and New England (25) – are all out of playoffs at the moment. It’s not a blanked quality assessment: The Rapids and Revs have obviously had plenty of injuries this year, but ineffectiveness and rampant roster turnover has certainly played a role in the other three.

So back to the Union’s conundrum: Just who rounds out the starting lineup. The defense and Brian Carroll are set, and you have to figure Conor Casey and Sebastien Le Toux feature in some form, but how does the rest of the midfield/forwards shake out?

The questions are numerous. Winger or central for Michael Farfan? Midfield or forward for Le Toux? It’s even worth wondering if manager John Hackworth is so married to the idea of Antoine Hoppenot as a super-sub that he'll keep them out of the lineup.

The easiest way to replace Daniel and McInerney is with Farfan and Hoppenot, respectively. Farfan was OK, not great in that central midfield role against Dallas (though he was often dispossessed when Andrew Jacobson and Blas Perez targeted him in possession). Hoppenot was less convincing and picked up a late yellow card for diving, a reputation that seems to be building. Remarkably, for a guy who was appeared in 15 of 17 matches this season, it would be his first start.

The equation isn’t that clear cut, though. Even with Hoppenot, you could argue for him as a right winger opposite Danny Cruz with Le Toux going up top (I’d rule that out over concerns of Hoppenot’s defensive contributions) or Hoppenot as a forward with Le Toux in midfield. With Casey, you’d think a forward tandem involving Aaron Wheeler wouldn’t work too well. Then there’s the question of how a winger like Don Anding or central midfielders like Leo Fernandes or Roger Torres could work alongside Carroll. It’s enough to make your head spin, and it might be doing that to Hackworth at altitude.

Even the matchups to exploit aren’t terribly easy to define. A central operator like Torres or Fernandes could try to take advantage of the replacement for holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman. A more active forward could go after a defense that will see changes without Tony Beltran.
What is certain is that without Beckerman, Beltran and all-star goalkeeper Nick Rimando, the Union will go for goals. So with that in mind, here’s the formation I see from the front six:

Cruz-Farfan-Carroll-Le Toux
The thinking: Wheeler is a ready-made replacement for Hoppenot. Fernandes or Anding could come on as attack-minded subs for Cruz if his injury issues catch up to him. The plan would be to hope for a goal/goals with Cruz and Hoppenot on early, then bring on Fernades for one or the other and go 4-3-1-2 stance to hold onto a lead.

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