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

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Is Amobi Okugo the answer to the Union's midfield issues?

It’s becoming apparent that the problems of the Philadelphia Union are myriad. It’s been 220 minutes since they last scored a goal. They have just three wins in their last 12, two coming against conference bottom dwellers Chivas and D.C. United. Since Aug. 1, their total of five points is second-lowest in MLS. For the first time since late May, they are saddled with a negative goal-differential.

Through it all, though, one area of the Union’s recent futility has stood apart: The midfield. And the possible solution, one that is looking manager John Hackworth squarely in the face, is one that will likely go unexplored.
Is Amobi Okugo the answer
to the Union's midfield struggles? (Times Files)

The problem
Just how difficult has it been for the Union midfield? Well, it depends on perception. Defensively, the Union have managed to recover from a rough start to the season to present pretty stout resistance to opponents. But the realization is setting in that such defensive solidity comes at a steep offensive price, and the Union have been woeful in that regard this season.

It’s easy to see tactically. The Union’s deficiency of midfield depth has caused them to play Sebastien Le Toux out of position all season. Danny Cruz’s performances have been inconsistent. Keon Daniel has struggled to grasp the notion of an “attacking midfielder.” Michael Farfan has constantly underwhelmed. And creative players like Kleberson and Roger Torres haven’t been able to get on the field for whatever reason.

The result is two deep-lying, holding midfielders, most often Brian Carroll and Daniel, two wingers running toward goal with little plan and less poise on the ball and two forwards starved of service. The gulf in the center of the pitch between the most advanced central midfielder – ostensibly though too infrequently in the form of Daniel – and the most withdrawn striker is too large for the Union’s inexact passing to bridge on most occasions. It explains why the Union have just 16 goals from the run of play this season out of 37 scored. It also accounts for the recent scoring drought , during which forwards Conor Casey and Jack McInerney have gone ice cold, proving so difficult to shed. Where their clinical finishing whitewashed the systemic problems early in the season, the drying up of goals from the strikers hasn’t been compensated for by others. In their last eight games, for instance, they have five goals total, only two of which have come from non-forwards.

So in numbers, how bad has the Union’s midfield production been? Consider this: New England midfielder Kelyn Rowe has scored six goals (including two cracking efforts from range in a recent 5-1 drubbing of the Union) and assisted on seven this season. He’s started in 19 of the 26 games he’s played, so it’s taken time for him to become established as a regular with the Revolution.

The Union midfield, meanwhile, has accounted for six goals and five assists all season. That’s six goals (Cruz 3, Carroll 2, Farfan 1) and five assists (Cruz 2, Carroll, Farfan and Daniel 1 each) in 28 MLS games. Rowe’s production has come in 1,898 minutes. The Union’s midfield, which includes the four players listed above, plus Kleberson, Michael Lahoud, Torres, Don Anding, Matt Kassel and Leo Fernandes, have done that in 8,513 minutes. That’s one man who is almost four and a half more productive than an entire team.

(For the sake of comparison, I’ve excluded Le Toux from the midfield discussion. He’s often drifted into a forward role, is arguably most productive when he’s allowed to run the forward line and still largely identifies as a forward. For the frequency with which the Union have shuttled between the 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations this season, it’s fair to see him as more of a forward.)

Put into a league-wide perspective, the Union have one of the league’s most offensively anemic midfields. They are one of six teams to have fewer than 10 goals or fewer than 10 assists. But only the Union, Columbus (five goals, seven assists, assuming Federico Higuain is regarded as a forward) and Los Angeles (seven and eight, if you consider Landon Donovan a forward) have fewer than 10 in both categories.

The top two teams in terms of midfield productivity in the East are none other than New York (23 goals, 15 assists) and Montreal (19, 24). If you average the midfield productivity of the top three teams in the East – Kansas City, New York and Montreal – you get 17 goals and 16.3 assists from their midfields, the former tally dragged down because with Kansas City’s bevy of forwards, they have just nine goals from a midfield most often called upon to set the table.

In addition to Rowe, here are a few players having more productive offensive seasons than the Union as a team. Portland’s Diego Valeri has had a hand in almost twice as many goals, scoring six times and dishing 12 assists. RSL’s Javi Morales is at 7/10. Also up there are Montreal’s Felipe (5/7) and Patrice Bernier (4/7), Rowe’s teammate Diego Fagundez (10/6), Kansas City’s Graham Zusi (5/6 in just 22 games due to national team duty), LA’s Marcelo Sarvas (4/6) and New York’s Jonny Steele (4/6). Again, those are individuals outperforming a team, and some aren’t exactly what you’d call league headliners.

The Union’s midfield shortcomings came into clear view Sunday. In New York’s 4-1 win over Houston, Steele, Eric Alexander and Lloyd Sam all tallied. Bernier scored twice for Montreal as it downed the Revs, 4-2. Meanwhile the Union managed less than 40 percent of the possession for the first hour of their 1-0 loss to San Jose before finally getting a foot in the game when the Earthquakes went down a man.

The solution

The Union have tried other formations. They’ve attempted a 4-1-3-2, a formation hijacked by Daniel’s insistence on dropping back. They’ve tried the 4-3-3, minimizing the number of bodies to improperly hit passes in an attempt to chuck the ball out wide and haphazardly bomb crosses toward a targe tman. Against Houston in July, they tried essentially four forwards with two holding midfielders due to international duty and injuries. No combination has consistently netted the kind of creativity and possession needed to regularly collect positive results.

What they haven’t tried yet this season is Amobi Okugo in the midfield. And they are getting close to him as the only choice.

Okugo played in the middle of the pitch at UCLA, well enough to make him the sixth overall pick in the 2010 SuperDraft. He showed promise in the midfield in the past for the Union, even if he’s gained league-wide acclaim in the center of defense. Offensively, he’s the Union’s third-leading scorer with three goals and has provided three assists (So more than half the Union midfield’s production.)

The reason for Okugo’s move to defense was necessity as much as anything this season. Bakary Soumare’s salary was deemed too steep, Hackworth confining him to the bench before trading him. Gabriel Farfan was tried in midfield ahead of Okugo, perhaps to aid in the process of him being determined surplus to requirements and dealt away for a first-round pick to Chivas. With essentially the only four defensive options – excluding player/mostly-coach Chris Albright and rarely-considered second-round SuperDraft pick Anding – on the field at all times, there were really no other options.

But the arrival of Fabinho this summer has changed the arithmetic. He’s slotted in at left back and acquitted himself well, providing more attacking confidence than Ray Gaddis did in that position. In the last two games, with Okugo suspended for yellow-card accumulation and a red card picked up against New England, the central defense pairing of Sheanon Williams and Jeff Parke with Gaddis and Fabinho on the wings have performed well. They’ve allowed just one goal, Sunday’s Shea Salinas tally against San Jose where Williams thought he was fouled.

So the defense is looking stable even without Okugo and the offense has been a mess. Why not try Okugo in the midfield?

(As a quick aside: There is a boisterous undercurrent within the Union media and the fans that was staunchly opposed to the use of Okugo in defense when Hackworth revealed that as his plan. I was not inclined to agree at the beginning of the season.)

I find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t provide more going forward than Daniel or Farfan. He’s very strong in possession. His distribution couldn’t be worse than Daniel’s most of the time. He’s an aerial threat on set pieces and in the box. He’s obviously defensively responsible and a good tackler; put in the midfield, don’t think that Okugo is suddenly going to think he’s Thierry Henry and just run the forward line. Okugo has shown flashes of forays into midfield with possession in the past, but the responsibility of the backline has made those incursions brief.

There are other changes that could also be made with Okugo’s return. Now that Gaddis is healthy again, Fabinho could move into the midfield to replace Cruz or Le Toux, neither of whom has been great lately. Le Toux has taken shots to the head in each of the last two games, while Cruz has gone the full 90 minutes just once since mid-March.

Even in an Eastern Conference where four teams seem to be falling all over each other not to make the playoffs, it’s clear that the Union’s postseason hopes are in danger of getting away from them. It may be time for action from Hackworth and company.

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