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

Friday, June 26, 2015

Winging it: Parsing the mystery that has been Andrew Wenger

There’s one significant conundrum on the Union that seems particularly relevant this week.

Actually, it’s a two-part quandary.
Andrew Wenger, seen against Rochester Rhinos in the U.S. Open Cup
last week, is still looking for his first goal of the season.
(Times Staff/TOM KELLY IV)

The first is just what has happened to the prolific Andrew Wenger that bedeviled opposing defenses last season as the Union surged from MLS basement to U.S. Open Cup final. The second installment is just how Wenger has managed to hold down a regular spot in the starting XI for a Union side in obvious need of an offensive boost not named CJ Sapong. The second part of the question is easier to answer: Wenger, while struggling offensively, has been a near-automatic selection for lack of other options, largely due to a bevy of injuries. Eric Ayuk’s defense remains suspect, as is Cristian Maidana’s when deployed on the wing (or centrally, to be fair).

It’s added up to Wenger, who’s somehow magically avoided the Union’s rampant injury bug, being second on the team in minutes played with 1,287, trailing only Maurice Edu (1,530). Wenger has played in all 18 games, the only Union player with that distinction, starting all but one. He hasn’t gone 90 minutes, though, since April 16. He logged 61 in Wednesday’s win over Seattle, drawing a penalty by catching Dylan Remick’s boot in the face.

It’s possible that some of that could change this weekend when the Union take on Wenger’s former team, Montreal. But again, that decision for manager Jim Curtin isn’t so cut and dry.

First and foremost, Curtin understands both sides of the equation as to why Wenger should see his minutes cut and why they haven’t been. Wenger has provided value defensively with his work rate, willingness to track back and his aerial prowess on clearing set pieces. But that’s not enough, not when one of the main facets of an attack not exactly boasting an explosive arsenal can endure half a season without a goal and just two assists (tally in a friendly against Reading not withstanding), especially given that his opposite winger, Sebastien Le Toux, is usually the one lauded for defensive cognizance.

As Curtin alludes to, helping boost the value of other players while providing little positivity in his own right isn’t sufficient for such a key cog.

“He’s still a guy that is doing defensively a lot of dirty work that again, protects Fabinho,” Curtin said Friday after training. “He’s part of the reason by Fabinho is playing very well. Things that maybe don’t show up on the stat sheet. Maybe he’s feeling pressure to score goals and assists, but I do keep reminding him that he is doing good work defensively, being a good physical presence out there, winning head balls on restarts, all the little things. If we’re going to be successful, we do need to get him going, though.”

Saturday’s visit from the Impact, a team Wenger has precious few happy memories of, illustrates how complex the reckoning over Wenger has become given that his contributions are so one-dimensional (as in, not the offensive dimension you’d expect from a forward). Wenger was switched to the right wing in Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Seattle, a repeat of which Saturday would likely pit him against left back Donny Toia. Given Wenger’s defensive sensibilities, it would make more sense to move him back to the left to track Ambroise Oyongo, the left-footed Montreal right back who likes to cut inside, as he did in scoring the only goal in Wednesday’s 3-1 loss to Toronto.

That’s one side of the coin. The other is that Curtin – who said noncommittally Friday after training that “Andrew’s going to play a role in the game, whether it’s off the bench, whether it’s as a starter” – wants to attack Montreal. If the Impact fullbacks leak forward to augment the attack, Curtin wants to quickly get in behind to the space they’ve vacated. That sounds like a job for Ayuk, who returned from a one-game ankle injury to play Wednesday, or Zach Pfeffer, with Maidana back in the middle.

“On our home field, we have to take these games as must-win games, so we have to attack on our home field,” Curtin said. “We’re not going to be able to high-press them all over the field like I’d like to on fresh legs, on a couple of weeks rest. We don’t have that luxury. But in moments, we’ll pick our spots to press them and plan to do that at the right moments.”

It’s yet another week spent wrestling with the enigmatic place of Wenger in the side, one that will only be solved if the forward reminds his manager again what he's capable of offensively.

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