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

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Andrew Wenger, left back of the future? Not so fast

There may be some debate as to which position best suits Andrew Wenger,
here playing against Colorado in March. But Union manager Jim Curtin
is sure as to where he sees him. (Times Staff/TOM KELLY IV)
Versatility has long been a double-edged sword for Andrew Wenger. His talent as a soccer player has never been in question; his position on the field, on the other hand, has inspired more debate than any one player would probably prefer.

Even as Wenger collected six goals and four assists in what was hoped to be a breakout 2014 season, some voices, including some of the most influential of MLS media corps, still wonder if he’s not better suited in another position.

The debate is a consequence of immense talent in a player who changed positions ever year of his high school career at Warwick. It’s the natural byproduct of being honored as the ACC’s defensive and offensive players of the year in successive campaigns at Duke after transitioning from center back to center forward, an utterly unique trajectory.

The chorus of wonder continues to the pro ranks, after stints as a center forward for the Montreal Impact, which picked him No. 1 overall in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, fizzled and he was reborn as a wing forward for the Union. In the space of two years, his positional flexibility went from a valued trait to a befuddling source of frustration before being swapped for Jack McInerney in April 2014.

In Monday night's friendly with Harrisburg City, Wenger landed at a different spot: Left back, which he said he hadn’t played since his freshman season in high school.

So is this the next stop in Wenger’s seemingly endless game of musical positions? No.

Here’s manager Jim Curtin explaining it:

“A little bit of it is it’s a position where he can have the game in front of him. He’s played on the left side before. It’s a little slower-paced; it’s not as end-to-end for him. He’s been good defensively this season, so you start to put those pieces together. Mainly, it was just for fitness purposes. I didn’t want him to have a ton of minutes as an attacker where he’s just gassed by 45 minutes. We didn’t have a ton of guys available with the unique Monday game having played Saturday. It’s a little bit of that. It’s a little bit of, here’s an opportunity to take a look at a guy in a different position. You could say that he did very well there. He was able to play balls good with his left foot down the line. He cut in on his right and switched the point of attack. It was good, it was positive. But mainly the exercise was to get him 90 minutes, and it’s a little less stress on you at left back and you can kind of slow down. You’re not always under pressure, there’s not always someone up your back, so he gets to kind of survey the field from there. It’s also kind of healthy for him to see what the angles are like when he has someone in front of him, just the different ways that that guy cuts off of him, the job that he’s usually doing, it’s clearer to him, the little ins and outs of the game that he can maybe pick up and grow and improve on him. Mainly a fitness exercise.”

That’s a lot to digest, but the main takeaway should be that Monday’s defensive runout was borne of a twofold necessity: 1) The Union have just two natural fullbacks on the roster, and both Ray Gaddis and Fabinho have logged major minutes lately; and 2) Wenger, who returned from a five-game absence due to a concussion before logging 17 minutes against New England Saturday, needed to gain fitness, and left back was the best chance to accommodate that.

However, Curtin’s assessment contains valid points. To say Wenger is a cerebral player undersells it. Curtin is fond of saying that he’s sometimes too smart for the blunt-instrument tedium of “see goal, shoot at goal” that the forward position requires.

A defensive position may better suit certain parts of Wenger’s mentality. He could dictate play without the ball, anticipate rather than react, since he doesn’t have the technical ability to do that one-v-one in most attacking cases. His blend of size, speed and persistence, plus the technical ability honed as a midfielder for much of his upbringing makes his distribution and attacking contribution tantalizing from a defensive position. His ability to take on defenders is average for a wing forward but well above-average as a fullback, just as his defensive ability is above-average for an attacker.

His offensive production, really every season save for that torrid patch last summer, has underwhelmed from a results-oriented perspective. The argument that all Wenger needs is continuity at a position carries weight, but that has been eroded by his lack of production as a wing forward when selected weekly this year. (It could also be seen as yet another instance of the “anyone can play fullback” mindset that permeates American soccer all the way to the top at the moment.)

Those speculations can take a backseat for now, though. Curtin’s view of Wenger is solidified, at least for the short term.

“I have a good idea of what I see him as,” Curtin said, “and that’s as a left-sided winger that can give team fits like you saw a lot last year, and he’s trying to get that form back now.”

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