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

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The million-dollar question of Alejandro Bedoya's position with the Union

Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, right, defending Colombia's Juan Cuadrado
for the U.S. during this summer's Copa America, can play multiple positions.
But where will he fit with the Union? (AP)
The press conference at Talen Energy Stadium Wednesday took an interesting turn midway though, pivoting on a simple premise. The Philadelphia Union, a team in desperate need of a No. 8, signed a midfielder who isn’t known for playing as a No. 8.

In itself, the signing of Alejandro Bedoya to be an integral part of the Union’s multi-year rebuild is an excellent move. We can quibble over the rumored cost paid or the cost at which Bedoya’s services come. But as the Union have proven all season – and proved again Thursday with the signing of Charlie Davies – Bedoya falls in line with the prevailing trend of acquiring players of a higher caliber than ever before.

Within the framework of a team struggling in MLS and coping to fill a gaping void in central midfield, Bedoya’s acquisition is more quizzical. In the grand scheme, 12 games only mean so much (though I’d argue the Union’s playoff fate over the last dozen games is instrumental to several figures’ futures).

This is where an unusual degree of friction (you can watch the video and read the transcript here) was introduced Wednesday, as manager Jim Curtin was pressed on how Bedoya would fit into midfield. And Curtin said everything but what is likely to be the truth, that Bedoya will be slid back into the No. 8 midfield role.

Now a dose of pessimism: The Union last year spent considerable funds to acquire a career winger in Europe with better credentials from a better league at a lower cost, then moved him centrally and eventually into an ill-fitting No. 8 role. As with Tranquillo Barnetta for the last two months, it’s easy to see Bedoya as not quite a square peg for a round hole, but at least one that requires some sanding.

Here’s what the Union could look like at this time next month, provided that Bedoya’s former Rangers teammate Maurice Edu returns to health:

That provides a depth option of Brian Carroll/Warren Creavalle at the six, Derrick Jones/ Creavalle at the eight, and Roland Alberg, who’s been just meh lately, platooning with Barnetta at the 10.

As Curtin challenged the reporters in attendance, the evidence exists for position changes by Americans returning home to MLS succeeding. He cited several – Jermaine Jones (in two phases in New England, then Colorado), Michael Bradley and Sacha Kljestan – Americans who adapted positions and thrived. Bedoya has been a mixed bag, succeeding this summer as a deeper-lying central midfielder while flopping after being shuttled even further back on the field in the past.

While Curtin is correct about those others players, there’s a caveat: All three, save for Jones’ successful dalliance with defense for the Revs, moved up the field. Each’s role was simplified, stripped of defensive responsibility and granted free rein to attack. Bedoya would be moving in the opposite direction.

That’s why Curtin got defensive (no pun intended) about the translatability of Bedoya’s skill.
“We know what his role will be here. That is clear. That has been laid out. And, again, you look through his career: He’s played as a winger, he’s played as almost a second forward, he’s played as a ten, he’s played for our national team as an eight most recently in the Copa America in some pretty hotly-contested, high-level games. So he’s shown he has a versatile skill set. I think he complements our group of players in that he checks every box, like I said, in the process that Earnie (Stewart), Chris (Albright), and I went through. He checked every box in terms of a guy who will compete for everything, is good technically on the ball, likes to get forward, likes to score goals, but also has that grit and that fight to defend. And good tactical awareness. So, again, checked every box through our process, and I’m not concerned with what his best position is.”

Here’s where this gets interesting. The Union have a lot of money tied up next season. It’s lessened by the trade of Sebastien Le Toux to Colorado, and they’ll surely reassess Alberg and Ilsinho’s progress in year one in MLS. But the Union have escalating, long-term deals with a lot of guys. With Edu, Barnetta, Bedoya and Ilsinho, the Union will have four players earning $480,000 and up. They’ve only had six such high-earning player seasons in their first six years, and that includes pro-rated deals to Freddy Adu in 2011 and Barnetta last year.

Edu is under contract next season. Barnetta is on an 18-month deal signed last summer that expires at the end of the season. So here’s another way to line up that makes more sense for the guy making the most on your team:

That’s not to say the Union would move on from Barnetta. But if they can't resign him or wanted to divest themselves of a potentially redundant asset, Barnetta could make sense. Or Bedoya could be the starter with some combination of Alberg and Barnetta as reserves or on the wing. And it allows Jones, hailed as the No. 8 of the future, a chance to grow into the job. What better way for him to do that than sandwiched between Edu and Bedoya?

For now, Bedoya and his new Union teammates will have to learn on the fly, even if the confidence that that will transpire abounds.

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