Going into this offseason, the Philadelphia Union boasted a large number of players that could be considered midfielders. After the SuperDraft and Supplemental Draft, at least 15 such players were with the team.
This left the Union with 12 players that can be considered "midfielders." Last season, Peter Nowak and his coaching staff extensively used the 4-2-2-2 formation, with two "holding" or "defensive" midfielders and two "attacking" or "advanced" ones. Therefore, these 12 players are competing for 4 spots in the starting lineup, although some of them can fit in at one of the two striker positions as well.
Let's take a look at which players are the best bets to start in midfield this year for the Union.
First, we'll start with the players that are more likely to slot in at one of the two "defensive" midfield spots. New acquisition Brian Carroll, who joins the team from the Columbus Crew, is very likely to occupy one of these positions in the team's starting lineup. He is also able to venture forward from time to time out of his holding midfield area, similar to Colorado's Jeff Larentowicz.
That leaves one starting spot open for a few players. Stefani Miglioranzi started in many games for the team last year, and did well. He has a strong case, but young Amobi Okugo is improving very quickly and could take this spot from Miglioranzi by the end of the season. Kyle Nakazawa, who is more of a central attacking midfielder type, has also played in this holding position for the team at times, but didn't track back on defense as much as is needed for this type of role. He will need to improve his defensive qualities if he wants to start in this area of the field.
The rest of the players on the Union are more suited to play in the other two midfield slots, which are more advanced and "attacking." If Sebastian Le Toux is not playing as a striker, he would occupy the right-sided attacking midfield slot, leaving just one area on the pitch available to a large group of players. If he moves up to play striker, Colombian Roger Torres could also slot in at this position. However, he had a hard time playing 90 minutes last year. Nakazawa is another strong option here as well, as most of his defensive duties would disappear. Draft picks Michael Farfan and Levi Houapeu could play here; Farfan would be more likely to drift into the middle, and become a "number 10" type, while Houapeu would probably stay out on the wings, attempting to beat fullbacks one-on-one and putting crosses into the box. Houapeu can also move up and play striker.
The final midfield spot that the Union have open is the left-sided attacking position. Justin Mapp was acquired late last season and is a strong bet to occupy this role, as he is left-footed and has all the qualities to be a perfect fit for this position. He also played on the right side at times last year, drifting in to take shots with his left foot in the mold of Bayern Munich's Arjen Robben, but he is more likely to see time on the left side. Torres, Nakazawa, and Farfan are also all able to play on this side, and would be likely to drift into the center, looking to distribute the ball to the strikers. Nick Zimmerman, who didn't see much time last year with the Union, is also capable of playing here or on the right, but prefers to line up as a striker.
A couple players are hard to classify. J.T. Noone only appeared in friendlies for the team last season. He is naturally a right-sided midfielder, but is not creative enough to play in the right-sided attacking position that the Union uses. He could see time at right back this year in Open Cup games. If the team used a natural 4-4-2, he would be a good fit as the right-sided midfielder. But in the Union's 4-2-2-2 formation, he doesn't really fit anywhere. Finally, homegrown player Zach Pfeffer is still developing and it is difficult to place him anywhere. He probably fits best in either of the two attacking positions, but we will need to see him develop more before he can get on the field in league play.
Another note to add here is that a few players are still in camp with the Union that can play midfield. Keon Daniel played central midfield for the Puerto Rico Islanders, but it is unknown if he has the defensive abilities to play the way the Union uses its central midfielders. Gabriel Farfan is also still with the team, and if signed would be a strong candidate to start in the right attacking midfield spot when Le Toux is at striker.
So what looks like the most likely four-some to start on March 19 in Houston? Brian Carroll is a lock to start, and Stefani Miglioranzi will probably join him at holding midfield. Look for Amobi Okugo to win this role and become a starter by the end of the year. In attacking midfield, Justin Mapp is likely to start on the left side, while Le Toux is a surefire starter if he isn't playing striker. If Le Toux is up top, then the best candidates to start are Torres, Nakazawa, and either of the Farfan brothers, in that order.
What players would you like to see start for the Union? Do you think they should use a different formation altogether? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.