[As we inch closer and closer to the Union's 2011 season opener this Saturday in Houston, the Brotherly Game will analyze the roster as it stands heading into the team's first competitive game. Today's feature on defense will be followed by the midfielders tomorrow, and the forwards on Friday.]
After an inaugural season in which the Philadelphia Union allowed 49 goals (T-2nd worst in league), it didn't come as much of a surprise when the team made a splash in the transfer market to upgrade its defense.
The Union signed two Colombians in experienced goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon and up and coming center back Carlos Valdes. Both are expected to start from day one, but didn't come cheap; each player is rumored to make more than $200,000 per season.
Philadelphia also jettisoned a large number of players that were integral parts of last year's defense. Michael Orozco Fiscal and Cristian Arrieta started 29 and 15 games, respectively, for the Union in 2010. Shea Salinas, who joined the Vancouver Whitecaps after being left unprotected in the 2010 Expansion Draft, also started the occasional game at outside back. These departures have left the team with very little depth in defense.
After the jump, we'll take a look at the way the Union's defense will line up this year, and where some holes might exist. We'll also analyze how the Union's defense is likely to behave tactically.
At goalkeeper, it's hard to argue that the Union haven't made huge improvements, at least on paper. The Union allowed Chris Seitz's contract to expire and he was later acquired by FC Dallas. (Although the team also bizarrely chose to protect him in the Expansion Draft in a move that has yet to be explained; click here for an exclusive Brotherly Game interview with Seitz.) Brad Knighton was released as well. This paved the way for the signing of Mondragon, a Colombian national team veteran who has played for many years in top European leagues. For more on what he will bring to the Union in 2011, check out Brotherly Game Managing Editor Scott Kessler's piece for SBNation.com.
The Union also selected young Zac MacMath in the 2011 SuperDraft; the former University of Maryland goalkeeper will be the starter for the U.S. in this year's U-20 World Cup and is an exciting and highly rated prospect for the future. He will train under goalkeeper coach Rob Vartughian, who also performed the same role during MacMath's freshman year at Maryland. Finally, the Union added Trinidad & Tobago U-20 keeper Thorne Holder, who also played at Maryland before realizing he would not beat out MacMath for the starting job; he then moved to Adelphi University. Holder spent the entire preseason with the Union before recently earning a contract.
So how will playing time be allotted to these players? Mondragon is the starter, for sure. MacMath will probably start most of the Reserve games, which means Holder is likely the man tasked with sitting on the bench for first team games. It remains to be seen if MacMath would be eligible to back up Mondragon for first team games and play in Reserve games in the same week.
MacMath will leave the Union for up to two spells during the 2011 season: the CONCACAF qualification phase for the U-20 World Cup, and then the full tournament itself if the U.S. qualifies. Qualifying takes place from the end of March to mid-April, while the full competition takes place from late July to mid-August. It's also possible that Mondragon could be called into the Colombian squad for the 2011 Copa America, but it's not guaranteed that Mondragon would even accept such a call.
The Union's starting back four is also somewhat set in stone. Jordan Harvey will reprise his role as left back, where he appeared in all 30 games last year, starting 29 of them. The newly signed Valdes and team captain Danny Califf will start in the middle, and young Sheanon Williams will be the right back.
Califf was shaky at times last year, but improved as the season went on. It's hard not to improve on that performance that we all remember away to Toronto in the 3rd game of the 2010 season, when Califf was awarded a straight red card. Valdes is highly regarded and has recently begun to earn caps with the senior Colombian national team. He has a somewhat high chance of being called into the Copa America, actually.
On the outside, Williams's strength is his ability to maraud forward and get involved in the attack. He must improve his one-on-one defending, though. He only appeared in 8 games in 2010 and a full season as a starter should be enough time for him to improve sufficiently. Harvey can't get forward as well as Williams, but is a better pure defender. In fact, this works well for the Union, and here's why:
As we'll see in tomorrow's midfield analysis, Sebastien Le Toux is likely to start at right attacking midfielder for the Union this year. Le Toux enjoys drifting inside to take shots on goal or distribute to the forwards. While he has a great engine and works hard for the team, he isn't a great defender or tackler of the ball. When the Union have sustained periods of possession, Williams will probably be up the field, involved in the attack as well. This will leave a huge gap on the right side, and this is dangerous against left-sided players like Steve Zakuani or Marco Pappa. Because Harvey doesn't get forward too often, he can stay back when Williams goes forward, creating a three-man backline with Califf and Valdes. The three of them would shift slightly to the right, filling the void left by Williams. The man furthest to the right now would probably be Valdes, who is strong and fast enough to deter a darting run by a player like Pappa or Zakuani, and the crisis would be averted. So the Union actually have a very solid pair of outside backs who complement each other nicely.
But what about the depth? The only other defender left on the roster is Juan Diego Gonzalez, who was signed midway through the 2010 season and appeared in 7 matches. He will be a more than adequate replacement if and when Valdes goes to the Copa America, or if either center back gets injured. Amobi Okugo can also play CB pretty well, as he demonstrated this winter in Spain with Generation Adidas and at times with the U-20s. One could make the argument that the Union are okay at centerback.
The real question is who will cover the outside backs. Ryan Richter, a natural striker, and both Michael and Gabriel Farfan, natural attacking midfielders, have been playing outside back at times during the preseason. But if at any time they are required to actually play in a competitive game at this position, then the Union are in big trouble. They will need much more experience playing a new position to be adequate at an MLS level. What this really means is that Philadelphia need to sign another outside back or two before the April 15 transfer deadline. Cristian Arrieta, at his $60,000 price tag, really wouldn't have been too bad of an option, but perhaps he wanted a starting role somewhere else.
One final, less important consideration is how the starting defense will look for the Union Reserves. Gonzalez is in his thirties; is he really willing to play in the Reserve Division? Even if he does, Okugo is the only real option to partner him in central defense, but if he plays in a first team game then he's probably not eligible to play in a reserve game the same week. The outside backs are a complete mystery. At this point, the best guesses are Ryan Richter at right back and Gabriel Farfan, who isn't even officially signed yet, at left back.
What are your thoughts on how the Union's defense stands as of now? Are 5 natural defenders enough for a 34-game season? Does the Union technical staff need to sign another player or two? Leave your thoughts in the comments section, and be sure to check out the rest of the Union Roster Analysis in the days to come.