Experts and coaches often speak of the importance of the spine of a soccer team. Former USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann said "Our team is defined in its spine." He was referring to the four or five most important players on a team and they tend to play centrally. The goalkeeper, one or more center backs, one or more midfielders and the center forward make up the spine of a team.
As the Union meet to begin their 2017 campaign their spine looks more like a question mark. It does starts very well with the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in Andre Blake. Blake saved last year's young back line countless times and will be a terrific and exciting last line of defense this season. But after Blake there are only questions.
The center back picture is promising but far from imposing. Richie Marquez is the clear leader, but is still progressing toward being one of the league's dominant defenders. He took another step forward last year but he's realistically an average center back at this point. Youngsters Ken Tribbett and Josh Yaro took turns making mistakes last year while also showing promise, and both should have more growing pains this year. Neither player could be considered part of the core at this point.
Maurice Edu projects to take the defensive midfield position, but he hasn't played in over a year. Whether or not he can regain his old form for the entire season is a serious question. The backup is the venerable Brian Carroll who can still solidify any defense but lacks going forward.
The Union still have not replaced Vincent Nogueira and have a large hole in the middle of the field. Earnie Stewart said the team was still looking for a "controlling midfielder" presumably to replace the estranged Frenchman. But currently Warren Creavalle and Derrick Jones are set to man the position. Alejandro Bedoya could also play the box-to-box role, although he did not impress there last season. He is however slated to replace Tranquillo Barnetta as the central attacking midfielder. Bedoya has had an impressive career and is a staple with the US National Team, but how effective he will be in that attacking role is still another question.
CJ Sapong has been given almost two seasons to be the featured center forward, and his sixteen goals over that span hasn't been enough. The Union signed Jay Simpson who was scoring reasonably well at the bottom of the fourth division of English soccer, but how that translates to MLS is yet one more question to add to this spine.
Outside of Blake and Bedoya the Union spine doesn't look strong but two of their better players are on the outside. Keegan Rosenberry and Chris Pontius play wide roles and are currently practicing with Bruce Arena and the United States National Team. Pontius led the team in scoring last season from the left wing position, and Keegan Rosenberry was runner up in the Rookie of the Year voting at right back. Given the talent on the outside and the very large gap in the central midfield, this team looks more like a doughnut.
Doughnuts are definitely yummy, but I'm worried they don't win many soccer games. A quick google scan does not yield any quotes from Pep Guardiola talking about the importance of a team's doughnut.
There's still time for the Union to add to the roster, but as practices begin and the team begins to form the bonds and build the on-field chemistry that will shape the season, the impact of new players weakens. It's also possible that Marquez will take the next step and be an elite MLS center back, and perhaps Yaro will grow into an above average defender in his second season. Perhaps Edu won't miss a step in his return to form and will help stabilize the Union's inconsistent defense. Perhaps Bedoya will be the answer in the central attacking midfield, and perhaps the combination of Simpson and Sapong will yield the 15+ goals that center forwards typical contribute to a playoff team.
Perhaps perhaps perhaps.It's okay to hope for the best but probably not a good idea to place your faith in doughnuts. Here's to hoping the spine of this team comes together.