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Fixing the Union: Midfield Edition

In this portion of Fixing the Union, we look at what is going wrong with the midfield.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Inspired by a mailbag question, this series looks at ways the Union could theoretically become a winning side again.

Let’s not mince any words: The Union’s midfield is one giant unadulterated mess, with multiple players who make too much money to be benched for poor play.

Ilsinho, Chris Pontius, Alejandro Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin, and Roland Alberg all make upwards over $350,000. Maurice Edu, who has not yet played this season and did not play at all last season, makes well over that figure. Up until the last game, homegrown player Derrick Jones was starting in the double pivot alongside Medunjanin as Alberg sat on the bench.

It may not seem worthwhile to mention salaries, and if the players were performing and the team was playing well so far this season, that point and this article would be moot. Take for example Pontius’ great campaign last season. The former D.C. United man knocked in 12 goals and six assists en route to the 2016 Major League Soccer Comeback Player of the Year Award. That surely justifies his fairly pricey contract.

But a historically bad start plus extremely poor play thus far warrants the mention of highly paid players.

The combination of high salary plus high visibility of a player like an Ilsinho or Bedoya almost make it impossible to bring in a better-suited player for this team this season. So let’s just look short-term right now.

In the double pivot, selection is basically between three people: Medunjanin, Bedoya and Jones. Jones, in his first season in MLS, has played solidly as a central defensive midfielder alongside Medunjanin.

The problem is that Bedoya, the team’s captain and a Designated Player, prefers to play in the number eight role. Bedoya is going to - and has to - start. Since he has to start, it makes much more sense to just play him at his preferred position, even at the expense of Jones.

By putting Jones on the bench for Bedoya, the double pivot becomes much more offensive. This weakens an already struggling defense. By keeping Bedoya in the ten and Jones in the double pivot, it allows Medunjanin to press forward more, but does not solve the problem of playing your captain and star signing out of position.

As enjoyable as Jones is to watch play, the only viable way to get all your best players on the field is to play Bedoya and Medunjanin in the double pivot. Watching the first half of the 2-0 New York City FC loss, it was clear Bedoya can be an excellent number eight. If the Union can get that type of production out of their captain, the team’s play could start to turn around. There’s another alternative, which will be discussed below.

Alejandro Bedoya’s first half dirstirbution chart and defensive play against NYCFC (Interceptions are blue triangles, Tackles are green triangles, Recoveries are yellow triangles, Clearances are purple triangles)

On the wings, Fabian Herbers, Ilsinho, Pontius, Bedoya, and Fafa Picault are the options. Bedoya has played his best minutes for the USMNT at right midfield. This is where he should play for the Union, when taking all things into consideration. On the right, Herbers has clearly earned a starting role over Ilsinho, who has not done much offensively this season. Herbers usually plays on the right, but with Bedoya on the right Herbers is the next best winger on the roster. With Herbers and Bedoya on the wings, there is more of a defensive presence coming from the position than there is now.

At the number ten, Alberg should start. He did not have a good game Friday night, but it is worth seeing what the Dutch midfielder can do skill-wise with a extended run out.

Here’s theoretically how the Union should lineup Saturday against Montreal Impact.

A possible lineup for the rest of the 2017 Union season (??? are for striker, which will be covered in another article)

Long term, the midfield needs to be restocked with players who fit the 4-2-3-1 that the organization is dead set on running. There are some assets worth salvaging such as Herbers and Jones. Both players should become part of the team’s young core.

The jury is sort of still out on Pontius, Bedoya, Medunjanin and Alberg until the end of the season.

Pontius has not been able to recreate the magical season he had last season so far. Bedoya has not looked like the big name signing the Union thought he would be. Medunjanin has been a solid player so far, though it has been a small sample size. Alberg can be a good player and can score goals for this team (see last season) yet has not been given a true run out.

Ilsinho is worth letting go at the end of the season. The potential he had when he signed with the club has been nowhere near his level of play.

In the offseason, Earnie needs to find a number ten that fits this system plus another winger. The new winger could allow Pontius to become a supersub. A new number ten is critical. This team has been crying out for one since, well, ever.