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Seven forwards, two starting spots

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With the season looming, and a crowded striker position, who will be playing up top come March 2?

Marc Estrada

With the arrival of Sporting Director Ernst Tanner has come a variety of changes that have shaken up the roster significantly since last season.

One of the most significant changes is the new 4-4-2 diamond high pressure system that the Philadelphia Union have been sticking to throughout preseason. With this system has come personnel changes as the old 4-2-3-1 tasked players with significantly different roles.

The most significant change is the removal of attacking wingers from the system entirely, replacing them with outside backs who patrol the entire length of the pitch. Arguably, attacking wing was the position where the Union had the most depth and skill before this season, so obviously the team has had to make changes. Marcus Epps is gone to the Red Bulls, Fabian Herbers is in Chicago and Eric Ayuk left part of the way into last season for the Turkish League.

What remains is a seven-way battle for the two starting striker spots in the formation, with just a few short weeks until the season opener vs. Toronto FC at Talen Energy Stadium on March 2.

The striker position has been an obvious weakness for the Union throughout much of their history. Last year, Jamaican international Cory Burke won the starting spot over CJ Sapong midway through the season. While Sapong’s recent struggles scoring have been obvious to fans, he remains a talented veteran player who adds much to the Union in the locker room as well as the training ground.

Burke had a decent year, scoring 10 goals in 15 starts and 29 total appearances throughout the MLS season, but those numbers don’t jump off the page considering he was the team’s co-leading scorer in a single-striker system. Many of the Union’s goals last season came from wing players like Fafa Picault, who also had 10 goals as well as 5 assists from the left wing, and Ilsinho who chipped in 9 goals as well. As attacking wingers are no longer a part of the formation, those goals will most likely be coming from the two strikers and new DP Marco Fabián.

As Coach Jim Curtin said in last week’s press conference, “It is a clean slate for everyone, and a real open competition at that forward spot.”

Herein lies the obvious problem: how do the Union go about choosing their best striker pairing in the new 4-4-2 system?

New signing Sergio Santos, the speedy Brazilian striker who figures to be one of the starting strikers given the significant investment they made to sign him, will pair up with one of either CJ Sapong, Cory Burke, Fafa Picault, Kacper Przyblko or David Accam. To add to that list, Michee Ngalina has spent preseason with the team and is likely signing a first team deal at some point this season. Throw on top of that the somewhat odd rumors of the Union signing 21-year-old striker German Yomi Scintu and you can see that the Union have quite an intense battle going on between quite a few highly talented players for the two starting spots.

With Accam and Sapong both struggling last season, it’s hard to see how the Union go into the year with both of these highly paid players sitting on the bench. Accam ($1.25 Million per season) simply makes too much money to be on the roster and not contribute and CJ ($525k) commands a hefty salary as well. The rest of the striker group, barring Santos, are on bargain contracts and Michee can also play left midfield in the new formation, giving him more versatility than some of the other players on this list.

Several times throughout the preseason, the Union have paired one taller and stronger hold-up striker like Sapong, Burk, or possibly Kacper, with a speedy forward like Santos, Acca, or Picault. This allows both strikers to play off of each other’s strengths and it’s very possible they line up that way come March 2.

While the striker position is crowded, the Union seem to be lacking real depth in midfield. It would make sense financially and roster wise if Philly traded Sapong (as Burke is cheaper, a few years younger, fills a similar role, and is coming off of a better season) for another quality midfielder to start on the left side of the diamond. There was offseason interest from FC Cincinnati for both Sapong and Accam, and no doubt more than a few teams in the league willing to trade for CJ given his history in the league.

While Coach Curtin and company still have some time to figure it out, my guess would be Santos and either Burke or CJ will be suiting up come March 2. The last two preseason games, against D.C. United tonight and the Ottawa Fury on Saturday, should provide a few more hints about which two forwards will win the starting role.

Who do you think will be the two starters on March 2? What are your thoughts on trading Accam or Sapong? Let us know in the comments.