If only the pre-season were an accurate picture of what mid-season form could be for Philadelphia Union. Instead, it is only a taste of what head coach Jim Curtin’s club could look like in 2019.
Through four pre-season matches, Philadelphia have netted 10 goals – mostly against MLS clubs. Although, it’s important to keep things in perspective when analyzing the high offensive production, it is becoming more and more apparent that Philadelphia have stockpiled an impressive group of attacking players.
In camp right now, Curtin and his technical staff are constantly juggling playing time for seven different forwards with just two open spots in the starting XI. You may be wondering, ‘Who is the seventh?’ Michee Ngalina from Bethlehem Steel FC of course. (Don’t ever forget about Michee. You heard it here first.)
Curtin spoke with media members Wednesday afternoon via conference call from sunny Florida. He mostly had good news to share as his team preps for their third and final phase of pre-season. “Great to have the entire group all in for this final phase with three more matches ahead of us. We have a lot to work on. We look to do that now over these final three games and getting guys integrated into the team,” said Curtin.
One player in particular needs to mesh with his new teammates in rapid succession in hopes of being prepped and ready to go week one. Marco Fabian has been by all accounts an impressive addition already in camp. “Marco Fabian joins us and has looked really sharp in training and he’s been a real positive off the field. He’s a very high character guy,” said Curtin.
Union fans caught a perfect example of the grace Fabian displays when speaking with fans and the media last Friday night at the Union’s kit launch party. He spoke from the heart in admiration for the welcome he received that night.
“Props to our front office for the great event that they put on in [Chester] at the jersey unveil. It’s an exciting time for the club,” said Curtin of Fabian’s addition.
So far, it seems the offensive side of things are operating smoothly for Philadelphia. But what about the defensive side of things? And particularly, at the outside back position?
If there is a weakness on the Philadelphia roster, it should be at the fullback position. Sure, there is depth at both left and right back, but ultimately the role those players will be asked to fill this year is unlike those of years past. They’ll be under heavy scrutiny each week in hopes of both creating width in the attack and covering defensively box to box.
“Width will come from the most part from our outside backs. We want to get numbers in the box – four or five bodies in the box – so we can get on the end of the service that be coming from the outside backs near the endline,” said Curtin when asked how his team plans to create width without wingers on the pitch.
At left back, there is the untested yet hungry youngster in Matt Real. Youngster, though at this point, may not be appropriate considering his professional experience with Steel FC. In terms of MLS experience, Real is lacking. And it could be worrisome. However, the new international left back from Germany, Kai Wagner, is highly touted and could easily grab hold of that starting spot. But Wagner is making a considerable jump from the lower divisions of the Bundesliga to MLS. Again, could be worrisome.
At right back, there is more hope. Veteran and longest tenured Union player on the roster, Ray Gaddis was brought back for another year. Gaddis played left back, an unnatural position, in 2018. He’ll be back home along the right side of the pitch in 2019. Although at times, Gaddis earns some pressure from Union fans, his offensive abilities should be respected.
Behind Gaddis sits Cameroonian Olivier Mbaizo. In addition to Michee, Mbaizo was the second most impressive player with Steel FC in 2018. He bombed down the right flank with ease most games and even managed to leave a few defenders stumbling whenever he made aggressive runs forward on the ball. IF there is one word to describe Mbaizo’s game, it’s relentless. Expect some playing time to fall to Mbaizo in 2019, as he may even win the starting job.
“It’s no secret that we have guys that can pop up in different parts of the field,” said Curtin of his midfielders when asked about creating width. “[Alejandro] Bedoya is comfortable going from an 8 to popping outside. Ilsinho has played on the wing his whole life. So we have guys that can give us that from the midfield positions but with the formation we currently have, the majority of the width will be created by those wing backs.”
Expect the diamond midfield formation to become very slim and narrow when in possession offensive. The goal for Philadelphia will be to jam bodies inside of the box while allowing the wing backs to approach down the wings. Service will then be expected from those wing-backs.
“Centrally through the midfield, we want to have a number advantage centrally,” said Curtin. Now with Fabian as the main midfield target, Philadelphia could become a potent offensive team. However, only time will tell if the early offensive progress will last.
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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union