With Thin Squad, Union Fans Hoping For Upgrades
For a second year club, the Philadelphia Union have made huge strides in improving their squad. Most Major League Soccer prognosticators considered them a mid-finisher in the Eastern Conference, just missing out on the MLS Cup playoffs. Two key acquisitions have bolstered their defense, former F.C. Koln goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon and Colombian back Carlos Valdes, and the Union have spent most of their 2011 campaign in the Eastern Conference lead.
Concerns are beginning to mount for Union supporters, though. With just over two months remaining in the season, the Union roster has been trimmed down. One has to wonder if it could jeopardize their standing in the Conference. After Philadelphia’s 2-1 loss to Colorado on Friday night, Manager Peter Nowak announced that goal poacher Carlos Ruiz would be leaving town, even alluding to fan bias marring the one-time League MVP’s time with the club. It was reported yesterday by Fox Deportes’ Mauricio Cardenas that Ruiz is headed to Veracruz in the Mexican 2nd Division (h/t The Brotherly Game). Nothing official has been reported from either club, but it is clear that Ruiz will be gone.
This has been the third in a series of players jettisoned from the senior squad. Earlier in July, Jordan Harvey was traded to Vancouver for allocation money. That left an already thin defensive corps to rely upon converted midfielder Gabriel Farfan to man the left back position. Earlier this week, reserve goalkeeper Thorne Holder was released, presumably to free an international slot.
This leaves Philadelphia with only a handful of reliable, senior reserves on the squad. Nowak has been creative with his reserves though, as with Farfan’s case. Another case is Stefani Miglioranzi, a defensive midfielder by trade but a reserve center back in Nowak’s book.
It also appears that Nowak may count on a few youngsters to provide depth beyond the four or five senior substitutes. This was made evident in the recent friendlies with Everton and Real Madrid, as youngsters like Zach Pfeffer, Jimmy McLaughlin, and Christian Hernandez performed respectably in substitute action. It is unclear if Nowak would consider bringing these younger players into a league match.
With plenty of midfielders, the primary needs for the Union are pretty clear. With Sebastien Le Toux off his 2010 scoring pace, there is a glaring need for a proven finisher, preferably one that exhibits better qualities than El Pescadito. Danny Mwanga has 5 tallies, but Nowak has seemed hesitant to use the Congolese striker as a consistent 90-minute player. Jack McInerney is only 18, and has not finished his few chances this season. And while Nowak did sign former Atletico Madrid and Rubin Kazan forward Veljko Paunovic in June, he’s in his mid 30′s and has been more useful as an attacking midfielder.
Even moreso though, Philadelphia could use reinforcements in the backline. The Harvey trade left the Union with four true defenders (Valdes, Danny Califf, Sheanon Williams, and rarely used and costly Juan Diego Gonzalez). Gabriel Farfan has been the consistent left back for the last three league matches, and it appears that Nowak is very comfortable with that situation. His brother Michael, as well as midfielders Miglioranzi and Ryan Richter, have been backline reinforcements. The conclusion one draws is that Nowak’s ideal fullback is more of a wide midfielder than the typical MLS defender.
Fans are hoping for these areas to be addressed before the transfer window closes, seeing that this squad continues to edge towards a playoff spot. A designated player may be out of the question, but at least one foreign transfer (or a returning USMNT player) could add enough quality to allow the team to threaten during the playoffs, especially up front. As for the backline, with the starting four doing well, adding a depth option or two would be sufficient. The only slot where an upgrade could be made is left back, and Nowak seems content with Farfan’s contributions in that role.
Will it be the end of the world if Nowak doesn’t make any splashes before the August 14 deadline? Possibly not. On Wednesday Philadelphia will have to face Chicago F.C. without Williams at right back due to red card suspension. Will Nowak start Michael Farfan in his place again? Richter? Or perhaps a three-back formation? Can Mwanga, Le Toux, and McInerney provide enough punch up front? While Philadelphia may be good enough to make the Playoffs in the East, Union fans are hoping that a few key additions will better their chances for the ultimate prize.