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The MLS season is fast approaching so let’s break down some of the Philadelphia Union’s preseason battles

Feb 13, 2014, 1:55 PM EDT

source:  It might be snowing nonstop in Philly, but in three weeks the Philadelphia Union will go outside and start playing soccer games for real.

And with the Union’s March 8th regular-season opener looming, their lineup and formation is starting to take shape.

Last night, in a 2-1 preseason loss to the New York Red Bulls at Jacksonville’s EverBank Stadium, prized new acquisitions Maurice Edu, Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira all started together in the midfield. Along with captain Brian Carroll, those three players will make up the spine of the midfield and provide some muscle to a team that already features rising stars Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo and Sheanon Williams.

But with a few more preseason games still on the docket, there will likely be some battles for starting spots heading into March. Here are five of them:

source: AP

Jack McInerney vs. Conor Casey

With manager John Hackworth planning to start two attacking wingers and three central midfielders in a 4-3-3 formation, there doesn’t appear to be room on the field for McInerney and Casey at the same time. Considering both players were double-digit goal-scorers last season, this might be hard for some fans to accept. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which both players don’t rack up a significant number of minutes, whether starting or coming off the bench (or if the Union switch up their formation during certain games). Besides, there’s no way the 32-year-old Casey can play as many minutes as he did last season, so this situation could end up working out for the best

Who should start? McInerney

Who will likely start? Casey

source: AP

Sebastien Le Toux vs. Danny Cruz

Despite starting 32 games last season, Cruz will probably have a hard time cracking the starting lineup again this year with the Union adding so many new midfield pieces. Or will he? Against the Red Bulls, Cruz started on the right wing along with the rest of the first team while Le Toux played with the subs in the second half. Cruz could certainly have an important role on the team this season but his speed and hustle seem like they would be better served late in games. If healthy, Le Toux should be able provide the team with kind of service they need from the right side. And like Cruz, he is a tireless worker.

Who should start? Le Toux

Who will likely start? Cruz

source:

Fabinho vs. Ray Gaddis

With the team shorthanded at the position last season, the right-footed Gaddis was the team’s primary left back. But Hackworth has opted to move him back to his natural position during the preseason (behind starter Sheanon Williams), while slotting in Fabinho and rookie draft pick Robbie Derschang on the left back depth chart. Derschang still needs to earn a contract, and even if he does make the team, he probably won’t make much of an impact this season (barring an injury). That leaves the Brazilian Fabinho – a good attacker who played part of last season as a left midfielder – as the likely starter. But will the Union miss the insane speed and 1-v-1 defensive skills that Gaddis brings?

Who should start? Gaddis

Who will likely start? Fabinho

Richard Marquez vs. Ethan White vs. Kevin Cope vs. TBD

Of all of the spots up for grabs, the center back position is probably the most uncertain. Richard Marquez – a rookie draft pick out of Division III Redlands – got the surprise starting nod alongside Okugo last night and, by all accounts, has impressed the coaches in camp. Cope, meanwhile, didn’t see the field at all, which might not bode well for the second-round pick out of Michigan State. And White, who came over from D.C. United in the Jeff Parke trade, doesn’t seem to have as much of a leg up on the starting spot as some initially thought. It seems likely that the Union will bring in a veteran (perhaps Bolton captain Zat Knight?), rendering this current battle not as significant as some of the others.

Who should start? The yet-to-be-signed guy

Who will likely start? The yet-to-be-signed guy

source: AP

Andre Blake walks on stage after being selected by the Philadelphia Union Thursday.

Zac MacMath vs. Andre Blake

It’s very likely that MacMath will remain the starter in goal for the third straight season. But the 22-year-old did himself no favors last night, giving up a pair of first-half goals, including one that could have been stopped. Meanwhile, Blake – who the Union traded up to take first in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft – made a couple of nice saves, including one on a close-range rebound (to be fair though, he scuffed the first save to give up the rebound). Even with his considerable shot-stopping skills, Blake would be best served spending his rookie season learning how to be a pro. And despite some of his shortcomings, MacMath should continue to mature in his fourth MLS season.

Who should start? MacMath

Who will likely start? MacMath

  1. dawkisgod - Feb 13, 2014 at 8:35 PM

    I feel strongest about Casey. His batting average on chances was so much higher than Jack Mac last year. Bottom Jack Mac is over rated.

    I like Cruz but Seba is a no brainer.

    I really hope Blake is the guy when the playoffs come.

    Reply
    • flyer - Feb 14, 2014 at 2:28 AM

      First of all, Casey is 32, and the only reason he’s in Philly is because we got him for dirt cheap with all the injuries he’s had in his career. You can’t possibly expect him to play damn near every game like last year. He’ll be a better bet coming off the bench since, as you already said, he won’t need as many chances to convert as Jack.

      Second, McInerney is 21 years old. It’s kinda tough to remember that because this is his 4th year with the team, but he’s still just a kid. Let him develop physically before we write him off as overrated. Hell, he’s almost 2 full years younger than rookie draft pick Andre Blake, who you seem rather keen on. He’s got plenty of time to regain his early season form from last year.

      Reply
  2. LCBline - Feb 14, 2014 at 12:37 AM

    Danny Cruz does not have the skill to be a starter. He is awful with the ball at his feet and will stifle the attack. Le Toux provides more skill and passing ability. He sees the field and is also a threat to score. We have seen way too much of Danny Cruz pin balling all over the place and fumbling away opportunities. The team is better served with him coming off of the bench late to run at tired defenders. Why go to all the trouble of solidifying the midfield only to have the attack bogged down with Cruz fumbling with the ball. He can’t go 1 v 1. His only move is to have the ball lofted up the field for him to try and sprint on to. When he gets the ball it’s luck of the draw if he’ll be able to control it. I admire his heart and hustle but if the Union are to compete with the elite in the east they’ll need ball control and play making skills which Cruz does not have yet.

    Reply
    • flyer - Feb 14, 2014 at 2:18 AM

      Bingo. Same can be said about Hoppenot. It floors me when I see these guys starting. All they can do is stretch a defense with their speed for the counter attack, but they sure as hell can’t finish anything they start on the counter. Neither should see the starting 11 too often.

      Reply
  3. LCBline - Feb 14, 2014 at 10:48 AM

    I think Hoppenot has a better skill set than Cruz and a much better upside. It really comes down to Hackworth. He still needs to prove that he can manage skilled players. People talk about the Union almost making the playoffs last year. I don’t think that was such a big deal considering the overall weakness of last years Eastern Conference. It spoke volumes that the Union couldn’t even make the playoffs. To me it came down to Hackworth’s inability to coach and strategize by constantly starting Cruz and relying to heavily on Carroll and Daniel. He didn’t show that he could get the best out of his skilled players. His coaching style was all Hail Mary. Of course there were other causes but some things coming from the Union Management and coaching staff left a lot to be desired. Hackworth now has more to work with so the spot light is solely on him. If the best he can come up with is Danny Cruz as a starter and Carroll’s reverse passing with all the other possibilities on the team than he needs to go. If he can’t address the teams biggest question marks(CB) then he this needs to be his swan song as coach of the Union. Moving forward I would love to see Comcast become the majority owner of the Union. It’s obvious that MLS is catering to NY, Toronto, LA,Seattle, Orlando, and whatever David Beckham has in mind for Miami. Philadelphia is one of the top sports markets in the country and needs to be a major player. I like the moves the Union made this off season and Comcast would really make us a major player. Just my opinion.

    Reply
    • Pat - Feb 15, 2014 at 9:48 AM

      I agree 100 percent, the coaches decision to play Cruz and Keon have kept me from buying season tickets. Le Toux was second in the league in assists and was rated by soccer America journalists as the top right midfielder in the league.

      Reply
  4. MRO - Feb 14, 2014 at 10:50 AM

    I don’t see why it’s such a big surprise that Marquez started. Okay, yeah he played DIII soccer, but he hasn’t put a foot wrong since the MLS Combine. In a league where physicality is of the utmost importance, he tested Top 5 in two of the three fitness tests at the combine and reportedly tested as the fastest player on the Union in preseason, not to mention he is the tallest player in the back line. In the game against RBNY, he was calm and collected on the ball, played his fair share of safe passes, and yeah slipped a few times on the wet surface, but given the fact he had to mark Henry for 45 minutes, he held his own. Compared to the others fighting for the CB spot, he definitely has the biggest upside, and with more game time he will only get better and the nerves will settle. As the opposite of the famous idiom goes, “You can teach a new dog old tricks,” he’s hands down the steal of the draft and no surprise that he started.

    Reply
    • MH - Feb 14, 2014 at 3:31 PM

      He’s a smart kid who lived on an academic scholarship at Redlands. He’s gonna learn quick and to go 45 with Henry and Cahill and to not be beat 1v1 is quite a feat for a rookie. The real downside to the defense were the outside backs, especially Fabinho who got caught out of position on both goals. It might be too much to expect him to start and feature for the team at this point and he may need time to learn like a new QB in the NFL. If the team goes the route of signing a CB from overseas they should look for a guy on a temporary basis to help bring Marquez and White along.

      Reply
  5. Tom - Feb 14, 2014 at 12:48 PM

    Battle #1, stay awake during games.

    Reply
    • jrg14 - Feb 14, 2014 at 5:49 PM

      Battle #2, be accepting of others’ interests, you dolt.

      Reply
  6. Mike - Feb 14, 2014 at 1:22 PM

    Fabhino should definitely start over Gaddis. He is much better technically (actually they are on different wavelengths, Gaddis is a professional soccer player incapable of using his left foot) and has proven to be extremely dangerous going forward. Leaving players in there just because they are fast will not serve the team in the long run.

    Reply
    • Marc - Feb 16, 2014 at 12:05 PM

      Fabinho played a huge role in both goals on Wednesday. On both he over committed to the middle to Cahill who was already marked, and left Sam unmarked. Maybe the defense is trying something they don’t have down yet as a team, I don’t know, but he was directly at fault for both goals.

      Reply
    • flyer - Feb 17, 2014 at 2:53 PM

      They are polar opposites of each other. Fabinho has all the technical skills and provides wonderful service from a wing back position, but he can’t defend to save his life; Gaddis has no skill with the ball at his feet, but he’s incredibly tough to beat one-on-one, and if you do manage to beat him, he’ll just run you down with that speed and force you to beat him a second time. I think the team’s ability to score will determine which sees the field more. If the 3 big acquisitions pay off and can get the ball to Jack Mac and Casey, then they’ll use Gaddis for defense. If the team can’t get anything going offensively like last year, they’ll have to play Fabinho.

      Reply
  7. 33 - Feb 15, 2014 at 1:02 PM

    Nice post, loving some Union discussion right about now. I’d be interested in a little more explanation of why the disparity in who should start and who will start predictions. It’s touched on but not really explained in some of the posts.

    I am hoping Hack started Cruz to see if he could fly in a 4-3-3. I can’t see it working out, but that’s not to say we won’t see it on the field anyway. He’s got the speed and tenacity, but the new midfield is built to play with more skill than the 2013 iteration.

    Reply
  8. Marc - Feb 16, 2014 at 12:10 PM

    Hack needs to find a place for Le Toux in this formation. If not he is wasting a talent and maybe they should trade him for a solid left back. You can argue to trade him for a CB but established CBs are hard to come by in a trade and it looks like with Marquez and White they will one of them develop into the CB the Union needs for years to come. Personally I would leave the defense as is for now, start Le Toux for Cruz, and think about trading Cruz.

    Reply

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