Kerith Gabriel: Union has embarrassment of riches on defense
FROM A STANDPOINT of supreme optimism, it's actually a really good problem to have. This week, the Union announced its latest signing in defender Bakary Soumaré (say that 10 times fast), a former MLS defender of the year runner-up who is expected to round out a very tough, tenacious and speedy back line.
FROM A STANDPOINT of supreme optimism, it's actually a really good problem to have.
This week, the Union announced its latest signing in defender Bakary Soumaré (say that 10 times fast), a former MLS defender of the year runner-up who is expected to round out a very tough, tenacious and speedy back line.
Soumaré, 26, in terms of a prototypical defender, is perfect. He stands 6-4, weighs 240 pounds, and has always been known as a beast in the air. Also, his personality (or desperation) shows he wanted to be in Philadelphia; though the numbers have yet to be released, Soumaré is said to have taken close to a half-million-dollar pay cut, after making well more than $1 million while playing for clubs in France and Germany.
He's viewed as the replacement for former captain Danny Califf, traded in May to Chivas USA for cash and midfielder Michael Lahoud. Soumaré is expected to come in and be a younger, healthier Califf as heir to the throne alongside current captain Carlos Valdes.
Union midfielder-turned-defender Amobi Okugo is having one of his best seasons as a pro — at the wrong position. He took the reins at center defense after left back Sheanon Williams was moved to the middle, before being sidelined with a big toe fracture. Amobi, though 6 feet, 175 pounds, has proved to be a force in back, single-handedly bucking the notion that when it comes to defenders, size does matter.
"Amobi is turning out to be a fantastic center back," Union interim manager John Hackworth said. "Though it's not his normal spot, he's played the position before on various [U.S. youth] national teams, so he is used to it."
He might be used to it, but, as Okugo explains, the two positions are night and day.
"Center back is much different, because you are the last line of defense, and so you can't afford to take as much risk," Okugo said. "I am able to see the field more and have more time on the ball, but that also [forces you] to think more about what the right ball to play is and not making a mistake that could cost the team a goal."
With Okugo on the pitch, the Union is 4-3 in all matches, starting with a 3-0 win over Rochester in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup. In the Union's 4-0 rout of Sporting Kansas City at home Saturday, Okugo and fellow defender Ray Gaddis systematically shut down the usually potent attack of SKC duo Kei Kamara and Teal Bunbury.
Essentially, Okugo is making it very tough on Soumaré to make a smooth transition into the back line. On Tuesday, during the Open Cup match against Harrisburg, it was Soumaré who received all the fanfare off the pitch, glad-handing supporters in the River End, banging drums and taking snapshots, but it was Okugo on the pitch doing the business.
"I told Bakary if he wants a spot, he's going to have to come in and battle Amobi and Carlos," Hackworth said. "But at the same time, we are being conservative with him, we know it's going to take him some time to become match fit, and we believe once he is, he's going to be a very important part of our roster."
July will test the resolve of a very young, but refocused Union side, as recent success has reinvigorated a group that has MLS postseason aspirations in sight. Hackworth said it will take "maximum effort" from everyone on the roster. It's unknown how soon Soumaré will make the lineup, a lineup that soon will have Williams rejoining the fray. There has to be an odd man out.
Okugo is poised to make sure it isn't him.
"It's good to have competition," Okugo said. "Everyone on the team can help, and all 30 players are here to make a difference, and I am just trying to do the same by keeping my spot and help the team. [Soumaré] is a great signing, he [was in the running for the 2008] MLS defender of the year and he has experience in France and Germany, and whoever we can bring in with experience like that will only help our team.
"The coaches drafted me for a reason early in [the 2010 MLS SuperDraft], and I want to pay them back for thinking so highly of me. The only way I can do that is doing all that I can to remain on the field."
Odds and endlines
Fan voting for the MLS All-Star Game at PPL Park on July 25 ends Monday at 5 p.m. Fans can cast votes on the MLS' Twitter and Facebook pages or by texting their choice to 22422. The player with the most text votes automatically earns a starting spot. As of Monday, Freddy Adu ranked eighth in overall text voting … After Houston, the Union travels to Los Angeles for a July 4 match against the Galaxy. LA is the home of midfielder David Beckham, who was left off England's Olympic roster, but was chosen as the athlete married women would most likely cheat with, according to a poll of more than 13,500 women on the infidelity website AshleyMadison.com.