For 20 minutes last Saturday, Union fans saw a sight they had never seen before. Kacper Przybylko, the team’s leading striker, was playing as an attacking midfielder behind Sergio Santos and Cory Burke.
It wasn’t a fluke. It was planned, and it had been planned for a while.
Union manager Jim Curtin came up with the idea earlier this season and a few weeks ago admitted out loud that he was thinking of trying it. The opportunity came Saturday during the second half of the Union’s 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls when Anthony Fontana was running out of gas. Curtin was ready to send Przybylko in after giving him a night off from starting. So in Przybylko went. But instead of replacing another forward, he replaced Fontana.
» READ MORE: Observations on the Union's win over the Red Bulls
“Now Cory and Sergio can threaten and run behind and occupy the center backs and keep them pulled back, [and] Kacper can arrive later in the box where he’s a little more free and doesn’t have two center backs draped on him like he often does in the game,” Curtin said ahead of Sunday’s game at D.C. United.
“Obviously, it gives us a huge advantage on attacking set pieces just because of the sheer size and physicality it gives us,” Curtin continued. “So that’s something that I’d like to add, another layer or wrinkle or whatever you want to call it, to our group.”
And what did Przybylko think of it?
“I’m OK with that,” he said. “[Curtin] is always telling me, ‘For your height, you have good technique, and you’re very quick,’ and he’s always saying, ‘You also have very good feet and very good passing.’ … It was also kind of interesting for him to see maybe that I can have maybe more space when Cory and Sergio are in front of me, and they take the defenders to their side, and I can join them from [farther] back.”
Another big difference is that a target forward often plays with his back to the goal, whereas a midfielder almost always faces the net to move the play up the field.
Przybylko prefers to play on the front line. He said “the most important [thing] for me is I need to have the option to play forward, being in front of the goal, because I’m always hungry to assist or to score a goal.”
But he knows that if he plays the deeper position right, he’ll be close to the net often enough. The attacking midfielder in the Union’s tactical system always plays high up the field and is important as a shooter as much as a passer. It’s especially true on second chances, soccer’s term for offensive rebounds. (The many basketball fans in the Union’s locker room get the point.)
Putting Przybylko at the top of the diamond also gets Jamiro Monteiro out of it and into a deeper role in which he’s far more effective.
So how did the experiment work? Curtin said he “didn’t get to see it long enough” last weekend, but there was enough promise to want to try it again.
“I think you’ll see it more this year,” he said. “It’s a wrinkle that I think fits our group. And with guys going away with national teams, with guys going away for different things, with injuries and missing time, it’s good to have some flexibility within the team.”
It’s definitely unusual. The good news is it’s likely to be only a short-term need. Because of MLS’s June break for national team tournaments, the Union probably have to get through only five games over this month and next before Dániel Gazdag is ready to go.
And it might not even be five. The Union surprisingly announced Saturday that Gazdag arrived in Philadelphia this week, joined practice at Subaru Park, and is eligible to play Sunday night.
He likely isn’t in town for long, as Hungary’s European Championship training camp starts Monday. Still, the possibility of him playing Sunday raises the intrigue for the game quite a bit.
Curtin also said this week that much-anticipated 17-year-old rookie Paxten Aaronson “has really raised his level” recently and might not be far from his debut after making the bench for the last two games.
But if Przybylko can do enough to succeed in midfield, especially as a late-game option, he’ll be a nice backup plan if it’s needed.