CHESTER, Pa. — Philadelphia Union forward Andrew Wooten will be eligible for selection for the first time on Saturday for the club’s trip to Real Salt Lake.
By all accounts, Wooten has performed well in training since joining the Union on June 20, but now he has the opportunity to make an impact on the field.
“We’ve seen real strides in training each day,” Union manager Jim Curtin said of Wooten. “Adjusting to new teammates, new system and this will be his first opportunity to be selected for the team. As of right now, he’ll be in the 18 going to Salt Lake.”
Currently, the Union have three other forwards on the roster that have received significant playing time. Kacper Przybylko is sixth in the Golden Boot race with nine goals after scoring five times in the last four games. Fafa Picault has two goals and an assist in his last three games. Sergio Santos hasn’t been able to make an impact and is likely the odd man out of the striker group once the whole squad is healthy.
The Union have used both the 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 this season to suit their skill sets. Wooten admits he’s comfortable in both systems and his chemistry with the other forwards is growing.
“I can play both formations,” Wooten said. “I did it with my former club (SV Sandhausen). I played 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, it’s nothing new to me.”
“I’m getting along well with everybody so it’s not a big problem,” Wooten said. “They all want to help, and of course, they are all good strikers. When I get my chance, I can use it.”
If you at the forward depth chart from an immediate focus, it is likely Przybylko and Picault start up top on Saturday with Wooten coming off the bench since the 29-year-old is still acclimating back to full fitness.
“I would say it’s like preseason in Germany,” Wooten said of his current training. “It’s nothing new to me.”
“With goal scorers, it’s not their job to come here and put pressure on them to score goals,” Curtin said. “It’s the job of the team to make their job easy, to make them comfortable in front of goal. They just have to be themselves.”
“That’s what we’ve preached with Andrew,” Curtin said. “Obviously, he’s building up his fitness. I can tell you the temperature here is a shock for anybody. That’s an adjustment, but I think his body is adapting well to it. He’s a very intelligent player, really good in hold-up and really comes to life around the goal. He runs hard at the near post, good with his head. A lot of the characteristics you want in a striker.”
Looking at the forward combinations from a broader perspective gives us a better idea of what we may see for the rest of the season.
Przybylko was lauded as the best finisher in the group as far back as the start of preseason and he’s showed that on multiple occasions this season, which means he likely gets the nod in the 4-4-2 next to Wooten with Picault coming off the bench, similar to what he did against New England on June 26 when Przybylko and Santos started together.
At full strength, the Union would have Wooten and Przybylko as true strikers in the 4-4-2, Jamiro Monteiro and Alejandro Bedoya making runs out of the sides of the diamond midfield down the wings and Marco Fabian creating plays in the middle of the field with Haris Medunjanin acting as the fulcrum of the team’s passing 30 yards from goal.
Width could be an issue, but Bedoya and Monteiro have done a decent job filling up the flanks before full backs Kai Wagner and Ray Gaddis bomb forward.
As we saw on Przybylko’s equalizer against Orlando City on Sunday, he is capable of pulling out wide and then darting inside with runs to create goals.
Picault is more suited for the role on the flank because of his pace and technical ability. By inserting Picault next to Wooten, the Union would have a powerful forward in Wooten to occupy the middle of the box while Picault tries to open up the defense in 1v1 situations and transition opportunities.
In either case, the Union would have a fresh forward coming off the bench with the ability to punish opponents, along with super sub Ilsinho and Homegrown midfielder Brenden Aaronson, who would presumably be above Santos in the selection order for the bench. Homegrown midfielder Anthony Fontana has also played well enough in his brief appearances to earn a spot in the matchday squad.
In the 4-2-3-1, Picault could be used on the wing to add more width to the side, but then you run into the issue of who the other winger should be in that system. Ilsinho fills the role best, but he should be used purely as a substitute, which is why the formation is more likely to shift when alterations are made in game once Wooten is ready to start.
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Then there’s the one scenario in which all three of Wooten, Przybylko and Picault could play together from the start.
“We could play with them as a three front however you want to select it,” Curtin said. “You could also play with two. Kacper, in a lot of ways, has good characteristics of a No. 10. He arrives late in the box good. He can play a final pass. He holds the first ball that comes into him. He played as 10 today in our exercise, which was an 11v11 with some academy kids sprinkled in. ”
“You could certainly see three of them on the field,” Curtin said. “They are good soccer players, and at the end of the day, you want your best team on the field and sometimes you have to make tweaks and adjustments to get them out there.”
Going with all three strikers in a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 with Przybylko at the top of the diamond could work if all three are in form, but don’t expect that right out of the gates with Fabian making his imprint on the starting lineup.
If all three forwards start, Fabian would likely be shifted to the bench, with Medunjanin, Bedoya, Monteiro, or Warren Creavalle when he is healthy, doing the dirty work in midfield.
Regardless of how the Union align themselves up top, they now have three solid options to help them maintain first place in the Eastern Conference, which will be a difficult task with a handful of teams surging beneath them in the standings.