The Philadelphia Union will call upon new arrivals to fill one of the biggest voids opened from the offseason departures.
The No. 6 spot was held by Haris Medunjanin for the last three seasons. The 34-year-old played 8.647 regular-season minutes over 98 games.
Although a consistent force in the lineup who contributed 29 assists, Medunjanin had his defensive weaknesses that were displayed more in the conversion from the 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2 as the club’s base formation in 2019.
With Medunjanin now at FC Cincinnati, new arrivals Matej Oravec and Jose Martinez will be tasked with making the No. 6 position their own.
In Wednesday’s 3-2 preseason loss to FC Dallas, Martinez started in the holding role before shifting out to the side of the diamond for the second half.
The 25-year-old Venezuelan experienced some difficulties in front of the back four during the 45-minute opening stretch.
“Jose had a really good week of training and I thought the day before the game had one of his best days training with the first group that was going to start,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said Thursday on a call with reporters.
“Unfortunately in the game, he had a tough first half, turned some balls over in some bad spots,” Curtin said. “But with him we know it’s going to be a growing and learning process so the challenge now is to put consistent good performances together.”
The new acquisition from Zulia FC in Venezuela improved in the second half when he was given more of a license to move forward.
“Overall, I thought he showed real grit and fight by bouncing back in the second half,” Curtin said. “He played a little higher and freer in that No. 8 position and set up some good goals and did a good job of breaking up plays. I think with a lot of new players there’s a lot of this really good performances and then a learning moment. He’s doing well.”
Oravec, a 21-year-old Slovakian brought in from DAC Dunajska Streda, provided more of a steady hand when he slotted into the No. 6 spot for the second half.
“Matej had a good day yesterday,” Curtin said. “He was just solid in the right spots. Nothing too flashy. I think both players are growing and getting used to their teammates and adjusting to a new system and style of play.”
Based off Wednesday’s performances, Oravec seems to have a better handle on the defensive qualities the position requires, while Martinez’s on-ball ability needs to be cleaner to protect the back four.
The primary function of the No. 6 for the Union will be to provide a defensive foundation in front of the center backs to avoid conceding 50 goals in the regular season, which was one of the main things both Curtin and sporting director Ernst Tanner set out to fix in the offseason.
However, Oravec and Martinez can’t just sit back and defend since the position requires some influence on the attack.
Medunjanin acted as the fulcrum of the attack by sitting 30-35 yards away from goal in the middle of the park.
From there, the World Cup veteran could distribute in either direction, or work through tight spaces in the middle, to keep defenses on its toes.
Neither of the two new players are expected to produced double-digit assists in 2020 because they are different players than Medunjanin, but they still need to have an impact moving forward in order to keep the offensive balance in tact.
Finding that balance will not come in Week 1 against FC Dallas on Feb. 29. There are some expected growing pains to go through at regular-season match speed, but the expectation is for both players to find their comfort zone within the squad.
“I think it’s a combination of both (attacking and defending),” Curtin said. We want someone to always be protecting the center backs and those two are two of the guys we see doing it this season.”
While the defensive midfield starter adjusts to the system at a Major League Soccer pace, more responsibility should fall on Alejandro Bedoya, Jamiro Monteiro and Brenden Aaronson to not only distribute through the middle of the park, but press well enough to pin back defenders in their own half to turn giveaways into scoring opportunities.
If Oravec wins the starting gig, Martinez might be utilized as a bench option on the side of midfield if he impresses more there. With Aaronson likely away for Concacaf Olympic qualifying, Martinez could fill in the depth there alongside Anthony Fontana with Warren Creavalle being the backup No. 6.
The reliance on Creavalle to come in and close games could also play a role in what Martinez’s role could be off the bench in certain spots, which is why his versatility, like many others have on the roster, is important for the long grind of the campaign.
Oravec has been used more as the No. 6 in preseason, and based off the limited viewing opportunities from afar in February, he appears to be a sturdier option. But how he operates in the attack on a consistent basis remains to be seen.
“They’re learning every day,” Curtin said. “Again, I knew it wasn’t going to be immediate where it was just plugged in and was perfect. Trying to coach them up every day and get them more familiar with their teammates and what we want out of the position and protecting the two center backs behind them.”
Neither player will be similar to Medunjanin, but in order for the Union to have success in 2020, they need to improve on the defensive qualities of the No. 6 while finding a way to add a few assists to help the unit replace the 12 handouts their predecessor achieved in 2019.