Armchair Analyst: Maurice Edu fills a hole for the Philadelphia Union – but which one?
The last time I remember really watching Maurice Edu was in August, 2012. You probably remember watching him, too, because the US were playing Mexico, in Mexico. And the US won, 1-0.
Your gut instinct is to rack your brain, trying to recall any central midfield challenges from that day. After all, that's where Edu plays, right?
Nope. Drop it back a bit further, all the way to the backline, and that's where you'll find Edu's heat map:
He did work during the Aztecazo, the 1-0 US win that sent Mexico into a year-long tailspin. Edu was paired with Geoff Cameron -- another converted central midfielder -- and they led the Yanks to their first-ever win at the Azteca. It was a big day, even if he (they) spent it largely on the back foot, dropping the line of confrontation all the way to the 18 and displaying the timeless American art of emergency defense.
He hasn't played much, for club or country, since.
If that's my most recent Edu memory, my favorite Edu memory came from the 2008 Olympics. He'd been the MLS Rookie of the Year in 2007 primarily as a box-to-box central midfielder, covering huge swathes of ground on both sides of the ball and generally being the brightest spot in an otherwise depressing debut season for Toronto FC.
And now, during the Olympics, he was in the shop window of the world.
He took advantage, as he was simply outstanding during the three US games (that team was denied more by the post than by their opponents, and yes I'm still bitter). He played every minute of the US stay in central defense, and by the end of the group stage there were a surfeit of offers.
The best, I guess, came from Rangers FC, where Edu would spend the next four years. He played mostly as an advanced central midfielder, appearing almost never on the backline and only rarely as a true defensive midfielder, which is/was probably his natural spot.
So in short: I'm a big fan of Maurice Edu. He's smart, versatile, agile and better with the ball on his foot than people realize.
I am not, however, a fan of Maurice Edu's career path. He had a chance to be a truly special player as either a central defender or a d-mid, but repeatedly ended up on clubs that used him in a more advanced role.
Will John Hackworth make that same mistake in Philadelphia?
The Union have spent a big chunk of their salary cap on Edu, but they also brought in another DP last week -- Argentine winger Cristian Maidana -- and spent a first-round pick on central midfielder Pedro Ribeiro, who's a true No. 8. They still have solid MLS contributors like Danny Cruz and Keon Daniel, and maybe this is the year that Zach Pfeffer shows that he's meant to be that No. 10 the Sons of Ben have been pining for since forever.
They're also reportedly on the verge of signing Vincent Nogueira, who's in his prime at 26 years old and has been a starter for Sochaux in Ligue 1 for the last couple of years.
Given that roster makeup, I don't think there's any realistic chance that Edu is going to be used in an advanced role. That leaves three options:
1) Join Brian Carroll as a deep-lying midfielder in a 4-2-3-1
This is pretty instinctive and natural. It will give the Union better defensive coverage and, in theory, more of the ball in possession. I'd say this is the odds-on favorite for where Edu starts on opening day.
2) Replace Carroll as the starting d-mid in a 4-4-2, which was Philly's preferred formation last season.
There is a certain amount of momentum for this among the Union fanbase, especially after Carroll wilted a bit down the stretch in 2013 (he was straight up bad in that must-win game vs. Montreal). His minutes will have to be managed better than they have been -- he turns 33 this summer, and has lost a half-step each of the last couple of seasons.
But the Union just shipped out vice captain Jeff Parke, leaving Carroll as the veteran constant in the back six from a team that's still very, very young. And he's also the captain.
It's too much to expect Hackworth, or any other coach, to eviscerate the locker room leadership structure in one offseason. Edu-for-Carroll might make sense on paper, but not on grass.
3) Welcome back to the backline
The Union have four central defenders on the roster. Two (Kevin Cope and Richie Marquez) are rookies. One (Amobi Okugo) is a borderline all-star. And the fourth, Ethan White, has been a career backup in D.C.
If there's one thing standing between this team and a playoff spot, it's "Who plays next to Amobi?" Edu could -- even should -- be the answer.
Philly would immediately end up with one of the most mobile central pairings in the league, and easily the most skillful on the ball. The solution to their possession issues doesn't necessarily have to start in the midfield; with a pairing of Okugo and Edu, it could start from the backline as Hackworth's squad transforms into a team that builds everything from back-to-front. That's an identity they've lacked over the last couple of seasons.
The knock-on effect could be similar to what we saw in Houston three years ago, once Dominic Kinnear finally made Cameron an everyday starter in defense.
It would also be in the best interest of Edu himself. At this point, he's an extreme longshot for the US roster this summer, and has virtually no chance of winning a job in the crowded central midfield rotation.
Edu's made a lot of moves in his career, played for a lot of clubs that didn't quite figure out how to best use him. On Monday, that story may finally have changed.