Converted midfielders seeing Union through depth test

CHESTER, Pa. — While Philadelphia Union manager Peter Nowak has said in the past that he hopes to bolster his team’s back line, the club did not add any defensive players during the international transfer window, which closed on Sunday.

Of course, the Union could still make a move to help the back line for the stretch run. But what appears to be an urgent situation with one quick glance at their roster — only four players are listed as defenders, one of whom (Juan Diego González) has yet to play this season — seems far less precarious when you look at how the unit has performed.

Despite some recent struggles the Union have given up just 23 goals this season, good for fourth in the league. And converting midfielders like Gabriel Farfan, Michael Farfan and Stefani Miglioranzi into more than serviceable defenders when needed has been a big part of that.

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“It’s certainly an area we can use a little more depth,” Union central defender Danny Califf told MLSsoccer.com. “But Stefani has come in and done a great job. Michael Farfan has come in and done a great job. So I’m not so worried about it. I don’t think it’s a make-or-break situation. I think it would be nice, but at the end of the day, we’ve got the guys that can fill in and do a good job.”

While Miglioranzi and Michael Farfan are there to provide backup in case of an injury or suspension, Gabriel Farfan has been the starting left back since the team traded Jordan Harvey in early July, meshing well alongside the solid center back pairing of Califf and Carlos Valdés and right back Sheanon Williams.

In Philly’s 2-2 tie against FC Dallas on Saturday, Gabriel showed his speed on both ends of the field, drawing a late penalty kick with a run into the box and then breaking up a possible Dallas breakaway by chasing the ball down in the final seconds.

And on the other side of the pitch, Williams enjoyed another strong game despite being matched up against FCD’s Brek Shea, one of the league’s premier attacking players. Shea, who played with Williams on the US U-17 team in years past, had a goal in the game but it came on a rebound attempt when Williams was already out of the play.

“I know what he wants to do and he knows what I want to do,” Williams said. “We have a pretty good battle every time we play against each other.”

Still, despite the talent and promise of Williams and Gabriel Farfan at fullback and the leadership of Califf and Valdés at center back, the Union have given up six goals in four games since shutting out New England on July 17.

The good thing for Philly is that most of those goals came from failed clearances or other onetime mistakes, as opposed to constant letdowns or structural problems. But the Union are still looking to get more clean sheets — and to do so with the group they have now.

“I think we need to go back to where we were at the beginning where we’re not giving up goals,” Williams said. “We need to go back to the basics. Overall, we’re getting better. Every game is a new step in the right direction. It’s a semi-new back line with only a couple of games under our belt, so we need to keep moving forward and trying to get shutouts and limit other team’s chances on goal.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.