USOC: Converted midfielders form spine of Philly defense

Amobi Okugo

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

CHESTER, Pa. – When Philadelphia Union midfielder Michael Lahoud was first placed at right back while playing for Chivas USA last season, he remembers having one thought:

Why am I here?

These days, however, Lahoud doesn’t question that position change anymore. In fact, he’s come to embrace it, especially now that he’s being asked to plug holes on the Union backline when needed.

“I had never played defense in my life, but now I’m so grateful for those games,” Lahoud told MLSsoccer.com. “Whatever my coaches saw in my ability to play there, it’s something that’s coming to fruition now. I feel a lot more comfortable there.”

Lahoud is one of a handful of natural midfielders who have been called upon by Philadelphia manager Peter Nowak to play defense this season, joining Amobi Okugo (above), Michael Farfan and Gabriel Farfan, the latter of whom has emerged as the club’s best left back option over the past year.

In Philly’s 3-1 win over the Rochester Rhinos, all four were used on the backline because of the suspension of Carlos Valdés and the absence of Raymon Gaddis, who’s been sick.

Valdés will return for Philly’s fourth-round US Open Cup game against D.C. United on Tuesday at the Maryland SoccerPlex (7:30 pm ET), but with Gaddis and newly minted center back Sheanon Williams (big toe) questionable, the Union’s backline will likely be filled with natural midfielders once again.

And that’s something Philly believe can really help their struggling offense.

“It’s good because people are a little bit more comfortable with the ball,” said Okugo, a holding midfielder who played center back against Rochester. “They’re not afraid to force a pass between gaps and won’t panic and hoof the ball forward if someone is pressuring them. I think it helps a little bit.”

There are, of course, also problems that arise from putting players in positions they may not have much experience in. And some of those were evident in a miscue-ridden loss to Toronto in the Union’s last league game.

“It’s natural to have mistakes,” said the 22-year-old Williams, now one of the team’s most veteran defenders. “If I jumped in goal and tried to play a game, obviously I’d have mistakes. That’s natural for any player at a new position. So we’re just trying to be communicative and trying to help out as the game goes along.”

If nothing else, the mixing and matching on the Union backline has helped create an army of young, versatile, offensive-minded players that Nowak hopes he can build his team around. And the players seem to be buying into the strategy.

“All of the years of playing different positions really helps because I feel more comfortable when I’m asked to slide somewhere,” Lahoud said. “I didn’t see it before but I see it now.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.