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Tactical wrinkles complicating Conor Casey's return to Philadelphia Union starting lineup

Conor Casey in PHIvDC

Photo Credit: 
USA TODAY Sports

CHESTER, Pa. – Before the Philadelphia Union’s last two games, manager John Hackworth noted that Conor Casey was healthy and able to train after dealing with a strained calf for much of the preseason.

Yet Casey has yet to make his 2014 debut.

Why has one of the Union’s top goalscorers not seen the field this season, even as the Union have struggled to score goals early on?

“Part of it was that Conor hasn’t played a minute so far, but part of it was the game situation and certain moves you have to make,” Hackworth explained. “You have a little concern.”

Hackworth pointed to the weather in Columbus during last Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Crew, saying it “wasn’t a mild day.” So instead of putting in a cold Casey with the Union searching for the equalizer in the final minutes, he opted to move 6-foot-4 converted center back Aaron Wheeler further up the field to be the kind of physical presence that Casey brings to the forward position.

“I wanted to make sure Conor is 100 percent,” Hackworth said. “I think he could have played in that game – probably 15-20 minutes. But there are other guys, and the staff decided it wasn’t the best option in that game.”

Another concern is how Casey will fit into the lineup upon his return. Last season, the burly striker mostly paired with Jack McInerney in a 4-4-2 formation, scoring 10 goals and being named a finalist for the MLS Comeback Player of the Year award.

But this season, the Union's 4-2-3-1 formation employs one target forward flanked by two wingers. And since Casey probably isn't mobile enough to play on the wing, his inclusion in the lineup likely means McInerney would either have to go out wide or to the bench.

“In the big picture, you’re going to see Conor play in a lot of games this year,” Hackworth said. “The reality is, it might move McInerney out wide or you might put Conor straight up for Jack. I’m happy with Jack, so when it comes to player selection, you have to make sure you’re not putting a guy on the bench who is playing well. We have to balance it out.”

Hackworth added that matchups will play a big role in making future lineup decisions and that every week Casey continues to stay healthy in training makes it more likely that he will eventually find his way onto the field, possibly as soon as this Saturday, when the Union host the Montreal Impact at PPL Park (4 pm ET, MLS LIVE).

“The opportunity for Conor to play more minutes on Saturday has increased significantly,” Hackworth said. “Then it’ll be a situation whether we think it’s the right thing.”

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