CHESTER, Pa. — Philadelphia Union manager Peter Nowak is prepared to sacrifice consistency in his starting lineup in order to keep players fresh as the season nears the midway point.
Shuffling the deck is especially important this week with the Union (6-4-4) in the middle of a grueling three-game stretch. They host Sporting Kansas City (3-6-4) at PPL Park on Wednesday (7:30 pm ET, MatchDay Live), fresh off a 1-0 loss at Vancouver last Saturday and just three days before a home match vs. Chivas USA.
“We want to give other guys a little time,” Nowak said in his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “It’s important to make sure everyone’s up and running. We need to get everyone ready for games. For the last couple of months, we’ve been playing 13, 14 guys, so now is the time for other ones to step in and step up and make sure they do the job.”
Nowak made a couple of switches in his starting lineup on Saturday in Vancouver, giving brand new acquisition Veljko Paunović the start up top and Stefani Miglioranzi a spot in the central midfield. Miglioranzi, who missed a month with a strained groin, had not started a game since April 16.
Starting Miglioranzi, especially alongside fellow holding midfielder Brian Carroll, was a conservative move and perhaps one of the reasons why the Philly offense couldn’t get much going in a 1-0 loss to the last-place Whitecaps. But Nowak said he still likes the idea of sometimes pairing two holding midfielders together and that he will continue to tinker with the midfield to find the right formula.
“When you throw a lot of numbers forward, you’ve got to get the midfield stabilized,” Nowak said. “It’s a big field — we’ve got to be organized, we’ve got to be disciplined. We’re looking at different options, trying to mix things up.”
Nowak has plenty of options in the midfield, especially with Gabriel Farfan (right quad strain) and Amobi Okugo (left ankle sprain) — the only two players on this week’s injury report — both nearing returns.
He has even more choices at striker, with Carlos Ruiz back from the Gold Cup and Paunović hoping to keep his place up top, where Sébastien Le Toux, Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerney all roam.
“I think the more options we have — and it’s the same as the midfield — is always a good thing,” Nowak said. “We can mix things up, create a different look, make other teams guess who’s gonna be playing and what kind of quality. All of [the strikers] have different qualities. We feel like we can change the outlook of the game. That’s the advantage of the whole situation.”
There also could be some disadvantages to having a logjam at certain positions like striker — namely, finding enough playing time to go around. But the Union players, from one of the all-time MLS greats like Ruiz to teenagers like McInerney, know that just means they have to work that much harder to get on the field.
“Sometimes you can see a lot of forwards on one team, but that is not making that team better in the offensive part,” Ruiz said. “We have six forwards and we have to work hard because I think from the way we play, just two are going to play. The competition between the forwards has to be honest and hard, so the coaching staff can decide who is going to play.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.