Fresh faces are always big news around MLS. And in the past few days, a pair of talented figures has arrived to supply extra offensive zip at their new address.
It’s logical to compare them. But make no mistake: Philadelphia’s Freddy Adu and LA’s Robbie Keane are stylistically different players, though they share some vital commonalities at the moment.
Most importantly, both Adu and Keane were added to create chances, score goals and crank up their teams’ overall potency down the stretch. The other shared trait: It’s on the respective managers to ascertain optimum tactical deployment of their new weapons.
However, until Keane actually suits up for Bruce Arena’s side — ostensibly this weekend vs. San Jose — it remains to be seen how he works. But we do have a first take on what to expect from Adu.
Adu’s second go-round in MLS began Saturday at PPL Park in the Union’s 2-2 draw with FC Dallas. Union boss Peter Nowak used Adu in two spots during the course of the night: centrally, behind Sébastien Le Toux in something that looked like a dynamic, free-form 4-1-4-1, and; after 20 to 25 fairly nondescript minutes in the middle, Adu was redeployed on the left.
Neither case really worked. Without regular action recently, Adu’s passing was splotchy and his fitness over 62 minutes clearly in arrears. Nor did it help that Philadelphia’s opposition on the day was among the best in the Western Conference. Not only are FCD second in the West, but the side from Texas has become a team that leans even more heavily on stingy defense since the injury to invaluable playmaker David Ferreira.
When he moved to the left, Adu seemed to pay extra attention to his defensive positioning (which was more important, since he was further back in the midfield arrangement). Harassing and ball winning will never be Adu’s bread and butter, but he surely sought to make a good first impression on his new teammates and his new (and former) coach.
But Adu’s performance in his Philly debut is not really something to concern Nowak & Co; the real issue is bigger than that. The Union are dealing with something of an offensive identity crisis.
Previously, the Union attack was built around a target presence — Alejandro Moreno in 2010 and Carlos Ruiz this year — with Justin Mapp and Le Toux supplying imagination and unpredictability as playmakers and slashers.
But what of the target presence now? Both Ruiz and Moreno are gone. Le Toux can’t be that guy. Neither can Jack McInerney or Danny Mwanga. There are many options, but none of them seem to really cohere.
So does Nowak dare to remake the entire attack, with Adu as the focal point? It doesn’t seem like so a terrible option.
Adu is perhaps best known for his quickness over short distances and tight control, but he’s also blessed with good vision and is usually at his best when moving possession along quickly, pinging passes over a variety of distances as he did in those two US national-team appearances that seem to have re-booted his career.
Adu’s best tactical location is a bit of an oddity. That’s because he’s a left-footer who always seems more comfortable drifting slightly right, opening his body to increase the options, including those quick bursts into the middle. Adu scored some memorable goals for D.C. United this way back in the day — like this one against LA (at right).
Angling in from the right is also how Adu opened eyes in June, when he was perhaps the best US man on the field at the Rose Bowl against Mexico in the Gold Cup final. That day, he played beneath Landon Donovan as a central creator, tending to drift right into points from which he contributed to both US goals.
Speaking of the US national team, Clint Dempsey frequently plays as a left-sided attacker whose starting positions are tilted inside. (He did, at least, under former manager Bob Bradley.) Dempsey and Adu are different players, but it’s not hard to imagine Adu in a similar role for Philadelphia. And once the other Union attackers get familiar with Adu’s abilities, they’ll be better equipped to exploit that vision and passing over distance — the kind that nearly connected a couple of times during Saturday’s debut.
Adu has a chance to become something that many MLS teams just don’t have: a true creator who can unlock defenses off the dribble, with longer passes or even little heel flicks.
Everyone around Philly seems confident the “new kid” can soar. And who better than Nowak to pinpoint the ideal fit for Adu? After all, Nowak might know Adu better than anyone, since he was there from the young man’s first baby steps as a professional soccer player. The East remains up for grabs; Adu’s presence just might provide enough rocket fuel to push the Union past Columbus for the conference crown.