CHESTER, Pa. – Is this the week Bakary Soumaré finally makes his Philadelphia Union debut?
Signed by Philly in late June, the former MLS Bext XI defender has been working his way back from knee surgery for more than a month. But now he’s fully fit and, according to interim manager John Hackworth, has a chance to start in Saturday’s game against Montreal at Saputo Stadium (7:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online).
“Baky’s ready,” Hackworth said at his weekly press conference on Thursday. “I’m hopeful that makes my job and our coaching staff’s job extremely hard for Saturday. I think that’s a great thing for us no matter what. I told you last week I thought he had turned a corner, so having him available for selection is huge for us.”
The reason why Soumaré’s addition to the lineup makes Hackworth’s job difficult is the emergence of Amobi Okugo, who has made an exceptional center back pairing with MLS All-Star Carlos Valdés since becoming a full-time starter eight games ago.
With Soumaré, that gives the Union three quality center backs for two spots.
“If you look at our two center backs, Carlos has been fantastic – All-Star caliber the whole time,” Hackworth said. “And Amobi has arguably been as good as anyone in the league. I’m going to make sure we’re very careful about that dynamic and when we do make the change it’s going to be for the right reasons.”
The good thing for the Union is the fact that Okugo is a natural holding midfielder, having played there most of his career and even pushing forward higher than most defenders during his stint at center back. The problem is the Union also have a crowded midfield, including stalwart defensive mid Brian Carroll.
One thing, though, seems clear: The Union need to find a way to keep Okugo on the field.
“Amobi’s a good soccer player,” Hackworth said. “The reason he’s been so successful in the back is because he’s such a good all-arounder. I think this experience has done a lot for him personally. I don’t think he understood how good he could play at that position. None of us really did. I think it only bodes well for him moving forward.”
No matter where on the field Okugo lands, adding the 6-foot-4 Soumaré should boost a Union backline that is small and sometimes gets victimized on set pieces.
Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath called the team’s new acquisition a “tremendous teammate” who brings a different dynamic than other defenders because of his size.
“It helps the team in general on set pieces, offensively and defensively,” MacMath said. “Carlos and I are the only guys over six-foot on the team in the starting XI. Having a big guy like that to intimidate and also win balls for us is awesome.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.