When the Philadelphia Union traded away Danny Califf in May, they were left with only one true center back on their roster.
Six months later, the Union probably boast more depth at center back than any other team in the league.
Last week’s trade for Jeff Parke, combined with the midseason signing of Bakary Soumaré, gives Philly four solid options at center back. The two veteran defenders join 2012 starters Carlos Valdés, who made an All-Star appearance last year, and Amobi Okugo, a natural midfielder who started the last 23 games of the ’12 season, at the suddenly loaded position.
How will Union manager John Hackworth deal with four talented players for two spots?
“We definitely have an idea and a plan,” Hackworth said. “At the same time, I look around our league and I look around the world at teams that put themselves in positions to win championships, and every one of those teams, for the most part, has depth at the most crucial position.
"People are asking, ‘How are you going to play these guys?’ and ‘Who does that mean you play?’ From a coaching standpoint, we really don’t look at it like that and say, ‘OK, these are the only guys that are going to play.’ We have an extremely long season, with many ups and downs, and we need to have a very competitive choice in selecting the best players for a given game or any given stretch of games.”
One reason why acquiring depth at center back is important to the team is the uncertainty surrounding Soumaré, who played only one game in 2012 because of a knee injury. Hackworth could also opt to make a deal or move Okugo back into the defensive midfield, where he’d join Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud at another position that has some depth.
“Now we have some flexibility,” the Union manager said. “This allows us to move Amobi, who was arguably one of the biggest surprises as a central defender in the league in the second half of the season. It gives us a lot of flexibility in not only who we play but how we play.”
Given the fact that he’s coming off a season in which he earned his first US national team cap as well as his second straight Defender of the Year award from the Seattle Sounders, it seems likely that Parke will be a starter in Philly from day one.
But the Philly-area native said that he likes the idea that he’s joining what he called a “quality” backline, even if it leads to situations where he’s competing for a starting spot every day at practice.
“It’s difficult sometimes when you think, ‘Why aren’t I playing? What’s going on?’” Parke said. “But it’s something you ultimately always want: to have competition at every position. It makes you better, it makes you work harder and it keeps you on your toes. When guys are fighting, you go out and compete every day like it could be your last day.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.