CHESTER, Pa. – When Amobi Okugo was first plugged in at center back three months into the 2012 season, it looked to be a temporary fix.
But the natural midfielder has since become one of the most valuable players on the Philadelphia Union, starting 49 consecutive games along the backline.
It’s not going to be easy, then, to fill those shoes when Okugo serves the first of a two-game suspension when the Union welcome the Montreal Impact to PPL Park on Saturday (7:30 pm ET, MLS Live).
“We’ll have to deal with it, but it’s a tough loss,” Union manager John Hackworth said. “Amobi’s been so important to everything we’re doing, and we’ll have to have guys step up.”
The problem for the Union, however, is that they don’t really have any other center backs on their bench, although 34-year-old reserve Chris Albright has played there. Another problem is that left back Ray Gaddis is still questionable with a sprained ankle, which further hampers the backline.
If Gaddis is able to play Saturday, the most likely scenario is that Fabinho stays at left back (where he’s filled in for Gaddis the last three games), Gaddis starts at right back (where he’s most comfortable anyway) and right back Sheanon Williams slides over to center back, alongside Jeff Parke.
Even if Gaddis can’t go, Williams will still probably fill Okugo’s spot at center back, with perhaps midfielder Michael Lahoud or reserve Matt Kassel getting the nod at right back.
“That’s one scenario for sure – moving Sheanon over to center back and [playing] probably Michael Lahoud [at right back],” Hackworth said. “Kassel and Albright are other options to bring into the backline.”
Williams has been effective as a right back this season, especially with his crosses and throw-ins, but he also has experience at center back for the Union.
And while noting how tough and different it will be to take the field without Okugo, Williams also said he’d ready to take over that spot if called upon and try to slow down a Montreal attack led by MLS Golden Boot leader Marco Di Vaio.
“I’m comfortable doing it,” Williams said. “I’ve done it before and it’s not something that doesn’t come natural. Regardless of where you are on the back four, you should be ready to play all of the positions.”
Rather than shuffling a couple of positions, another option for Hackworth could be to simply swap in Aaron Wheeler for Okugo. Wheeler is a striker by trade but has played center back in training, in friendlies and while on loan with the Harrisburg City Islanders this season.
It would certainly be an unconventional move but Hackworth has liked what he’s seen when 6-foot-4 Wheeler has played defense, similar to the way he liked Okugo in that spot back when he was a midfielder.
“We know Amobi is important, but now it becomes an opportunity for someone else,” the Union manager said. “Maybe Aaron Wheeler is the next guy that you guys are going to be writing about because he had such a great game at center back.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.