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Complete preview for MLS week 17: Philly's Nogueira problem, fake MLS trades

Analyzing the Union's midfield issues without Vincent Nogueira and proposing some possible MLS trades.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Nogueira Problem

Ever heard of Roland Alberg? If you haven't, this might ring a bell: He's that new guy for the Union who's scoring all those goals. A Dutch 25-year old, Alberg briefly played in Turkey and bounced around the Eredivisie for a few years before he came to Philadelphia before this season as a player who would sit on the bench and come in every once in a while to change things up. He was forced to enter the starting lineup recently after Vincent Nogueira jumped ship, and while he hasn't exactly stabilized things since the all-important Nogueira bolted, he has been scoring a lot.

Enough, in fact, to put him up for player of the month. Five goals in three games will do that for a player.

But despite his recent surge in production, Alberg has not made people forget about the effect of Nogueira. The Union continue to struggle with moving the ball up the field and putting consistent pressure on opponents. Their former French midfielder was pivotal in helping them do that, so without him, they lack precision, incisiveness, and penetration in attack. With Alberg in the lineup, this happens:

That's a screenshot from the Union's game against Vancouver last week, in which Alberg, Tranquillo Barnetta, and Brian Carroll started in midfield. Instead of spreading out, holding possession, and keeping a solid shape, the Union put six players in Zone 14 (none of the players above in blue are defenders, by the way) and hope for the best.

As a purely attacking strategy, this is incredibly effective even without C.J. Sapong in the lineup. The Whitecaps struggled with it for most of the game, as have other teams. That's why the Union have scored 2.6 goals per game in June (all competitions).

Barnetta and Alberg act as the distributors — duel No. 10s, in a way — while the wingers pinch in and add numbers around the box. With the numerical advantage they then have, the Union recycle ball after ball and continue to put pressure on the opponent. That's how Alberg has gotten so many goals: He feasts on rebounds and blocked shots. He's simply been the player the ball has fallen to the most.

This chaotic scheme allows the Union to transition from offense to defense incredibly fast. Watch how everyone sprints forward and how quickly they set up shop in the final third:

The 4-2-3-1 they play morphs into a 4-1-0-5 just like that. It's a suffocating system, but the disorganization and incoherence it brings unsurprisingly result in serious defensive problems for the Union. Teams often discover loads of space centrally both on the counter and from long stretches of possession, as the 4-1-4-1 the Union often find themselves in leaves a ton of space in the midfield.

Barnetta is supposed to be Carroll's partner in defensive midfield — at least that's what the lineup graphic says — but really, he's Alberg's partner in advanced midfield. A 4-1-4-1 formation can certainly work defensively — the Union's opponent on Saturday, the Dynamo, have done well with it — but when two of the midfielders don't make much of an effort to play defense, it doesn't work so well.

At first glance, it appears that the Swiss No. 10 is sitting slightly deeper than Alberg, helping Carroll defensively. But he is caught too far up the field all the time, and even when he does have an opportunity to face an attack, he doesn't really do much. That's not necessarily his fault; it's just that defense isn't his strength and he's 31.

Theoretically, it should then be Alberg who is helping Carroll, as it's the Dutchman who technically wears the number six. However, his recent goal-scoring run has gotten him thinking that he should be a forward, so he hasn't done much of anything on defense recently.

When Carroll gets left alone, it's not good for the Union:

They can be exploited very easily, and it's become a problem for Philadelphia.

The job now for Jim Curtain is to figure out a way to continue to get offensive production from the middle of the field while still being solid defensively. It's a hard puzzle, but it's one they'll have to solve.

Fake Trades

Hypothetical MLS trades appear to be the hip thing right now — at least in American soccer circles — so I figured I'd take a crack at it. These are not insider reports or speculation — I am not Grant Wahl — they are simply realistic trades I think could work for both teams. Take them with a grain salt in terms of their possibility of actually happening.

Let's get started:

NYCFC's Patrick Mullins to Crew SC for TAM

Patrick Mullins might be the most tradeable asset in MLS, bar Mix Diskerud. The forward has gotten precious little time on the pitch this season — just 201 total minutes — and does not appear to be in the good graces of manager Patrick Viera. He would be a great option for a multitude of clubs — Houston, Dallas, Vancouver, among others — to help improve depth and add a starting-caliber forward to the ranks.

Columbus Crew SC would be his greatest fit. Having recently traded top goalscoring threat Kei Kamara, the Crew are loaded with cash to spend and minutes to give, and Mullins would be cheap enough for them to still be able to acquire a midfield chance-creator. Ola Kamara has been good as a poacher since replacing Kei in the starting lineup, but Gregg Berhalter would love to have another option to throw in.

LA's Jose Villareal to Orlando for Servando Carrasco, TAM/GAM

Jose Villareal is one of the more promising young attackers in the league, but the 22-year old has not received the playing time he deserves under Bruce Arena this season. With just three substitute appearances totaling 17 minutes, Villareal should be someone the Galaxy have on their trade block.

Orlando City could be a good landing spot for the Homegrown player. OCSC are often better when they have width on the field, as it opens space up for Kaka and Cyle Larin to work, and Villareal can help provide that. He offers versatility — he could also play a central role should Kaka not be available — and inventiveness, having accumulated six assists in his Galaxy career. Carrasco isn't likely to get much time in midfield behind Darwin Ceren, Cristian Higuita, and Antonio Nocerino, and he could add depth along with Jeff Larentowicz in the LA midfield.

This trade would drag Carrasco away from his wife, Orlando Pride forward Alex Morgan, but it would be the best thing for all other parties. And moving to LA can never be a bad thing.

Chicago's Matt Lampson to Toronto for Alex Bono, GAM

It appears that Sean Johnson has won back the starting goalkeeping job in Chicago, relegating Matt Lampson back to the bench after a solid two months as the starter. Presumably, he would like to earn more starts to improve his stock around the league as a potential starter, and where better to do that than in Toronto, where starting keeper Clint Irwin recently went down with a six-week injury?

Zac MacMath — who recently has been usurped by Tim Howard in Colorado — has had his name thrown around as a possibility for Toronto, but I see the Rapids keeping him on as Howard's backup until the end of the season, when he will likely be moved. Lampson could hold down the fort for Toronto until Irwin's return, then be his backup until December.

Bono actually played well in his first Toronto start — the second leg of the Canadian Championship final, which TFC won on away goals — but I'm sure Greg Vanney would like a more proven option for this crucial part of the season. Not that Lampson is Nick Rimando or anything, but he has shown himself to be a viable starter.