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January 31, 2017

Oguchi Onyewu will prove to be a smart signing for the Union – as long as one condition is met

There are two ways to look at the Oguchi Onyewu signing:

  1. The Union added an injury-plagued, 34-year-old veteran with a lack of recent playing time.
  2. The Union added an experienced former U.S. international who can impart wisdom to a young group of center backs.

We need to see a lot of No. 2 and not much of No. 1. So, on the condition that Onyewu doesn't play too many games, then this is a solid signing for Earnie Stewart.

The technical staff went on the record weeks ago with their search for an "experienced center back," and nobody fits the bill better than "Gooch." He played nearly 70 games for the United States, appearing in World Cups, Gold Cups and a Confederatons Cup. Onyewu also has triple digit club appearances and an understanding of what it takes to play the game at the highest level.

That's something that the four center backs on the Union roster do not have. At 24-years old, Richie Marquez is the senior among the group. Ken Tribbett and Josh Yaro are entering their second years in Major League Soccer and Auston Trusty is an 18-year-old homegrown player.

Onyewu's primary role, then, is to mentor that group of center backs while contributing maybe six to 10 starts over the course of the year. He's not here to start, and if he is, then they're doing it wrong. The priority has to be the development of four young center halves, and this technical staff knows that.

The best case scenario is that Onyewu is used as the third CB off the bench. He then starts for Yaro or Marquez in case of injury, suspension, or some other absence.

If the last few years are any indication, there will be minutes available:

Player 2016 Starts Total Minutes 
Richie Marquez 34 2,970 
Ken Tribbett 19 1,727 
 Josh Yaro15 1,327 
Anderson Conceicao 90 

 Player2015 Starts  Total Minutes
Maurice Edu 22  1,980* 
Richie Marquez 20 1,854 
Steven Vitoria 18 1,575 
Ethan White 13 1,224 

Player 2014 Starts Total Minutes 
Maurice Edu 31 2,789* 
Amobi Okugo 31 2,789** 
Ethan White 12 1,042 
 Carlos Valdes706 
Aaron Wheeler 759 
Austin Berry 497 
* (Edu started the season in the midfield, then moved to center
back, so his actual numbers on the backline should skew lower)
** (Okugo started the season at center back, then moved
into the midfield. So his numbers also need to be adjusted)

There are plenty of minutes to go around at center back. Guys get hurt. Coaches get fired. Experiments fail. Since 2014, eleven different guys have played CB for the Union. This past season was actually one of the most consistent seasons we've seen in that position, and the main reason for the shuffle was because of Josh Yaro's shoulder injury and concussion issues. In those cases, Ken Tribbett was the next man up.

You always need a good number three center back on the roster. Think about what guys like Jamison Olave, Zach Scott, Dave Romney, and Kevin Ellis contribute to their teams. They can give you 10 to 12 starts as quality depth guys, and that's what Onyewu's role should be in 2017.

No MLS team is going through the season with two center backs starting 34 games each.

LCB, RCB – does it really matter?

The Union like to have their center backs commit to specific sides of the field. Last year, Marquez played exclusively on the left, while Yaro and Tribbett played exclusively on the right. Trusty played LCB for Bethlehem Steel.

There are two main reasons for doing this.

The first is that keeping a center half on one side of the field develops chemistry and familiarity with the nearside fullback. Marquez, for instance, played next to Fabinho in 29 games. Keegan Rosenberry played 19 games next to Ken Tribbett and 15 games next to Josh Yaro.

The only time the Union experimented in that department was during the Crystal Palace friendly when Yaro actually paired with Tribbett to start the game. Yaro started at his normal RCB, with Tribbett in an unfamiliar LCB role. Both were subbed at halftime, and Marquez played RCB next to Anderson.

After the Palace friendly, Marquez said this about moving from left to right:

"I think the only difference is that I'm used to playing with Fabinho. I know his tendencies more, whereas I'm still getting used to Ray (Gaddis). There are small differences, but it's not a huge jump. It's still the same positioning and organization. I think just playing on the left side, I got accustomed to it. That was the biggest difference, just because I'm used to the left side. But it's not too bad."

The second reason why Union center backs are kept to specific sides is because you develop better passing habits.

For instance, Marquez is right footed, so when he plays the ball to Fabinho, he's passing "inside to outside" with his strong foot. When Marquez plays RCB, he's passing "outside to outside" by opening his body a bit more to get the angle right.

You also have different ways of clearing the ball up the line or passing back to your goalkeeper. If I'm a right footed, right center back, I'm using my left foot to pass to my goalkeeper when the ball is played into the channel. It's the opposite on the other side, right? Some guys are more comfortable on specific sides.

Here's what Marquez said about those concepts:

"That's the thing, I've worked a lot on my left foot. Obviously, being on the right I get a lot more of the ball on the (stronger foot), so I'm able to hit some longer passes and feel a little more comfortable in that aspect. It's just small tweaks, you know?"

Does any of this really mean anything regarding Onyewu?

Sort of.

Gooch mostly played as an LCB during his USMNT career. You probably remember his partnership with Jay Demerit, where Onyewu was on the left with Carlos Bocanegra and Demerit was on the right with Steve Cherundolo or Jonathan Spector. I'm pretty sure Gooch also played LCB when he partnered Eddie Pope.

As far as his club career, I'm 95% certain that Oguchi played on both sides for Sporting Lisbon. At Charlton, his most recent stop, I think the few games he played there were on the left side. He played on the right at Sheffield Wednesday.

Onyewu has played so many games that it really doesn't matter which side he plays on. I'm sure he has a preferred side, but you're looking at a guy who can easily cover for either Marquez or Yaro in a pinch.

Ideally, your depth chart looks something like this:

Josh Yaro
Oguchi Onyewu
Ken Tribbett

Richie Marquez
Oguchi Onyewu
Auston Trusty

That's the way I'd do it. You would have Yaro and Marquez as your starters with Onyewu on the bench. Tribbett and Trusty could then pair each other at Bethlehem Steel. Tribbett comes to the first team when one of the other three is injured.

Between the first team and second team, you would have four young central defenders in line to start 30+ games with a veteran third-choice CB available for spot duty.

It makes a lot of sense.