91614_isi_wengerandrew_mlsdb05252014167 David Bernal/isiphotos.com
U.S. Open Cup

Andrew Wenger Calls U.S. Open Cup "Really Big Deal"

The Philadelphia Union host the Seattle Sounders in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final tonight, and the home team's surging striker spoke to ASN about what a victory would mean for his team.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
September 16, 2014
9:56 AM
HE'S IN THE MIDST of the best stretch of his brief professional career and about to play for a major trophy, but Andrew Wenger is not about to say he’s having a breakout year.

The Philadelphia Union attacker is a likely starter tonight when his team hosts the league-leading Seattle Sounders in the 101st final of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (7:30pm ET, GolTV), and he’ll enter the match having scored three goals over the past four games.

It’s the best and most consistent soccer the Hermann Award winner out of Duke has played since he was taken first overall by the Montreal Impact in the 2012 SuperDraft. But Wenger is nowhere near satisfied.

“I wouldn’t call it a breakout year, not yet” said Wenger, who was traded to the Union on April 4 for Jack McInerney. “I’ve put a couple of good games together and I feel like I’m playing well and helping the team but that’s all it is—a couple good games.”

Wenger came to MLS lauded for his versatility: As a freshman he was named Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year as a holding midfielder. Then he then slid to center back as a sophomore and was named the defensive player of the year in a conference considered the best in college soccer. As a junior in 2011, he seamlessly switched to forward and scored 17 goals and logged eight assists, good for fourth in the country in scoring and enough to claim the Hermann, college soccer’s annual player of the year award.

Many observers projected Wenger to play defense as a pro, using his offensive skills to be one of the more sure-footed and technical backs in MLS. But the Impact brass at the time—then-coach Jesse Marsch and technical director Nick De Santis—had other ideas.

“They both saw me as an attacker,” Wenger said. “Not specifically as a (target forward), but a high guy.”

Wenger struggled, however, to find consistent playing time north of the border, seeing minutes mostly as a reserve and starting only 15 of the 47 games he played. Worse, his productivity decreased. After scoring four goals as a rookie he only scored once in league play last season.

“At times I struggled figuring out my role and that probably impacted my play,” Wenger acknowledged.

Upon arrival in Philadelphia, the 23-year-old welcomed the change of scenery. After a slow start he has clearly settled in, albeit in a slightly new role. He’s playing as a hybrid midfielder-forward in the Union’s 4-2-3-1 formation, usually on the left just below a lone striker.

“Playing on the left, I have to play defensively a fair amount, and that’s been positive because it keeps me more involved in the game,” said Wenger. “Playing as a No. 9, it’s easy to drift in and out. Now I’m able to use the defense to transition to the attack. My defensive responsibilities are keeping passing lanes clogged and then I drop back and double down and help Ray (Gaddis, the Union’s left back) and give him an outlet.”

The new role has paid off to the tune of five goals and four assists (he only had three in Montreal) in 22 games since the trade, and the Union haven't lost since August 15.

Wenger credits Union interim coach Jim Curtin for his increased production: “I know what I have to do and I feel like I’m making a positive difference out there and I’m more comfortable in the role they have me in," Wenger said. “Jim’s given me confidence and a defined role. It’s pretty easy to play with these guys I’m playing with and that has a lot to do with it. When 10 other guys are playing well it’s contagious.”

The trade also brought Wenger closer to home. He grew up in Lititz, Pa., about an hour from Philadelphia. “It’ close, but it’s nothing like Philly. It’s in Amish country,” he said. “But now my parents and grandparents can see me play regularly, and we can visit, so that’s been great.”

Wenger's family will be among the Union supporters expected to pack PPL Park tonight for the Open Cup final, the first chance in the Union’s brief history to play for a trophy.

“This is a really big deal for the players, for the club, and our fans. And for me to be in a serious final to win a trophy, I’m more than excited—I’m thrilled,” he said. “Any time you’re in a final you want to win. After the game you want to be the team stand in front of that sign board that says 2014 Open Cup champions and holding the trophy.”

Even if he wins a trophy tonight, Wenger still won’t call this his breakout year. For that, he contends, there’s more work to do.

“To continue the current form, continue scoring goals, and contributing to the team’s success. Doing that in a larger sample size, that would, I don’t want to say 'break out,' but it would mean something more. That’s the goal, to continue what I’ve been doing over a period of time and improve the level of play.”

Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. You can follow him on Twitter.

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