A New Year

Happy New Year everyone. I was hoping to get this out sooner, but my year has started out with a fairly nasty cold.

2015 is here. With that said, here is my wish list for the team in this upcoming year.

1. I want to see the team bring in a big time striker.

Striker has historically been one of our weakest positions. It says a lot when a broken down Connor Casey is likely our best ever player at that position. To take the next step as a club, we need a big time goal scorer.

I’m pretty open to different options at the position. I don’t think we need a big name striker like a Jozy Altidore or an Emmanuel Adebayor. Would they be nice? Yes. Are they worth the money? Probably not.

I think we would find the best bang for our buck by finding a relative unknown willing to make a jump from Europe or a young, up and comer from the Americas. Sloan Privat from Gent was a name thrown around a few months ago. He may not have the name appeal of an Altidore, but neither did Bradley Wright-Phillips last year. I’m more concerned with goalscoring than name value.

The other option would be to find some young up and comer. It worked for Seattle with Freddy Montero. Erick “Cubo” Torres also hit the ground running and made a major impact. A young player could give us some much-needed energy up top and some much-needed re-sale value when they inevitably leave. A young player fits a smart business plan of buying young and cheap and selling high to Europe.

Either way, I want to see the Union commit to signing the clinical finisher that this club has lacked for years. We can’t take the next step as a club until that point.

2. I want to see a Home Grown Player finally break into the first team.

Despite all the talk from the front office about how great our academy is and how important we find youth to be, no home grown player has been able to break into this team yet.

This is an important year for our academy. Zach Pfeffer and Jimmy McLaughlin have been here for several years and have not been able to break into this team despite playing well with the youth national team and Harrisburg, respectively. If we are going to center our team around the academy, one of these players needs to step up.

With Pedro and Fred gone, there is a big hole in the central attacking mid spot behind Maidana. Considering his injury history, we need someone who can fill in for Chaco. This season, Zach has a real opportunity to finally claw his way into the team.

As for Jimmy, he provides depth at a position that is very thin. Out wide, we only have Wenger, Seba, and Danny Cruz. A real spark off the bench in that position would help this team push for the playoffs. Considering his successful season in Harrisburg last year, can Jimmy be that player here?

3. I want to see the team find a full-time sporting director.

Right now, Rene Meulensteen is advising the club and helping us find someone to fit the position. There have been reports that perhaps this period is a trial for Rene to see if he is interested in the spot full-time. Personally, I would love to see the Mule stay here and use his wealth of experience to improve this organization. However, even if he leaves, we need someone to take this role full-time. We don’t want Nick Sak running player personnel decisions full-time anymore.

4. I want to see the coaching staff filled out.

It’s a bit worrying that we have not announced any new coaching hires. We have a three-man staff consisting of Jim Curtin, Mike Sorber, and Chris Albright. How can we expect players to develop and maximize their potential with such an under-funded coaching staff?

5. I want to see the team figure out their USL affiliate.

Our relationship with Harrisburg has had several problems in the past. Most notably, players are not guaranteed to play in their natural spots. Last season, Harrisburg played Pedro Ribeiro at center back for several games. Clearly, that is not the position he will be playing in this league. That will not help this team.

Now, there are two real solutions. We stick with Harrisburg and sort the issues, or we create our own USL team. If we stick with Harrisburg, the Union need to take a more prominent role in the relationship. The team needs to sort out issues with their playing field and issues with not playing Union players consistently. Perhaps the Union buy the majority stake in the club. Perhaps the team is moved closer to Philadelphia. Perhaps the team practices at PPL’s training field. There are a lot of options, but some plan needs to hashed out.

Alternatively, the Union can follow the popular trend and create a Union II team (U2 if you will). I prefer this option. It allows us to sign more young players and give them professional minutes to develop. Further, it allows us to control their development so that we don’t see travesties like the Ribeiro playing as a center back. This option seems to make the most sense when we look at the Union organization’s emphasis on youth development.

6. I want to see Jay Sugarman continue to play a more visible role.

Everyone knows that Nick Sak is a very unpopular figure with the team. In his lone press conference with the team, Jay showed the ability to relate better to fans and to present a more humble image for the team. Jay has the potential to repair the strained relationship between the F.O. and the fans. It also would go a long way to dispel the idea that the F.O. only cares about making money at the expense of the on the field team.

7. I’d like to see a nice new away kit.

Admittedly, this is a minor concern, but a nice looking kit goes a long way. A few months ago, a potential away kit leaked online. Closer images revealed some stars on the kit (credit to billf on Big Soccer). Personally, I hope these are fakes. I like the idea of a yellow kit stylized after Club America. This team might as well look good on the field.

 

This is a brand new year for the Union. Now is the time for the organization to hit the ground running and put five years of failure behind them. Can them do it? It remains to be seen. Addressing the areas of concern would be a big step for this club. With all this said, what do all of you wish to see from the Union in 2015?

Monday Madness

It’s been a while. The workload at the new job has really ramped up.  With the off-season underway, I am attempting to right the ship here. What better way to start than by reflecting on a hectic Monday that saw numerous big moves from this team? So let’s break them down.

Amobi Okugo

This is one of the major headlines. Kevin Kinkead, Jonathan Tannenwald, and others have really broken this move down well. In a nutshell, Amobi wanted to move. He preferred Europe, but Orlando was an intriguing opportunity.

Can we blame him for wanting to leave though? He got drafted by a manager who rode him on the bench or kept him out of the 18 for most of his first two and a half years. Then his next manager played him  out of position for the next two years. His third manager moved him back to his normal position only to bench him in a handful of games, including the team’s first ever trophy shot.

The Philadelphia Union ruined his development. Imagine the player Amobi would be right now if we had been playing him at defensive mid since Year Zolo. Once his contract was ended, Amobi seemed set to leave. Again I can’t blame him for wanting to.

For the Union, this left us with two possibilities:

  1. Let him walk for nothing and try his luck in Europe. We all know Amobi wants to go abroad. All the Union would get out of this is ownership of his rights should he decide to return to MLS. That’s a big what if that doesn’t help this team now.
  2. Trade him for what you can. In this case, we got allocation money. While it has long been a running joke to see fan favorites traded for allocation money, it is seriously a useful resource. Allocation money can be used to pay down the salary of a player like MBolhi to prevent him from being a DP, opening up another DP slot for us. The money could be used to buy a player like Edu or a striker. The money could even be used to trade for another player.

In this case, we were stuck with two poor options. Either Amobi walks for nothing, or we trade him to a conference rival for something. As painful as it is to see him play for another MLS team against us, the Union did well to salvage the situation and get something out of it.

Sapong

The Union traded the 10th pick in the 2015 draft for the 10th pick in the 2011 draft. Sapong – a player the Union once tried to sign to a homegrown contract- fits the system well. He is big, strong, fast, and a good jumper. He can hold up the ball up top alone and distribute it to teammates.

Some will look at his stats and rightfully point out a lack of goals (20 in 110 appearances). To be fair to him, Sporting Kansas City attempted to turn him into a wide target man. For some players in this league like Wenger and Kei Kamara, that has worked. For Sapong, that does not seem to be the case. Here in Philly, Sapong will likely be moved back up top to his natural position.

Now saying all of this, I don’t expect Sapong to be our star striker this year. We still need a DP signing up top. However, this is a good start to building the depth we didn’t have last year. When Casey lost steam last year, we had nobody but else to bring on. Hell, we even tried to turn Ribeiro into a striker to give us some depth. This year we will Sapong coming off the bench and rotating in, providing us with an actual impact sub.

As for the first round draft pick, the MLS Superdraft is becoming more and more irrelevant as time passes. The chances of us drafting a player better than Sapong – especially given our track record – are incredibly slim. This trade better positions us to right this ship this season.

Expansion List

By now, we have all seen the expansion list, and it has raised a few questions and concerns. I’ll address the major issues.

The Keepers: Honestly, this was a smart decision. Neither team is going to pick up Mbolhi’s contract and blow a DP slot on him. He is virtually safe. MacMath is likely safe as well as Orlando and New York City both have starting keepers. Even if one is picked, it immediately solves the goalkeeping dilemma. Leaving both exposed helped us protect fringe players like White and Williams.

Fabinho: Poor Fabinho has become a major whipping boy, with some wanting to design a rocket with which they will fire Fabinho into the sun. While many are quick to criticize his faults, Fabinho is a much better left back than given credit. He won’t set the world on fire, but he adequately plays a spot that is one of the hardest to fill in MLS. Fabinho has a higher Castrol Index than players like Chris Korb, Leo Gonzales, Michael Harrington, Chris Wingert, and even Philly Union fan favorite Corey Ashe (Credit to chapka at BigSoccer for doing this research). Looking at the stats (which to be fair are usually subjective), trading for Corey Ashe and cutting Fabinho would be a downgrade.

Pulling it all together

Remember that this is the first week of the MLS offseason. Plenty of moves are yet to come. Don’t expect big transfer news until January. However, we have done well to start this offseason. The Union did well to get some resources from Amobi that can be reinvested in either buying Edu or signing a new striker. We also brought in an MLS veteran who fits Curtin’s system perfectly. Finally, we made some fairly intelligent moves with our protected list to ensure our goalkeeping dilemma does not cost us a valuable player like White.

Should we sign the rumored William Kvist, a DP striker, and some young homegrown depth, this roster will be well set up for a deep playoff run. Believe or not Union fans, but it looks like this team has a plan for once.

Well, that was painful

I needed a bit of time before I could write about the Open Cup. Part of it was due to being busy at work while the other part was recuperating from the game. By now, everyone has pretty much said everything that needs to be said. I’ll give some quick thoughts.

I still really hate Seattle

The Sounders’ sportsmanship was really lacking on Tuesday night. Several players spent several minutes on the floor faking injuries in order to waste time. I believe only one player actually had to come out of the game as a result of his injury. It was amazing seeing Yedlin rolling around on the ground one minute and sprinting up the field the next.  Shame on you Sounders.

I really don’t like Clint Dempsey. When he wasn’t throwing a tantrum on the ground like a petulant child, Clint was busy throwing elbows and shoving players. Sure, I like enforcers who aren’t afraid to get dirty. However, Clint can’t foul someone one minute and then get enraged that the ref doesn’t call contact against him the next minute. Stars of this league act as though the ref should cater to everything they do.

How about any of you? Does anyone feel more of a rivalry against Seattle after this match?

Okugo?

I was really surprised and disappointed that Okugo did not play. He would be one of the first names down on my starting XI. We really missed his physicality and intelligence on the field. He really could have helped lock down the center of the pitch.

The Subs

For the most part, the subs really disappointed me. In particular, Fred came on far to late to really make an impact on the game.  Pedro proved he just isn’t a strike. He really went head to head with Marshall, but it just isn’t natural for him. However, depth is the biggest problem. We don’t have players like Obafemi Martins and Marco Pappa coming off the bench. Part of this is due to Hackworth building a shallow team. Part of this falls on Curtin.

Since Jim took over, he has relied on the same small core of guys. We have seen very little squad rotation under his tenure. Players like Wheeler, Pfeffer, and McLaughlin have not been able to get minutes under Curtin. I don’t expect them to be stars or instant problem solvers, but they would have helped. However, if they had played under Curtin, they could have been options off the bench.

I’d rather Wheeler have replaced Casey so that we had a real striker up top rather than someone learning the position. Ribeiro would have been able to come on in midfield in place of Fred. Pfeffer or McLaughlin could have taken Cruz’s spot.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. Few of us would have made this claim Tuesday morning. Regardless, adding depth to this team and then actually playing this depth need to be steps going forward.

We need a striker

We all know Casey doesn’t have it in him to play a full 90. Who else is behind him? Ribeiro? He’s not a striker and never will be. Brown? He is still really raw. Wheeler? He seems to be in Curtin’s doghouse. Hoppenot? Thank God he is in Curtin’s doghouse.

We have a serious need for a striker. Casey is a role-player at this point in his career. While a DP striker is the obvious solution, I would also like to bring along an academy guy like Darius Madison. Now is the time to integrate a youngster into this team.

What do you think?

How do you feel about Seattle after this game? Should Okugo have played? Did you agree with the subs? What direction do we go for striker?

Who should be the manager?

Well, the Open Cup run is over. It seems about the time to run a new poll. It looks to be a two-horse race between Jim and Rene, though Union Rumors is suggesting Rene may have more of an administrative job in the organization.

I hate Seattle

Tomorrow, we face Seattle in the Open Cup for potentially our first ever silverware. When we think about rivals, New York and D.C. come to mind. After those two, some proclaim Kansas City or Houston as rivals. Personally, I have hated Seattle since 2010. To me, they are right behind New York and D.C.

From the fans in the stands to the flannel-clad hipsters on the street who think Kurt Cobain is the biggest name since John Lennon, I am simply not a fan of Seattle. The city is a place where the Space Needle, rain, burnt coffee, and angsty lyrics are seen as “rich culture.” With the big game tomorrow, it seems like the perfect time to breakdown why I hate Seattle:

  1. I hate Seattle’s “holier than thou” attitude: I get it. Soccer and MLS did not exist before Seattle entered the league. The original teams just sat on their asses and twiddled their thumbs until Seattle eventually got their expansion team
  2. I hate 2010: In our expansion year, all anyone could talk about is how we measured up to Seattle. Fantastic. Nothing we did mattered because we weren’t Seattle. On top of that, they crushed us in our first ever game.
  3. I hate the Dempsey Rule: Deuce began the trend of big name players skipping the allocation order. Richer clubs suddenly have an advantage over the rest of us. Even worse, who can skip the allocation order is a mystery. It’s a big step towards MLS catering to their big teams. Seattle is the major actor that got this rule on in the books.
  4. I hate this idea that Seattle fans are the best: Sure, the Sounders and Seahawks have great fans. How about the Mariners? Out of 30 MLB teams, the Mariners rank 23rd in average attendance this year. How about the Sonics everyone misses? In their final year, their average attendance was 13,355. Hell, the Seahawks almost moved in the 90’s because their attendance was among the worst in the league. Apparently, Seattle loves their teams but only if they are winning.
  5. I hate that Sounders fans still claim Sebastian Le Toux: He may have started his American career in Seattle, but he made his career in Philly. Seba has become one of the best players in the league here, not Seattle. He is not a Seattle guy, and he hasn’t been since 2009.
  6. I hate Seattle coffee: Seriously, fuck Starbucks. Burnt, bitter beans are not coffee. Sure they make the beans lighter and cheaper to transport, but I don’t drink coffee for the taste of ash and charcoal. Starbucks ruins the wonderful taste of a smooth cup of coffee.

On a more serious note, the over-saturation of Starbucks drives local independent businesses out of business and weakens competition on the market. Starbucks is the Walmart of coffee. Thanks Seattle.

Now, Seattle isn’t all bad. What do I love about the Sounders?

  1. I love that PPL Park opened against Seattle: In our very first game at our home, we beat Seattle 3-1. When we think back to this stadium in the future, we will always remember Pat Noonan choking on a penalty kick to win us the game. Seriously, he got stone-walled by Chris Fucking Seitz.
  2. I love Sebastian Le Toux: Thanks again for giving us one of the best players in MLS for absolutely nothing. Throughout our turbulent five years, Seba has been a rock for this team that has dragged us forward. Nothing will make me happier than seeing Seba score the game winning goal tomorrow.

Thanks for Microsoft and Amazon, Seattle, but that doesn’t change anything. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Why Rene Meulensteen?

 

Once again, the name Rene Meulensteen has resurfaced. Kevin Kinkead, one of the best Union journalists, has reported Rene will be the next manager:

 

Though many fans initially called for an international manager search when Hack was fired, Jim Curtin has obviously done a fantastic job with this team. I’d expect this appointment to split the fanbase. Personally, I am incredibly excited by this move, and I think Rene will be a fantastic addition to this team. That being said, let’s look once again at Rene Meulensteen as a manager candidate and the pros and cons of his potential appointment.

Pros

  • Meulensteen is a big believer in youth development: Rene spent a good amount of time working with the youth teams at Man U. While he is popularly credited with helping to develop Ronaldo*, he still has players like Tom Cleverly and Danny Welbeck under his belt. While the two have been the laughing-stocks of Man U, they are both quality premier league players. In his short stint at Fulham, Rene began the work of replacing the old, complacent players with young prospects. He clearly has a strong belief in incorporating young players.

What does this mean for the Union? We are obviously a team that invested heavily in our youth infrastructure. A great article posted recently by O When the Yanks covered the deep talent we have in our academy. Someone like Sebastian Elney, Darius Madison, Michael Swift, or Mohammad Conde will need to play a role in coming years as Casey is worked out of the starting XI.

A manager with a serious focus on developing youth will be a huge benefit for our team and academy. The fans should no longer have to chant “We want Pfeffer” in order for him to actually play. Hell,  maybe one of these prospects can be our Diego Fagundez, Andy Najar, or Gyasi Zardes. I trust Rene far more than most coaching options to get the best our of our prospects.

* I think contributing Ronaldo to Rene is exaggeration. He obviously played a big hand in his development, but Ronaldo isn’t Ronaldo simply because of Rene.

  • Meulensteen is one of the best technical coaches in the world: Rene emphasizes developing technical skills in his players. He wants to look at the best coaches to replicate what they are doing in their game.  Let’s have Rene explain his views himself:

There are a number of videos online of Rene explaining his youth development strategy and technical development online.

For the Union, this will have an obvious impact with the youth. American players are often derided for being athletes without a soccer brain or without technical ability. The skills Rene emphasizes will offer us a clear advantage in developing talent.

As far as the Union now, I think Danny Cruz and Andrew Wenger would benefit the most. Danny is someone who likes to try the audacious and the bold. Half the time he can produce something brilliant. Half the time he trips over himself or the ball. Rene should be able to tighten up his game and hopefully increase his success rate of his adventurous attacks. Wenger is someone who is big and strong, but he lacks the technique of a typical winger. Anything Rene can offer him should help his game out wide.

  • Meulensteen will be a great mentor for Curtin: In his career, Jim has worked with such illustrious names as Bob Bradley, Preki, Piotr Nowak, and John Hackworth.  Bradley is the only one with much of a resume to his name. If we do hire Rene, Jim gets a seriously talented mind to work under. This is assuming he meant what he said about being back with the Union no matter what. Jim will be able to pick the brain of one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s top assistants. I am critical of Jim not working in the younger players. It’s a trait he picked up from Hack. Hopefully, Jim will pick up some better ideas of youth development and technical training while working with Rene.

Cons

  • What about Curtin?: Early into his interim gig, Jim stated that he will stick with the Union no matter what. I hope this is the case. After his success with this team, teams that need a manager would have to be insane to not give him a ring. He clearly has a bright future in this league. For now, I will take him for his word and assume he stays. That being said, all reports suggest Jim was active in helping Nick with the manager search. By now, there should be an understanding between Rene and Jim of their roles and how they will work together.
  • Meulensteen is unfamiliar with MLS: This is a very fair concern. While some foreign coaches have had success, the majority have shown the inability to adapt to the eccentricities (salary cap, draft, trades, etc.) of this league. A foreign manager needs real support from people who get this league. With Nick and Jim here, I think they will do a fantastic job orienting Rene to the league. Nick has been a part of this league for over a decade and clearly knows the ins and outs of MLS. Jim played his entire career here and now has management experience under his belt. I think Rene will have a smoother transition than most foreign managers.
  • Meulensteen has never had success as a manager: Rene is a career coach who has never had much in the way of success in his managerial gigs. I’ll ignore Anzhi since it was a weird situation where he was fired after two weeks because the owner went broke.

His time at Brondby marked the beginning a decline for the once Danish giants. Considering the team hasn’t won a title since, I am willing to chalk some of the problems up to ownership. You can’t exactly blame him for what’s happening now. Remember, Bill Belichick was a laughing-stock of the NFL after failing in Cleveland. People can learn from their mistakes. His animal story is obviously ridiculous and worrisome, but it happened 8 years ago. Besides, this was a player’s autobiography and likely exaggerated to an extent.

Fulham was an all around weird situation. Previous manager Martin Jol had constructed a really bad, old, overpaid, and lazy team. Tony Pulis maybe the only person alive who could have kept them from being relegated. Rene began the hard job of phasing out the old players for their younger, hungrier counterparts. Rene was fired before he had a chance to get his project off the ground. I’m willing to blame Jol and their owner, Shahid Khan, more than Rene for Fulham’s relegation.

Looking at this history, it seems really unfortunate and unlucky. Brondy was the only experience where he failed due to his own mistakes. I think MLS is a good league for him if he wants a fresh start. This league is much less of an uphill battle compared to signing for a relegation candidate team or taking over for a legendary manager (Michael Laudrup) for a giant of a mid-table league.

 

What do you think? Is Rene the right man for the job, or should we be sticking with Jim? Who is the best man to take this team forward?

 

The Dead Cat Bounce

cat

In big MLS news, Toronto’s manager Ryan Nelsen was fired a few days ago. He has been the second man sacked this year behind our own John Hackworth. Unfortunately for the Union, we play Toronto in our next two games. Why unfortunately? The dead cat bounce effect is another added challenge in a critical stretch for this team.

The Dead Cat Bounce

It goes by several names – The Honeymoon Period, the New Manager Effect, etc. Personally, I like calling it the Dead Cat Bounce for poetic effect. What is it exactly? When a manager is fired and replaced, his team tends to perform above their usual level. Think of it like a dead cat dropped off a ledge. It bounces when it hits the ground. If you want a more detailed analysis, I recommend this article.

Reports out of Toronto have been suggesting he was very unpopular with the players. Considering the talent available to him, Toronto has certainly underperformed this year. A new boss is a new start. Players tend to overachieve immediately after a new hiring. Toronto is likely to see a short-term uptick in form.

Look at the Union. With virtually the same team as Hackworth, Curtin’s side has vastly outplayed his predecessor. Curtin lit a fire in this team simply by moving some players’ spots, giving a few fringe players a shot, and providing a different type of leadership.

Why then do I refer to it as a bounce? The new manager effect is much more short-term than long-term. If you average out form over half a season or so, the change in form is pretty much negligible as the team returns to their mean. So while a team with a new manager in the Premier League averages around 2.5 points a game, the results start to fade after the first 12 or so games. The cat returns to the ground.

In other words, look back at when Hackworth was hired. His first few games were splendid, including a thrashing of Sporting at KC. As the season continued, the team returned to their mean, producing dire results as the year ended. Hackworth never returned to the same level of success from when he was first hired.

What does this mean for the Union?

A Nelsen-led Toronto was a much easier opponent. With a new man at the helm, the Union will have a much more difficult opponent. This is a critical stretch for the Union playoff push. A newly enthused Toronto throws a wrench into this push. I’ll break it down further:

  1. New tactics: None of us know how Greg Vanney is going to line his team up. Unfortunately, we are his very first opponents. When you have no tape on your opponent, it is very difficult to gameplan around them. With two back-to-back games, we have little time to assess the first game before the second game.
  2. Fired up players: For fringe or squad players, this firing means an audition to convince the new guy that they deserve to be part of his plans going forward. Several players will be fighting for their spot over the next few games. Hungry wolves are far more dangerous than those who know their place.
  3. Fired up fans: Many people forget this, but Toronto ushered in the massive MLS fan culture years before Seattle entered the league. Years of mediocrity and down right piss poor play have tempered their enthusiasm. A new look Toronto side could be enough to ignite the crowd, giving Toronto a more dangerous home field advantage.

If you spoke to me last week, I would have said we could won both games. Now, I will be happy for 4 points, but I wouldn’t be surprised by 3. As a Philly sports fan, cautious optimism is the name of the game.

How do you think the dead cat bounce will affect us against Toronto?