A Newcomer’s Guide to the Philadelphia Union

Welcome to the Philadelphia Union. I’m sorry . . . I’m so sorry.

Jokes aside, welcome to the Union. Here is most everything you need to know:

 

Manager: Jim Curtin (Interim)

Captain: Brian Carroll

Vice-Captains: Amobi Okugo/Maurice Edu

 

First Season: 2010

Nicknames: The U, Zolos

Stadium: PPL Park

Training Facility: Chester Park? C’mon Bro!

Channel: Usually on The Comcast Network (8)

 

History

2010: Expansion year. Losing record despite Sebastian Le Toux heroics.

2011: Union make the playoffs off the back of strong defending. The Zolos were in the hunt for the Supporter’s Shield until a late season meltdown. First round defeat to the Houston Dynamos.

2012: Nowak has a meltdown, and Hackworth is hired. The Zolos are characterized by being just as likely to get in a fight as they are to score a goal. Losing record.

2013: Hackworth’s Union underachieves and gets a losing record. The team is characterized by losing and tying when up a man throughout the year.

 

The State of the Union

After splashing the cash to bring Christian Maidana, Vincent Nogueira, Maurice Edu, and Austin Berry in the offseason, the Union slump through the first half of the year. After firing John Hackworth, the Union have shown signs of improvement under interim manager Jim Curtin.

Looking forward, the Union are two US Open Cup wins away from winning their first trophy ever. Playoffs are a possibility, but they look unlikely. The main focus of the team is winning the Open Cup and finding a new manager.

 

Star Players

Vincent Nogueira (French/#5): Nogueira arrived this offseason from French side Sochaux. The midfielder has consistently been the best player for this team all season, bossing the middle of the field while linking attack.

Cristhian “Chaco” Maidana (Argentinian/#10): Chaco is a creative attacking midfielder who is one of the Union’s best passers of the ball. Like Nogueira and Edu, he joined this past offseason. Former manager John Hackworth once called him a bad parent.

Sebastian Le Toux (French/#11): Mr. Philadelphia Union. Seba is the closest thing to the face of the team. He was the cog that drove the Union forward in their first two seasons. The midfielder/striker is a fan favorite who goes out of his way to interact with the fans.

Maurice Edu (American/#21): The defensive midfielder was a big name signing this past offseason. While being a talented player, many fans feel he has underperformed considering the expectations when he signed. Narrowly missed out on the World Cup squad after playing in the 2010 World Cup.

Ray Gaddis (American/#28): An unsung hero, the rightback is one of the best 1 v1 defenders in the league.  Few players in MLS can match Ray’s speed.

 

Hot Prospects

Zach Pfeffer (American/#27): The midfielder is a highly regarded USMNT prospect that spent the 2013 calender year on loan at Hoffenheim’s academy. Zach is a staple of the UMNST U20 side.

Jimmy McLaughlin (American/#20): Jimmy is a right-footed winger that likes to try to dribble past players. He has spent the past few years on loan at Harrisburg and has become one of their top players this year.

Cristhian Hernandez (Mexican/#23): The midfielder plays on loan at Harrisburg. He is known for scoring the loan goal in a friendly against Everton. Hernandez won academy player of the year before signing with us.

 

Notable Alumni

  • Freddy Adu
  • Danny Califf
  • Kleberson
  • Justin Mapp
  • Faryd Mondragon
  • Alejandro Moreno
  • Michael Orozco-Fiscal
  • Veljko “Ol’ Serby Bastard” Paunovic
  • Carlos Ruiz

 

Former Managers

Piotr Nowak: 2010-2012

John Hackworth: 2012-2014

Jim Curtin (interim): 2014-present

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Union Made: We need to talk about the youth system

This is the first entry of what I hope I will be a long-running discussion on the Philadelphia Union youth system. Union Made will discuss the Union Academy as well as the Zolos of the future. It seemed appropriate to start this series with one of my largest frustrations with this team: the lack of fluidity between the Academy and the team.

The Union’s Youth Policy

Since the founding of this team, Nick Sakiewicz has emphasized youth development. Early on, he stated his ambition of fielding a starting 11 of local players. To accomplish this, most of our early money was invested in the academy at the expense of a training facility and big name players. Union part-owner Richie Graham built the YSC development complex and a high school for Union youth players. Former Rangers coach Tommy Wilson was hired to oversee this operation. The team has gone all in with their emphasis on youth.

In some ways, we are beginning to see the fruits of our labor. The Union were recently rated as having the best academy system in the East. However, this is where the problem starts. Where is our Yedlin, Fagundez, Najar, or O’Neill? We may have a good system in place and talented players, but it does not matter if we do not play our youth.

The Homegrowns

Right now, the Union have three homegrown players on the roster: Zach Pfeffer, Jimmy McLaughlin, and Cristhian Hernandez. Pfeffer is a highly rated USMNT prospect. Cristhian was the academy player of the year when we signed him. Jimmy has been absolutely fantastic at Harrisburg this year.

Despite their potential, none of the players have been able to break into the team to see significant minutes in their professional careers. Pfeffer only saw minutes this year when the irate River End began chanting “We want Pfeffer” during a blowout.

The futility of our youth pipeline was most evident to me in 2012 after Hack had been hired full-time. The season was over. We were out of playoff contention, and Hack had the job. Instead of giving our youth some experience since results were pointless, Hack stuck with the same group of players who had underperformed. This “baffling” player selection foreshadowed Hack’s unwillingness to play and develop youth during his tenure.

Player Selections

Over the past few years, we have seen Keon Daniel, Gabriel Gomez, Josue Martinez, Andrew Wenger, Danny Cruz, Antoine Hoppenot, and Leo Fernandes receive significant minutes with this team.

Several of these players are not with the team now. Others sit on the bench. Some still see time. Yet, they all saw minutes over our homegrown players. This is a damning critique of the Union’s youth plan for me. Where would Pfeffer’s development be right now if he had received the lion’s share of Keon’s or Leo’s minutes in 2012 and 2013?

The same can be said about this year. Leo, Wenger, Fred, Lahoud and Hoppenot have been either ineffectual or have proven that they do not have much a ceiling. Why not give the homegrowns and Ribeiro their minutes while seeing if they can contribute now?

I have been disappointed by Curtin’s inability to use these players. He is still new, so I will give him some time. However, as we fall out of the playoff hunt, it should be a major necessity to play these players and give them some much needed experience.

The Harrisburg Problem

In my own opinion, the Harrisburg partnership has been problematic for the Union. Part of  it comes down to simple geography. Harrisburg is several hours away from Philadelphia. It is not the most convenient situation to swap players. For example, it is not the easiest to call Jimmy back up to the team on a Sunday and send him back on a Thursday while swapping his loan spot with Hoppenot during this time. This has limited the opportunity for our on loan prospects to earn time during a period of congested fixtures.

At the same time, Harrisburg is a completely separate organization. The Union only have so much influence over the Islanders. Simple things such as training or selection are out of the Union’s hands.

Take, for example, Pedro Ribeiro. The first round midfielder has played several times as centerback for the Islanders. This is counter-productive in developing him as a midfield option for this team. He needs to be seeing minutes in the position he will be playing for the Union, not serving as Harrisburg’s Wheeler-esque experiment.

It’s been mentioned many times on Big Soccer, but the Union need to create their own USL team in the fashion of Los Angeles. The Philadelphia Union II would play at PPL (or the mythical training facility). The team would feature multiple players on the fringe of the first 11 as well as academy players and trialists. Jimmy could play on a Thursday and still be local and available to play on Saturday. If the Union want to take the next step in developing our youth, we need to fully control their development rather than out-sourcing players to a minor league team.

Going Forward

How do the Union get the most out of their academy? The manager hunt is a terrific opportunity to address this problem. Hack was marketed as a youth guru who was good at developing young players. However, he did not develop a single young player under his tenure.  One of the priorities in the manager hunt should be to find someone who actually emphasizes youth development.

The Union have the infrastructure in place. Now, the team needs to take the next step forward. MLS 3.0 is here. Teams like Seattle, Toronto, New York City, and Orlando are bringing talent such as Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Defoe, David Villa, and Kaka to MLS. The Union can’t keep up financially. Our youth development will be a big component of competing in this new MLS. As we search for a new manager, now is the time to put the proper system in place to finally reap the fruit of our labors.

Union Hall Poll: Who should be the next manager?

The three known candidates have been profiled. Who then should be the next manager? Can Rene Meulensteen bring some of Sir Alex’s magic to Philadelphia? Can Owen Coyle rebuild a tattered reputation and return to past success? Is interim manager Jim Curtin the best option to take the Zolos forward?

Hate all three? Explain in the comments who you would hire as the next manager of the Philadelphia Union.

Manager Candidates: Jim Curtin

Whether you like it or not, Jim Curtin is a very real candidate for the position. As the interim, Jim has the opportunity to demonstrate to Sak why he deserves the job. No other manager has that opportunity. So what does Jim have to offer?

Jim Curtin

Best known for: Playing with Chicago and Chivas USA; Coaching with the Union

Experience:

2010-2012: Philadelphia Union Academy (U18 Head Coach)

2012-2014: Philadelphia Union (Assistant Coach)

2014-present: Philadelphia Union (Interim Manager)

 

Pros:

  • Curtin knows this team better than any other candidate.
  • Having played in MLS, he understands the eccentricities of the league better than a foreign manager.
  • Curtin’s U18 side won the 2012 Generation Adidas Cup.
  • He’s a Philly guy. He knows how the fans think and what we want.
  • The team has improved so far under him.

Cons:

  • Hack is a cautionary tale of just promoting an assistant.
  • Curtin does not have any managing experience.
  • He is a Nowak-Hackworth guy. How different is he really from these guys?

Has Jim Curtin earned the job? Is it necessary to hire someone from outside the organization to get rid of the Nowak tree?

Manager Candidiates: Owen Coyle

 

Owen Coyle is an interesting name. To my knowledge, he has yet to be linked through any media sources, but several fans spotted him in the Union’s club box watching a match with Nick Sak. This would suggest that he is another candidate. So who is Owen Coyle?

Owen Coyle

Best known for: His stints at Burnley and Bolton.

Experience:

2003: Falkirk

2005-2007: St. Johnstone

2007-2010: Burnley

2010-2012: Bolton Wanderers

2013: Wigan

Pros

  • Coyle is the type of manager who puts his heart and soul into the team and manages with passion and confidence.
  • A former striker, Coyle likes to attack.
  • He was successful at Scottish First Division side St. Johnstone. Under him, St. Johnstone made it to the semi-finals of the Scottish League Cup and the Scottish Cup, beating Rangers at Ibrox in the former.
  • He had terrific success at Burnley, winning promotion to the Premier League in 2009. Coyle’s side knocked Chelsea and Arsenal out of the League Cup to make it to the quarterfinals. His side lost 4-1 in the first leg before mounting a 3-0 comeback at home to take the game to extra time. A Tottenham goal in the final minutes of extra time knocked Burnley out of the tournament.
  • Coyle took bottom three Bolton to 14th when hired. In 2010-2011, he took Bolton to the semi-finals of the FA Cup and to 14th on the table.
  • Coyle previously had a shining reputation. He turned down a job offer from Celtic and was linked with a move to Liverpool.
  • He signed US National Teamers Stuart Holden and Tim Ream.
  • Offered fantastic support for Fabrice Muamba after his cardiac arrest on the pitch.

Cons:

  • Owen Coyle is a foreign manager. He would face many of the same problems as Meulensteen.
  • Coyle’s past few years have been dreadful. His 2011-2012 Bolton side was relegated from the Premier League. To be fair to him, Bolton was ravished with injuries. Holden received a terrible injury that started the chain of injuries that leads to today. Muamba had a cardiac arrest on the field. Bolton had a very unlucky year. Still, Coyle was unable to stop the freefall.
  • Fired after a few months at Wigan. Anyone who followed Roberto Martinez was going to have a rough time, and he was never fully accepted by the fans. He, also, had to replace a dozen player exits with a dozen new players. On top of this, Wigan was competing in the Europa Cup despite playing in the Championship, adding to the number of games being played. His group of players ended up finishing 5th under a new manager.
  • Coyle was unable to really establish a  clear style in how Wigan played. What I read sounds eerily similar Hack. To play devil’s advocate, he was working with 12 new players and was trying to shift from a possession oriented team into a more direct team. That takes time. You could make the case he was a casualty of an over-eager owner and fans who never gave him a chance.
  • He seems to be in a free fall ever since Bolton got pounded 5-0 by Stoke in the FA Cup. Coyle hasn’t found success since that hammering.

Can Owen Coyle bounce back from this hard fall from grace? Can Coyle transfer his cup success to the US Open Cup?

Manager Candidates: Rene Meulensteen

 

All is quiet on the manager front. The last significant news was that Fabio Cannavaro (Yes, that Fabio Cannavaro) was no longer an option for the Union. As we wait for more news, let’s look in depth at the three known candidates. Let’s start with the most visible name now, Dutchman Rene Meulensteen.

Rene Meulensteen

Best known for: Being an assistant to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.

Previous experience:

1990-1993: N.E.C. Nijmegen

1993-1999: Qatar U18

1999-2000: Al-Ittihad (Qatar)

2000-2001: Al-Sadd (Qatar)

2001-2006: Manchester United (Coach)

2006-2007: Brøndby

2007-2013: Manchester United (Assistant)

2013 (16 Days): Anzhi Makhachkala

2013-2014: Fulham

Pros:

  • Rene is considered one of the best technical coaches in the world. He played a big part in developing Ronaldo and several of Manchester United’s best players.
  • He was one of Sir Alex’s main assistants. You don’t work with one of the greatest managers of all time for all those years without picking up something.
  • At Fulham, he showed the willingness to push out the older, complacent, and established players for younger prospects.
  • Rene has asserted over and over again the importance of developing youth.

Cons:

  • He has never had much success as a manager. His Brondby tenure was a particularly poor one summed up by his infamous team talk where he asked his players to imagine themselves as animals.
  • Brondby had finished either as the winner or runner up every single year between the 1994-1995 season and the 2005-2006 season. Rene’s tenure marked the beginning of a major dry spell. Brondby has yet to win a title or finish runner up since 2006. Rene complained about deep-rooted organization problems after being fired. While likely an excuse, it is worth noting that he last managed there 7 years ago. It’s hard to blame him for a continued lack of success under different managers.
  • He did not perform very well at Fulham and got fired after a few months. However, he was working with Martin Jol’s players and got fired by an impatient owner. Fulham was still relegated under his successor. It’s hard to read much into this gig.
  • He’s a foreign manager. It has proven difficult in the past for some foreign coaches to adapt to the eccentricities of MLS rules (i.e. salary cap and limited international spots).

Can Rene Meulensteen make the transition to manager? What animals do you think each of the players are?

Progress Report: Jim Curtin

The Zolos are now several games into Jim Curtin’s interim reign. This is his first managing gig, and time was needed to examine his management ability. With a few games under his belt, how do we rate Curtin?

Honesty

Jim Curtin’s honesty and directness is refreshing for the Union.  He does not pull any punches and admits when the team does not play well. I enjoy hearing him talk as frankly and openly as he can. Can anyone imagine how Piotr Nowak would have handled the team’s public discussion about the Carlos Valdes situation?

On the topic of the original manager, Nowak was infamous for running the organization like the KGB. Information rarely, if ever, was leaked. The offseason ended up as one big game of spot and name the trialist in lieu of any information. Preseason games were blacked out. The cold, quiet months of the MLS offseason under Nowak were a terrible time for Union fans craving any information about this team.

Initially, Hack attempted to loosen this iron grip of secrecy. He wrote emails to the fans expressing his views on recent events and his explanations for his decisions. As time progressed and this team slumped, John noticeably departed from this transparency. Blaming the referee as well as spinning negative results into positives became running jokes amongst the fans. At the same time, hyped up signings were nearly immediately cut (hello, Damani Richards). Hack’s press conferences simply became a farce.

I really do hope the next manager is as transparent as Jim has been. Philly fans want straight answers, not propaganda or pussyfooting.

Starting Lineups

Initially, I was disappointed in Jim’s first few games. Curtin seemed to just keep playing some of the dead weight like Wenger and Hoppenot. I have really come around recently.

1. He just puts people in their position: Hack was a system guy. Rather than adjust his system to the players, the players were expected to adjust to the system. Curtin has made a real effort to put players in their natural spots. Strikers are strikers. Centerbacks are centerbacks. Injuries and suspensions have forced Edu and Williams to play out of position, but that looks to be the exception rather than the norm. At the very least, Amobi is back in midfield!

2. Chaco the #10: Maidana has all the potential to live up to that #10 on his shirt. Under Hack, Maidana was played mostly on the wing when not benched for being a bad parent. With average at best pace, the wide position was a waste of Chaco’s creativity and ability to deliver a pinpoint ball. Curtin moving Chaco to the center of the pitch has really brought the best out of his game. I am drooling at the thought of him and Nogueira in the center of the pitch together delivering balls to Casey and Seba.

Get well soon Chaco.

3. Brian Carroll: Brian has become one of the major whipping boys among Union fans this season. Hack stuck true to starting Brian game in and out. Often, this meant playing three defensive mids with unclear duties. Carroll became the focus of fans’ frustrations with #Hacktics and poor results. Personally, I think he still has a role to play with this team.

Curtin has handled the situation well. Lahoud seemed to start early in his tenure as a way to show Curtin is not Hack. However, Curtin has found appropriate times to play Carroll. Carroll is not a week in, week out starter anymore, but there are certain games where you need his ability to destroy the other team’s attack. At this point in his career, Carroll is just a role-player for this team.

Organization

A change of manager can really make a world of difference. The Union are still a far shout from the most organized and disciplined teams in the league, but there has certainly been improvement.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Union have slowed the leaking of goals. Aside from the Colorado game, the Union have made few of the boneheaded mistakes that had plagued the team at the beginning of the year.  I no longer find myself sick with nerves anytime the team gives up a set piece. Curtin has done well to organize them. More than anything, the backline needs consistency and chemistry. We need to pick our four best defenders and play them week in and week out.

Under Curtin, our attack has really started to find itself. After taking over, Curtin abandoned Hack’s attempts at sideways passes and possession for the sake of possession (staples of #Hacktics). Now, we work the ball forward to Maidana who pushes it out to the wings for Cruz and Seba to run onto. We are not a possession team. We need to hit on the counter and let our attackers run onto the ball. We are at our best when we stretch teams out like we did in New England.

Most of this attacking resurgence is due to Curtin being able to get the best out of Casey. All too often under Hack, the lone striker would find himself up top on an island. If he won the ball, he likely had no one to play it to. Now, Casey is dropping deeper in order to link up the attack. His goal against the Red Bulls came from a smart pass to Ray from outside the 18 who played it right back to him.

All told, we finally seem to have a more organized idea of what we want to do as a team. The Union have abandoned most of the principles of #Hacktics in favor of a more pragmatic approach. The build up from the back to the front finally looks smoother and more fluid. There is certainly more work to do, but we are finally starting to see this team’s potential.

Substitutes

Here is where I am really disappointed with Curtin. I am a self-proclaimed youth guy. I think young players need to see as many minutes as possible. Curtin has mostly used the usual Hack guys as subs. We all know Wenger has very little to offer this team off the bench. Why not try Jimmy McLaughlin out wide off the bench instead? Fred has played well recently, but he is in the twilight of his career. Why not just save him for a Chris Albright role and give Zach Pfeffer his minutes? For a team who claims to emphasize youth development, we do a really shitty job bringing our players into the first team. (I plan on writing an article focusing on this topic soon.)

That being said, I am very happy that Wheeler has taken Hoppenot’s role as a striker off the bench. I have been very disappointed with Hoppenot for a while now. He is a one trick pony that only wants to run on to balls and dive. He hasn’t seemed mentally equipped to keep up with our newly revamped midfield and has just looked out of his depth all year.

In contrast, Wheeler is a guy who has something to offer. Unfortunately for him, fans have soured on Wheeler after Hackworth decided to try  his ridiculous experiment. Still, he is a big, hardworking body at top with some defensive skills. I like having him come off the bench to battle defenders when we need to close a game out.

Where does Jim Curtin stand?

I have been pleasantly surprised by Jim Curtin since he took over. He hasn’t been an immediate revelation that has solved all our problems, but who was expecting that? His ability to simplify the game and roles for his players has really helped this team turn the corner.

Should Jim Curtin be the manager? I am not yet on that boat. I still want to see how this team’s Open Cup run develops. A strong showing will help his case, while crashing out in a poor manner will certainly doom his chances.

I really think more game time is necessary to evaluate Jim. Most teams have a bounce in form after firing their manager. Hack was never able to adapt to other managers once they figured him out. Let’s give Jim a chance to see how he adapts now that teams are becoming more prepared for him. If he truly wants this gig, now is the time for Jim to sink or swim.