For Pete's Sake

Union’s class of 2017 looks good at the halfway mark

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Now that we’re past the halfway point of the season, it’s fair to evaluate Earnie Stewart’s offseason acquisitions.

So far, that evaluation can only be positive.

Stewart’s new cast of characters includes five regular starters – among them candidates for the Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, and Fair Play awards. There’s also two interesting young players who’ve shown flashes of brilliance. And the closest thing you could call a “bust” has been snakebitten by injury, form, and unfair expectations.

Stewart’s signings have been leaders of this team, and they’re largely responsible for the team’s recent slow crawl up the MLS standings.

Let’s walk through the list – starting with transfers and concluding with draft picks – and see what conclusions can be drawn about the Union’s class of 2017.

Haris Medunjanin: The Bosnian midfielder, one of the last players signed in the offseason, quickly became the beating heart of the 2017 Union. Only missing about four minutes of MLS play, Medunjanin’s outstanding passing, high soccer intelligence, and surprising defensive mettle provide stability in the center of the pitch. Captaining the side in Alejandro Bedoya’s absence, showing his class by telling a referee to rescind a red card to an opposing player, and generally becoming a fan favorite, Haris epitomized professionalism and leadership in his first half-season in the league.

Oguchi Onyewu: Signed after a trial, no one expected the aging, oft-injured USMNT veteran to play a large role in this season’s side. But injuries to the back line, a determination to prove himself, and a veteran’s commitment to leadership have all established Onyewu as a force in the center of defense. He’s playing his best soccer at the midseason mark, and has earned the respect of his manager and his teammates. Even if he ends up in a platoon down the stretch, Onyewu’s influence on the team will be felt from the sidelines.

Fafa Picault: The diminutive winger, rescued from St. Pauli in the 2.Bundesliga, took a while to get going as he dealt with some injury issues. Once inserted into the starting lineup, however, Picault provided blazing speed that few Union players before him possessed. His finishing can be frustrating, but Picault has already provided a number of well-taken goals – including a spectacular leaping header against Houston and a controlled finish on the volley to defeat D.C. United – and is well-liked both by fans and the Union locker room.

Jay Simpson: The least productive of Stewart’s signings, it’s tough to evaluate the English striker after just three starts in MLS play – and only two where he played more than 29 minutes. Simpson has flashed intelligent running, sharp passing, and a nose for goal – but he’s also only found the back of the net once. Injury and the solid play of C.J. Sapong have limited his time on the field, and he may not be a good fit for the system. Simpson’s paycheck of nearly half a million dollars unfairly dominates the fan base’s perception, but it’s also fair to say that he hasn’t yet earned any deference.

Giliano Wijnaldum: The young Dutchman heard whispers of “bust” when he failed to unseat Fabinho in preseason and looked lost at the USL level. But Wijnaldum seized his opportunities, including a spot start and a U.S. Open Cup appearance, and looks to have finally put Fabinho on the sun rocket. Wijnaldum doesn’t offer as much going forward, but his calmness on the ball, careful defending, and propensity to not make insane decisions have impressed a fan base tired of drama down the left flank.

Jack Elliott: If you put Earnie Stewart to a polygraph test… well, he’d probably beat the test. But subject him to Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth, and I think he’d tell you that Elliott has exceeded his wildest expectations. A fourth-round draft pick by way of England and WVU, Elliott’s positioning, passing, and poise are already at a veteran level. Elliott’s play has kept Josh Yaro pinned to the bench and erased Richie Marquez from the picture entirely. He’s an early favorite for rookie of the year.

Marcus Epps & Adam Najem: Two other rookies who’ve earned playing time, Stewart actively maneuvered to acquire both Epps and Najem in what appear to be savvy moves. Epps flashed speed down the wing and a certain fearlessness, earning minutes at the wing in Fabian Herbers’ absence. Najem, meanwhile, looks like the sort of creative central midfielder that the Union sorely lacks. Though they both may contribute little this year, these two may have big futures as the team looks to grow through youth.

Aaron Jones & Jake McGuire: If you put a gun to my head, I could not tell you a single thing about either of these players. (Please do not attempt to test this out in person.) One of them is probably a goalie?

Now that we’ve examined these players individually, what can we conclude about the group as a whole?

  • They’re mostly contributors. Every signing from overseas has started at least one game, with three becoming essential cogs in the machine and one expected to provide even more in the second half of the campaign. Even three of the young players have earned minutes, with one becoming a regular starter. That’s a pretty good record: out of ten signings, five are starters and three are solid bench depth.
  • They’ve revitalized the locker room. With Brian Carroll injured, Sebastien Le Toux exiled, and Maurice Edu in a parallel dimension, the veteran signings have stepped up to provide personality and leadership in a locker room sorely needing it. Medunjanin and Onyewu have both worn the armband and both receive effusive praise from their peers. Alongside Picault, the locker room is a louder place — and the media interviews are far more interesting — thanks to these three.
  • They balance future potential with present skill. While Onyewu and Medunjanin are over thirty, the class of 2017 includes five players aged 25 or younger who’ve already earned minutes with the senior side. Elliott and Wijnaldum, in particular, have infused the defense with even more young talent. These were not a set of stopgap signings.

Any evaluation of offseason signings may seem too soon for some. But half a season is plenty of data to grade Stewart’s winter work.

So far, there’s no question it’s a passing grade.

30 Comments

  1. GJ Earnie.

  2. Simpson is wet garbage with legs.

    • He has absolutely not played enough to even remotely deserve this type of criticism.

      • I think the biggest thing fueling the criticism is his salary. Which, to be fair, is not his fault but rather those who signed him. But at the same time, it will always get related back to the expected performance of the player – think of the Pogba or Bale criticism after what was paid for their transfers.
        .
        It’s true that it is not really fair to the player. But it is also true that it is commonplace.

      • My question then becomes if Simpson hasn’t gotten a better chance to play, why is that? Has CJ been that overwhelming good that Simpson can’t see the field for more than 15-20 minutes? Even though most of us agree CJ has hit the mid summer slow down. Or is it (much more likely) that, Simpson hasn’t done enough to earn an extended look? A lot of you on this site have argued against CJ as if he was the worst striker in the league. If there’s even a remote hint of truth to that, again then, why hasn’t Simpson been given more of an opportunity? Could it be he’s actually not that good?
        .
        Use your eyes, or your head, either way Simpson is just not good enough, so he doesn’t get more game time.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        Why does Simpson get a pass from people? The guy has done NOTHING. And he has had some chances… but still DONE NOTHING. ES had a solid offseason, but Simpson was a miss. Period.

      • @All4U, the answer is Curtin. Of course it’s Curtin. He is the guy is finds his favorites and plays them WAY past their form demands. Sapong is playing so much because Curtin does not understand the value of rotation.

        @OneManWolfpack, That spoken about a guy with 243 total minutes is crazy. He isn’t getting a a chance, and I attribute that mostly to his coach, who has a HISTORY of not rotating and riding players into the ground.

        The amazing thing is that it’s not even like we gave Simpson 10 games to prove himself and couldn’t. He started 3 games, looked decent enough, started the third game by scoring and looking great, then got injured!

        Then CJ came in, and credit to him, looked good and really responded to Earnie trying to find his replacement.

        Since then Curtin hasn’t seen fit to rotate his striker and instead is running CJ into the ground.

        That’s the craziest part!

      • Sorry James, but the one thing Curtin does do, is give players a chance on merit. Whether he determines that merit, from practice, or 15 minutes of game time, if you show, you get a chance. Simpson hasn’t, so he doesn’t. Pretty simple really. It’s obvious that Jimbo doesn’t see Simpson being worth more than that. And on that, I can at least agree with the coach. In 61 minutes in the Open Cup match against Red Bull what did Simpson do exactly? Oh that’s right nothing. Well ok, he killed the Union’s offense. C’mon, it’s just silly and sad to see people defend Simpson this way.

      • I absolutely agree with James on this one. And I’m not saying that I’m on the Simpson train either. Sometimes he looks quite sharp — sometimes he’s not made the most of his limited opportunities. But what’s undeniable is that they have been very limited opportunities.

        It could easily be the case that Simpson plays much better as a 70-minute starter than a 20-minute sub. There are lots of guys like that. You can’t know until he gets a bunch of starts to see. He hasn’t been starting because Curtin seems to have religious faith in CJ Sapong.

        Now, the heavy use — and possible OVERUSE — of Sapong is a separate issue. Personally I love me some CJ, and as Matt Doyle points out all the time, I think his passing, hold-up play, and first-line defense are underrated and make the whole squad better. Apparently that’s what Curtin thinks too. However, I still think that Curtin is gonna run him into the ground, and that Simpson should get some starts. The big question is: does Simpson not get starts because Curtin doesn’t trust him? Or does he not get starts because Curtin doesn’t really believe much in squad rotation?? We in the fan base can’t really know the answer to that question. Not knowing that, we can’t really say whether Jay Simpson is a bust or not. Simply not enough data.

    • What James said. Can’t trash a guy who hasn’t had much of an opportunity.

    • The Truth says:

      I’m surprised with the dissent. This cat’s making piles of cash and can’t sniff the XI? Wait, wait, let me stop myself.
      .
      Jim Curtin doesn’t understand squad rotation so even with CJ slumping, Simpson still wouldn’t get a shot. Simpson could be stellar in training but because Sapong has 9 or 10 goals Curtin is determined to run him into the ground. That’s the Curtin way – dirty running to the point of ineffectiveness.
      .
      I’m angry we spent TAM on Simpson. I’ve been disappointed with his minutes. And I won’t be surprised when he leaves this club like so many others having only taken a paycheck and given nothing.
      .
      Again, I’m surprised with the dissent.

    • SilverRey says:

      I’ve been watching Simpson since the beginning of preseason and everything that I’ve seen says that he isn’t a fit for this team. He’s built for a two striker system which we will never see as long as Curtin is the coach.

  3. Darth Harvey says:

    Jack Elliot has been a revelation. I think a great microcosm of his poise and maturity as a player came in the game against SKC. He got beat by a player and was tracking him back into the box. Contrary to many Ghosts of Union Centerback’s Past who would have just clobbered the guy (Ethan White) and given up a PK, he kept up with his man and made a deft touch with the outside of his foot to complete his challenge, and knock the ball away almost without breaking his stride…Pure class from the rookie.

    In other news from the multiverse…Maurice Edu has been averaging 1 goal or assist per game as the league leading Union’s #6 on Earth 614 (That’s only 2 alternate earth paths from our own!). Perhaps with the foretold launching of Fabinho into the sun it will create a rift in the time space continuum that will transport us to that reality. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely and no Mandela effect seems to be on our horizon. Instead we are shelling out over a million dollars a year for a guy who won’t play for two seasons. But hey, he sings the national anthem on the jumbotron before games….so we have that going for us… hopefully there is room for two on the sun rocket

    • +1. I cringe anytime someone discusses Edu as if there is a chance he will ever play for this team. I have no knowledge of his injury or desire, and he certainly seems like a good dude, but for the love of everything holy I wish he wasn’t on this squad in any form. I can’t name a worse example in Philly sports. Jeff Ruland?

      • Jeff Ruland is a worse example. At least we didn’t trade away the soccer equivalent of Brad Daugherty for him.

    • So everybody loves Gooch now that he’s playing well after 2 years out injured, but everybody hates Edu since he’s in year 2 of his injury bug? Can we give the guy a chance please?

      • scottymac says:

        Guess the difference is we didn’t pay Gooch when he was hurt while Edu racks up $750k per season not playing for two years.
        .
        Quick match check $1.4M and 0games > $65k and starter. Yikes.

      • yeah but edu didn’t sign that contract when he was injured. it doesn’t make any sense to even bring that up. he didn’t have any significant signs that would make the front office think he would get two major injuries back to back. while he was healthy he was an excellent player for this team

      • Seriously. Why do people blame Mo Edu for getting injured? As though he planned it that way? It’s just a bad break, both for him and the team. I don’t think we want him back because I don’t think he has a place on the roster now, but for the love of God, quit it with all the hate. It’s unseemly and ridiculous.

  4. Tim Jones says:

    Please do not criticize Peter Andrews for his faciteous treatment of Aaron Jones and Jake McGuire.
    .
    One of the two has to be on season-long, unrecallable loan to the Union, since the Union roster has 31 names on it. McGuire, the goalkeeper, is the one whom the MLS roster available to the public on its website lists as unavailable. But he has been in the game-day 18 in MLS league games, so either their is an unknown unpublished exception for goalkeepers, or those supervising that list have made a trivial an unimportant error.
    .
    My opinion is the latter because Aaron Jones has never been in the game day18 for the Union, and has Ray Gaddis and Keegan Rosenberry ahead of him.
    .
    Jake McGuire is a goalkeeper as Peter knows. Aaron Jones is a right back.
    .
    McGuire has set a steel club record for clean sheets, and has been politically correct and quite tactful in attributing it to the defenders in front of him, which is true but down plays his own contributions. On any given night his athleticism and McCarthy’s are of a piece. McCarthy is older and has more professional games under his belt. And McCarthy is more obviously vocal in directing his defense. McGuire is a good USL goalkeeper, and would be a solid fill-in at the next level. He was a good waiver-wire pickup by the Sporting Director.
    .
    Aaron Jones replaced a quiet, dignified Bethlehem Steel icon in Captain Ryan Richter. He lacks Richter’s size, a defensive disadvantage especially in the air. He has had to improve the physicality of his play when matched against top USL flank attackers, but has done so. He has been beaten upon occasion, but nobody has schooled him, especially more recently. Do keep in mind that the Steel have not yet seen teams two, three and four in the conference table.
    .
    Offensively I prefer Jones’s facility with the ball. He is much more versatile, capable of improvisational reaction to a new situation. Richter did what he did with the precision and consistency of a metronome, do not misunderstand me. But Jones is a more complete soccer player, and hence is much less predictable on the ball. Like Richter, Jones can take dead ball kicks. And he scored the goal on one such that tied Richmond Kickers very recently.
    .
    I am very glad for a good guy, that Ray Gaddis has had a decent run of playing opportunity this year. But if my memory is to be trusted, he is on an option year at the end of a contract. I do not expect him to return in 2018, and I expect that because of Aaron Jones. He will be a full year e posed to the NorthAmerican version of the game, and considerably less expensive than the older man.
    .
    Gaddis’ runout is enhancing his trade value. Rosenberry and Jones will provide the right backs in 2018 for the Union.

    • SilverRey says:

      Thanks Tim! I don’t follow Bethlehem Steel as much as I should, and I honestly didn’t know who our third keeper was until last game when he almost came in for McCarthy.

    • Good info, Tim. We’ll see if your prediction pans out.

  5. pragmatist says:

    I’ve always wrapped mid-season signings from the previous season into “new signings.” For whatever reason, guys have a very hard time adjusting mid-season.
    .
    So with that in mind, you throw Bedoya in the mix. And this team has been markedly better every time he has been deployed in the middle (not as a 10).
    .
    Yes, it would be great to find our own Giovinco or Almiron, but until that player (or some budget proximity) arrives, it certainly feels like Earnie has found his footing in this league.

    • SilverRey says:

      Thanks Tim! I don’t follow Bethlehem Steel as much as I should, and I honestly didn’t know who our third keeper was until last game when he almost came in for McCarthy.

  6. Can’t you just see the U signing a certain New Jersey born, injury snake-bitten Striker/CF of Italian descent — and then having his legs literally detach at the knees…..

  7. Earnie knows what he is doing. One thing forgotten in this column or I missed it … Steel are good.

  8. Anyone know if Gooch is eligible for the Comeback Player of the Year award since this is his first season in MLS? If he is, he has to be one of the favorites so far this season.

    • scottymac says:

      By not killing Ilie last week he has already won the Fairplay Award, the Lady Byng Trophy and is a finalist for a Nobel Peace prize.

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