Season Previews / The search for a No. 10

What the off-season revealed about Philadelphia Union

Photo: Earl Gardner

Editor’s note: This is the latest piece of PSP’s season preview on Philadelphia Union. Read the other posts of the season preview here.

Philadelphia Union’s off-season has been a murky roller coaster ride.

The first half saw restless Union fans ready to riot. The final days changed the paradigm completely.

The bottom line: The Union got two solid names to fill two holes in David Accam and Bořek Dočkal.

The nuance: Boy, did they leave it late. Wednesday’s announced acquisition of Dočkal came the day before MLS’s March 1 roster compliance deadline.

After an off-season of discontent, many viewed the Union’s off-season as a test of the club owners’ financial viability in a new, wealthier MLS.

So what do we make of it? What does this off-season tell us about the Union as a club?

Here are some thoughts.

Is Dočkal a one-year stopgap?

Two key contract details:

  1. Dočkal has arrived on loan.
  2. The Union do not have an option to purchase his rights built into the deal with Chinese club Henan Jianye.

That means Dočkal, 29, could be a one-year stopgap unless the Union can eventually negotiate a sale. Henan has not been thrilled with the idea of selling Dočkal at a loss after buying his rights a year ago for about $9 million. There is no way the Union — or any club — is paying that price for Dočkal, who Transfermarkt values around $2 million. (A little more than Haris Medunjanin, for context.) 

If Dockal does well, the Union can try to negotiate a sale at a more reasonable rate. A loan is a great opportunity to evaluate a player over a long stretch. That’s why purchase options are often built into them.

Of course, one year could be all Union sporting director Earnie Stewart wants before handing the keys to Anthony Fontana.

Garber bucks for Accam

An interesting footnote to the Dočkal deal:

  • Dočkal will be a designated player.
  • Accam will not.

Accam will make his money, mind you. His salary will likely be upwards of $1 million.

The Union paid for Accam with allocation money, however, and they’re buying down his salary budget hit with targeted allocation money (TAM) too. 

That means Jay Sugarman and his partners don’t need to pay Accam’s salary largely out of pocket, as they would if he was a designated player. (The Union did burn discretionary TAM — which the club funds from its own coffers — to complete the Accam buydown, probably because they ran out of standard TAM.)

Basically, Accam cost mostly Garber bucks. 

This leaves the Union with one designated player (DP) spot open, and probably having burned most of the TAM they’re going to spend this year.

If you’re wondering how teams like Atlanta, Orlando, Toronto and New York City stacked their rosters this off-season, it’s because their version of Accam is a designated player whose salary the club owners pay primarily out of pocket. They then spread their TAM across several second tier signings — as TAM is intended —  not their biggest one. That’s how, over several months, Orlando added four former MVP candidates, the reigning NASL MVP, a young designated player, and a guy who was starting in the Bundesliga a few months ago. 

The Union don’t spend like that.

Roster/budget magic

League rules required Philadelphia to fill their senior roster with at least 18 players by today. Chances are, Dočkal filled the 18th and final spot. 

But wait, you’re asking. Don’t teams get 30 roster spots? They do. But in MLS, nothing is that simple. 

League rules subdivide that roster into three smaller sub-rosters:

  1. Senior roster: The on-budget roster. Their salaries go against the team’s approximately $4 million base salary budget. A team must have at least 18 of these 20 spots filled. They can leave two open.
  2. Supplemental roster: Off-budget roster, part 1. These four roster spots don’t count against a team’s salary budget. This includes Generation Adidas, Homegrown and other players, including those on the standard minimum salary ($65,000).
  3. Reserve roster: Off-budget, part 2. Four spots are reserved for Homegrowns and players earning the reserve minimum salary ($53,000 last year). The last two must be Homegrowns. All must be under the age of 24.

The Union’s roster breakdown probably looks something like this:

Senior roster

  1. Eric Ayuk
  2. Fabinho
  3. Alejandro Bedoya
  4. Andre Blake
  5. Cory Burke
  6. Warren Creavalle
  7. Ilsinho
  8. Ray Gaddis
  9. Fabian Herbers
  10. Richie Marquez
  11. John McCarthy
  12. Haris Medunjanin
  13. Fafa Picault
  14. Keegan Rosenberry
  15. C.J. Sapong
  16. Jay Simpson
  17. David Accam
  18. Bořek Dočkal

Supplemental roster

  1. Adam Najem 
  2. Josh Yaro
  3. Marcus Epps
  4. Jack Elliott

Reserve roster

  1. Anthony Fontana
  2. Derrick Jones
  3. Mark McKenzie
  4. Auston Trusty
  5. Matt Real
  6. Jake McGuire

Why leave two senior roster spots open?

  • It gives the flexibility to add another player or two if they want.
  • They don’t have to burn salary on those two spots.

Why fill all the off-budget roster spots?

  • They don’t count toward your salary budget anyway.
  • The league subsidizes Homegrown players, so you pay less for them.

The Union are probably filling the minimum number of on-budget roster spots. They’re filling the maximum number of off-budget roster spots.

Yes, that is so Union — and pretty smart. 

Fitting the Stewart profile

Dočkal fits the profile of the type of player Earnie Stewart sought while at AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, having played well in leagues ranked below the Dutch Eredivisie and having good potential resale value. In all likelihood, Stewart first evaluated Dočkal while still working for AZ.

It’s logical the Union would draw on Stewart’s European connections after his successful tenure in the Netherlands. Many MLS clubs have their go-to places, gained through connections. Sporting Kansas City has the Barcelona system and Hungary, Vancouver goes to Uruguay, Atlanta to Argentina, Montreal to Italy, NYCFC to their sister club in Manchester.

But it’s notable that, while other MLS clubs are strip mining financially troubled South American leagues for young talent, the Union have barely touched the continent since Peter Nowak was pocketing transfer fees on the sly.

Philadelphia’s scouting department has historically been thinner than Jack Elliott on a diet.

To their credit, the Union started filling out the ranks last year, adding two young scouts in Terence McFadden and Kyle McCarthy. (McCarthy isn’t just an alum of Villanova and Reading United, by the way. He’s also a former PSP writer — and a fun one to read.) The Union need to grow those ranks, because it’s a small staff compared to what clubs like Toronto bring to the table. Eventually, Stewart’s institutional knowledge of European players will grow dated. 

The choice at left back

The Union chose not to add a veteran left back this off-season. 

Instead, it’s another year with Fabinho at left back. Unproven but talented Matt Real is competing for minutes. 

There is plenty to like about both players, but neither is a top MLS starter at this point in his career.

The Union enter the season with their back line a major question mark, in part because they want to finally reap something from their academy by giving Auston Trusty (and possibly Real) a shot to start, but also because they don’t spend the sort of money that MLS’s big dogs do. A bigger club might have spent TAM on a starting left back. 

That brings us to the last point we learned this off-season.

A day in the life of a small club

If you’re not springing for three designated players and maximizing your TAM players, then it’s tough to compete for a title in modern MLS. Consider: 

  • If a team spends all its available TAM, it’s probably spending about twice its $4 million salary budget on players.
  • If the team also springs for three designated players, it’s probably about triple (or more) the salary budget. 

If you want to measure a team’s financial heft and ambition, track this. 

It’s not the only measure, of course. There’s a lot to be said for the Union’s investment in their academy, which appears set to bear fruit this year. If Trusty plays as well as some think he could, then he could be a multi-million-dollar sale to Europe in two to three years, like Matt Miazga

None of those academy products has accomplished anything in MLS yet, however. 

Until they do — and until this team develops a winning track record — the lack of investment in top line designated players will be the story of this club off the field. 

The Union look like they’ll be fun to watch this year, but they’re still climbing uphill against wealthier teams.

It’s a good thing Philly fans love underdogs. As we’ve all learned, underdogs are hungry dogs, and hungry dogs run faster. 

9 Comments

  1. Nice one Dan. For me, this is the first season where they are doing it cheaply, in the right way. I’m still not overly ecstatic over the type of money being spent in the D-mid area of the field. Though I can live with it because Bedoya does so much and Haris has that sweet left foot. I’m finally starting to believe things may be getting on the right track. This is always tempered by it being the Union and there’s no way I can go all in.

  2. Thank you, Dan, for writing all this. Learned a lot!

  3. Terrific piece, Dan. Thanks!

  4. John Ling says:

    “Philadelphia’s scouting department has historically been thinner than Jack Elliott on a diet.”
    .
    This made me laugh. Thanks for that. Good piece.

  5. I thought The Union received GAM for the international roster spot and not TAM from NYCFC?

  6. Great piece. They still didn’t upgrade enough as compared to the rest of the league, but as long as Curtin commits to giving real minutes to the young guys, I don’t have a problem. Jones looks to be a good player, but if Bedoya goes down we may be in trouble. At least there is SOMETHING of a cover plan at each position if something happens, that’s more than we can say about past years. Excited about the speed this year as well, lets just not boot it upfield all the time.
    .
    Oh and if there’s one thing I ask for this year, on the road, play to win, not bunker and counter.

  7. scottymac says:

    Good stuff Dan. I’ve been ranting for years about the cheapness of Sugarman as related to the size of the FO. The Union technical staff have been at the low end of MLS from a quantitative standpoint from Day 1, to say nothing of their qualitative shortcomings.
    .
    It’s really pulling hard on the silver lining thread to think this way of roster assembly is “smart”. TAM is here to improve the quality of the overall MLS product and raise the tide for all boats. Sugarman using it to basically keep the lights on is disingenuous at best to his MLS owner partners. It’s also not sustainable in the long run to take Garner welfare, at some point the league will question why they have to carry us.

  8. I was expecting more out of Stewart than one player a year from outside of MLS. Moneyball aside, players that the Union can afford are out there. MLS has been stocking up on them for decades.
    .
    Anyway, psyched for Sat. Psyched to finally see Dockal take the field at some point.

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