How Oka Nikolov explains the new Union

Photo: Barb Colligon

Oka Nikolov reveals the pattern.

Want to understand Philadelphia Union’s signings? Curious as to what kind of players they’ll sign in the future? Would you like a sense of how the Union will approach things?

Look at the Union’s new goalkeeper.

As far back as February training camp, Union manager John Hackworth had identified Nikolov as the veteran goalkeeper he wanted as the mentor and competitor for young starter Zac MacMath. He even kept just two goalkeepers on the roster because he was saving a place for Nikolov.

Hackworth never revealed that publicly though. He simply waited patiently and quietly for the summer transfer window, by which time Nikolov’s final Bundesliga season had ended and the Union had secured additional salary cap space and allocation money.

Hackworth didn’t leap early for MLS veteran Kevin Hartman, who was a quality starter last year but is probably winding down his career at age 39. Hartman would have joined the team likely expecting to compete for a starting job. At the very least, when MacMath suffered the inevitable difficult game that young starting goalkeepers experience, Philadelphia fans would have agitated for Hartman, who many Union fans have seen play at a high level. (Heck, many have called for Chris Konopka, including me.)

Nikolov too is 39, but he better fits the specific role Hackworth has in mind. He has been the starter, but he has also accepted a backup and mentor role. When called upon by Eintracht Frankfurt, he stepped up once again this year in a starting role as the club earned a Europa League spot. He spent over 20 years with Frankfurt and was the Bundesliga’s longest tenured player with any team until he left. Nikolov departed Frankfurt as a well regarded, loyal servant of the club. He knows his career is winding down. He’ll play the role Hackworth wants.

This is probably what we can expect from Hackworth when it comes to the player signings he actively wants: Proven players who will be solid in the locker room, bring good character to a young club, and add something on the field when needed.

Nikolov isn’t the only one. Conor Casey, Sebastien Le Toux and Jeff Parke fit the mold too. They are a bit younger, of course.

Hackworth has publicly identified two more roles he wants to fill on the club: A potential starting defender and a midfielder. The defender would probably be a true left back (and possibly a backup center back), while the midfielder could be a left-sided player or central attacker, provided the Union can close deals.

Either way, don’t be surprised if Hackworth has already identified the players he wants and is just patiently and quietly waiting for the dominoes to start falling once the summer transfer window opens in July.

The Brazilian way

Were you planning on going to Brazil next year for the World Cup? I was. Now I’m not so sure, even though I have family there. Brazil is a mess.

As with the Gezi protests in Turkey, Brazil’s suddenly massive protest movement has been a long time coming. The country’s financial waste in its World Cup spending is just the final straw after years of frustration in the post-military rule era.

The country is as corrupt as major countries come and has for a long time had one of the world’s largest divides between the rich and poor. It’s a place where you can become quite wealthy from being a government judge (as one of my extended family has in Belo Horizonte), and fighting your way out of the slums (as my mother-in-law somehow did in Rio de Janeiro) is far harder than it is in the United States’ poorest neighborhoods. Public schools are very weak. The government doesn’t pay the hospitals on time despite promises of subsidized health care, which in turn hurts the quality of care. Police are often abusive. Gangs run large sections of the biggest cities. And “the Brazilian way” is all about advancing more through who you know than what you can do. (Yes, all places have that to a degree, but in Brazil they actually have a term for it, which should explain how pervasive it is.)

In recent years, a Brazilian middle class has truly begun to emerge as the economy improves, and they’re educated enough to know that continued skimming off the World Cup cash pile is coming at the expense of social services, education and health care.

It’s no surprise that people are angry. Soccer can only be the opiate of the masses for so long. When you use it to make their lives even worse, that’s the ultimate insult.

On the bright side, if Brazilians force the World Cup out of Brazil, there are only a few countries that could host it on short notice. You live in one of them.

Watch NBC Sports’ great new MLS show

Lastly, if you didn’t catch the inaugural edition of MLS Insider on Friday on NBC Sports, you should. It’s quite unlike any weekly sports show I’ve ever seen. The storytelling style is similar in style to the great work from the best 30 for 30 documentaries from ESPN. The cinematography is jarringly beautiful at times — words you’ll rarely read in the context of a sports program. And the focus is on the players and stories, rather than the commentators and critics.

MLS has posted the video on their web site, and you can watch it below.


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