Analysis

Killing the offseason

Featured photo: Earl Gardner

Philadelphia Union have absolutely killed the offseason.

Put the pitchforks away! Douse your fires! Put down the hatchets. The heads of Nick Sakiewicz and John Hackworth will not roll this offseason.

Three weeks ago, many Union fans were readying their metaphoric guillotines. The Union sat in apparent offseason dormancy. Their fan base was unsettled by the lack of positive movement. Corben Bone became a running joke, because the little used young midfielder was the only addition to a squad that needed a revamped midfield.

Now, Sakiewicz and particularly Hackworth have dramatically bolstered their positions as the Union begin training camp with what looks like a very improved squad.

The Union could deploy a 4-3-3 this season.

The Union could deploy a 4-3-3 this season.

The signing of Sochaux captain Vincent Nogueira is anticipated this week, and once the papers are officially filed, he will strengthen a remade midfield along with new additions Maurice Edu and Chaco Maidana.

Last year, that midfield was the team’s fatal flaw. Now, it looks like a potential strength. Combine that with one of the league’s best forward units, solid fullbacks, and a top-shelf center back, and you have something.

On paper, the Union look an awful lot like a playoff team.

Fans felt Hackworth deserved another season at the helm after a middling 2013 performance, recognizing that he was still repairing a roster depleted by Peter Nowak’s poor moves. That said, they clearly demanded that Hackworth put up or shut up this offseason with some major improvements. He put up big time by filling all his team’s key needs with quality players in their primes, although he had to leave a new gap at center back to do it.

As for Sakiewicz, fans had less patience with him, but he appears to have played a key supporting role in securing both Edu and Nogueira for the 2014 season. While Hackworth was at the MLS scouting combine, Sakiewicz and assistant coach Brendan Burke were in France wooing Nogueira. Just before the Edu deal was announced, the Union’s chief executive was in England having dinner with the midfielder. Does that sort of thing matter? I think so.

A star is signed

Center midfielder Maurice Edu met the public Tuesday for the first time as a Union player, and he said all the right things in exactly the right way. He sounds like a straightforward, no BS sort, which should fly well with Philadelphia fans. He was candid about his struggles the past year, open about his national team hopes, and charmingly and genuinely giddy when speaking about how he felt to join the Union.

“I feel like a little kid again,” Edu said during the news conference, nodding toward Union youth players in the back of the room. “I feel like all of them back there. You know like, the first day of — It’s like you’re just back playing with your friends in the park.”

A 4-4-1-1 would ensure Conor Casey and Jack McInerney see time on the field together.

A 4-4-1-1 would ensure Conor Casey and Jack McInerney see time on the field together.

Edu is all-star material on day one. He is the team’s new centerpiece, and he’s a good one. Do you remember that goal he scored in the 2010 World Cup that was wrongly called back? Do you remember how he deputized at center back in the first U.S. win over Mexico at Azteca almost two years ago? People talk about his struggles the last year at Stoke. Well, he signed with the wrong team and had some injury trouble. If Edu plays the way he typically has when given the chance, then he is a fantastic addition.

As for the fact that the Union have him on a one-year loan with than an option to buy, rather than an outright transfer, that’s not a problem if the league mans up and allows the Union to close the deal.

No good reason for the league to block a transfer has been made public. So far, both Commissioner Don Garber and Sakiewicz have publicly danced around the factors that complicated the deal, which most likely focus on the potential hiking of the market rate for center midfielders and other players below that top tier of league stars (i.e. Thierry Henry, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, David Beckham till he retired, etc.).

Welcome to capitalism, MLS. Pay the man at the door.

The missing piece: A starting center back

While the Union look like a playoff team, they won’t be one unless they find a capable starting center back to pair with Amobi Okugo. The Union drafted two center backs and traded for a third, but the oldest of the bunch, Ethan White, is 23 and hasn’t shown he’s ready for prime time yet. One of them could step up, but until that happens, this is a weakness.

So if the Union go looking for a veteran center back to pair with Okugo, as Hackworth has indicated he may do, who might they go for?

Whoever it is, the price has to be right. The Union don’t have a ton of room in their salary budget or much allocation money to spare. Jeff Parke’s trade wasn’t anticipated for very long, so the team likely has not spent much time scouting foreign center backs. A move within MLS seems a probable course, ideally for a strongman type who is good in the air and can add some muscle to compliment Okugo’s vast range.

Here are some prospects, along with their salaries and links to their 2013 statistics.

Heath Pearce, free agent

Pearce visited Philadelphia recently, which set off rumors that he might join the Union. Hackworth subsequently gave a non-denial denial, but the Union have to at least consider Pearce, who says he is healthy for the first time in two years after finally getting surgery to repair a labrum he tore two years ago.

If healthy, Pearce would be a great signing at the right price, because he could play both center back and left back at a high level. His pairing with Okugo would give the Union the best ballhandling center back duo in the league. Pearce lacks the bulk that would be ideal in a partner for Okugo, but his ability to slide out to his natural position of left back would give the Union a lot of flexibility on the back line. Pearce could be the longer term solution at left back and the short-term solution at left center back.

Jason Hernandez, San Jose: $205,000

Hernandez has been a regular most of his career, including during San Jose’s Supporters Shield season in 2012. But Clarence Goodson’s midseason arrival last year left him third man on the totem pole. Goodson and fellow starter, Honduran international Victor Bernardez, may miss games while on international duty, but that may not be enough to justify San Jose paying over $200,000 for a backup. Then again, it’s not clear the Union should pay that much for Hernandez either.

What San Jose might want: Allocation money or Ray Gaddis. San Jose has downgraded at right back this offseason. Gaddis would be an improvement over Steven Beitashour’s replacement, Brandon Barklage.

Andy O’Brien, Johnny Leveron, or Carlyle Mitchell, Vancouver: $200,012; $60,000; $46,500

Vancouver has a surplus of quality center backs, which isn’t a bad idea, considering Jay DeMerit’s injury problems. Still, they are on record as wanting Andre Blake, or possibly even Zac MacMath. Andy O’Brien is a solid starter, Johnny Leveron supposedly has lots of potential (but is a bit small for a center back), and Carlyle Mitchell played surprisingly well last year when injuries opened the way for him.

What Vancouver might want: Allocation money or one of the Union’s goalkeepers. Vancouver tried to trade up to get Blake. They might still want him.

Danny Califf, retired/Toronto

Danny Califf is still just 33 years old. He played well in 2012 and looked solid in 2013 for Toronto until his inexplicable benching and subsequent shock retirement. He lives 20 minutes from PPL Park. He wanted to return to the Union last year. Could it happen this year as a player? Has he stayed fit enough? He could make perfect sense as a two-year solution until one of the young center backs develops to replace him.

What Toronto might want: Allocation money or late round draft pick. All it would take is a little creativity.

Any Chicago center back

Chicago has four potential starting center backs under contract: Bakary Soumare ($310,000), Austin Berry ($63,425), Jhon Kennedy Hurtado ($190,000) and Patrick Ianni ($150,000). Coach Frank Yallop didn’t acquire Hurtado and Ianni from Seattle just before the draft because he wants to pay more than $300,000 for Bakary Soumare. One of these players won’t be in Chicago all season.

Berry seems secure at one position. He is 25 years old, has a very affordable salary, is under contract for probably another two years, and has played consistently well. Hurtado just joined Chicago, and Chicago coach Frank Yallop already rejected one Union inquiry about him. (That doesn’t mean the Union couldn’t try again.) A trade for Soumare would seem strangely perverse after the way he left Philadelphia. (Then again, the Union are already paying part of his salary this year. Why not get something for it?) Ianni seems fourth choice for Chicago. Seattle could be picking up some of the salaries for Ianni and Hurtado, which could make each more attractive to the Union — but also to Chicago.

What Chicago might want: Ray Gaddis or allocation money. Chicago needs a starting right back. The Union have two good ones. Ray Gaddis grew up in Indiana, not far from Chicago.

Ike Opara, Kansas City: $90,000

KC is unlikely to give him up, as he is cover for Besler during the World Cup and would replace Besler should he move to Europe. He’s listed here only so that nobody thinks he was forgotten.

What KC might want: Sebastien Le Toux, Chaco Maidana, or a lot of allocation money. This deal isn’t happening.

40 Comments

  1. I just want to stake my claim to having Jack at the top of the 4-3-3 more often than not. Assuming this team plays nice possession while keeping the ball on the ground and with players who can pick out passes – all of which seem possible now – Jack will be much more effective up top than Casey.

    • Agreed. And I’m not entirely sure that Casey can have another 20+ matches season again. He was gassed by the end of August.

      • And here lies one of the last of my fears (A vet CB, Cruz starting, and Gaddis starting @ LB are still fears)…Will Hackworth now rest players from time to time to give players a shot?
        Especially now that he has “all” of his players?
        I really like what Casey did for us last year and brought to the table, but with the talent we brought in, Mac will be the forward that makes sense.
        Would love to see Carroll left out (esp. @ home) and get Pfeffer, Hernandez, Mcluaghlin some time at L/R FWD w/ EDU, Nog, Chaco as the 3 mids…
        Which really makes me think that I would love to move any of Hop, Cruz, Kassel, Daniel — all who would take time away.

  2. Califf as an option? Hmmm…have to see what kind of transfer fee Berafight FC would be willing to accept. Oh, and the answer to the fitness question is no.

  3. I’m so glad you (we, Union fans, etc…) were able to write THIS article instead of, perhaps, the one Montreal fans must be writing right now. I am a patient person and was hoping to be rewarded by the front office, but could never have imagined the reward would be this midfield. The Union have one of the strongest middle and attacking teams in the league right now, and that was a nearly unimaginable reality a month ago.

  4. I am willing to douse the pitchfork (mine was actually on fire, cause flaming pitchforks are cooler).

    What I wanted has come to pass, a midfield without Cruz and Daniel (Marfan too, but I thought his issue was always moving him out of position). If Cruz, Daniel, Lahoud are all depth (and the aforementioned, and wrongly slighted Bone), are all depth, I am ok.

    I could even live short term (like til Memorial Day) with a Fabinho/Okugo/Williams/Gaddis back 4, but that seems to invite crosses into the box.

    Not sure this team will be a 4-3-3, has more of a 4-1-2-1-2 or 4-2-3-1 feel. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of a rotation between Casey and Jack, or depending on situation they both start and SLT is out. At the very least, there are way more options then last year’s written in ink 14. Also, don’t think Carroll will be the liability if paired with a more forward Edu and not having to cover for Cruz’ bombing down and walking back or Keon not moving his feet.

    Still not sure we are automagically a playoff team, but the chances to be 4th/5th have gone up dramastically.

    • +1. Flaming pitchforks are awesome. I didn’t even know there was such a thing (outside of hell).
      .
      Also, great point on Carroll. Agree completely.

      • Agree for the most part, but I’m so over Cruz, Daniel, Lahoud…Here’s hoping only one is on the roster. They will just take up time that could be spent on getting the young talent developed, especially since there weren’t any loans this year….
        Also, if we have to play Sheanon inside, I will be pissed. That would have been like putting Maicon on the inside b/c you have a young RB who can also start… Move Gaddis for a serviceble CB. Or Move Williams for a Proven Top CB. Or how about a Goalie?

      • As far as I know all three are still under contract. Expect them on the roster in March. Though maybe not on the game day squad.

      • Jim: It’s been a while since I read about the last CBA, but would their contracts be guaranteed?

      • As far as I know they are guaranteed and can’t be terminated for on-field performance or injury. Though I think under the CBA there is a “Semi-Guaranteed Contract” which when signed, MLS can terminate the contract prior to July 1 of the year in which it was signed. That’s about as much as I know, but given that all three players have been with the squad for some time, I’m doubtful that any of them fall into that category.

      • I think non-guaranteed contracts do exist. I’m just not positive if any of those players are signed to them.

      • D, I am over Cruz, Daniel, Lahoud. However next offseason we need sacrifical virgins for the expansion draft. Keep the dead meat on the wagon and throw to the Lions in November.

    • You’re nitpicking. A 4231 is essentially a 433 in this case, especially because we don’t know player roles.

  5. This need for a CB throws a dark stain on the MLS for making the Union get the top returning player spot by losing Parke.

    Imagine if we were talking about this squad/ line up and Park was still next to Okugo.

    As someone said, most MLS rules are toward parity, but this one seems bent on keeping Philadelphia down, and helping Seattle and Toronto.

  6. Edu remembers the goal that was called back in 2010 too. I spoke with him about it last night during the meet and greet with the players.

    I also told him that I hope he misses a few weeks this season when he’s down in Brazil!

  7. John O'Donnell says:

    Can’t they wait to players get cut an pick someone up that way?

  8. The Real Brian says:

    As long as they package Keon Daniel for any trades, I will be all in. If I see Keon Daniel start at any point this year, I will be out. Trade him for a box of rocks and some lighter fluid.

  9. I woke up this morning and found new life, knowing my dream of a Union starting lineup devoid of Daniel, Cruz AND Carroll could finally happen. There is in fact a God!
    .
    In all seriousness I think the best course of action would be to Dump Keon, and have Cruz and Carroll off the bench. Cruz can offer a lot late in a game running by people, and Carroll could help kill a game off and provide that veteran locker room presence. He also provides cover if Edu leaves for Brazil. I just don’t see the Value in having Keon around. We all know Hoppenot will be one sub, and Cruz would probably be the other. Keon doesn’t offer the defensive discipline or hustle to kill a game, AND doesn’t offer an offensive killer instinct.
    .
    Honestly, Carroll being on the field wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. My argument about that is Edu would be in a slightly ride sided role, instead of a middle role in which he thrives. Also, and this is the biggest point, Carroll on field most likely means at LEAST one of Casey/Jack/Le Toux sits. So the real question is, do you rate Carroll on the field as better than any of those 3 on the field? I do not.

    • Depends on the opponent and whether home or away. In all honesty, he wouldn’t have made my lineup last year, but as noted, if there is talent in front of him, it’s not the worst thing in the world (see Liverpool w/ and w/out Lucas – sorta, but not really close in terms of talent)
      —-
      If I see Hop come off the bench at the 65th minute the first two games, I will be not happy.
      If he can’t start for us, he needs to be flipped to another team in a trade for some value. Hopefully he’s shown enough for somebody else. If not, then he’s just taking development mins for future starters/trade-bait.

      • Hoppenot off the bench is fine – just as long as he’s not always the first one off.
        .
        The bigger issue with Hoppenot, in my opinion, is that the Union really shouldn’t be keeping him and Cruz on the roster; both are the same player, really. (Good at drawing fouls and cards, high energy, straight ahead running, etc). Hoppenot has more skill (better ball control) and is cheaper, which means he’s the more attractive of the two. But that also means he might be the easier of the two to move.
        .
        So having one of those guys on your bench is fine. Giving them a spot start here and there – no more than 8 or so a year – is fine. First off the bench when you need a goal is fine. Having both is redundant, though. And having one of them as first off the bench when ahead – and therefore looking to pack the game away – would be insane.

    • I think a lot of the Union’s defensive success has been due to Carroll’s presence. If we don’t end up acquiring a veteran CB, he’ll be important in steadying the backline. I’m not totally opposed to the idea of Carroll as CB, either.

      Also he’s the captain and it’d be swell if one of them guys could stick around for more than a season.

  10. Excellent work Dan, you and the staff here rarely fail to impress. I’m definitely feeling much better about the upcoming season, though it still hurts that it’ll go on without Parke.

  11. I personally like the 4-4-1-1 lineup a little better than the 4-3-3. While I think Carroll got a lot of undeserved flak last season because he couldn’t cover for 1-2 extra players due to either Keon, Cruz or both being out of position, I really don’t like the narrow width that the midfield may have with Carroll and Edu in a 4-3-3 would have. I like Carroll and up until we got Edu I would have hated to see him leave as he is still a good DM when he isn’t responsible for other players constantly being out of position. Now, I would like to see the U find the best mix of good for the U and good for BC7 that they can find, even if it is sending him back to C-bus for our good friend Al Location.

    Freeing Carroll’s contract would give us more room to make a move for a starting CB.

    Since the draft it is starting to feel much, much better being a Union fan!

    • With Fabinho and Sheanon as the Wingbacks, we wouldn’t be very narrow.
      But, defensively, Maidana and LeToux would have to provide coverage. With Fabinho questionable on the defensive end already & question marks around a LCB, the left side would be very exposed. Another reason Carroll may be forced to start if CB isn’t fixed and LB upgraded…
      The solution for both: Heath Pearce (in theory).

  12. Wilkerson McLaser says:

    Can anyone run some simulations of this roster in Fifa? Would be interesting to see what the ones and zeros say about our team.

  13. I see 4-3-3 (in possession) and then the formation shifting to 3-5-1 (out of possession). I’d start with Casey up top instead of Jack because of Casey’s hold-up attributes and confidence on the ball. Hopefully with this new/vastly improved squad Hackworth can actually employ “tactics.” Year 5 looks to be a good year

  14. I still want more signings. We made some good ones but it’s not enough. we need more midfielders (a CAM and another winger), a left back, a back up center back.

  15. forwards: mcinerney, casey
    mid: maidina, noguiera, le toux, caroll
    defense: a new left midfielder, edu, okugo, williams

    4-4-2

  16. Would love to see the Union pick up Pearce to at least give him a shot at being the solution to our CB issue. The one thing that concerns me is overall depth on the backline. We have the obvious issue of needing to fill in a starting CB hole, but I think we need to bolster all 4 positions if we want to really make a strong playoff push and/or a cup run. I know I’m getting ahead of myself with that, but the last couple weeks have me very excited.

    Also, in terms of what we have as possible trade capital, does anyone think a situation could arise where we would trade MacMath or Blake?

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