Commentary

What’s going on with the Union’s roster construction?

As early as this afternoon, the Philadelphia Union could announce their next big signing, Algerian goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi. The guy is a great keeper, with excellent leadership and shot-stopping skills displayed at the international level. If the team had been spending the season patching together their goalkeeping situation, M’Bolhi would make a ton of sense (see the Chris Seitz/Brad Knighton predicament in 2010).

But this signing brings a close to perhaps the most head-scratching era of Union football, specifically in the realm of roster construction.

Goalkeeper is an important position on any soccer pitch, but is it wise to spend this much effort (and allocation money) to address the concern?

Draft isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but…

A strategy where you make the MLS SuperDraft your primary source of talent has it’s pitfalls. It’s difficult to predict talent, especially when most players are coming from a college system where the season lasts a few months a year. Once draft picks get exposed to the pro system, sometimes they produce, other time they fall by the way side.

But it is still an excellent way to build the depth on your soccer team. With a relatively stringent salary cap, finding productive starters for good value has been the hallmarks of teams like Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo in recent years. On Tuesday, LA Galaxy traded defender Kofi Opare (and a second round pick) into a swap up the allocation order. You build around a few stars, but if you can get hard-working talent, you go a long way to a playoff spot.

Yet an analyst looking at the way the Union have conducted their recent drafts would scratch their head. Taking a goalkeeper in the top five of a SuperDraft is hardly ever done (the last was Real Salt Lake taking Seitz fourth in 2007) — unless you are the Union. Two GK’s in the top five of the last four drafts looks extremely awkward, no matter how much you think the guy can fetch in a sale to Europe.

Solidifying things at the back

If the Union do sign M’Bolhi, the general thinking is that Zac MacMath is the odd man out. It’s tough not to see Andre Blake as a strange backup at this point — the kid needs playing time.

This signing is a partial admission that the “build a goalkeeper from within” has taken too long. MacMath has been greatly improved this season. But keepers are often easily judged on their stops, but there are other more subtle aspects that can easily escape the senses. Something as simple as a backline not having confidence in the keeper can greatly influence the way they play, and lead to unsettled play.

The Union have had an extra ingredient to this mix — inexperienced, out-of-position defenders. From Amobi Okugo to Aaron Wheeler to Sheanon Williams, this backline has been patchwork. It hasn’t been bad, but it hasn’t been steel either.

Perhaps Sakiewicz & Co. can finally sort out the Carlos Valdes saga. But if they can’t get Valdes on the PPL Park pitch, bringing in an experienced, vocal keeper could settle the backline and allow the team a chance to groom a new core.

What do they get back?

Getting M’Bolhi is good, but more important is what the team gets back for MacMath and/or Blake. They spent two high draft picks on these guys. Clearly MacMath is a worthy keeper in MLS, but doesn’t appear destined to international success. If they can trade MacMath for a defender (left or center back, preferably), that would be preferable.

If Blake stays, will he share time with M’Bolhi? He still seems like an odd backup keeper. Blake has the chops, and while learning from M’Bolhi may be beneficial, Blake should be starting somewhere. Could the Union get any return for Blake at the moment?

7 Comments

  1. Old soccer coach says:

    At the announcing press conference Curtin used the phrase “loan . . . within the league” he was not specific about who might be loaned or where. And he did not limit himself to within the league only. The only guessing that makes sense to me is that they might loan out Blake, because they waived Brian Holt, whom I always saw as the inexpensive injury stopgap when Blake was with the Jamaican national team. Waiving him may suggest they don’t see a need for such a stopgap any more. I have no evidence, merely conjecture.

  2. If the Union don’t get an enticing offer for either MacMath or Blake, do they send Blake on loan to Harrisburg?

  3. Ugh.

    This is really frustrating to see things play out like this. We better be able to get something decent in return for Macmath or Blake.

  4. kingkowboys says:

    Based on seeing several PSP tweets regarding Blake and M’Bolhi’s international schedules, MacMath may not be on the trade block. Estimates say M’Bolhi could miss 2-4 games plus possible playoff games for call ups. I can honestly see MacMath being moved in league at the end of the year and rotating him and M’Bolhi based on availability. Not saying I like this but if we are in a playoff race or the playoffs we can’t afford to go from WC keeper to rookie.

  5. A loan to DC United, perhaps? They just lost their #2 keeper for the season…

  6. I’m scratching my head on this one. Mac has had a good season and we haven’t really seen Blake. Nevertheless, it appears to me that the keeper position is the least of the Union’s personal issues. Go figure!

  7. Aside from the merits of a deal apparently in the works for months, it fills the silence about bringing back Valdes. Maybe it even helps Carlos commit. Also underscores urgency to hiring a permanent manager who can guide major roster moves. With transfer window closing in less than a week, I don’t expect more news.

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