Aiming higher in the transfer window

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

Nick Sakiewicz said a few eyebrow-raising things at the press conference introducing Algerian goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi.

At SB Nation, Ryan Rosenblatt, for example, rightly fisked Sak for his goofy pronouncement that “we now have three of the best keepers in the league” — valuable, perhaps, if we could play more than one of them simultaneously. At CSN Philly, Dave Zeitlin questioned Sak’s attitude, suggesting that his irritated interjection about M’Bolhi playing in “a little tournament in Brazil” shouldn’t overrule questions about why Zac MacMath was suddenly kicked to the curb.

But I was more interested by what Sakiewicz said at the press conference introducing Carlos Valdes.

“We want to bring the very best players here, and we want to win the championship.”

It’s easy to forget what a bold statement this is. And, in spite of some laughter from fans, it’s also easy to forget that bold statement is increasingly true. The Philadelphia Union have radically increased their ambition in terms of player signings in the last two transfer windows.

Remember last summer?

Let’s set aside the winter acquisitions of Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira, and Cristian Maidana for a moment, and flash back to last season’s summer transfer window. In the hottest months of 2013, Hackworth & co. picked up three players — just as the U have done so far this year.

Those three players — Fabinho, Oka Nikolov, and Gilberto dos Santos Souza Júnior — made basically no impact on last year’s team, and have accomplished even less on this year’s squad. The most productive has been Fabinho, in the same sense that using a drinking bird to perform your most minimal job functions is more productive than doing nothing or… doing nothing. (You remember the old bit on The Simpsons where Lisa asks Homer, “Shouldn’t you be working?”, and Homer replies, “I’ve got someone to cover for me.”)

Picked up off the scrap heap of the A-League, I distinctly remember Australian Twitter’s reaction to the signing: “why would anyone sign him?” After a year of slapdash defense and randomly sprayed crosses, Fabinho appears to have found a solid place on Jim Curtin’s bench.

As for the other two players, the circumstances surrounding their arrival remain murky. Oka Nikolov joined the club following a long career with Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga; at age 39, he was expected to push Zac MacMath for a starting spot. Nikolov made no league appearances for the Union, and now plies his trade for the NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

And, over a year after his signing, I remain unconvinced that “Gilberto” is a real person. Coming out of the Brazilian fourth division at the theoretical age of 24, Gilberto never saw as much as a sniff of the field in Philly. Then-manager John Hackworth described Gilberto as “a little more long-term than an immediate need” after signing this possibly-imaginary player to a contract well above the league minimum ($80k in guaranteed compensation) and then cut him in the offseason. Apparently, he now plays for Sacramento Republic FC in the USL Pro, with 13 appearances to his name.

The times they are a-changin’

When you compare the talent of those three guys to our three signings this summer, it’s clear that the level of player targeted by the club is totally different, even though the signings come in similar archetypes. Gone are the signings of guys who are, simply put, not MLS-caliber players; instead, we’re bringing in players with World Cup appearances and real achievements to their name.

In the category of “veteran defender,” it’s difficult to overstate how much better a soccer player Carlos Valdes is than Fabinho. With Danny Califf, he formed one of the strongest partnerships in MLS in 2011 and pulled the Union to their only playoff appearance; paired with the inexperienced Okugo in 2012, all Valdes did was turn in an All-Star caliber season and a memorable late winner against Montreal. In short, the dependable Valdes is everything Fabinho is not, a player who is immediately one of the best central defenders in MLS.

This summer’s “signing that you definitely, definitely never heard of” is Brian Brown — but every Union fan knows his name now. Snapped up on a risk-free loan deal after winning the Jamaican league’s golden boot, all Brown has done so far in 40 minutes of MLS action is steal one point on the road against Kansas City with a sharp, clinical finish. At just 21, Brown appears to be a real find, a prospect who can contribute immediately to a playoff race — not to mention that I found his post-scoring salute to Jim Curtin to be utterly endearing. (Although, again, the fact that there is physical evidence that he actually exists is the only thing necessary to put him a step above Gilberto.)

Finally, Rais M’Bolhi is this summer’s “experienced goalkeeper” signing. But while Nikolov was brought to the Union in the very twilight of his career, like most retirees eventually ending up in Fort Lauderdale, M’Bolhi comes overseas in what should be the prime years of his career. He joins the Union off a man-of-the-match performance against the eventual champions in the world’s biggest sporting event, and chose Philadelphia over Champion’s League clubs. However unsettled his club situation has been the last few years, he was clearly rated by successful clubs around the world.

Many have been critical of the M’Bolhi acquisition on the grounds that, in a situation where assets are scarce and the scope of possible movements limited, it doesn’t seem to be a smart piece of business. But one of the wonderful, horrible things about Major League Soccer is that we never know precisely what the opportunity cost of a move is — how much the Union have under their cap, what restrictions they might have on moving players, what self-imposed restrictions they might be operating under.

This isn’t an argument for front-office mismanagement that sacrifices the short-term for the long-term. Rather, we should remember that we don’t exactly know what trade-offs we may be making with these signings. What we do know is that, all of a sudden, the Union appear committed to bringing in talented players, to forcing competition at every position, and mounting a genuine assault on the rest of the Eastern Conference.

The Union’s front office is far from perfect, and the future of the club still hangs very much in the balance of the managerial search. But over the last twelve months the Union have demonstrated a commitment to bringing talented players into the club. That’s a new feeling, but it sure is exciting.


  1. Bravo. Excellent piece!

  2. I think including Carlos Valdes in this discussion is a little skewed, as he was already under contract to the Union…

    That said, I like bringing in players like Brian Brown who have the potential to improve the team in the short-term (and possibly the long-term) rather than $180,000 foreign names who provide little on the investment (Eduardo Coudet, anyone?).

    • It is a slightly different move for the reason you mentioned, but the fact remains the U did more than just call him back after his loan expired. They apparently laid a lot of money on the table to re-sign Valdes to a new multi-year contact. So I think it is fair to discuss this major move in this context.

    • I would agree on Valdes, except reading between the lines, it appears he needed to be “won back” with a new deal, etc. It might be just coincidence, but the fact that he was ready to commit right after M’Bolhi was signed is interesting, at least.

      I’m definitely excited for the final months of the season.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        I think it was two fold: he wanted the stability of the US and the MLS… and he wanted to be paid… like actually paid money, instead of being promised for months by San Lorenzo.
        As for being in this discussion, I think he could have gone other places, and the fact that the Union actively sought to bring him back and also resign him to a “long term deal”, shows monetary commitment, and that’s why he should be included in this discussion.

  3. Great piece. You could argue that firing Hackworth was also a sign of some ambition from the FO. They realize they have to put out a quality product on the field for fans to continue to pay for season tickets. To be fair though, we still haven’t done anything close to what Seattle, LA, NYRB, Toronto, Vancouver, NYCFC or even Orlando City ownership groups are doing. If we want to consistently compete for Supporter Shields, we are going to need to step up even another level.

    • The Black Hand says:


      • John O'Donnell says:

        Although he might not have a ton left in the tank, he would raise the level of this franchise tenfold if they signed him. He’s a guy who would make the remaining games the Union had left all sell outs, home & away. Epic, without a doubt.

  4. Just imagine if Berry had worked out with Philly. Him and Valdes, along with the big 3 signings this winter, and an experienced GK…we could easily be fighting for the Supporter’s shield

  5. Hey, I spoke to Gilberto once at the game against Red Bulls in Harrison. He lives! Seriously though, when I saw that the club gave him a ticket in the middle of the SoB block, I knew he would never see the field.

    One on hand, I agree that the signings have been of a different caliber. I am glad ownership has started to take things seriously. On the other hand, I’m not going to hold a pep rally to celebrate Sugarman and Sakiewicz not being satisfied with competing with Chivas et al for the wooden spoon.

    I’m still waiting to see a general plan for the development of the team. The “youth movement” appears to be DOA. Are we going to keep adding veteran players? Will Pfeffer and McLaughlin ever see the field at PPL?

    A skeptic could suggest that the team knew it was heading toward lackluster season ticket renewals after keeping Hackworth for at least a month too long and felt heat to make significant additions to the team.

    • old soccer coach says:

      Peffer by age has finished his sophomore year in college; McGlauglin, his junior, and Hernandez, also junior. MLS is a physical league. When Pfeffer was put on against Vancoveur’s Nigel Reo-Coker, who is a moose, Pfeffer was no competition to him. Marquez was 21 last spring, MacMath was 22 then. Okugo was 22. Youth movements require the p-word that is not part of Philadelphia, patience, long term patience, especially as the quality of the league is improving steadily and noticeably. Remember Bakary Soumare, early in his career he did well enough to get a shot at Europe. He legitimately failed to beat out Okugo, and now in Chicago he and Hurtado have not been the center backs for the last two games; Larentowicz has moved into the backline for whatever reason. For us, Edu may not like it, but he’s been more effective as a center back that a defensive center mid. Our kids have to grow faster than the over-all league in order to break in.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        I would preach a different kind of patience. Patience ON the field.
        Young, small kids break into the league when given an opportunity to play. Nigel Reo-Coker is not just big and strong, he’s a seasoned, veteran campaigner who spent significant time in the Premier League. Players learn by playing. And both Pfeffer and McLaughlin have earned their opportunities. And that doesn’t mean playing 45 minutes before the coach panics. Yes, Reo-Coker beat up on Pfeffer. No, that doesn’t mean that he needs another few months on the bench. Get him back out there. Both players should be in the 18 and be given the chance to make an impact.
        Top MLS teams incorporate their youth and give them time to grow. Just as an example, RSL are producing with Plata, Gil, Garcia, Maund, Salcedo, Sandoval and Velasquez (all 23 and under).

      • The only player the Union ever exhibited that kind of patience with was Zac Macmath and they are throwing him under the bus right before it pays off.

  6. Actually I don’t see anything radically different this year than last other than at this stage of the game it looks like it is panning out.

    As mentioned above we already owned Carlos Valdes. While I think the Union had hoped to sell him after the world cup I think that owning the rights to a World Cup player who just happened to play the position you had the biggest need at was more of a no brainer and not actually indicative of ambition.

    Brian Brown looks good so far, very good in fact. But he fits the Union mold for acquisition pretty well. The Union have a long history of bringing in young obscure players from small federations in hopes of them panning out like Damani Richards. The difference this time seems to be they are committed to getting him on the field annnnd he may actually be good.

    Rais M’Bolhi I swear this team has a keeper fetish. He should be an improvement….. But ya know.

    I would be more surprised if Nick S. didn’t say boiler plate things like…. “We want to bring the very best players here, and we want to win the championship.”

    • I do see this season as quite a bit different than last season. The 2013 season felt like a bit of a throw-away/transition period to clean up mistakes of the past. But once we got into the winter transfer window, I think it’s easy to point to a shift in approach and ambition. Signing Maidana was a bold signing that addressed a need, though it turns out it filled the CAM need instead of the LW need. Bringing in Edu was a big move, as was Nogueira, fresh off of captaining a Ligue 1 team. Even Berry looked to be a savvy move at the time, albeit one that hasn’t worked out as expected. Yes, Valdes was ours, but the situation clearly wasn’t clean, and it eventually resolved with him here long term. Add in Brown and M’Bolhi (needed or not, he’s definitely a higher end target), and we’ve clearly been aiming higher. The days of Porfirio Lopez seem to be behind us.

      The only clear slip up in 2014 is the McInerney trade, though that seemed to be a lot more about losing him for nothing at the end of the season.

      • old soccer coach says:

        Thank you for noticing that McInerney was possibly gone for no return at the end of the season. Such calculations are always part of roster moves in any program from high school on up.

      • The problem is that if they were going to trade him then they should have gotten something for him. If you can’t get value for Jack Mac how do you expect to get value for your 20,000 keepers.

  7. I don’t know that its completely fair to compare these past two windows to those of 2013 straight up. From everything we read and were aware of, the Union were still getting out from under the contracts of Perlaza, Lopez, Gomez, Martinez, Adu, etc during last summer and last winter. And they were still able to bring in Le Toux, Casey, and Parke in the winter and may have just lacked cap space or flexibility over the summer.

    That said, I think committing to Valdes going forward and bringing in an influx of mid-career proven talent like Edu, Noguiera, Maidana, and M’Bohli, and promising young players like Brown and Berry, and even the occasional late career veteran like Fred, have produced better play on the field. That probably should have translated into more wins this season, but Curtin seems to have the ship moving in the right direction.

  8. Does anyone know the date cutoff for the report of salaries published a few times a year by the player’s union? If I remember from the list earlier this year, Union were close to the salary cap, yet we are told that M’Bohli & Valdes were not signed to DP deals, so I would be interested in what their (pro-rated) salaries are for 2014. Or is the infamous ‘allocation money’ being used to get the team under the limit?

    Despite my cynicism and distrust of the FO, I have to give them credit for the summer moves in 2014. Valdes addresses a need, especially longer term if Edu leaves when his loan is up. Brown looks like he has potential, and as well as MacMath has played this year, if you have a chance to get a player like M’Bohli, I think you have to take it.

  9. We need a permanent manager before we can do much more. Would have liked to hear Sak give us news about that search.

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