The forgotten men

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

When John Hackworth was unceremoniously let go in June, several players suddenly found themselves out of favor with the Union. Under Jim Curtin, a number of players who saw minutes or were brought in by Hackworth have been sent to the bench or to Harrisburg City Islanders.

A few weeks ago, I started to write a column about these guys  — not including folks like Zach Pfeffer and Jimmy McLaughlin who have gotten little or no time under either manager. Have we seen their last appearance in a Union shirt? Is there anything that suggests they should have a future with the club?

But since I started to ponder that question, the positive vibes surrounding the Union have suddenly turned to clouds of gloom. After two huge wins against Toronto FC and a gritty draw against the Red Bulls, the stage was set for the Union to take a franchise-defining leap. Yet after scraping the first goal against Seattle in the US Open Cup final, the Union have not scored a goal in 282 minutes of soccer. (Add another 90 minutes for the last run-of-play goal, scored just before the half in the NYRB game.) They watched the Sounders celebrate a championship on their turf, dropped points against a weak Houston side, and laid another egg on national TV against DC United this weekend.

Four games remain, and the Union have their backs to the wall. With the situation changed, there’s a new question worth asking. Would any of “Hackworth’s men” add anything to a squad suddenly short of ideas?

Defense: Fabinho and Austin Berry
Photo by Earl Gardner

Whatever you do, don’t wear No. 4 for the Union. Photo: Earl Gardner.

Let’s start with these two, since defense isn’t really the current problem for the Union. Fabinho has quite rightly been shunted to the side under Curtin. Sloppy on defense, wasteful in the attack – I don’t think he’s an MLS caliber player, and the international roster slot he occupies should have anyone else’s name on it next year.

Berry is a different case, struggling through a year straight out of Dante’s Inferno. Shipped to Philly with great fanfare during training camp, he had little time to gel with his team, was injured in the second game of the season, was rushed back too quickly and was asked to partner with The Aaron Wheeler Experience in defense, gave away an early penalty in his return, and soon found himself behind both Wheeler and Ethan White on the depth chart. The curse of Danny Califf again haunts the No. 4 shirt, as Berry will likely follow Bakary Soumare out of town in the offseason. There’s talent here, but nothing that can help the club down the stretch.

Midfield: Leo Fernandes and Corben Bone 

Does anyone remember March? It feels like an eternity ago for the Union, and you’d be forgiven for forgetting the biggest surprise out of training camp this year. Leo Fernandes burst upon the scene with a start in the New England game in March, notching two goals and an assist in four games in central midfield. And then, much like an explosion or any other thing that bursts, he quickly fizzled out into nothingness. Fernandes hasn’t touched the field under Curtin, stuck in the deepest position of the team. With Fred preferred as a backup central midfield option, there’s been no room for the Stony Brook product.

As we move towards the end of the season, the brief flash we saw at the start of the year from Leo seems more and more like an aberration — and asking a 22-year-old who’s been out of the squad for over three months to play a key role down the stretch is likely too much to ask. Fernandes deserves to stick with the Union through preseason next year, but his ceiling seems to be little more than “serviceable MLS player.”

John Hackworth made Corben Bone a first-round pick in the Re-Entry Draft last winter, a pick notable only for providing the fastest red card in Union history. Nothing we’ve seen this year suggests that Corben Bone has a future in MLS. The midfielder has five appearances in two years, with nary a statistic to his name – other than four fouls in just thirteen minutes of action in 2014. He would bring little to a team already quite strong in the midfield.

Bone finished the season on loan with Wilmington Hammerheads of USL PRO – unusually, Bone’s trip to the lower division was not with Union affiliate City Islanders. Possibly HCI believed themselves already set at central midfield, but it can also be taken as a sign that the Union simply don’t rate Bone enough to keep him within the organization. Bone has no value to the club going forward and almost certainly will depart in the offseason.

Forward: Aaron Wheeler and Antoine Hoppenot

The biggest weakness with the club currently is its forwards. Conor Casey looks out of sync and starved for service, Sebastien Le Toux and Andrew Wenger have cooled off, and Pedro Ribeiro and Brian Brown are playing out of position and/or over their heads. But the Union have two players with solid MLS experience who remain on the roster, and it might be time to return them to the gameday 18.

Hoppenot cant believe it either

The Frenchman hasn’t scored in MLS in over fourteen months. Photo: Earl Gardner.

A draft pick of Peter Nowak, Antoine Hoppenot blossomed in the early part of John Hackworth’s tenure, notching four goals in 25 appearances while generally made himself a nuisance to opposing teams. But last year the Frenchman was an automatically used but increasingly ineffective substitute, not scoring after a game-winner against Vancouver in late July. His declining offsides totals (18 in 2012 to 5 in 2013) suggested a player who was being figured out by the league – play him physically and don’t let him make his preferred darting runs, and he can’t influence the game.

Hoppenot hasn’t appeared for the Union since the disastrous 4-1 loss to Los Angeles in May, meaning he’s been completely left out of Curtin’s plans. On loan to Harrisburg, Hoppenot notched just one goal in nine appearances, the gamewinner in the upset semifinal win over Orlando. If he were a man in form, it might make sense for the Union to take him on as a striking option. But his success in MLS seems to be long in the rearview mirror, and it’s not clear where Hoppenot fits in the Union’s system. It seems more likely that the Union will cut ties with the Princeton grad in the offseason.

The last player on this list is the one that’s most intriguing to me. Aaron Wheeler has had a season to forget — being played wildly out of position as a center back before that experiment was jettisoned, then returning to the bench. Yet in his appearances at striker he’s shown promise, and he’s the player on the roster most similar to Conor Casey. Though certainly a lesser player than Casey, they’re both big men with deceptively smooth touch. Off the substitute’s bench, Curtin has been using Ribeiro as a like-for-like replacement for Casey with little success. With Casey unable to play more than 60 minutes a game, Wheeler might be the best option to maintain the Union’s tactical system in the final third of the game.

Most of the players sent to the bench under Jim Curtin deserve to be there on performance and talent, and are unlikely to be part of the Union’s long-term plans. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Even if Hoppenot and Wheeler aren’t not part of the Union’s future, it might be worth bringing one or both to Chicago in the hope of catching a spark.


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