A View from Afar

It’s over. Now what? (2014 edition)

Photo: Earl Gardner

Philadelphia Union’s season is over. So now what?

This marks the third straight playoff-less season in which I write this column. Somehow, it seems more difficult to write than in previous years.

In 2012, the end of the season came as relief. It was time to wash the bad taste from your mouth, forget one of the most epically disastrous seasons in MLS history, and look ahead to next year.

In 2013, it was a time to gain perspective. John Hackworth had begun to reshape the team, some young stars had begun to emerge, and the team needs (a new midfield) were absolutely crystal clear. Everything seemed much more concrete.

But after a disappointing 2014 season, little is clear. There is a sense that the franchise is floundering, punching far below its weight, and its problems are more deep-seated than just a signing here and a trade there.

In the past two years, it was easier to start with the positives. Now, not so much.

Just look at the major positives that began last year’s column:

    1. “Amobi Okugo and Jack McInerney are rising stars.” McInerney is gone. Okugo looks set to follow.
    2. “Zac MacMath progressed and answered some questions about his validity as a starting goalkeeper.” MacMath developed further, to the point that a current PSP poll has him placing third in a fan vote for team MVP. Yet he has been marginalized by the Rais Mbolhi signing and appears on the way out.
    3. “Their forward corps may be the league’s deepest and is one of the best from top to bottom.” Again, Mac is gone, Casey is battered, and Hoppenot and Wheeler have been marginalized. Sebastien Le Toux’s reemergence as an actual forward is a bright spot here, but the forward corps is hurting.
    4. “The Union have four solid defenders.” Carlos Valdes needs a return to form, Maurice Edu needs to pick a position, and the Union still need a true left back. The back line should be solid, but it’s full of question marks.

This year, when you look at the positives, you often have question marks. Okugo, Edu and Vincent Nogueira could all leave this offseason, which would leave massive holes in the team.

Yes, the team came one rattled woodwork away from winning its first trophy, but they also fired their manager and suffered a late season collapse to miss out on the playoffs.

So what’s next for the Union? Here’s how PSP will answer that question

Right now, it’s unclear who will manage the team next year and whether many of the team’s most important players — Okugo, Vincent Nogueira, Maurice Edu, Zac MacMath, maybe even Sheanon Williams — will return.

So what actually is next for the Union? What should they be doing?

A good list would look like this:

  1. Hire a manager without the “interim” tag.
  2. Retain key players Okugo, Nogueira, and Edu.
  3. Sign a top target forward.
  4. Sort out the goalkeeping mess.
  5. Convince Edu to play center back.
  6. Find a true left back worthy of starting.
  7. Hire a general manager.
  8. Fill out your assistant coaching staff with enough quality and experience.

Pretty long list, huh? We all know it leaves out a few things.

So PSP is going to devote two weeks to addressing the Union’s key offseason issues.

Starting Monday, PSP writers Adam Cann, Jeremy Lane, Kevin Kinkead, Peter Andrews and I will produce a series of in-depth looks at individual key issues facing the Union this offseason. We’ll explore the issues, look at options for resolution, and then make our case for what should be done. Other PSP writers will weigh in on the same post to share any dissenting or alternate views they might have.

We’ll be looking at some of the issues above, as well as a few others, such as whether it’s time to trade Sheanon Williams or Ray Gaddis.

(And frankly, we could use one or two more suggestions of key offseason issues for us to focus on in this series, so if you have a suggestion, please offer it in the Comments section.)

So in building up to that, tell us what you think. What do you think the key offseason issues are for the Union? What should the Union do?

Share your thoughts in the Comments section below. We’re reading, and we’ll likely use some of your ideas and feedback as we write this series and examine the Union’s prospects moving ahead.

78 Comments

  1. Alexander Schaefer says:

    Not the most important part of offseason but who do you think will be the 11 protected players inexpansion draft?

    • Good question! Not sure yet, because I haven’t yet drilled down into the analysis yet. But off the top of my head, I’ll say Maidana, Nogueira, Okugo (signed or not), Gaddis, Wenger, Mbolhi, Edu, Ribeiro, Valdes, Le Toux, and Brown or Williams. (Unless they know by that time that Edu or Nogueira definitely isn’t returning.)

      That will be one of the columns in the series that I’m handling, so look for more on that later.

      • Everytime i see the word “leaving” associated with Nogueira my skin crawls 🙁

      • I guess I’ll always have my player scarf. Cold comfort, that.

      • If Nogueira leaves, I will cry. In a manly way.

      • Good list, though I really think it needs to be Williams over Brown. Even if they bring in a true LB, Gaddis or Williams both have some value in trade. Biggest fear has to be protecting Okugo/Edu/Nogueira only to see them leave soon after…not sure I can handle this offseason.

      • DEFINITELY Williams over Brown. Not even close. Also, I would raise the question of Ethan White over Ribeiro. Will Ribeiro actually be on anybody’s radar? I like the kid a lot, but he’s still very much an uncertain commodity. White is very solid CB depth (or, if we lose Edu, a fair starting CB).

      • White might be exempt via a technicality – he’s still on his “homegrown player” contract, and is listed on the Union roster as a homegrown player because of that.

      • I’m a bit surprised. We are yet to even see Ribero play a minute in his most natural position.

      • Not saying I would pick Brown over Williams personally, just that I think that’s what they might do. All depends on who the manager is, I think.

      • Dan, I wasn’t able to find a definitive answer to this online: do players on loan from another club have to be protected?

      • I believe so, but I’d have to doublecheck on the precedents for that. I’ll get back to you on that one, either here or by noting that in the expansion draft column in the series.

  2. A very good laundry list of troubling things that need sorting out. I think the biggest one missed (in my opinion and the opinions of several others, one of the biggest issues the club has in general) is the youth pipeline and just how much dedication does the team actually have to utilizing talented young players and bringing them through the system. Until Zach Pfeffer stuck in that equalizer this weekend, it had been THREE years of no Homegrown goals for this team. Talk about marginalization: Pfeffer, McLaughlin, and Hernandez continue to be marginalized and not given chances in spite of the promise they collectively have. Pfeffer in particular has been impressive on the National Team level but given next to no shot of breaking into this squad. In much the same way, Pedro Ribeiro is a promising young player who has been played out of position and not given the opportunity to show his ability where he can thrive. Even Andre Blake could have appeared more often this season in cup matches, but did not. It’s a genuine concern, as the Union thus far have not shown openly a dedication to their Homegrown youth, integrating them into the team while still young, and giving them chances when others “above” them are not being successful. Does not bode well for others in the academy, for the use of the academy in general, and has alienated highly regarded young talent in the Union’s system.

    • I’m not challenging you on this but I am curious- do you know for a fact that it has alienated some of the unsigned academy players? The only thing I heard was that Steffen was thinking of trying to get signed in Europe rather than sign with the Union but I’d imagine that has more to do with thinking he has a chance to bypass MLS than feeling alienated by the organization

      • I wouldn’t say I know for a fact, but it’s not as though the Union have made open advances that they want young guys (such as Steffen) in their ranks to be a part of the team, and have a track record of giving guys at that age within their academy ranks a chance. That is ultimately the issue I’m addressing: the fact that they have not given many votes of confidence to their academy system by actively pursuing young players in it and giving them opportunities.

      • I think Steffen would have to be out of his mind to want to sign with the Union given all the stupidity surrounding the position. He should absolutely try for Europe first, I think he’s more likely to land in a non-toxic environment.

    • Joel H., You make some really good points and analysis. I think the Union should be focusing on incorporating the homegrown and youth players next season. Honestly what do they have to lose? Pfeffer looks like he can create some positive play, especially linked up with Noguiera perhaps? Could we try Marquez in the left back position? On your point about Ribriero, I agree he has been played out of position. I do not understand why the Union keep putting players out of positions. Either way he does not look good right now, with his touch, movement on and off the ball, awareness and decision making. He also looks extremely slow. I hope its just his nerves maybe.

  3. I would love to see a series of articles on the upcoming Expansion and Chivas Drafts.

    Has the order for the Chivas one been determined?

  4. Part of the problem is we don’t know all of the problems yet. We don’t know who is going in the expansion draft. We don’t know who is getting resigned. We don’t know what players the coaches prefer..
    .
    What we need in the short run is stability a coach (curtin I presume) a gm(never gonna happen) a time to assess what we have and what we need. And that isn’t going to happen for a while.

    • If a GM doesn’t happen I think we can safely call Sak out on his protestations of having nothing to do with player acquisitions.

      Not only should the FO hire a GM but also flesh out the ridiculously thin staff with more coaches than Albright and Curtin. Maybe Brendan Burke could see something coming when he left in late January?

  5. Look at them in chronological order:
    Expansion draft – who to protect.
    Dispersal draft – anybody we can get to help out?
    Re-entry draft – Casey is the only player we’ve acquired through that mechanism who has done anything. Last year there were good players available, but the team passed.
    The Superdraft – sometimes they got it right(Okugo, Gaddis, Ribeiro), other times they missed the mark, and sometimes it was simply perplexing (Blake).
    Probably the most important thing of all – the new CBA. Could decide what the Union are able to do, and could really separate the Haves from Have-Nots.
    What an off-season this is going to be, good or bad.

    • I’m definitely inerested in heaing more about the new CBA. That’s going to have a huge impact on everyone this offseason

  6. james lockerbie says:

    My two cents. Can’t wait to read the articles in this upcoming series! I hope the Front office sits down and designs a plan to address as many of these issues as possible.

    I beg the Front office personnel, to ignore this and any other social media site. (no offense) I just want them to have a plan and stick with it. I have read comments from fellow readers and I believe this may be true that, the Front Office has changed is direction based on social media. Trying to adjust to keep the fans happy. If the Front office designs a plan and makes moves in a direction that is consistent with their plans, the fans will start to understand that there is in fact a plan in place. That would make everyone happy for the first time the Union has a Plan and they follow it.

    anyway those are my two Cents

  7. I’ve said this before in response to another article, but I think it is worth repeating: a general manager should be hired first, and then that individual should be responsible for selecting the manager.
    .
    Why start off 2015 with a manager who may not be the GM’s choice for the position?

  8. I argued with Dan in the preview about this – Hopp and Wheeler were just never that good. Is it being marginalized or the fact that they just weren’t getting better? I remember in the year preview there was a favorable to the Union comparison over RBNY’s forwards. I’d trade all of them for some magic beans at this point. BWP looks like an inspired signing. Casey just looks expired.

    • I agree about Hop and Wheeler. But I would atleast say Wheeler had value as a like for like sub with Casey.

      Based on the face our only strategy for 99% of the year was pumping crosses into the box, it’s ridiculous they kept on trotting out Hop and/or Brown. Atleast Wheeler makes sense in that role.

    • Agree about Wheeler and Hop. Ribeiro out of position is better than Wheeler. Cruz and Hop are clones with little or no upside. Hopefully they Will be with other organizations before the start of next season. The Union must sign Edu, Noguiera, Okugo. I think they should probably trade Blake and keep MacMath. At 23 MacMath has a very good upside. Hopefully MBolhi will come back and win us all over. Of course it’s going to come down to who is in front of him.

    • Yeah, I remember. And you proved right, it seems. Thierry Henry makes every forward he pairs with look like the best in the league.

  9. I would sincerely like to know where the Union stand financially. Sakiewicz says he’s always looking for more investors. My fear is the his history and reputation whether deserved or not is always going to be a major road block. I say it all the time but it’s very relevant IMO. For this market the Union can not be run like a small market 2nd rate outpost. Not when we are in a division with 2 N.Y. teams, Toronto, Orlando. The Union need a heavyweight investor. But the Union have to put people in place who will make smart insightful decisions. They need people with high business and soccer IQs and sakiewicz needs to get out of the way. I would also like to see if there is anyway to look into his so called non involvement into player signings. I don’t understand how CEO/ part owner can sit by and watch how things unfolded and not question whoever he says is responsible. I still say he’s FOS.
    Another thing is this teams depth. There is such a drop off in skill.

  10. I personally feel that our biggest concern is our inability to score goals, making us very vulnerable to giving up a 1 goal lead like we have done so many times this season (obviously that has something to do with our ever-changing back line as well). I think securing a true CF, preferably a Designated Player, should be our priority. With our quality on the wings with Wenger and Le Toux and the talent we found in Nogueira(pending we can keep him), I think we DESERVE a solid striker. I haven’t exactly comprised a list of who we should pursue but I feel that should be the priority when looking at the long list of un-addressed problems from this article.

    That being said, I agree with an above comment mentioning our lack of belief in the youth system. We have great talents in Pfeffer, Hernandez, Jimmy Mc, etc…and as stated, Pfeffer has even shined on the Nat’l level with the U-20s, but has been given little chance to play for us. I feel he deserves a chance MUCH more than Maidana does, and Pfeffer can certainly play in the #10 role.

    Also, I feel Maidana has been an absolute failure. Arguably the worst DP in the league, and lacked fitness all season. Not sure why we let Roger Torres go, and basically used the lesser Maidana where Torres would’ve played…

    Just my 2 cents. Thanks for the article PSP!

    C’mon the U.

    • I’d like to see more Pfeffer and Hernandez too, but disagree on Maidana. The man had 11 assists and ranked 2nd behind Landon Donovan in assists per 90/min. He’s definitely not fast, but isn’t that exactly the kind of production you want out of your #10?

    • You and I must be watching two different Maidanas. He has been inconsistent, but he’s on more often than not, and he is the crux of the entire offense. In fact, I’d vote for him as team MVP this season, just barely above Nogueira (though it’s a close call).

      • I will take a CAM who is inconsistent for 89 minutes but feeds the perfect ball in for the game-winner. Maidana looked tired down the stretch, but he came through more often than any other player in that role in 5 years. Get him some quality forwards and I think we’ll see LD-esque assist numbers from him.

    • Zach,

      I don’t know if I would call Maidana an absolute failure, but I think we’re not using him correctly. People are quick to point out how well he is able to slide out to the wings to support the attack. I don’t see that as a particularly vaulable trait in a single-striker formation, and I have a hard time remembering him getting in front of the net when we have the ball. If we had two guys up front, I’d be fine with him as the #10, but if we continue with one striker, I think he needs to be on the wing and the #10 needs to be Ribeiro or another aggressive midfielder willing to be the second runner into the 18 yard box. We can’t leave one guy on an island in front of goal to get roughed up by both opposing centerbacks.

      • This is good thinking Joe. I’m inclined to agree. I’d like to see a the 2 striker set and I’d like to see Ribero in the hole.
        .

      • Really good point Joe. I don’t think Maidana is shit, I just thought he had a VERY inconsistent season for a DP especially. Maybe too much hype is associated with the DP title, I’m not sure. But I felt more often than not I sat in PPL with my hands over my head when he would give up possession. I absolutely agree about him not being the right fit for the formation we play with the lone striker, maybe this off season will be kind to us in strengthening the squad!

      • So, with this in mind here’s a question. I don’t pretend to have the answers, either. In recent MLS history, how do similar-level DP players perform Year 2 compared to Year 1? Do they learn the league (and all that jazz) and do better? Does the league figure them out and they crash and burn? No pattern?
        .
        I mean, I know that Hackworth’s comments about Chaco’s family not usually eating dinner until midnight were roundly mocked (rightfully so). But there is something to be said for the cultural adjustments, not just for Maidana himself but also for his wife and kids.

      • Packed With Goodness and Baked With Love says:

        I agree with your original post, Zach. OK, Maidana wasn’t an absolute failure, but he definitely lost the ball way too much this season.

    • Torres’ looping over the top balls. miss em. they were magic.

      • I’m glad I’m not the only one who misses that! I can see it now, R.T. collects the ball inside our half..spots the darting Wenger down the flank..MAGIC!

      • he played the game differently that’s for sure, wonder what he’s up to these days?
        .
        Mexico?

  11. Let’s be honest with ourselves…..The Union will be making “quality signings” from the Chivas USA “Yard Sale.” Bargain hunting for positions we need actual quality at is not the answer.

    This off-season will be truly the “Winter of Our Discontent.”

  12. A good list would look like this:
    My list:
    1. get a lot of new investors or sell the team – 2 well-funded teams just joined – just because we are in a major market doesn’t mean we cannot fail – c.f. Chivas of Los Angeles.
    2. Hire a manager with a defined philosophy of how to play and give him a 4 year deal.
    3. Retain key players if they fit the philosophy
    4. let Edu go – don’t need to spend DP money on def MF or stopper – he had a chance to show that he could make an impact and didn’t – move on.
    5. add as many good players as possible (see #1 above) with emphasis on DP forwards (plural).
    6. move players who don’t fit philosophy.
    7. move 1 or 2 goalies.
    8. make sure training facility is finished before start of next preseason.
    9. shake up administrative staff – hopefully via new ownership.

  13. MLS’ secret contracts make this hard to look up myself: why would Nogueira leave this season?

  14. One thing that might be interesting to explore – maybe not as part of this series, though – would be the Union’s partnership with Harrisburg. How might it evolve? Are the Union falling behind by not fielding their own USL team? What happens to the partnership if HCI fails to get a new stadium? How would a new stadium improve the situation from the Union’s perspective?

    • old soccer coach says:

      I would support learning as much as possible about the relationship with Harrisburg. There are going to be some upgrades to their “stadium” according to news articles on their website, quality of the pitch, lockeroom/shower facilities, and some increase in seating. A concern is that at the moment the field has a football scoreboard on it, which implies that the pitch has had American football played on it in the past at least. Of at least as much interest would be an analysis of how the player development relationship is working. They had quite few players on the roster with previous ties of some kind to the Union if only temporary, in addition to the four loanee spots, three of which were permanent (Marquez, McGlaughlin and Hernandez). I think I saw a shift in tactical philosophy from their coach, away from the older approach towards something more in line with maximum technical skill and ball possession. That switch corresponded, roughly, to their late season gasp into the eigthth playoff position.

  15. Another issue that needs to be addressed is player leadership. There were many times this season when the players on the pitch looked lost and uninspired. When watching games can you see a vocal leader on the field? Can you tell who the captain is without looking for an armband (which was passed around alot anyway)?

    More often than not I see Union players expressing frustration or confusion as opposed to leadership. A few of our late collapses could have been averted with more leadership on the pitch.

  16. Try it this way: 2014 saw DCU go from worst-to-first. Dream big. What do you say it would take for the U to end up on top of this conference next year?

    • Not too much in the personnel dept. But a hell of a lot of breaks would have to go their.

      • Really? Related: riddle me this, anyone: Jeff Parke asked to be traded here to be close to home. Then he asked to be traded to the United. Why? His season continues, so he made the right call.

  17. Agree with most of what you say here, Dan, but why is Nogueira’s return so uncertain? Just because he’s a very good player on a team that underachieved this season? He’s under contract, not taking up a DP slot, and I haven’t heard any rumblings that he is unhappy. Really not sure how he’s included in the same sentence as Okugo (out of contract/wants to go to europe) and Edu (expensive purchase option/might not want to play CB).

  18. According to his interview by Narducci, Sak needs to spend only 15% more of his time finding more investors and he’ll have no time left to screw up the franchise. Make it happen!

  19. Homegrown. Players.

    McGlaughlin and Pfeffer need to have a genuine chance of starting, or at least battling for the same starting spot, every game.

  20. old soccer coach says:

    Some background history on the developments of successful youth academy systems would help educate us to be more intelligent observers because better informed. Same with disentangling the Byzantine secrecy of the league operations in general. Their lack of transparency is positively Soviet in nature! A list of everybody in the league who is out of contract, for example, would inform our speculations about MacMath’s future. Final thought is that I would admire an article done jointly by Adam Cann and Eli Pearlman-Storch exhaustively analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each player on the roster.

    • I second these suggestions. I actually love “business of sports” type stuff – I know, I’m not normal.
      .
      But… I’m not sure I want the Adam and Eli show to go through every player on the roster. I mean, do we really need to have an article about Fred? He was roster filler this year – nice guy, had a few special moments, played his role; but 99.9% chance he’s not here next year. focus on the players deemed “important” and then have a final article on “everybody else” to catch the half-dozen (give or take) players who just don’t need their own article. Also, it would probably need to be a series – I would imagine one single article would be huge. Going with groups of players – Goalies, Defenders, Defensive Mids, all other mids, forwards, “everybody else” – would help that.

  21. questions from the philly.com article – if it was just sugarman and sak in the begining, where did the original money come from? just the two of them? and then Sak found 13 investors over 7 years? how much did they put in? what was it used for? to pay back sugarman (or whoever lent him the money)? undercapitalized startups usually fail.

    • We’ll never know. We do know that Jay is the son of wealthy legendary TV producer Burt Sugarman. He wouldn’t have trouble borrowing. Probably grew up in LA. Closest connection to Philly appears to be graduating from Princeton. No prior or later pro sports investment. Sak trades on his MLS connections, Jay’s cash & Rendell (NOT Sak, a politcal nothing in Harrisburg) making the stadium happen to land the team. Too bad MLS was so short sighted. Now we’re stuck with this group.

  22. Little Fish says:

    On a slow day this offseason I’d like to see an article telling us where some of the Union alumnae are currently playing…..or not playing. For example: Gabriel Gomez, Roger Torres, Chips Pajoy, The Little Fish, Kai Herdling, etc. Are these guys still in the game? Many of these guys were supposed to be pillars for our organization. Last I heard Kai Herdling was getting minutes in the Bundesliga but curiously he couldn’t get on the field in Philly.

  23. James Lockerbie says:

    Must keep playing the lottery and we all need to slam Will smith’s twitter account begging him and his friends to come and discover soccer.

  24. I fear next year, BUT – I also think we have an opportunity. NYCFC and Orlando, while splashing some cash, would be unlikely to make the playoffs in their first season as expansion clubs. SKC and Houston are gone. NYRB looks headed for a bad off-season. This may be the year that we can exploit. Now is the time for the FO to take risks and spend some serious money. Two seasons from now, the expansion clubs will be rolling and we are going to have a hard time keeping up. Kind of feel like next season might be our only chance to do some damage in the East unless we get new owners.

    • Our chance was the USOC final. Both expansion teams already have deeper FOs than the U, with NYC having help from potential MCFC loanees and OC having USL knowledge. Add in the vets they’ll pull from the expansion drafts and don’t be shocked when one makes he playoffs and the U finish behind both. Tough to evaluate talent when you don’t have any in the FO. And Sak says he doesn’t sign players, so you don’t even have his “expertise”.

      At least we’ll finish ahead of Montreal.

  25. What needs to happen next?? In 6 words.
    JIM CURTIN – OUT
    RENE MEULENSTEEN – IN (if he still wants the job??)

    I for one am getting really pissed with people. Why is Curtin getting special treatment? Is it cos he’s young, and seen to be ‘one of ours?’
    HE FAILED GUYS!!! HE FLAT OUT FAILED!!!

    I agree he started well, and gave us some hope. But, he made the most of the bounce effect, after hackworth, who couldn’t? But, he had half a season to get things going, and remember, in August, he had us in the PLay-off spots. He got us to a cup final as well, and i’m grateful for that, but WE LOST! (and 2 of the wins were on PK’s, so he didn’t win the game, he won the lottery).
    so, from being in a play-off spot, how can we finish 7 points out of the picture (in about 8 games)? How? He isn’t up to it, HE FAILED! He may succeed in the future, but his time is not now!
    And, because our FO is weak, they listened to us, and tried to keep the ‘Curtin fan club’ happy. And in doing so, by-passed Rene Meulensteen, who according to reports was house hunting at the time.
    We need a Head Coach (key word= COACH). As is obvious, our FO makes the personnel decisions (Rais, Valdes etc). So, Meulensteen the COACH (EPL winner x 5, Champions League x 1) had to be a safer bet, rather than betting the house on a rookie (who is a nice guy).
    1 win in 7 when it matters! HE FAILED!!
    If Meulensteen is still available, the FO should be begging him to reconsider, if he would still come.
    Or, come May/June we will be looking for a replacement, when we are in the Eastern basement.
    IN MY OPINION!!

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