Offseason Issues

Offseason Issues: Roster thoughts

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Philadelphia Union came into the 2014 season with a good, young striker looking for consistency, a former rookie of the year and a potential All-Star pairing in central defense, and a completely rebuilt midfield full of big money signings.

At least they still have the midfield. For now.

Things went awry almost immediately for the Union last year. John Hackworth panicked when Austin Berry didn’t immediately look like Jeff Parke, Jack McInerney was traded for a player who was not a striker, and a string of minor injuries meant the preferred midfield was rarely on the pitch together.

As is almost always the case, Philly’s on-field problems had roots in deeper issues on the roster and in the coach’s office.

Jim Curtin has already said most of the regulars will be back next season: “But, I still have a good core of guys that I believe in, that believe in me, that are going to be back. That’s the majority of guys who started games this year, they’re going to be back and they’re going to impact things in a major way.”

Regardless of whether that is a strong enough foundation for a playoff push, the Union still have plenty of holes to fill on a roster that offered little support to the first eleven last season.

Defensive depth

It was stunning. At the beginning of the draft, Philadelphia Union were looking at one of two Cal center backs in the first round and hoping to grab some offensive support (and a left back) later on. Then Ben Olsen ambled over to the Union table and offered the first overall pick for the No. 2 slot and some cash. Hours later, John Hackworth boasted the consensus best player in the draft, a giant attacking midfield project, a standout central defender from Michigan State, and an offensively-minded left back from Akron. Quite the haul.

But almost immediately, the roster mismanagement began. Zac MacMath — a still developing top five pick — had been undermined by his club choosing a goalie at No. 1. Instead of being traded for a veteran, he was asked to essentially act as a stop gap until Andre Blake was pro-ready. Kevin Cope, the central defender, was cut before the season began. Pedro Ribeiro, the absurdly big, strong and talented attacking midfielder, began professional life… in defense. In Harrisburg.

And when the season began, almost absurdly, the Union had not strengthened the roster in any of the areas that clearly needed help. Conor Casey was still the only support at striker, the starting left back was a right back and his backup was a left midfielder in disguise, the center backs were covered by a player the manager clearly did not rate and nobody else, and the new Argentinian attacking midfield signing was given Fred — that Fred — as support.

Meanwhile, DC United snapped up the most MLS-ready defender in the draft.

So while Austin Berry leaving his talent in Chicago could not have been predicted, a total lack of cover in almost every area of the pitch save defensive midfield was always lurking right under the surface. It just so happened that Berry was the first starter to go down, giving fans and the rest of the league a preview of the problems to come.

Berry’s injury made defensive depth a salient issue for Union fans and management, and Jim Curtin said as much at the press conference announcing his appointment as head coach: “I would say that my style would be a defensive one, defense first. We have to prevent goals, something we need to improve on.”

Curtin described how moving Maurice Edu to center back was one of the ways he “shored up the defense,” and Edu will be the first domino to fall as Curtin looks to design a back line that can get the team under the 50 goals against threshold next season. At their end-of-the-year meeting, Edu and Curtin “…talked about [Edu’s] impact in the midfield was good, his impact as a center back was more.”

Saying the discussion with Edu “opened his eyes a little bit,” Curtin will hope that Edu will be influenced by the chance to make a big impact in defense and possibly return to the national team fold for the next World Cup cycle. If so, Philadelphia’s defense will suddenly look very formidable. If not, Philadelphia will likely have to spend some money to fix a leaky back line.

Also note that losing Edu is not even the worst case scenario. If Amobi Okugo departs for Europe (as Curtin expects) and Edu says sayonara, not only will the Union have lost two proven defensive options, money will also have to be spread around to bolster the previously deep holding midfield position.


An offshoot of depth issues is a lack of substitutes who can change a game. To be clear: Philadelphia has always had a plethora of options off the bench, and they are players who require something to change.

Curtin recognized this in the press conference announcing him as head coach. Among the things he discussed in terms of what the Union needs to better close out games was “a little depth,” adding, “[M]aybe you can improve guys you’re bringing out.”

Danny Cruz, Antoine Hoppenot, and Aaron Wheeler were all quick off the bench when Philly needed a shot in the arm under John Hackworth. These players, for all their positives, also necessitated a change in shape or a total change in tactics. The convoluted mess of McInerney, Hoppenot, Cruz, and Le Toux all hanging out near the defensive line when the Union were chasing games is not the fault of the players: That’s what those guys do. It came from a lack of alternatives on the bench and the inability of the coaching staff to successfully make tactical changes when they made personnel changes.

A hallmark of perennially successful MLS teams is depth players who, while not as talented as their starting brethren, interpret the game the same way. In other words, they know what the strategy is when they come on and they easily integrate into the starting eleven. Often, a substitute is not the goalscorer but the guy who offers the defensive help that allows goalscorers to shake free their tracking duties and get into dangerous areas.

Bench players should be a mix of a supporting cast and impact players that come in with one purpose: Go up front, run, and score. Philly only had two modes of subbing: 1) We are ahead: Put in Brian Carroll/Michael Lahoud, or 2) We are behind: Put in Aaron Wheeler/Antoine Hoppenot/Danny Cruz/ (and change the formation).

There is a subtle thread running through all of the names listed above. None are players you think of as “possession” guys. They stretch the field or break up play, but there are no elite passers or space creators in that bunch. If the Union want to ditch their reputation as a team that can’t hold a lead, they need to populate the bench with at least a player or two capable of helping the team possess the ball late in games. A stout defense is great, but the best defense in soccer is keeping the ball.

Overall, Philadelphia’s bench needs a more diverse skill set. And players entering a match need to be much better prepared to either integrate into the tactical plan or clearly redefine the team’s shape. Adding a spark doesn’t create a fire if your wood is scattered all over the place.

Up front

Here is an easy one: The Union need a striker. The fans know it. The coach knows it. The CEO knows it. The MLS standings know it.

Luckily, while finding the right striker is never an easy task, the Union seem to have a well-defined playing style under new head coach Jim Curtin. That tactical definition gives the team the ability to search out a player who will play the distributor/box-crashing role that fits well with the skillsets of Sebastien Le Toux and Andrew Wenger. Curtin said as much in his comments to reporters last week: “In MLS now, you look at the type of forwards that’s working, it’s the Dom Dwyer, Quincy Amarikwa, kind of pain in the ass, can run forever, stocky and fast, and just annoying to play against.”

Finding such a player has two very big benefits: 1) Um, goals. 2) Conor Casey can become a regular substitute. It is hard to stress how perfect Casey would be as a regular sub in Jim Curtin’s system. He can involve the wingers as a hold up man or he can slow play down by mixing things up with defenders. So finding the right striker to fit Curtin’s system may end up solving two problems simultaneously.

Make that three problems. Because yes, it is a problem that Pedro Ribeiro is currently a striker. MLS does not require speed from attacking midfielders, but size is a huge plus. Philadelphia drafted Ribeiro as a midfielder, and after the debacle that has been the club’s handling of Amobi Okugo (and Michael Farfan before him), it is time for the coaching staff to stop outsmarting themselves and put players in the positions in which they are most comfortable.

Very good players will look very good in almost any position until you squeeze everything but the top talent out and put them on the big stage for ninety minutes. At the MLS level, speed of thought and confidence are key variables for success. Playing out of position affects both, and the Union would be smart to keep that in mind for future player development. They can start with Ribeiro.


There are three ways the Union can immediately upgrade the roster, aside from simply bringing in better starters than those they have now: 1) Add defensive depth, 2) Create a more diverse skill set on the bench and do a better job instructing players how to integrate into the team when they are put in the game, and 3) Add a starting striker so Conor Casey can become one of the better 12th men in MLS.

MLS is a tough league, but it is also a league blessed — theoretically, anyway —  by parity. This means the little things matter. Roster depth and substitutions are two of those little things. The Union need to improve both immediately.


  1. Articles like these are depressing because it goes into painstaking details about all our problems.

  2. Adam. Your smart. Not sure there’s even one thing to add but let’s try for the sake of discussion. Your summation about the little things mattering is astute. Bringing Ribero in at striker was a telling moment of desperation for the team this year. I’ve written before that if Danny Cruz is in starting IX and Ribero is a center forwards next year I will know for sure this team has no idea what it is doing.
    Details. Details. Details.

    • And hell will rain down on this organization like lava balls on Pompeii!

    • Has anyone seen enough of Ribero’s footwork & distribution to believe he can be a CAM? Not saying he can’t but is there evidence from college or Harrisburg that he can fill this role? I prefer a veteran at CAM but am willing to be proven wrong (actually hoping).

      • I saw enough to know that he makes Casey look fast and graceful.

      • I think in both situations his overall ability meant he got used as a stopgap, same as the U did with him. We have seen glimpses of vision and technique.

      • I’m inclined to agree. I’ve seen enough to think there is creativity there and that is really what separates players in that position. Give him a chance. Not sure Ribero and Maidana are apt to play together though.

      • Agree on Maidana/Ribero, because I think you need one player there with speed. But the Union’s history with young players in that position – Farfan, Fernandes – is a short leash. Failure to produce early in the season or inconsistency got them a seat on the bench. That is my concern.

      • Have Ribero as Maidana’s sub. You add proper depth with this move. I think Ribero was slower than he probably is for the fact he was trying to learn how to play forward. He was thinking too much out there. Not knowing if he should make the run or even which post to make the run to.

      • Good point about the short leash.
        In my mind, Fernandes showed enough promise in the early part of 2014 to merit additional playing time later in the season. Unfortunately, the interim manager didn’t see things that way.
        Hopefully, Fernandes will be given a fair chance to secure a spot in the Union lineup in 2015.

  3. This article makes good points. Which means the Union will do none of them.

    Completely agree on a Dwyer-like striker. At no point last season did I feel a Union forward could get their own shot & finish. Players who get open – Wenger, Noguiera – couldn’t finish. And Brown did not carry the ball very well.

    Regarding Edu, does he need to get that MNT call as a CB before he buys in or will seeing Jones there be enough? I agree that he could be MLS All Star there but sometimes we don’t see what is in our best interests.

    Great analysis on how last year’s draft was botched. Sadly those errors will now impact decisions in the next few years.

  4. I think the needs Adam points out are more difficult to satisfy than last season’s and look how well that turned out. Does Curtin’s will exceed his abilities? We’ll soon find out.

  5. Assuming Edu plays CB and Okugo is gone, I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea of Mike Lahoud getting 20-ish starts at defensive midfield *if* that meant they spent big on a forward. I’m not saying it’s the greatest option; I’m just saying it’s a trade-off I’d be OK with – a midfield of Lahoud, Nogs, and Chaco plus a stud center-forward to pair with Le Toux and Wenger.
    I’d rather have Okugo there. Without a doubt. But I do think Lahoud can be serviceable in the position. But again, this is only acceptable to me if we go out and hit a home run at center forward.

    • I think this is reasonable. Are there better options to Lahoud out there (including, obviously, Okugo)? Yes, definitely, but he’s pretty good, and smart. Pay for a striker and start Lahoud? Totally workable.

      • Guys, I have to disagree here. What makes us think Michael Lahoud is any better than Brian Carroll when nobody else seems to think that? Lahoud has started 20 games once in his 6 year career. He has much lower average (not total) defensive numbers across the board compared to Okugo and Edu, and he would be tasked with protecting a new back line next to two other midfielders who stray from the middle of the pitch like they have some gravitational pull toward the sidelines? If there are better options out there, you have to go and get them.

        Yes, a striker is important. But one more goal and the Union are tied as the second highest scoring team in the East. Meanwhile, of ALL the playoff teams, only NY and SEA were close to the Union in terms of goals allowed (NE was 5 off, but remember what they did to shore up their team? Brought in a defensive midfielder.) So saving a few bucks to spend on a position (striker) that is notoriously hard to hit the jackpot on and putting the protection of the back four in the hands of an admittedly great dude who is unfortunately not a great soccer player is not a formula I can support.

      • See. Smart.
        I don’t want Lahoud as a full time player at all.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        I agree 100%, Adam. The knock on Lahoud when he has started in the past is that he is careless with the ball, prone to rash tackles and doesn’t screen the back four particularly well. As a well-rounded energy defender/midfielder off that bench, I might select him ahead of a player like Carroll, but as a starter he has not made the grade.
        Looking around the league at players like Jones, Alonso, Beckerman, Will Johnson/Diego Chara, Juninho/Marcelo Sarvas, Nagamura/Rosell (until Rosell left), the defensive midfielder is such an incredibly, important piece of the puzzle. Someone who can win ball, see the field and help push play forward is a must have now. It is partially why the Union moved past Carroll to Edu/Okugo in the first place. A regression in this area would signal a large step backward both defensively but also in the cohesiveness of the midfield.

      • Well, I did preface it with some caveats: that Edu will be playing CB and that Okugo will be gone from the roster. I’d take either of them over Lahoud any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.
        The thinking is that you can’t fill every need in one off-season. Assuming a CB pair of Valdes and Edu; Chaco and Nog nominally in the center of the midfield with him; and a quality, new forward; I’d be willing to start off the year with Lahoud slotted as my holding mid. (For whatever it’s worth, I’m quite sure I’ve said I favored Lahoud over Carroll this year.) Do I think Lahoud is a long-term answer? Hell no. I just think he’s “good enough” as a short term fill in. If it’s a true disaster, you can move Edu up and slide Ethan White into your back line while you look for somebody in the summer transfer window.
        Again, I’d very much prefer the Union keep Okugo and start him in that spot, with Lahoud doing the backup thing. It’s far and away a superior option. But combine this with hitting a home run at striker, and I can live with it – and maybe have to eat my words later, I suppose.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        If Okugo is gone and Edu is on the roster, I don’t see any way either Edu wouldn’t be the D mid or they wouldn’t go get a new one. It is far too critical a position to risk on a player who has been unable to do enough to win that position in the past.

      • If Okugo is gone & Edu is back, you start with Valdes/White with Edu at DM

        The problem with the ‘Union scored a lot of goals in 2014’ argument is that Casey will not be the player he was last year if he is on the roster. You now have a huge hole in the front line to fill, as LeToux & Wenger do not create their own goals.

      • *shrug* You and Adam are both infinitely more knowledgeable than I am, so I defer. (Though if it somehow happens *and* works, I wish to retain my “I told you so” rights…)

      • @John – As you should, man! We may think about this stuff a lot, but we are far from infallible. Far, far, far from infallible.

      • Can John sell me those rights for allocation $$? And will he need to protect them in the expansion draft?

      • They’re homegrown, so no need to protect them in the expansion draft. However, I need more than allocation dollars for those rights. We can also swap spots in the allocation draft. That should make it equal – assuming you’re offering *enough* allocation funny-money.

  6. This doesn’t feel like a tall order to me. I think the team, particularly the starting core, has quality. Imagine this team with a BWP on it? I think it would be so much better just with that one addition.

    So much, though, depends on the future plans of Edu and Okugo. (I’m going to just assume that Nogs and Maidana are a lock). If we get both back, there’s a lot less to do. If just one leaves, I think we’re OK. Both and it gets tricky.

  7. OneManWolfpack says:

    Have any names become available for the striker the. Union so desperately need? I’m just wondering what kind of guy we are looking at?

    • I’m no expert, but after seeing the success that BWP had in the MLS for NYRB this season, I think there is a good chance that a few decent strikers at his level toiling in 2nd tier leagues around Europe with no realistic chance to make it to elite clubs before their careers come to an end will be willing to give the MLS a shot. There has got to be some Eastern European striker for a Europa League caliber club in his mid to late twenties that has realized he will never be playing in Spain/England/Germany and would love to give his kids a chance to grow up in America.

      • Jermaine Beckford. Only a few months older than BWP, and scoring at about the same pace over in England. Bigger, too.

  8. Players who can possess the ball will not change the flow of the game. Possesion is very much a team concept that takes a while to instill. It depends on support and vertical penetrating passes until you get to the part of the field where you can set up a 3 man attack to get a shot on goal or a cross. Philly is very very far away from that style, as is most of the MSL.

    • Well sure. Putting in a fast guy won’t mean you get behind the defense more, since someone has to play the throughball, someone else has to find that guy with enough space to get his head up, etc etc. The point is just that different players have different tendencies. You absolutely will not hold more possession if you put in guys who immediately head upfield with the ball, or play with their head down. By putting in players who check in, play quickly, use fewer touches, etc you have a better chance of possessing the ball. And just by not having people racing upfield whenever the ball is won, the flow of the game will tend to change (maybe not instantly or drastically, but it will).

      • Playing with your head up or down is a quaint concept kind of like winning the second ball. You cant win a second ball if there is none. The point is that it takes about 4 players in any area of the field to maintain possession so checking in, playing quickly etc. will not affect possesion too much.Racing up the field without a plan is not good for sure. I think your analysis of the effectiveness of players available to the team is realy nice and clear. Fun column.

      • Thanks! And yeah, head up/down is more like a heuristic for being in/finding space effectively (though it doesn’t tease apart those two very different things). So maybe quaint, but still useful shorthand if well-defined (which, admittedly, I didn’t do).

  9. JOSE JOSE JOSE JOSE JOSE JOSE JOSE JOSE JOSE JOSE JOSE… C’mon Saks spend the $$$ and get the deal done… PROOVE to your team supporters you want to win… JOSE JOSE JOSE!

  10. they only have 5 players and 1 goalie on there roster that would fill a MLS championship team Edu, Nogs, Wegner, Maidana, Okugo and the African goalie the rest are just marginal and some should be playing pub futball,

    Pave the parking lot!!!!

    • Bob the Used Car Salesman. says:

      I will say 9. I think Valdes will look much better after an offseason of rest and meshing with he team. He was one of the premier defenders in the league a few years ago and he’s still in his prime. Those midseason moves are tough. Gaddis is also great player. And I think White will prove to be a decent player, too.

      Really we need a left back to pair with Gaddis and an effing striker.

  11. I see more thoughtful analysis in any of these great comments than I read in Curtin’s “get bigger, faster, fitter.” I thought Halloween was over but that’s some scary s#!+, man.

  12. What’s up friends, how is everything, and what you wish for to
    say concerning this piece of writing, in my view its actually remarkable for me.

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