A View from Afar / Commentary

What we learned last week about the Union

Photo: Paul Rudderow

The week after the MLS season’s last game is generally far more interesting than the week leading up to it.

That was certainly the case last week in Philadelphia, where a flurry of moves shook the club out of what could have seemed to some to be a dormant state since its last regular season. In reality, like other MLS clubs, they were simply biding their time until they could do something again.

So let’s recap:

  • Amobi Okugo was traded to Orlando for allocation money. (Ostensibly $150,000.)
  • CJ Sapong arrived via trade from Kansas City for a first round draft pick.
  • Pedro Ribeiro departed for Orlando via the expansion draft.
  • The Union have apparently fielded enough trade inquiries for Fabinho that they value the reserve left back more than Ribeiro, a 2014 first round draft pick, and protected him in the expansion draft while exposing Ribeiro.
  • Philadelphia exposed Rais Mbolhi in the expansion draft.

Got that? Good.

Now, let’s draw (or jump to!) some conclusions.

1) Jim Curtin is taking a win-now approach.

Curtin made this very clear last week in an interview with MLSsoccer.com’s Dave Zeitlin.

“… I know our fan base isn’t going to have patience anymore,” Curtin said. “I’ve got to build a winner right away.”

Curtin has an accurate sense of the pulse of the fan base. After last season’s disappointments, the Union need a major turnaround in 2015, or they risk losing these fans for the long haul. That’s not good for a young business.

Not only have Union fans run out of patience, but many have simply checked out. Some don’t follow the team as closely. Others don’t follow them at all. Many have, as one Union fan put it yesterday,”become numb to the Union” and “come to hold the team at arm’s length.”

High roster turnover, including the loss of marquee players, and a culture of losing have worn on fans. The Union have made the playoffs once in five years. Half the teams in MLS make the playoffs each year.

Some would be content for the Union to simply be an attractive team to watch, but don’t expect that to be the primary focus last year as it was this season. Curtin wants to win now, and he doesn’t care what it looks like.

2) Rais Mbolhi may be the Union’s worst transfer deal ever.

Forget Mbolhi the player. He’s been good for club and country in the past, so put that aside. There isn’t a large enough body of MLS play on which to evaluate him.

Look at the deal itself.

We now know the Union paid a transfer fee to acquire Mbolhi. That transfer fee was high enough to make him a designated player, so it’s at least about $150,000 or as much as about $440,000 (350,000 euros), if Transfermarkt is accurate (and it often is). That’s on top of a $240,000 salary that, prorated for about a half season, works out to $120,000 for the year.

All told, the Union may have paid as much as $560,000 already for Mbolhi to play four games in 2014.

They then left him unprotected in the expansion draft, meaning that Union manager Jim Curtin was perfectly willing to part with Mbolhi despite the massive expenditure. (In his defense, Curtin was a newly appointed interim manager when Mbolhi’s signing was announced, so responsibility for the deal does not fall on him.)

So …

How bad do you think the rest of Mbolhi’s contract really is?

  1. Fatter than a Christmas pig?
  2. More bloated than Ed and Eli after a trip to a Brazilian steakhouse?
  3. Bigger than … (Ok, I’ll stop there.)

I was told last week that Mbolhi would not be a designated player in 2015, which means his salary cap hit would be under $400,000. But MLS rules allow you to buy down that salary cap hit with allocation money, as the Union have done in the past with DPs, so he could still be collecting a fat salary next season even if the cap hit is much smaller.

The Union should have known better than to cut such a deal for a goalkeeper. You simply don’t need to pay that kind of money to get a good one in MLS. For example:

  • Nick Rimando makes $225,000 base salary.
  • Jaime Penedo makes $135,000.
  • Dan Kennedy makes about $212,000 in base salary.
  • Steve Clark makes $135,000,
  • Clint Irwin makes $75,000.
  • Bill Hamid makes $100,000 in base.

If there’s one thing that American soccer produces well, it’s goalkeepers. The MLS general manager’s guidebook should include a line that says something like, “Never pay a significant transfer fee for a foreign goalkeeper. There’s always a Steve Clark or Clint Irwin waiting to emerge.”

And definitely don’t do it right after you draft a goalkeeper No. 1 overall in the draft.

(As comparison, it will be interesting to see how much Portland is paying newly signed goalkeeper Adam Larsen Kwarasey, who has similar credentials after starting for Ghana in the 2014 World Cup.)

Maybe that money would not have bought the Union the big-time striker they said they wanted last spring, but it certainly would have put a dent in the expense.

3) Fabinho has trade value. Who knew? 

Most people, including probably Orlando, were stunned to see the Union protect Fabinho over Pedro Ribeiro in the expansion draft.

Curtin explained the decision after the draft by saying, “We had some intel that Fabinho would have definitely been picked.” He went on to tell MLSsoccer.com, “It’s not necessarily about protecting your starting 11. It’s about protecting the 11 that have the most value in your league at the current time. That’s based on the phone calls you get. We get phone calls about Fabinho all the time. He has value.”

Then trade him.

Get the value. If it’s allocation money, then great. You can then turn around and flip that to Houston with whatever else it (reasonably) takes to get Corey Ashe, who somehow remains still available and is a proven starter at left back.

We know what Fabinho’s talent ceiling is. As a regular starter, he’s in the lower tier of starting left backs in MLS and second choice on the Union. As a backup, he’s a very good one.

Ribeiro’s ceiling is somewhere between good backup and “Holy crap, did he just dribble through the entire Red Bulls defense with two guys hanging on his back?” You simply don’t know. That in itself is more valuable than someone who is at most a good backup. Ribeiro is at least a good backup.

4) Amobi Okugo is better at public relations than the Union.

Okugo said something  interesting in his very insightful interview with PSP’s Eli Pearlman-Storch.

“Everything I feel like I do is always calculated, always well thought out, and I don’t think Philly did enough to try and sway my decision,” Okugo said.

Forget the second part. Focus on the first part. Everything is calculated and well thought out.

Okugo stayed disciplined and rather coy over the last several weeks when it came to talking to the media. He said little about his off-season plans, other than to focus on what offer the Union did or did not give him. After the deal, he opened up about the deal and his excitement to join Orlando.

Meanwhile, rookie technical director Chris Albright was stuck explaining why the Union got good value for Okugo. (They didn’t. If they were going to part with Okugo, they should have dealt him months earlier when they had more leverage.) It was a thankless position.

Look at the PR surrounding this deal. Maybe you can’t pinpoint why, but who comes out looking better to you? Okugo, or the Union?

The Union really miss Chris Glidden, their very smart PR man who is now out doing the same job for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Don’t underestimate the importance of a good PR guy for a team like the Union. Glidden helped the Union rehabilitate its image after the Peter Nowak debacle. It wasn’t just him, mind you. John Hackworth was smart enough to listen to a solid PR squad including Glidden, former Philadelphia Daily News reporter Kerith Gabriel, and the recently departed Aimee Cicero.

The new guys are inexperienced as front men. Curtin already seems extraordinarily good with the media and the public. But they could use a little help, because there was no way this one was going to play out well for the Union.

5) Orlando vs. Philadelphia on nutrition.

One of the more fascinating tidbits from the Okugo interview was his comparison of the approaches to player nutrition by the Union and Orlando. With Orlando, it sounds first rate. With the Union, not so much, although John Hackworth and team trainer Kevin Miller apparently improved that situation and a team training facility is in the works.

However, this isn’t just a Union thing.

Last year, while writing a story for Howler magazine (that will apparently never see the light of day, sadly), I learned about the Vancouver Whitecaps’ approach to nutrition. Their team nutritionist explained to me that the team has a similar approach to Orlando, in terms of covering daily meals and helping with appropriate carbohydrate intake and hydration. Other teams do not.

This isn’t necessarily an Orlando vs. Philadelphia thing. It’s something evident throughout professional soccer. And Orlando just sounds like it’s being run in a first rate fashion, much like Pacific Northwest clubs.

6) The Kicker: The C.J. Sapong deal is a great trade.

In journalism parlance, there is something called a “kicker.” It’s when you end your story with a kick that leaves the reader with something to think about. I love them. So saving something for last doesn’t mean it’s the least important.

The Sapong deal is a great trade. I said it last week, but I’ll explain why here.

With a first round pick, what are you getting? If you’re the Union, who historically have drafted fairly well, you’re probably getting someone talented that you’ll nonetheless give up on in a few years. If you’re another team, you’re probably getting someone who you have no guarantee on. It’s a crapshoot.

In Sapong, you’re getting a player who has demonstrated legitimate talent in MLS. He ran into trouble because Kansas City had an army of young center forwards but played a 4-3-3 that only deployed one out-and-out striker. Unfortunately, Kansas City only found one Kei Kamara who could flourish as a target winger (although Teal Bunbury seems to have figured it out in New England).

Sapong likely projects as a straight No. 9 with the Union. That bodes well for him.

Even if the Union don’t sign a big time striker, the Sapong pickup combined with the smart decision to retain Conor Casey but manage his minutes looks very good for the Union. Add in a quicker, smaller striker to change things up now and again (Antoine Hoppenot? Brian Brown? Someone else?), and the Union could improve the striker situation dramatically with smaller, smarter moves like these instead of going for a big name DP.

51 Comments

  1. 1st – M’bohli

    I guess it’s going to take a season of watching him play before this fan base stops trashing this move. Jesus Christ – this is like buying a new car and then determining it sucks before you even drive it 100 miles because you hit 1 pothole on the highway. Is it because there’s nothing else to complain about? Wait – there was just a thread on FB complaining about the name plates next season…so..nope – there’s plenty to complain about. *sarcasm*

    2nd – Okugo

    Sorry. This whole story just plays out like a player that was butt-hurt about not being as highly regarded by his current coaching staff as apparently all the fans do. Rumors of Europe – then ends up with an expansion team. Constantly brings up being left out of the Open Cup match.

    This happens in every sport. I’m not surprised at all. Finds childish things to gripe about. C’mon – you’re upset because you didn’t get fed your lunch after practice? Would you prefer Chocolate milk or orange drink? Cookies? Is this the U-15 team or MLS?

    The FO turned around a player that wanted to leave – and got an impressive amount (in this league, at least) of cash for him. I call bravo to them.

    Other than Jordan Harvey, and maybe Mapp (for a season) – this team really hasn’t lost much with players that have either been traded or walked away.

    • Mbohli – it’s not the player, it’s the move for him. Cost was too high at a position you had a serviceable player under contract for one more year & his replacement on the team. Money should have been spent elsewhere, like…

      Okugo – Maybe the bridge to resign him had been burned years ago under Nowak/Hackworth but the Union never gave any sense they made an effort. And things like practice facilities & nutrition are part of a pro athletes workplace. If your job is in a poor building with no amenities and you have a chance to move to a better situation for more $, would you?

      Curtin is correct, if the Union are worse in 2015 than 2014, PPL Park is going to be a very lonely place and this franchise could be in trouble.

    • Very well put about Okugo. I couldn’t agree more.

      There is a kind of groupthink among Union fans. The same groupthink that made Carlos Ruiz the World’s Laziest Poacher (which I never agreed with) also made Okugo America’s Greatest DM (and CB!) who was desinted for Euro glory, even though he’s never made an MLS All-Star team. Yeah, Okugo’s good, and the team took a hit talent-wise when he left, but its not like he’s so awesome that he’s not replaceable.

      • He’s 23. Five years from his prime. Ceiling Unlimited as Rush sing.

      • So you’re saying we should pay a player X amount of dollars to keep him, to see if he becomes good, so that he leaves anyway when he’s actually good enough to leave? Anyway we wouldn’t lock him up in a 5 year contract, he’s smarter than that. If we would’ve resigned it may have been for a season or 2, until his price tag raises again. We should be happy we got anything for him, and didn’t lose him on free to a Euro club where he rides the bench.

      • Twenty-three is not young, and ceiling is not applicable. How good is he now? Victor Wanyama is 23. Oriol Vidal is 23. Paul Pogba is 21. Those are limelight players. Entre nous, Amobi has the free will to go with the circumstances he wants, even another hemisphere, although I see him as a new world man.

      • I’m not arguing any of this should he have should/could stayed or not or whatever. My original response was in defense of him being called a whiner for answering questions. That’s it.
        .
        I’ve argued ad infinitum about the merit of him staying but it didn’t work out. I get it. Sport. Professional. I get it.
        .
        None of us know anything about how this is going to ultimately work out in the long run for him or the Union. We just sit and watch.
        .
        Those players you speak of were playing professionally against the best in the world at 19 when Okugo was in college playing against future doctors and lawyers- stands to reason they would reach their pinnacle earlier. In MLS 23 is young. Comparing Apples to oranges.

      • AO was (barely) 19 went he made his professional debut for our Union. He’s been a pro for five years. He’s going to Orlando. His ceiling is not unlimited. It is quite limited. Maybe it would be higher if he had been trained in a proper academy; we’ll never know. We do know how good he is now, and that’s about how good he’ll be.

      • It’s always easier to keep a known commodity than go out and find a new one (bird in hand beats two in the bush). Amobi is a good MLS player and could become a very good one so to lose him at this stage in his development makes a lot of fans unhappy.

      • Fair point Osager regarding age of start for AO in MLS.
        .
        We can agree to disagree regarding the rest.

      • And all my Rush titles, no acknowledgement there? That was for you man, to take the edge off the post / the disagreement…

      • Magic. I’m a dunce. Kids distracted me is the excuse I’m going with.
        .
        Love it.

      • Only a prostitute mind will support how the Philly Union handled the Okugo situation. The Union at this point can sell PPL Park for Allocation Don.

    • I can see this point of view… I’m new to Union fandom, so I’ve been taking a lot of the Amobi Gospel on faith… that we really had lost he best player this franchise ever had. Well, I didn’t really believe that, but was giving the long time fans the benefit of the doubt.

      Same thing with Mbolhi. I think we need to see how next season pans out to know for certain wether the Union did well or made a big mistake. On both counts. We’ll watch both guys play and see how they do.

      I agree, most importantly, with Dan’s last comment on Sapong. Really happy about that and think it’s a better deal than many here have realized.

    • We bitch when players say nothing or give PC answers to every question – then bitch when players tell us how they feel or how the see a situation. Can’t have it both ways.
      .
      Did Amobi Okugo contact Eli for the interview? Doubtful. He was willing to walk away — then when he in good faith answers questions that the FO would never honestly explain to us because it is only one point of view in the situation some deem him to be a whiner because 1.) he was pissed for sitting the biggest game in franchise history or 2.) not being offered a deal that says he we like you we want you to stay thereby trying to ‘sway’ his decision.
      .
      Look when it comes to Okugo I am biased about his ability and potential I know – but I do not allow that bias to cloud my judgement or discernability. Can you say the same?

    • Little things like providing the players meals so they can eat healthier, having a proper training facility and weightroom make a big difference. And if all of your competitors are doing it better than you are, you’ll have a harder time attracting the best players to come and play for you.

      Talent in any industry needs to be treated well to perform at their best and if you don’t do that well, you’ll have a hard time attracting and retaining the most talented people. Plus, the ones that you do have may not perform as well as they could have. It’s a simple as that.

      While on the surface, it seems petty to us to complain about not getting lunch after practice, but think about your current employer and if they took away any of the perks that you have in your office (i.e. – free food/drink, casual dress, better healthcare plan, ability to telecommute, etc.). If your employer took some of those things away from you, you would definitely be more receptive if an offer with a higher salary from a better run company came your way.

    • “Other than Jordan Harvey, and maybe Mapp (for a season) – this team really hasn’t lost much with players that have either been traded or walked away”.

      AMEN, very refreshing to hear. I recall seeing droves of fans complaining about the departures of players over the years (i.e – Califf, Mwanga, Farfans, Parke, McInerney etc.) and how it would be detrimental.

      None of them have made any significant contributions since leaving. Like everyone, I’ve questioned FO player personnel decisions in the past, but their track record has been fine with regards to cutting ties with players.

      I wish Amobi the best, but if his departure was inevitable (European Aspirations or not), receiving allocation money is solid, particularly for a player whose MLS contract had expired.

      • Steve, the question you should be asking is: How has the Union fared since the departure of these players, Califf et al. I have not seen the Union play any post season games.

    • … And Andrew Jacobson and Shea Salinas. You could even throw Chris Seitz in there (although I probably wouldn’t) now that he’s developed into a pretty good GK.

    • It is going to take a season for us to realistically evaluate MBolhi. But the deal was still bad unless he’s better than the sixth best goalkeeper in the league (because he’s the sixth-highest paid as of mid-last-season, not including the transfer fee). I doubt he’ll be that good; and on top of that, he’ll miss a lot of games due to international duty.
      .
      Though it’s the Fabinho thing I’m calling shenanigans on. If teams really wanted a left back, I would think that Corey Ashe gets picked before Fabinho does. He wasn’t picked at all, so I’m left thinking that the Union were played: the expansion teams feigned interest in Fabinho so that the U would leave someone important unprotected. As it turns out, they did. However, if the Fabinho trade requests were legit, then I think the FO made the right call in protecting Fabinho, so long as they actually end up trading him.

  2. “Then trade him.” Thank you. If Fabinho is deemed so valuable, why is he still here? They would’ve gotten allocation money if they lost him in the draft, and I’m not sure how much better it could get. Keeping him and losing Pedro might be the must infuriating off-field move this team has made yet, and that includes signing M’Bohli. At least he is starting caliber.

    • Agree. All moves so far, except Sapong trade, seem to be about acquiring allocation money. This, along with Curtin’s ‘win now’ comments lead me to believe the 2015 club is going to consist of older, somewhat higher cost players and that they will use the allocation money to pay down salaries. Of course, this is 180 degrees from what we hear consistently from the FO about building through youth, and, again, represents a strategy change. If it works, great. If not, they get to blow it all up again next offseason.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        It sucks as fan, but in reality allocation money can be very valuable to a team like the Union to keep salary cap numbers down.
        .
        As for Fabinho, I said in another comment on another article, the following: “The whole, “we had intel that Fabinho would be selected…” stuff seems like a CYA type thing. That, or they got completely played by Orlando on two fronts: “the handshake deal to NOT take a player” and “hey, tell ‘em we’ll take Fabinho and maybe they’ll leave Ribiero unprotected”. It’s all speculation yes, but something tells me I’m not completely wrong on this one.” I think it still applies.

      • Agreed. If the expansion teams actually wanted a left back, Ashe would have been taken before Fabinho. He wasn’t.

    • They can’t trade him at the moment. Isn’t the trade window closed?

  3. Enjoyed the analysis. Pretty sure I disagree with the statement that Ribeiro is at least a good backup. His one, maybe two, good plays per game hasn’t been enough to convince me just yet.

  4. Oh how Orlando will have the first of many laughs next year when Okugo locks down Maidana then feeds Kaka who is incisive to Mwanga for a brace.
    .
    I will stand to applaud.

    • If Mwanga is playing for Orlando, the world will have the first of many laughs.

    • h/t to this exchange I saw on Twitter the day of the Okugo trade — “In 2 years Okugo has gone from providing service to Keon Daniel to Kaka”. And the response — “So nothing changed”

    • This is the same Danny Mwanga who has played for three teams since leaving the Union and has scored one goal (for the Cosmos) in 27 games?

      • That’s the Danny Mwanga.

      • Philly FO will mess up your career if you try to make more money than they are willing to pay you. That’s what happened to Mwanga when he graduated from Gen Adidas. It happened to Seba when he asked for a raise and they shipped him. It happened to Jack Mac since picking his option would increase his salary. Okugo was allowed to go for Allocation money because the U was unwilling to pay him more than MLS allowable bonafide amount and Chris Albright thinks he performed miracles. God Save the Union.

      • Your sensibility is always a fresh breath of air.

      • I agree. Until by some miracle a heavy weight with the financial wherewithal necessary for this market takes over, the only people given the responsiblity to make decisions will be the Albrights and Curtins. Which explains why we’ve seen players with talent and or great potential wind up moving on. It is sickening watching this organization pennypinch and BS it’s way around the baggage and limitations synonymous with Sakeiwicz and Sugarman. They’d be better with a minor league market. I appreciate the fact that we have the Union however, I almost wish we would have waited for better ownership with deeper pockets to bring a team to this market. MLS always had this market on it’s radar for obvious reasons. Something weird just pop into my head. Wouldn’t it be great if say the Cosmos replaced the Red Bulls and their ownership took over the Union? Maybe I’ll write Garber again. I know fantasy unchecked. I just want the Union to stop being this weak unidentifiable entity in MLS.

      • This could be construed as cruel and that is fine–but I am not thankful in truth to have this club– I am annoyed and bothered 78% of the time. I am tired of the we are young excuse. I am tired of it all. Just win. Just win. Just win.

        .
        Some dude called me two days ago asking if I wanted season tickets. I told him my favorite player was just traded – I’ll pass.
        .
        Keep beating the drum LCB it is unacceptable to be a club with a small wallet- it only adds to the already troubled inferiority complex this city has.

  5. I get a little tired of fans moaning on and on about this team’s trades and how “not going to renew ST’s because (insert favorite players name here) has been traded. Really? What team in this league or any league for that matter has the same team that they fielded 5 years ago. Just doesn’t happen. Get over it. Favorite players get traded, retire, quit. Frank fricken Lampard plays for Man City now. Get over it. And you know what? LeToux is going to leave one day, traded or retired. But he will not play for the Union forever. So prepare you best whines for that.

  6. I still cannot wrap my head around the expansion draft and protecting Fabinho over Ribeiro. It makes no sense to me except for one possible scenario. I read somewhere pre-draft that teams with a player picked will receive allocation money from the league. Is it possible that we WANTED Ribeiro to be picked in order to get a little more allocation money. If we traded Ribeiro straight up for the money people would have freaked but if he’s picked in the expansion draft then it’s not the Union’s fault. We get the extra money to bring in other players (who Curtin may rate higher and who have an actual “position”) or just help pay down M’bolhi’s insane transfer fee / contract.

  7. “All told, the Union may have paid Mbolhi as much as $560,000 already to play four games in 2014.”

    He gets the transfer fee? Doesn’t his last club get that?

  8. John O'Donnell says:

    I can’t say letting Amobi go was good or bad. He was drafted five years ago and Curtin had nothing to do with that. I go back to the US Cup when Curtin said, “who was he gone to replace in the midfield Edu, Nogueira or Maidana”? I have to agree with that statement and it looks like Valdes and White are starters on central defense next year, so they got rid of the logjam. If this opens up some minutes for Pfeffer and McLaughlin then I can live with it. Curtin is a young coach and he doesn’t need the distraction next year which it seems he still might have at Goaltender. Still a lot of moves left to be made and I want to see what they do come the end of January. Hopefully it’s not players walking in a circle with a sign in their hand.

    • Letting Okugo go without making any genuine efforts to retain him was a bad bad bad decision. There is absolutely no reason to even factor Nog or Maidana or Edu in the decision whether or not to retain Okugo. You go from the known to the unknown and its Nog and Maidana that have only played one season for the U and they have not accomplished anything yet to warrant throwing the baby away with the bathwater.

  9. I thought the part about Orlando’s approach to nutrition compared to the Union’s is very insightful and telling. Any professional club takes care of the meals for their players. Each one is calibrated to get the most out of their “race horses”. Players in Europe are fined if they have even a sip of soda. Clubs realize that state of the art training, technology, and nutrition make a bigger return on their investment and top players want to go where clubs are going to treat their bodies like temples. Amobi pointing this out said a lot more about our organization than meets the eye. It seems after reading this and other stories from the past pertaining to this……local colleges look after their players better than our professional club does. The Pacific northwest clubs are already on to this and they are already reaping the results, all the other clubs will eventually follow suit. I just hope with our current fiscal limits……..we can do the same in a relevant matter of time.

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