A View from Afar / Commentary

Five thoughts on the Union’s recent personnel moves

Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Bonus column this week.

My column on Junior Lone Star FC had to see the light of day, but considering all Philadelphia Union’s moves over the last several days, PSP managing editor Ed Farnsworth demanded (!) that I weigh in with another column on the Union’s moves, particularly in light of my column last week. So rather than include that as a small section at the bottom of my JLS column, we’ll break it out here.

Five haphazard thoughts on the Union. Ready? Go.

The Fernando Aristeguieta signing looks good on paper

On paper, the Latino redhead with the long name looks like the type of player the Union should be seeking. Solid Latin American career, still young, fills a targeted niche. Yes, he failed to break through in Ligue 1, but at 22, he is younger than many MLS rookies. Better still, his loan comes with an option to buy, which is often the best way to acquire a player, because you don’t have to commit to paying a transfer fee until after you see how he fits in.

While it would have been better to have closed this deal before training camp opened, you can probably file this in the “better late than never” department. He still has to prove his quality, but he’ll be doing it under fairly good contractual circumstances.

That said, the Union now have three apparent target forwards: Aristeguieta, Conor Casey and C.J. Sapong. While Sapong played some on the wing for Kansas City, that move sapped him of the effectiveness he showed as a center forward earlier in his career that earned him a U.S. national team cap.

The presence of so many target forwards probably ensures the Union will be playing almost entirely in one-striker formations because of a shortage of complimentary parts, although reports continue coming out of training camp of the team experimenting with two-forward set ups. That may have been expected, but manager Jim Curtin had talked about finding someone in a slightly different mold from Casey and Sapong. He didn’t get it.

As it is, Curtin has Sebastien Le Toux, who has proven plenty as a second striker, and Antoine Hoppenot, who will be fighting for playing time this season. I think I’m higher on Hoppenot than most Union observers, but he has to stop diving and repair his reputation among referees because, at this point, he needs to get punched in the nose for a ref to believe he actually got fouled. For a fairly small player like Hoppenot, that hurts you as a striker in a physical league like MLS.

The Union sign a goalkeeper, and people should cheer instead of laugh

Philly fans should like the John McCarthy signing. A local kid from Lighthouse FC and Mayfair makes it to the pro team, and not merely on a speculative homegrown contract to a teenager. He was the top goalkeeper in USL PRO last year as a rookie, and that is definitely worth something. With a pair of internationals joining him among the goalkeeper cadre, McCarthy will get a chance to play at some point.

Austin Berry to Korean second division = WTF?!

Of all the possibilities facing Berry, how many of you chose “loan to Korean second division” in the office pool?

Two primary things come to mind here:

  1. Horrendous move for Berry: This looks like a terrible career move for Berry. It’s not even Korea’s first division. The second division? In Korea? Seriously? Nobody can find this guy an opportunity better than this? Yes, it’s nice to get playing time, but you can get playing time in your local rec league too. This is a mighty fall and a move seemingly born out of Berry’s absolute desperation to play and, hopefully, a desire to live in the Far East, since that adventurous desire sounds like the only thing that could justify this career move. I’m not sure he should be this desperate though.
  2. Is it so hard to just release him? Just cut the guy already. Agree to a mutual contract termination. Give him some freedom to move on. Put an end to this mess. It’s now embarrassing for everyone involved. The Union picked up his option. Just change your mind. If Berry and/or his agent are the holdup in that equation, then that’s just foolish, because he isn’t getting paid that much to begin with. Everyone needs a paycheck, but surely Berry can find something better than the Korean second division with his resume.
Do the Union still need a GM?

Given the Union’s recent signings, this is a fair question.

Answer: Yes. They absolutely need one. Most top MLS clubs have one. So do some of the best modeled European clubs. The model works. All points made last week regarding delays in closing transactions remain, so I won’t repeat them.

The Berry situation remains a sad commentary on the lack of options for player movement available to MLS players. Whether or not the Union are finding many suitors for Berry, a dedicated general manager should have been able to ascertain this prior to the team unilaterally picking up Berry’s contract option.

That said, Jim Curtin and Chris Albright deserve credit for the deals they have closed over the last few weeks. McCarthy is a nice signing, and Aristeguieta and Steven Vitoria are on paper good, low-risk acquisitions because both are on loan, with at least one of them carrying an option to buy. Considering the longstanding complications related to the transfer rights and contract of Carlos Valdes — his contract is the lone holdover from all those questionable Latin American moves made by Peter Nowak and Diego Gutierrez — the delays are more understandable, particularly when you consider Curtin and Albright are basically rookies on their maiden off-season voyage. They have overcome some considerable obstacles.

Of course, this evaluation changes a great deal if Aristeguieta and Vitoria do not produce on the field. On paper, they look pretty good. We’ll see what actual MLS competition reveals next month.

Playoffs? Playoffs?

Yes, this team can make the playoffs. Yes, this team can be very good.

But yes, the new pieces will need time to fit in, and the team still has a big question mark at center back if Mo Edu is playing in midfield. Ethan White or Richie Marquez will have to step up. If White starts, he’ll have to improve on last year’s performance. If it’s Marquez, he’ll have to make the leap from USL PRO competition.

Whichever of the two it is, they’ll have to do it without a true, disciplined No. 6 defensive shield in front of them. Everyone wants Edu to be a true No. 6, but he plays midfield like a No. 8 box-to-box midfielder. There is nothing wrong with that either. It’s who he is as a midfielder. He likes to push up into the attack, which helps on offense but can leave gaps in defense. Next to him will be Vincent Nogueira, who may be a deep-lying playmaker who covers a lot of ground but is by no means someone you can view as a dedicated back line shield because of how his play often takes him out wide.

Further, the team is at a disadvantage because they have to incorporate two new starters (Aristeguieta and Vitoria) into the team after training camp has already started. But if those two can adjust and fit in quickly and effectively, this team can be good.

30 Comments

  1. i was really concerned about the new signings integrating in such a small period of time but i think the team looked excellent as a unit during the first half of yesterday’s game. and that was without nogueira or wenger

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      After the first five minutes, without the offsides flag they’re down two goals. After those leaks were plugged, yes they began to get the hang of their two striker set (4-1-3-2 offensively; 4-1-1-3-1 defensively) and Columbus did not adjust well on the fly. But keep in mind the effect of surprise, that will not last long once they show the formation in regular games and other coaches can study it and experiment against it. I completely agree with Dan, especially in the two striker set, that Edu HAS to be disciplined in remaining a shield in front of the center backs. The only significant change in that discipline/indiscipline are the personalities of the keeper and the center backs behind him. MacMath wasn’t going to rein him in the way Mondragon would have. Will Mbohli? Clearly the union are Edu’s team this season, so the extra responsibility might help. The organization seems to be betting on it.

      • thats why you need two holding mids……….hopefully that happens when Nogs and Wenger return. If we rely on Mo to shield the back 4 alone……….we may get cooked. JK experimented 4-1-3-2 in a few internationals( Ireland comes to mind) and we got flamed……..it leaves way to much open space in the middle of the park with only one guy covering…..IMHO.

      • if the opposition is running a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1…..they can just drop multiple guys in “the hole” without coverage and just turn on our back four……….

      • Edu is comfortable with his ball at his feet and showed his calm and cool demeanor in big games, a la Open Cup games, especially the final. He rarely seems frazzled and from the “Mic’d Up” cuts I heard last year he is good at seeing the field and telling guys where to play. As Dan said he’s not a true 6 like a Beckerman, but he is a high-class player who can lead the team from there, and Nog can take pressure of of him moving the ball forward so he can sit back and keep control.

    • Really it is a good sign Kyle. Quality is quality. Quality can play anywhere with anybody. Quality always sets itself apart in futbol.
      .
      If this turns out to be 2 strong pieces to the club this year than good on the FO for making choice moves. We can nit pick all we want about how it happened– but if the signings are improvements and integral then credit where it is due. They brought in 2 players with european pedigree without HUGE outlays of money that will most certainly raise the level of awareness and play of the rest of the team. Fingers crossed.
      .
      That said, I still think the team would be best served with a General Manager.
      .
      That said, I still think this season is about what kind of game day manager JC is.
      .
      The product will test out over the next 10.5 months hopefully. Maybe they are not a team ‘punching above their weight’.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        I agree Joel. It appears that once again (albeit in a slow, pain staking manner) the FO acquired the pieces they needed to be successful – minus a TRUE LB… which means it will fall on the head coach. Curtain must establish his ability to in-game manage, or this team will miss the playoffs and this season will mirror last season – perhaps with even a coaching change AGAIN

      • With regard to Curtin, something I noticed last year that I hope doesn’t reoccur again this year is that the Union usually started out the stronger side and generated more chances and offense than the opposing teams team (especially at home). But, the 2nd halves were usually more dominated by the opposing team. To me, one of the key reasons why was because the visiting teams were making good adjustments at the half while Curtin and the Union were sticking with the same strategy from the 1st half. Maybe i’m wrong and that’s just how I interpreted it, but hopefully Curtin is a year savvier now…

      • The Andy Reid Philosophy. Spent 14 years getting outsmarted by in game adjustments.

      • That’s a good point, and the best teams in every sport make clear adjustments at the half. In the Super Bowl both teams made adjustments at the half, and both made counter-adjustments which had major impacts on the game. Those are two of the best coaches for a reason. Curtin is a ways from that, but that can take a team like the Union over the top.

      • One of the other things Curtin has this year is Renee Muelenstern. He is with the club in Florida. He is at training and matches. He is evaluating the players and coaches.

        My understanding is he will be reviewing all of the matches on tape.

        He is a resource for Curtin and is the kind of guy who will tell Curtin exactly what he sees without sugar coating it.

        He will also tell the front office if at some point he believes the coach or anyone else is in over their head.

  2. At one point Jason Kreis was given a coaching job as a young, inexperienced former MLS player and his GM / personnel guy was also a relatively inexperienced ex-MLS player, Gareth Lagerway. That didn’t work out so bad for RSL. Sometimes you just have to give guys an opportunity. So far, I’ve liked what Curtin and Albright have done this off-season so let’s see what they can do. If these moves work out, I see no reason why Albright shouldn’t be given the GM title.

  3. By the way, I left out a HUGE point in this:

    Aristeguieta wears jersey number 42????!!!

  4. Agree with Dan’s last point. A single contention midfielder in Edu (who’s known to take some plays off) may spell disaster for this team, especially late in second halves and in late season games when tired legs are definitely a factor. Defensive midfield and defense (where there was a one to one replacement Valdes vs Vitoria) are areas where the Union didn’t do much in the off-season. Seems like they will have to count on players just stepping up and improve their performances from last year.

    • I think Maurice Edu shows himself to be among the class of the league this season. The holding role, his role, the role he has played at the highest levels is his. He is a strong midfielder and we will see that play out this year. The spine of this team is well intact.

  5. I think the concern over Edu at midfield is unwarranted. He was good enough and versatile enough to help the Union shore up positions they badly needed at CB while helping Ethan White. He can also dominate at midfield while adapting to those he’s teamed with. He was good enough to get called up by USMNT and the all-stars. Just like every player last year he was inconsistent while being back in MLS and with the usual Union drama and dysfunction. If Bradley had been more consistent with Toronto they could have had their 1st playoff appearance last year. I still think the Union should have kept Okugo and moved Edu to CB ONLY because of the back line. I would have loved to see Edu and Vitoria as the starting CB combo. Oh well… Edu is a top star on the Union and in the league and a top midfielder, it’s up to the coach’s game plans and communication skill to bring all of the pieces together so that the skilled players on the team can succeed.

    • Actually, I agree with all that. I think Edu is a world class athlete who is a very good midfielder and maybe an even better center back.

      It’s less concern over Edu himself and more a view toward the guys behind him. They may have less protection than they would with Okugo because he would stay back more.

      Edu may offer a different dynamic with different strengths, however. He’s historically shown to be more a No. 8 than a No. 6, and that’s how he was billed on arrival last year as well. So … goals. 🙂

      • True points. To Edu’s credit he has shown an ability to adapt. Playing CB shows that he can be responsible enough to cover the back line. He’ll be captain so he’ll have a lot of on field responsibilities.

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