Down in the depths

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

On March 1, the Union first XI looked pretty solid on paper.

The signing of Fernando “Hank Scorpio” Aristeguieta filled the most obvious hole at the top of the formation, a 4-2-3-1 which featured a dangerous pair of fullbacks, a talented midfield playing in its second year together, and a trio of a attackers who could strike fear in the hearts of MLS defenses. Not to mention a goalkeeper who singlehandedly held off world champion Germany for 120 minutes in a little tournament in Brazil.

But MLS rosters have 30 guys on them, not 11, and you have to dress 18 for each game day. That depth is what the Union are lacking. The Union roster is like a balloon, a thin layer of rubber surrounding an empty void.

It didn’t take long for that void to be exposed. In the span of just three games — 15 calendar days — C.J. Sapong suffered a very painful face injury, Cristian Maidana’s knee twisted, Sheanon Williams’ hamstring stopped hamming, and Zach Pfeffer experienced a sudden flash of the red mist, Stevie Gerrard-style. The Union have lost four of their thirteen best players, and the season’s not even 2/17 done. (Man, I was really hoping that would be a more manageable fraction.)

There’s no question the Union have been unlucky to start the season, both in terms of player absences and insane refereeing decisions.

You might say that the Union have been “a bit unlucky” so far, much like you might say that Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia in winter was “a bit foolhardy.”

But even though the circumstances so far have been quite unlucky, the result of those circumstances is directly the consequence of the Union’s decisions.

Depth charges

The Union put together a roster that has no depth, relying on loan signings very late in the offseason and unloading productive players to make room for them. The natural consequence is a team that looks disjointed at full strength and is forced to call on wholly inadequate options as soon as their first choice is unavailable.

Through these three games, we’ve seen the lack of solid, MLS-quality depth on the roster come through at every position. Start at forward, where the Union have at least one solid MLS veteran behind the top two choices. But Conor Casey wasn’t even in the 18 against Dallas, replaced by a second round draft pick out of NAIA. That’s not to say that Catic can’t be a good player because of his pedigree. It is, though, not a good sign that by week 3 your backup striker is a guy with zero MLS minutes.

At midfield, the Union were at least theoretically set with Zach Pfeffer behind Maidana; but the 20-year-old couldn’t last 45 minutes on the pitch, and now the Union face the prospect of starting Grandpa Fred at CAM next week.

Sebastien Le Toux and Andrew Wenger are both in horrible slumps to start the season. But Danny Cruz — solid MLS depth — now plies his trade in the land of the midnight sun, thanks to a loan described by Chris Albright as a salary-cap move. Let’s be clear: the Union should have room under the cap for a backup winger. Instead, Curtin was forced to turn to Eric Ayuk, a raw 18-year-old out of the Thai second division. I was not personally aware that there was a Thai first division, let alone a Thai second division. (Of course, I didn’t know there was a South Korean second division either.)

Meanwhile, the defense. Your primary backup fullbacks are Michael Lahoud (a central midfielder) and Fabinho (not a soccer player). I realize that I rag on Fabinho a lot, but he put in a wretched shift off the bench on Saturday, complete with a near-perfect through ball of a clearance delivered right to Akindele for the first Dallas goal. Let’s not forget that this offseason, instead of firing Fabinho into the sun, the Union protected him in the expansion draft over Pedro Ribeiro. The Union can’t afford to have Williams miss much time at all — not because he doesn’t have cover at right back, but because shifting Gaddis over to right back requires Fabinho to step on the pitch. That’s a recipe for disaster.

The players that have stepped on the pitch have been out-of-sync for almost three straight games. Steven Vitoria’s primary contribution to the squad so far has been scrambling to cover for Ethan White; it’s clear the two defenders aren’t on the same page yet at all. Rais Mbolhi, understandably, looks fairly unsettled behind his brittle backline. Aristeguieta is putting in exemplary hard work all over the park, but his connections with both Wenger and Le Toux are both largely nonexistent so far.

Look at, for example, set pieces. In the Dallas game, the team had no shortage of corners in the first half. The Union have more height than they’ve ever had before (why hello there, Vitoria), yet the corners led to nothing resembling a scoring chance. Even the headers away were too infrequently controlled by the Union, a mass of bodies in the box not supported by intelligent positioning around the 18. Early-season jitters are to be expected, of course, but the Union often look like a team that can’t get out of their own way.

The Union roster came together very late in the offseason, and it’s showing.

The MLS season is long, and it can be a slog. In a physical league with huge travel demands, every team is going to rely on its squad depth at some point in the campaign.

Unfortunately, the Union learned all too quickly that any depth they might have is a mirage.


  1. “the Union should have room under the cap for a backup winger.”

    They do, just not the 100K salary Cruz was making.

    • You’d like to think a team with playoff aspirations could swing a 100k 3rd winger for 20 minutes a game and spot starts. I guess the big ask is what will they do with that cap money?

  2. This is kind of why I thought signing Edu was a mistake. He isn’t a bad player like many are making him out to be. But by the Unions standards he is an expensive one. Dmid is one of the easier positions to fill in the league and it would have been necessary if it were not for The Philadelphia Unions Plan To Systematically Alienate Amobi Okugo (P.U.P.T.S.A.A.O. for short). Remove Edu from the Union and you have the budget for 3 or 4 quality MLS level starters.
    The main reason Edu is on the team at this point is with him who would be the captain? Letoux? Williams? Both are terrifying prospects in their own way.

    • Not to mention Rais Mbolhi’s salary.

    • Elementary my dear Watson. And to be clear. I dont think Mo is bad. He’s just not very good for that kind of money when half of would have picked up the position for three years or so and the rest could have gone……….

      • Mo is good. very good. Worth his salary good. But for a MLS team he is a luxury item. And the Union are a Spartan set up.

    • You think Edu is just here to be the captain? I mean its an arm band…Being captain on a soccer team is fifty times more over-rated than a hockey captain.

      • Captain. Public face. Calming influence. It all morphs into one.

      • All over-rated.

      • I disagree with your hot take sir.

      • a misallocation of money was Maurice Edu.
        but now he is my sister’s boyfriend who I’m not the craziest about — but have to respect her wishes— when the dude I thought was really cool— went away.
        luckily for him though– the number he picked up in replacement — is pretty hot.

    • Okugo could have been.

      • I have no big love for Okugo, as I’ve said before. And he had declared in the past his desire to try European football, which would indicate to me, that the U would have had trouble re-signing him long term. But, at this point I agree he would have been a better option than Mo, for a cheaper price.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Curtin lost Amobi. Had he shown Okugo that he is a part of this club’s foundation, I speculate that Amobi would have signed. I think that Okugo made his mind up, as he watched his beloved club take on the Seattle Sounders (in the Philadelphia Union’s first ever game of such magnitude)…from the bench
        Every American footballer aspires to play in Europe, Amobi Okugo is no different.

      • YES!!!!!
        It’s obvious The Onion lost Amobi– cause he signed for another MLS team that said, “Hey we think you are really good. Here’s some money and good faith— by the way how would you feel about playing with Kaka— not another fucking Dmid redundant to you.”
        Oh this fucking irritates me SO much…. this talk that we couldn’t retain Okugo because he wanted to play in europe.
        Stop drinking the Kool Aid people. Do NOT believe the narrative you hear from the FO. Yes he wants to play in europe- he’s a young man- he wants to be valued first. FUCK.
        Not you TBH. I’m just railing under your obvious truth.

      • it was a fucking insult to #14 bringing in Maurice Edu.
        Sealed his fate.

      • Not drinking the cool aide, in the least. Just going by what I’ve read. And as I said, I’d rather have Okugo than Mo. To me, Mo’s signing was more about his recognizable name, as a draw to get more money. You can argue how much this has/hasn’t translated. IMO, they can’t make much more money because he’s here. Again, the money spent on Mo, would have been better spent somewhere else.

      • The signing of Maurice Edu was about perception.
        It was putting a band aid on your elbow when you’ve skinned your knee.
        I’m not hacking on you All4U. You know my feelings regarding Okugo. I am convicted it is the dumbest fucking choice this team could have used to spend $1.2 million dollars or so on and seals their fate with me that it has no idea how to evaluate true talent — let alone build around it. Edu was about perception and was surplus to goods and very expensive to boot.

      • Agree, agree, Joel.

      • Agree, agree again. I know you weren’t harping on me. I just wanted to make my position clear.

      • Exactly, give me 15 young guns that want to ply their trade in Europe. Its every american footballers dream…..can’t say thats a negative….its reality. Whats wrong with keeping players that may have the ability to play in Europe….for an eventual PROFIT!!! Heaven forbid we make money…..

    • I think Mbolhi is the bigger waste of money (though I’m not sure how much money that is). But I don’t see an appreciable upgrade over MacMath to date. Was recalling his open cup heroics against Dallas at last year’s Open Cup semifinal game.

      I’m not saying Mbohlhi is bad, but just don’t see how he’s worth special investment.

      I don’t have a problem with Edu. Think he plays pretty well, better than nearly every other player on the pitch right now.

      • I have heard rumors to the effect that Mbohli is getting PAID.

      • maybe another misallocation of funds.

      • old soccer coach says:

        As of last fall’s (September’s ??) publication of salaries by the players’ union, Mbohli gets a salary of $240,000, but “google” MLS salaries for yourself to see the raw data please so I can feel intellectually responsible, as my memory is old. The next slug of data usually has appeared in May or June of the new season, assuming nothing has changed. Le Toux is getting comparable money, Nogueira is roughly 100 k more, Edu was 650 K on his loan deal (no idea now). Okugo was in the moderately low 200 Ks. Maidana was slightly under 200 K last year.

      • Mbolhi was another mistake. Mcmath never excited me either, but to bring in Mbolhi after drafting Blake makes no sense.

  3. Captain Gaddis. Mild mannered but shows up to save the day in the nick of time!

  4. I completely agree that Fabinho shouldn’t be anywhere near the field. But I can’t understand the love for Cruz. I’ve seen enough, to know I’ve seen enough. Honestly can we take a break from loving the blue collar guys a bit to realize Cruz doesn’t have soccer skills. He runs hard, yes. He fights for every ball, yes. He complains about every call against him, yes. Do I want the ball at his feet, NO. Do I want him to be passed to, NO. Do I want him to pass, NO. Do I want him on the field, NO.

  5. When you do not have a legit Sporting Director and you are making decisions by the seat of your pants…..this is what you get.

    Philadelphia Union = Comedy of Errors for 6 straight years

  6. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    Haven’t commented in a while, but the lack of depth is what quite a few of us were complaining about during the preseason. If this team was a car, it would be held together by rust and duct tape. To Joel’s constant point, there is no plan. Add, subtract, add, subtract, repeat. It’s been like this since 2010 and will never change as long as Sak is here. He is the constant.

  7. The league just needs to restore competitive balance and allow the union to run a 5-5-5 formation.

  8. OneManWolfpack says:

    “… and Fabinho (not a soccer player)” – BEST LINE EVER

  9. GM should now be a priority and by that I mean a real soccer guy with a the IQ and business pedigree,not some rental wait and see tryout! Albright and Curtin are out of their depth and Sakiewicz is a threat to become a mini Paul Holmgren. The 2nd priority at some point has to be a financially smart and competitive ownership in order to put a solid FO in place and attract quality talent and depth. I admire the SoB’s efforts at pointing out the short comings of MLS officiating with regards to the Union. However, I want to see them start to openly challenge the ownership, management, and coaching decisions made from top to bottom by the Union. This is a sickeningly weak organization. I’ve watched other MLS games and the lack of quality depth(not the Cruz,Hoppenot,Lahoud, Alves, Carroll…etc) on the Union is extremely troubling. In my opinion just basic skill and soccer IQ wise, the only quality starting talent on the Union compared to serious MLS squads are M’Bolhi, Victoria, Edu, Nogueira, Maidana and potentially Aristaguieta and Sapong, who need to be consistent. The rest of the Union “starters” aren’t starters on top MLS teams and should be the depth players along with Casey coming in for what should be the starters. Again Philadelphia’s MLS team is run like a 2nd rate outpost by weak ownership, management and coaching. They’ve scored 3 accidental goals going into the 4th week. Rant over!

  10. old soccer coach says:

    Two quick, minor inconsequential corrections to Peter Andrews’ opening. Rosters are now 28 not 30 since the 2015 CBA and Napoleon did not invade Russia in 1812 in the winter; He invaded in June, took Moscow in September, was forced to retreat back along that self-same Smolensk Road by a defeat at Malo-Yaroslavets that never gets any mention at the end of September and RETREATED throughout the fall and into the winter. It’s the retreat through the already looted territory of the Smolensk road that causes the starvation and the winter that causes the freezing to death, hence Hitler’s so-called Stand Fast order in the late fall of 1941 as the prospect of retreat was terrifying his generals.

  11. old soccer coach says:

    Many people in various comments among various articles on this site have worried about the absence of a plan by Chris Albright and Jim Curtin.
    if you would care to do so, conduct for yourself the following exercise. Google MLS salaries, find the data posted by the players’ union, and acquire last September’s salary data for the Union as the team was then. Then acquire Sapong’s. You with have nothing on Vitoria, Aristeguieta; Catic, Bird, Lee; Ayuk. Your data on Gaddis; Casey, Carroll, Fred; and Edu will be wrong because of contract changes since the data was compiled. Make what seem to you reasonable guesses given your understandings of club financial practice, the soccer wage market in Portugal and France, and the new 2015 CBA minimum salary, remembering as you guess that the club was uncertain how the CBA would come down.
    Having generated your reasonable guesstimate of the overall salary situation, on a spreadsheet’s grid or in a word processor’s chart making capability, layout your estimate of the theoretical starting XI in position on the grid, with bench players included in whatever fashion makes most visual sense to you for a total of 27, having left a blank space in the grid under each of the 27 names.
    Then under each player fill in the salary data.
    I suspect you may see a pattern, and infer a plan.

    • I will grant you said exercise. And acquiesce the plan for arguments sake. What then is the Vision. What then is the Philosophy.
      I have a Plan to lose weight. One day eat right the next do not. Exercise sporadically and wonder why the weight does not come off. There is a plan. But does that plan come in line with the Vision I have for myself or the Philosophy for living that allows for everything to occur and is the bedrock of my being?
      Chip Kelly. I trust he has a Vision. Philosophy. Plan. and we are seeing the ramifications of all that in his decisions and the backing of the Owner as expressed today. We may not understand it and nor may we ever be told exactly what it is.
      But I trust he has one. Why is that?
      Could be he comes with some pedigree. Could be he has won at every level he has managed. Could be he has 2 winning seasons in 2 opportunities. Could be he inherited both some players that do and do not fit into his V.P.P. and is setting about to change all that.
      Can we answer in the affirmative to any of those “could be’s” with our own football club down Chester way?
      For six years it has been all haphazard. Again, I will grant you the Plan. But for my exercise, I would like to ask? What, truly, have we seen from any level of this club that convicts you there is a Vision or Philosophy.
      What have we seen from the third manager in 6 years to convict you that he is capable of managing at this level, save a few wins against NASL teams and a club or two on a “magical cup run” that ended with sitting arguably the best player the team has ever employed against a team that flew across the United States just a day or two before and an absolute crash and burn down the finishing stretch against teams that were of moderate grade.
      I acquiesce the plan. I want a philosophy and a vision too- and that is a club wide cultural phenomenon and I just don’t feel it.

    • May I infer the summation of ‘the plan’, is frugality?

  12. Connor Casey has a good, (not GREAT, not VERY good) history in this league. Fond memories of his past exploits are well deserved. However, I canot see how anyone watches his last year’s performance on the field and says with a straight face that he belongs on this team’s 18 any more. Connor’s legs are shot. He can no longer run with this league. He can no longer handle a ball at his feet for more than one touch without turning it over. Even the one touch is far too heavy, too often.
    That having been said, if your justification for wanting Casey on the 18 is the Wile E. Coyote (Super GENIUS) plan of putting a big pidgeon pedestal (read S-T-A-T-U-E) in front of their goal with the hope that The U will bounce one in off his head every fifth game or so. Well…I guess it’s a “plan”. (But who’s gonna cover the OTHER 8999 yards of the pitch so we’re still playing 11 v 11???)
    As for Cruz being “solid MLS depth”, I pretty much stopped reading there. (Ahem)
    70 Games
    60 Starts
    7 Goals (2 in one game within a couple of minutes)
    5 Assists
    Again, stop it. Little ability to handle a ball with skill or get rid of it with any quality. How long were they supposed to “settle” for that? At THAT price?

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