A View from Afar / Commentary

Perspective, critique, and change for the Union

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

There are times when you need to step back and put things in some perspective and not overreact.

There are other times when you need to rip into some people to make them notice, and still others when it’s very clear a change is needed.

Philadelphia Union appear to need a bit of all this right now, but different individuals and components of the team deserve different batches. So let’s try them all.

Perspective: Red cards

The Union lost two games in which they were handed red cards. That’s not a reflection of a team’s quality. Red cards happen, and when they do, the team receiving one typically loses. This team isn’t as bad as they have shown the last two games, at least in terms of actual talent.

That said, the fact that two players not known for violent styles, including a player-coach, have received red cards in the last two games reflects poorly on the coaching staff, at least in terms of perception. What message is being sent in that locker room? Play tough? Be physical? Make your presence known? Whatever it is, players have gone overboard.

Now, if there was no message and the Zach Pfeffer and Fred red cards were one-off moments that didn’t derive in part from a coaching staff message, it opens up a teaching moment, even for Fred. The coaching staff needs to instruct their players to dial it down in coming games. No swings, no elbows, and no excuses.

Does that sound like common sense from Captain Obvious? Good. It should.

Critique: Rais Mbolhi’s performance and demeanor

Rais Mbolhi has been refusing media inquiries this season, and from one point of view, it’s hard to blame him. It may have seemed like he got beaten like a pinata last season when he didn’t deserve it, largely because Union management did deserve it for the way they brought Mbolhi into the team.

But intelligent people who read closely enough realized Mbolhi was not the real target of criticism back then.

That’s changed. He deserves the criticism now.

Mbolhi has faced 14 shots this season and saved just 8 of them. His on-field demeanor makes him appear like a sulky malcontent who has zero chemistry with his teammates. Some people just have that RBF, and maybe he’s a lovable guy off the field. But we’re not seeing it.

Mbolhi needs to get his act together performance-wise and in the way he carries himself on and off the field. This isn’t Bulgaria. American sports fans expect more of professional athletes, particularly when they are paid well, as Mbolhi is. He needs to show he belongs on the field and that he belongs with his teammates, and he needs to man up and face the public.

Change: Where does Maurice Edu belong?

Is there anyone out there who does not believe the Union would be a better team with Edu starting at center back? If so, make your case for why in the Comments section below.

Edu was a legitimate top-five center back last year, so good at times that people started talking about him again as a national team starter.

He’s in midfield this season, and while he was subpar against Chicago, he hasn’t been bad on the whole this season. (For a great articulation of what he’s done well, see Adam Cann’s piece from last week.)

Much like Amobi Okugo preferred to play midfield, Edu clearly prefers it as well, regardless of what either says publicly. And can you blame him? You touch the ball more, you get to push up into the attack, and it’s probably more fun.

But the Union are a better team with him at center back, and his national team prospects are probably better there too. The Union center backs have been weak, Ethan White is suspect in possession and shaky in moments, and Edu has the speed, size, instinct, positioning and overall athletic ability to clean up more defensive messes from center back than almost anyone in the league.

Mike Lahoud is a fairly good holding midfielder and an excellent team player. He’s better in his role right now than either starting center back is at his.

The question is whether the move is best for the Union and Edu in the long term. Edu is (likely) the team’s highest paid player and its captain, so he clearly gets a say in it. He needs to decide what his priorities are. I can’t blame a guy with a limited length for a career for wanting to do what he loves most. We all want that. Unfortunately for him, it’s probably not what’s best for his team right now.

Perspective: The Union really miss Chaco Maidana

Maidana’s absences have shown just how important he is to the club.

The Union have netted three goals this season. Maidana created all of them.

The relationship between him and Vincent Nogueira in midfield is what drives this team creatively. Without it, teams can sink in to help when Andrew Wenger tries to take a defender one-on-one, and they can comfortably watch for cross after cross.

Maidana brings something else, and the Union need it. They have played three good halves of soccer with him. Everything without him has been forgettable.

Critique: A matter of heart

Dave Zeitlin astutely pointed out in his column Tuesday that the Union let go of three core players who played with a lot of heart: Amobi Okugo, Danny Cruz, and Zac MacMath. And while I hate to be redundant, it’s a good enough point to be worth echoing, particularly considering my point about Mbolhi above.

Where are those guys now? Who will step up like that now?

Ray Gaddis and Sheanon Williams have always been similarly intense, albeit doing it in very different fashion from each other. (Gaddis is quiet and understated, while Williams is in your face.) They need a healthy, mouthy, and active Williams back on the field, as much for his play as for his guts.

And they need other players to demonstrate this as well. It’s that intangible thing that often separates winners from losers and stars from champions. Where is it? It’s time to see it.

Change: Who will play the No. 10?

If Maidana is still out this week, it means the Union are literally down to their fourth string No. 10 midfielder, whoever that is. Hopefully, it isn’t Vincent Nogueira, because he clearly doesn’t belong there.

So here’s an idea:

Antoine Hoppenot.

When he first broke into the Union lineup, he was treated like instant offense — and a clear striker, albeit a second striker. Later, there were efforts to put him on the wing, where he didn’t really excel.

But never forget that he broke into our consciousness as a second striker. Back in his college days, his team’s strategy was often to “get the ball to Antoine Hoppenot and let him go.” Obviously, this is a higher level, but Hoppenot has shown the ability to play well in MLS, even if he hasn’t shined over the last year. He may not be a pass-first type of player, but one thing he has often done is create action. The Union need that right now.

And honestly, they don’t have any better options.

Author’s note: This column was written in about an hour. (Yes, I can write 1,200 words in an hour. Proofreading is another issue.) I’ve been strapped for time with my recent columns, so they haven’t been up to my best standards. I’ll be doing some traveling in the coming weeks, so I may take a break from my column for a bit and hopefully return recharged with more time and better work.


  1. I think if Edu steps up and volunteers for a shift at center back, that would help with the leadership issue as well.
    And Hoppenot on the field vs. KC would be fun, if only to see if he can goad Feilhaber into getting sent off.
    Great article, especially for being done in just an hour.

    • Y’know, I thought the idea of Hoppenot at CAM was insane, but Feilhaber is a whiney, hair-trigger punk, so having Antoine try to get under his skin might indeed be awesome.

    • I don’t think Edu would volunteer for CB because Ethan White is a close friend of his, and it would essentially put Ethan back on the bench. That move has to come from Curtin to maintain chemistry. If you follow Edu and/or white on any social media, you can see those guys are close.

  2. Oh, and thanks for putting a name (‘RBF’) to a condition I have dealt with for much of my adult life.

  3. haha i have never thought about hoppenot as an attacking midfielder. why the hell not- if putting even an inexperienced cam on the field will allow nogueira to move back into his natural position and flourish i would say it is worth it.

    • John Ling says:

      And Nogs can yell at him in French and most others won’t know what he’s saying.
      Nogs (in French): Holy cow! You suck so much! How can you possibly not see Wenger open on the left and just lay the ball into his path?
      Wenger (to Hoppenot): What’d he say? I heard my name.
      Hoppenot: He can’t understand why you don’t get back on defense, or why you don’t check toward me more to make the passes simpler.
      Pure entertainment, I tell ya!

  4. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Hoppenot at ACM. He was scrimmaging there on Jan 30th. I agree they have no other options, barring somebody from Harrisburg, a move fraught with problems as the relationship is not like baseball’s forty-man roster and triple A farm teams, repeat, is not.

  5. Agree 110% with Edu at CB.
    Interesting thought with Hoppenot. He might actually be the best compliment for Nando in a 4-4-2 considering Le Toux’s current form.

  6. During the offseason wasn’t there talk about Edu being a CB? Long talks with Curtin, etc?
    This was, if memory serves, around the time of the rumored CDM pursuits … Kvist and someone else. I guess because those deals didn’t go through, the team really didn’t have a better option other than pushing Edu back up to midfield.

    • I’m thinking we need to revisit Edu at CB.

    • I remember that, as well. Which doesn’t really make any sense to me. We have 3 somewhat solid/serviceable cdms with Nogs, Lahoud (can’t believe I’m saying that) and Carroll. We also had another one, but…

      I think that if Edu doesn’t want to play CB, and that’s the reason why he doesn’t, we have a pretty big leadership problem. Personally, I think he would have been an upgrade to our WC squad at CB.

      If Edu is fine with it, he needs to be on the back line immediately.

  7. Atomic Spartan says:

    Great points.
    Having played in a 2-3-5 (yeah, I’m old), I took particular pleasure in snuffing out attacks. So message to ME: fullback can be fun, and it’s your only route back to USMNT, so suck it up, be the captain and save this foundering barge of a team.
    Unfortunately nothing save deportation can save us from Mbohli. The palms-up, the sullen attitude, the total lack of defensive organizational leadership – it is not hard to imagine why he has never been able to stick with a European club. Sak sucked at vetting this clueless malcontent. We did not need him, can’t afford him and will go nowhere with him.

    • i agree with this so much. i was 100% ready to forget the crappy situation and crappy start that was the beginning of mbohli’s time here. i was really looking forward to seeing the player that i saw fight off germany last summer but this is not the same guy. he makes all kinds of mistakes and then acts like a real shit to his teammates when things go wrong

    • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

      Ah, the mythical W-M formation!

    • How could you say that about Nick? He played (trialed, visited, pointed to on a map one day) GK for Nantes! If there’s one man in this league that knows goalkeeping talent when he sees it, that’s your guy!

  8. Yes, yes and yes. Agree with everything. Even Hoppenot. Why not?

    I think Edu playing the #6 is indicative of the fact that the team did not land one in the offseason. There was so much talk-up of moving him to CB when the season ended last year. I think starting Lahoud at MF, moving Edu back and benching White would be a great start.

  9. RBF? Well done, Dan. I learned something new today.

    The other reason to move Edu to centerback is that he can organize the defense. That’s an often overlooked attribute of a good central defender and it would help everyone else get on the same page defensively.

  10. I also agree with Edu at CB. His talents make him a very good CM, but that same set of abilities makes him a top tier CB in MLS.

    Has anyone really offered up a good explanation for Cruz to Norway? For his own good to get starts? He’s not a 19 year old kid – what’s wrong with him being an energy guy off the bench for 20-30 minutes each game? Isn’t that roughly where his ceiling is? Great teammate, lots of heart, and a useful sub. Like him or not, the team is worse off without him now.

    Couldn’t agree more on Williams. Always has been one of my favorite Union players. We could use a little fire out there now, short of the slap somebody upside the head kind.

    • My guess is loaning Cruz was a purely financial move. His salary was too high for a guy of his limited talents.

  11. Who plays center attacking mid for Harrisburg. Can he come and catch lightening for 90 minutes?

  12. Dan, your columns are always great and I look forward to them. You and Adam and Eli make this site a perennial joy to read, regardless of what’s happening on the pitch.

    So, having said that, if you tried to put Hoppenot at CAM, he would essentially be a 4th striker. And maybe that’s the best we can do for one game. And actually his style might complement the other three, since Nando is the target guy, Le Toux likes to run onto the ball, and Wenger likes to run at guys WITH the ball. So having Antoine to play off the defenders’ shoulders might stretch a defense out and create some chances. But don’t pretend that he would actually be a CAM, because he wouldn’t. Also, I have no idea who the hell would get them the ball, unless Nogueira can do it from deep.

  13. Also, there’s a tweet from Kevin Kincaid about Vitoria being away for the birth of a child. Is that an April Fool’s joke, or could things possibly become even worse???

  14. No hopping to Hoppenot at the ten spot.

  15. Is Jimmy McLaughlin capable of playing the #10 spot? To me Hoppenot is another player who will spend more time letting the ball bounce 10 feet away from him. He’ll flop too much and Feilhaber is more likely to get Hoppenot into foul trouble then the other way around.

  16. Sort of repeating myself here, but if Edu is “refusing” to play CB, it’s a problem. I agree with you that he is better served (along with the Union and the Nats) at CB. Which makes me wonder why he was dropped from the Nats. I think that Jurgen wanted guys who bought in to his preferences and system. Is it possible that he wanted Edu at CB and Mo refused? I have to wonder.

    If that’s the case, Curtin is in a tough spot, but where the Union stand (if you can call it standing), he has no choice but to put his foot down.


  17. Lord, have mercy…

  18. Bring in Meulensteen. Curtin and staff out.

    • Lipstick on a pig…

    • I really would like to see ANYTHING that Meulensteen has done for the team so far besides receive a bunch of hefty checks. From all the news (or lack there of) since his hiring, it’s frustrating to have someone with his knowledge and experience on the payroll and not see his face or hear his perspectives/comments on the team.

      Is he even watching the Union matches? And if he is, what is he actually supposed to do for this club?

      • +1

      • Agreed. But for some reason there seems to be a lot of commenters on here, Facebook, Reddit, BS that view him as the second coming of Christ.
        I think he’s just grifting the Union. (I worked for a little club called Manchester United…)

  19. Enough had been said already about Okugo’s departure, but it’s hard to let it go when its systemic consequences are hurting us so obviously. My only take on it is that the Unoin are a very forward thinking team…so much that they felt like even tho no real free agency exists in MLS why let that stop you from keeping good players? The FO basically pretended that free agency existed with Okugo!

    • Hmm. Thank you for the opportunity to respond in the affirmative. I’ve been patiently waiting for the time to ask the Okugo nay sayers if they missed his presence yet. He was overrated yes?

      • The Black Hand says:

        Soooo overrated. The way he played he developed cohesive play with Noguiera, allowing for a transitional threat out of the deep middle. The way he hustled back to defend and kept the club’s shape. Who wants that shit?? Give me names…meaningless names!!!!!!!!

      • Not an Okugo fan. But I can at least admit he is definitely missed this year.

  20. I know this is probably two days late and no one will read this, but, as I’ve said in the past, Edu is a fine CB during the run of play, but horrible, absolutely dreadful, on set pieces and corners. He doesn’t mark his man. He lets his man score. Often. I remember clearly, 3 times last year his man scoring from corners. Not that his man marking performances at D-mid this year have been any better. And paying him what the Union pay him, at Cb, is absurd. The blame goes to the FO, or lack there of. The Union’s problems won’t truly be solved until a genuine solution for the FO comes about.

    • The Black Hand says:

      I’m with you, All. Mo Edu was a publicity signing. He’s a talented player but he is hardly quality. I see him as a slightly below-average MLS midfielder and a slightly above-average MLS CB. There has been mention of Edu being a top five CB…I don’t see that. His set-piece marking (as you mention) is suspect, as is his ability to track his man on the run. His benefits come with his ability to organize the back line…man, do we ever need that!!!! Mo should forget about the midfield! I can’t believe that this is the same guy who played with the Rangers FC.
      Amobi Okugo is the piece we are missing. Like him, or not, he worked very well with Noguiera…and that is our key to success or failure.

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