Where’s the heart?

Photo: Earl Gardner

Much has been made of the questionable personnel moves of the last few seasons for the Philadelphia Union. The unnecessary goalkeeping signings. The inability to protect a quality young prospect in Pedro Riberio at the expense of locking up the underwhelming Fabinho. The lack of signings and draft missteps at key positions.

But an overlooked group of decisions has resulted in a huge lack of heart within the current Union squad.

Watching the final few minutes of the Union’s loss in Kansas City on Sunday, there was a certain level of inevitability to the result. As the corner kicks and long throw ins mounted up in the latter stages, the team just couldn’t seem to shake that “deer in the headlights” look. Is there anyone that didn’t wish Amobi Okugo was on the field, screaming to win a header on one of those late set pieces?

An original player, drafted in the team’s first season, you didn’t need to see a captain’s armband to know Okugo was a leader. He was everything Philadelphia fans would want in a player: tough and physical, candid and humble with both the fans and the media, and a guy who could rally the team around him. His visible disdain for diving and embellishment was just icing on the cake. There is no question of Maurice Edu’s quality, or his ability to look silky smooth on the pitch. But would you call him gritty? While Okugo is certainly a quality technical player, it was his grit that sets him apart from Edu.

The other obvious loss in the heart and grit department of the Union this season is Danny Cruz, another player that embodies the blue collar, hard working traits that soccer fans, particularly Philadelphia soccer fans, love. While there may be a few complaints about Cruz’ first touch or his decision making in the final third, you always knew you could count on him leaving every ounce of energy on the field.

photo: Paul Rudderow

Photo: Paul Rudderow

A less obvious, but a no less important loss in terms of heart, was Zac MacMath. MacMath is definitely not the most vocal goalkeeper in MLS. Nor he is the most commanding of his area. But MacMath was always a competitor in his time with the Union. And most importantly, the guys in front of him played for him. Much has been said of the discomforting scenes of Rais Mbolhi sparring with his defenders, complaining to the referee for phantom fouls, and refusing to talk to the media. MacMath, on the other hand, was frank in his conversations postgame, regardless of whether the team had won or lost, and you never doubted he had the backing of every single player on the pitch. (You’ll have to think the team in front of John McCarthy this weekend will offer a similar backing.)

Okugo is gone to Orlando. MacMath and Cruz are both out on loan. Your guess is as good as mine if we’ll ever see either in a Union shirt again, but we can be certain it won’t be this season if we do.

So it’s up to someone on the current roster to lead the charge. Who will it be?

I don’t have the answer quite yet. Edu is wearing the armband. Aristeguieta looks up for the challenge. Williams is always a fighter. But until we see a player step up and put the team on his back to take three points, the position of emotional leader of the team remains open.

The season is still salvageable after only five games. And despite the recent malaise in the fan base, a few gritty wins will help to wash away the anger and doubt.

This weekend is the perfect opportunity to begin. Mbolhi won’t be a distraction, and players are returning from suspension and injuries. If the Union are to win back the fans, they must show a little heart and produce an all out assault on expansion side NYCFC.

Nothing else should be acceptable.


  1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, but I don’t think those moves have been overlooked (by the fans, at least).

    The problems with the moves you mentioned aren’t purely about talent. They’re also about $ for $ value, and, as you mention, heart. M’bolhi sort of encapsulates all of them, and is the most glaring and most obvious.

    The Union seem to be an experiment in doing everything wrong.

    • Phil in Wilmington says:

      Don’t disagree that heart is missing, but you’re getting awfully sentimental over some players with a serious ceiling to what they were bringing to the table (Cruz and MacMath). I don’t see folks pining over Chris Seitz, and he’s a Philly castoff doing quite well now.

      • Well that may be true, but I don’t think I’m over-estimating them. Cruz is a role player. I was never on the haterade bandwagon.

        MacMath–I’m a fan. I think that he is a quality keeper and one that I didn’t think we needed to improve upon (at least not before other areas).

        But it’s not one particular player (whether MacMath, Okugo, or Cruz) but what seems to be a trend.

      • Phil in Wilmington says:

        Your sentiment is admirable.

  2. It is hard to forecast how different things would have begun for this team with Danny, Zach and Amobi on the team. I for one agree completely with your assessment and imagine this team hooked it hopes on the likes of Edu and M’Bohli to be the leaders of the team. One has never struck me as a “Regulators Mount Up!” leader while the other clearly wilted in that category as well.
    I was sort of hoping and counting on Maurice to tender hope in me about his quality and ability to pull the team through the tougher times and have been largely underwhelmed. Would Okugo have made a difference though? Who knows but having Vitoria and Edu and CB and Amobi at DM sure makes one think we would be sitting better than we are.
    In another article I commend JC for making the decision to put Edu on back line last week, but if that is how this team moves forward with him at CB, it only highlites how fucking stupid it was to not lock up Amobi Okugo for a few years. It only highlites the total lack of vision philosophy and plan – fly by the seat of your pants mind bending choices this club has made.

  3. No complaints here. I was extremely disappointed when they sent Okugo away.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Not sure that they sent Amobi away. I would bet that he asked to go…due to inept management not being able to see past their own noses.
      Now, if they only realized his quality and showed him that…the hand might have played out differently.
      Curtin’s decision to bench Amobi was the kiss of death.
      Mo Edu? No thanks!!!

      • Ok, they didn’t send him away as much as they made it clear to him that he wasn’t a key player in their future plans so he would want to move on.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Yes…and I share you sentiment, regarding that choice…made by Jim Curtin…which we are paying dearly for…and will for some time.

  4. Old Soccer Coach says:

    When Nogueira proved he was only a DCM, they had three starting-level salaries for two starting positions. And there seemed to be uncertainty about whether he would stay once he had some choice. We won’t know till the May salary numbers are posted, but they very likely have two veteran backups for the price of Okugo’s last Union salary.
    On the subject of grit and heart, may I commend Fernando Aristegueita, AKA “cast man” to your full attention? Shakes the fractured hand twice without missing a beat, puts in a full practice within 24 hours of having had surgery to insert a pin. It is fair to infer he has a high tolerance for pain.
    I have probably already mentioned this story. The January 30th open practice was one of the first days Eric Ayuk was in camp. Hoppenot was having to try to explain drills to him as English was a problem. In the first scrimmage like drill he contested a ball with Edu, the Captain and highest paid player. He knocked Edu flat, hard, cleanly. Edu got up slowly and was surprised and not pleased. I believe we should spell Ayuk “addytoode”. And he’s the equivalent of a high school senior.

    • I imagine the young man wondered who Maurice Edu was- as only an 18 year old can.

    • if only they had kept Okugo and Nogs, and let Edu walk. Could have had a good CB, LB, attacking MF with money not spent on Edu. Don’t even start on what else we could have had for the Rais money … #freetheUnion

    • I was there that day too and remember the play. Ayuk was also having a tough time figuring out the patterns on what was a somewhat intricate passing drill. I remember Curtin asking Hoppenot, Fred, and Wenger to help him out with understanding the drill and hearing them reply that they had already tried explaining it to him in 3 different languages! Ayuk has certainly come a long way in a short amount of time for a young guy in a completely new environment.

  5. hobosocks says:

    I agree with these sentiments, but I think this is a developing problem for a while now. I think back to the teams of a few years ago where the team’s fight was a strength. I always remember the 4-4 draw at PPL against the Revs in 2011, I think. The Union fought back from being down 3! goals.

    At that time they led the league in come from behind results, which all of us were complaining about, of course, but that also spoke to a fighting spirit that I think has been slowly leaking out of the Union.
    That insidious losing culture has been seeping in ever since Nowak went off the rails. I’ve seen that same culture in so many walks of life, and it’s a poison that is nearly impossible to eradicate once it sets in.
    I don’t think the heart went away with MacMath and Okugo though. I think its been slowly on its way out ever since the first coaching change.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      I think you’re last comment could be amended to take into account the last 5 months of the Nowak tenure. The heart started to leave when Mondragon, Seba, and Califf were all sent packing.

      • hobosocks says:

        That’s fair, and I’d agree. I mean, how many of us have worked in places where we had no faith in the leadership? I imagine quite a few. It’s very hard to keep up morale and put in your all under those circumstances.

    • alicat215 says:

      BINGO! Exactly Hobosocks….exactly

  6. Dr. Union says:

    This is a great article. Something I had raised previously in comments on a previous article. Anyway Nando doing anything he can to keep playing even with a fractured hand clearly shows heart as people mentioned. The other person I see on the field attempting to take this team on their back is Ray Gaddis while he clearly isn’t a veteran on the team. I clearly saw him in M’bohli’s face last week telling him to get his $%^& together cause they were going to need some saves in this game. Of course M’bohli shrugged it off and did nothing, but at least someone got in his face. Gaddis and Nando to me have the most heart on this team and that is kind of a sad thing to say since you could easily point out at least 5 or 6 guys in previous years that would do what they can to scrap and claw to the finish. Even though last year they had the same problem there was more push to try to get things right I feel.

  7. I just wish there was some sort of plan.

  8. Nando. Nuff said. Plays like a MAN for 90 minutes straight, never takes a play off.

    • Maybe in a couple years we will tell tale tales of him the likes of John Henry and Paul Bunyan.
      You remember the game when The Striker swam into the Delaware and stopped the barge from crashing into the Commodore Barry then scored a brace. Yeah man. I saw that game.

    • Jim Presti says:

      Aristiguieta is just savage. Broken hand and doesn’t even bat an eye. Hustled for 96 minutes. Gets a pin inserted earlier this week and is back practicing and probably starting Saturday. Savage.

  9. OneManWolfpack says:

    If they don’t win this weekend, or lose another lead late, I fear what “even lower” will look like.

  10. Correct me if I’m wrong but the U lost as many games last year after the 75 th minute with the guys you mentioned. Something else is wrong like the overall culture of the organization. No money to spend so do it with guts but not talent? Not going to work.

    • The Black Hand says:

      There was money to be spent…not a lot, but there was some. Our FO just searched out the worst way to spread that cash…and executed masterfully.

  11. Amobi Ribiero says:

    There is no clear plan in place. It’s telling when former players (Okugo) and coaches (Aleko) underhandedly mock the U front office on social media.

  12. The Cliff of Union Despair says:

    The management team here at the Cliff of Union Despair would like to offer our services. We specialize in the treatment of the disheartened, the desparate, the downtrodden, the disgusted, the disenfranchised, the discombobulated, the disconsolate, the dismayed, the dejected, the depressed, the discouraged, the downcast, the dispirited, the dampened, and the disappointed.

    We have adopted the Sugarman Service Style in our service offerings to combat the disease of the “15Ds” as we like to call it. Our comprehensive service package is competitively priced at $5,000 a day. The package includes no treatment of any kind, no additional value as time wears on, and we certainly won’t treat the symptoms of your 15Ds, but we promise to address and cure you of them tomorrow.

    We do hope that you will join us soon at the CUD, because it is like our founder Jay Sugarman always says, “Why make people happy, when you can make money.”

    • The Black Hand says:

      The “CUD’ is already franchised and expanding. Just south of the Cliff, we now have the “Precipice of Union Despair”…in pre-pre-construction. It is a pre-paid community, just waiting for residents, seeking the ‘good-life’…after we build…at some point. Reserve your plot, of Heaven, now. Checks can be made out to CASH, he’s our treasurer here at P.U.D.

  13. I do not understand all the recent love for Danny Cruz on this site. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, perhaps?
    Cruz may be a great person off the field, but I have never enjoyed watching him play on it. His skill level has not, and probably never will be, of professional quality. (At least not of the quality I want to spend money watching.)
    I can think of many reasons for the Union’s troubles this summer. IMO, the absence of Danny Cruz is not one of them.
    On the other hand, I completely agree with you that losing Amobi Okugo was a big setback.

  14. disagree
    Cruz was a weak link
    Amobi’s tendency to ball-watch instead of mark led to many goals given
    team is better now
    they need good health and they need focus for an entire match
    I am trying to break your heart

    • The Black Hand says:

      With all due respect, I disagree…with your disagreeing.
      Cruz was not a terribly-gifted footballer…BUT, this team had better showings with him, than they did without him. I’m not saying his starts, but when he featured. He offered relentless pace…and he even did a couple of nice things, while at it…a couple. Having his energy alone, is a nice option to have on the bench. All of that said, I think the “love” is more for the depth he offered the club.
      Amobi, the ball-watcher??? You might be able to count the total on one hand. Edu, on the other hand, is good for one or two…every single match…regardless of position.
      We are far from better now. We have no defensive midfield. (Are we really considering Michael Lahoud to be a starting 6??? Decent player…on the bench. Carroll??? Please, sir…my head will explode, if we are actually even thinking abou that.) Our outside midfielder/wings are dogshit…that includes Ayuk (Now, he smells less pungent but is still kinda dogshit…if we are talking about putting a legit XI on the pitch). John McCarthy is our starting (and only????) goalkeeper…with Rais M’bohli not even on the continent. NYCFC (H), NYCFC (A) are the next two fixtures…think about that. This club is NOT better now.
      Your last comment leads me to believe that my whole tirade was for naught…BLASTED!!!

      • Well, I really should be working, but…

        Here’s my take on Danny Cruz, not that anybody asked. I remember a specific moment in a game in 2013 – I can’t remember which one but it was toward the end of the season – when the Union desperately needed a goal late in the game and Danny Cruz took the ball up the field on a fast break and cut in field toward the top of the box, faced by three defenders with two union players nearby. One – I can’t remember who – was on the outside shoulder of one of the center backs and the other tried to make a streaking run behind the defense. On the replay – the camera was right behind DC so it was a good POV replay – there was a split second moment when Cruz was holding the ball and there was a small opening between the center backs just as the third Union player cut behind one of them (he was still onsides). Cruz didn’t take the pass; the defense closed in, and the ball went out of bounds. If he had taken that pass, it’s a 1v1 with the keeper and a probable goal. A hard pass to make, sure, but Cruz never lacked for confidence. What he lacked was anticipation and vision. THAT was his ceiling. That can be taught to an extent with experience, but only up to a point, and I think Cruz is past that point.

        Cruz improved markedly in the 2013-2014 off season, to the point where he actually fulfilled his best role (I think) as a valuable backup winger. He hasn’t hit his ceiling in terms of skill or vision, but he’s also not going to be great in either of those departments. I think the off-season loan was a good move, and he’ll benefit from experience and a fresh perspective overseas. I just think it was probably the worst time (for the Union) to loan him. So in a way, I think both perspectives on Cruz are right: the guy has shown the dedication necessary to improve, much like MacMath and Gaddis. But he’s not going to ever be a marquis player, even for the Union.

        But man, we could use him now…

      • The Black Hand says:

        Danny Cruz has been playing the game for less than 10 years…just sayin’.

      • My thoughts on Cruz can be summed up in this quote.
        Johan Cruyff has stated: “All coaches talk too much about running a lot. I say it’s not necessary to run so much. Soccer is a game that’s played with the brain. You need to be in the right place at the right time, not too early, not too late. If it’s only about running, then you create a running game. I don’t think it is a running game. It is a beautiful game. It is about rhythm and dictating the tempo, and so on. Not only about playing forward, but about the journey the ball takes as it is moved toward goal. In order to protect the goal, you should protect the ball. That means you must be comfortable with the ball – first touch, shielding, passing, bending, shooting the ball. Isn’t that the key, you don’t have to win physical battles if you don’t get into them. If the ball’s always on the ground who cares if the kid’s not good in the air. If you’re not creating 50/50 balls you don’t need the kids who can win most of them.”

        If Cruyff cannot convince of why Danny Cruz should not be on this team nothing will

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *