A View from Afar / Commentary

What the next Union general manager must do

Photo: Daniel Studio

“This team will never be successful until they hire a person who knows what they are doing to scout, draft, trade and sign players. You literally could rebuild this team in a year if they brought in someone who could actually evaluate talent.” — PSP reader Shane, May 4

As Philadelphia Union tunnel their way to rock bottom, perhaps the longest general manager search in American sports history drags on.

Union chairman Jay Sugarman prompted optimism in November when he said the club would hire a general manager for the first time and ostensibly end the dysfunction that has intermittently marred the club’s acquisitions since Peter Nowak allegedly tried to pocket transfer fees for Michael Orozco Fiscal four years ago.

Six months later, there remains no sign the team has made any progress in the GM search.

Since John Hackworth was fired last year, the Union have generally lacked vision and direction on personnel moves. They gave players away for fractions of their worth this past off-season, failed to adequately replace key departures like Amobi Okugo, and scrambled to fill other holes as transfer windows closed in February.

This subpar personnel management off the field has produced a fundamentally flawed club on the field. Regardless of whether Jim Curtin is a good manager or not, he doesn’t exactly have all the right puzzle pieces to fit together. Curtin plays a two-target forward set more than anyone else in MLS — and perhaps the world, since nobody really chooses such an approach — at least partially (and hopefully not entirely) because of a lack of roster balance at the striker position. Like his predecessor, Curtin starts two natural right backs because the Union don’t have an adequate left back. Converted forwards play the wings of a 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1). And we know all about the goalkeeping fiasco of the past year.

So yes, the Union still need to hire a general manager. But you already read that column — in February, weeks before opening day.

Here’s a look at who that general manager needs to be and how that person should philosophically approach the job.

What is the profile of a GM?

Many have looked to Rene Meulensteen as a prospective GM, in part because it’s hard to believe Meulensteen can get paid to watch so many Union games and do nothing else of observable substance.

But don’t fall into the trap of thinking the Union need a big name or former manager in the role. They don’t.

The Union’s next general manager must have the following traits:

  • A creative thinker capable of critical analysis;
  • Knowledge of MLS roster rules as well as an outsider can, thereby indicating a capability of mastering those rules once they become an insider;
  • An understanding of economics, Moneyball/Soccernomics and the concept of Buy Low/Sell High;
  • Ability to manage a budget — i.e. the club’s salary budget;
  • A personal touch that allows him/her to navigate social networks and build a good contact list of general managers, coaches, scouts and agents and thereby learn of available players sooner than later;
  • Awareness and ability to take advantage of technical tools, such as Wyscout.com and Opta Stats, without relying solely upon them.

American professional sports teams like the Boston Red Sox, Oakland A’s, Houston Rockets and others have shown you don’t need a former player or coach handling personnel transactions. Theo Epstein worked in public relations. Daryl Morey was a statistics guru. Paul DePodesta was an economist. Even Southampton FC hired a former hockey coach as their club chairman after he impressed club ownership at the World Economic Forum.

Whether the Union’s next general manager is an economist, analyst, lawyer, or retired soccer player, this person must have critical thinking skills, creativity, intelligence, and social wherewithal. (Yes, my full-time job is as an analyst. And yes, I’m available.)

The Union don’t merely need a former coach.

They need a thinker.

The offseason starts before the regular season ends

You can’t wait till the regular season ends to begin looking at offseason signings. That can leave a team crammed for time and rushing to bring players in before the various transfer windows close. Maybe that turns out just fine. Or maybe your team reaches for players that don’t pan out because they didn’t scout the player enough while rushing through alternatives before the transfer windows slam shut. Or perhaps your team ends up signing whatever good players they can get, regardless of how well they fit together.

This has happened to the Union each of the last two seasons. This off-season, the Union secured two good additions in Fernando Aristeguieta and C.J. Sapong — who unfortunately play the same position, as does Conor Casey, who showed last year he is still very effective when fit. A year ago, John Hackworth made some great signings in Chaco Maidana, Vincent Nogueira and Maurice Edu, but he ran into trouble when he had to accept that Nogueira and Edu are also best played in similar positions (hybrid No. 8/No. 6). Given more time, Hackworth probably would have sorted it out, but he didn’t have more time.

For an example of how to do it right, look at Columbus this past off-season. They added Kei Kamara, Mohammad Saeid, Kristin Steindorsson and Chris Klute before Christmas. Columbus clearly identified those players and needs early, and the new pieces slid into the roster seamlessly. All have made an impact this season.

Prioritize your spending on key positions of need

Top playmakers and strikers are hard to find. Once you find them, they expect to get paid.

Plan to burn your DP slots on those positions.

Each team gets three DP slots. Use them all, and spend your third on a player of any position (except goalkeeper!) that you think can do the most good. (Yes, that means a player like Edu was rightly considered as a DP.)

Now, can that change if you find a guy like Maidana or Aristeguieta for sub-DP money? Sure, potentially. But you need to have a plan on where and how you’re going to spend money. With the Union, we have seen no evidence of a plan since Hackworth departed.

Balance out your coaching staff

Every MLS staff should have at least four coaches: One each with a background in attack, midfield, defense and goalkeeping.

The most important of those may be someone with a creative, attacking mindset. If your coaching staff lacks creativity, your team’s lineup and tactics probably will too.

Right now, the Union appear to lack creativity. Maybe that’s on the coaches. Maybe it’s on injuries to Maidana and Nogueira. It’s probably a bit of both.

Balance your roster

Most teams only play one right back at a time. They only play one target forward. And yes, they only play one goalkeeper.

The Union must stop overloading at some positions while failing to man others. First it was right back and defensive midfield, and then it was goalkeeper, while a true, quality left back hasn’t graced the roster since Jordan Harvey departed for Vancouver.

Now it’s target forward.  This off-season, the Union addressed a lack of depth at target forward by adding Sapong and then Aristeguieta. Both are quality players, but each is best deployed at center forward, just like Conor Casey. Now the Union may be the only team in the league that regularly deploys two target forwards at once. Predictably, those forwards keep running into the same spaces and reducing each other’s productivity.

Meanwhile, the Union don’t have a single second striker other than Sebastien Le Toux — unless you count Antoine Hoppenot, and Jim Curtin clearly does not. This is a problem for a team that deploys two-striker sets about 25 percent of the time. (That percentage is a guesstimate.)

Philadelphia must lay out a blueprint that identifies how many players they want at each position — and then actually follow it. This is basic nuts and bolts stuff. Stop wasting roster spots.

Build a scouting network

Teams like Portland and Kansas City have built out teams of scouts. Vancouver has developed a scouting pipeline to Uruguay. Dallas, Los Angeles and New England have tapped homegrown players and found real contributors.

Philadelphia needs their version.

It’s one thing to use options like Wyscout.com and find a player through recommendations, like the Union tapped Aristeguieta through Alejandro Moreno. But that’s not enough.

MLS isn’t a rich league yet, but this is something the Union can do more on. Other clubs do. The Union have invested in their youth academy, and Zach Pfeffer is finally blossoming into a legitimate contributor in MLS. That’s a good part of a plan. What else is there?

Buy low, sell high

Amobi Okugo: Gone for peanuts. Zac MacMath: Gone for peanut shells. Austin Berry: Just gone.

Rais Mbolhi, likely highest salary in the league for a goalkeeper. Freddy Adu, vastly overpaid (and thereby overpressured).

The Union have overpaid for big name signings while parting with other players when their values were at a minimum.

It hasn’t always been like that, mind you. Hackworth sold Michael Farfan to Cruz Azul and acquired Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana in bargain deals.

The Union need to make these prudent transactions on a regular basis, and that probably requires a smart general manager who is fully engaged on that job, not splitting his attention with coaching. No more overpaying for supposed big names. But they also have to recognize value and drop dollars when it’s worth it.

Trade/sell excess assets, don’t stockpile them

Sheanon Williams looks like he’s on his way out of Philadelphia. If so, he’s probably happy to hear it, because he’s good enough to start for most MLS clubs without dealing with all the baggage in the Union organization.

He or Ray Gaddis should have been traded already. Forget for now about which one should be traded. They are both good right backs. Each has value. Each would bring something in return.

Meanwhile, Corey Ashe is sitting on the bench in Houston, Toronto is playing left-footed Justin Morrow at right back due to Mark Bloom’s injury, and Columbus absolutely stole Chris Klute from Colorado in December, trading down just five spots in the draft to get him. All these left backs are out there. But a deal still can’t be done?

There is no point to stockpiling assets at particular positions while other positions are left unaddressed. It doesn’t matter whether you like both Gaddis and Williams. This is the nature of the business.

You have limited resources. Use your assets to their full potential. Sometimes, that means trading them to get another asset somewhere else.

Convince ownership to spend actual money on Designated Players

The DP rule exists for a reason: So team owners can spend their own extra money on top players.

The Union have instead often used allocation money to buy down player salaries so that club ownership won’t have to pay out of pocket for DPs. That’s fine, but you only get so much allocation money to spend. By spending it on DP paydowns, you can’t spend it on other acquisitions.

Obviously, this last one falls largely on Union ownership. If they’re not willing to shell out the cash, then you have to make due with what you have.

The GM has to articulate a good case for spending extra money on DPs. As for how to make that case? You have to spend money to make money.

Be creative, but learn from others

One thing the current regime did well this off-season was acquire players on loans with options to purchase.  It means they can evaluate Aristeguieta and Stephen Vitoria all season to see whether they’re worth a transfer fee. (Aristeguieta clearly is. The jury remains out on Vitoria.) This kind of move works well because it incurs less risk than outright transfers without a trial period.

Portland did this with Diego Valeri a couple years ago, and other teams have followed suit. At the time that Portland acquired Valeri, loans with an option to buy weren’t something you saw a lot in MLS. But now, it’s becoming more regular.

What other means of acquisitions and identifying quality players are out there but aren’t often used?

Be creative. Learn from others, but dream up some new ideas. MLS rules are extraordinarily flexible. General managers should be too.

35 Comments

  1. John Ling says:

    (Yes, my full-time job is as an analyst. And yes, I’m available.)
    .
    Me too! Hire me as your assistant GM once you get the gig?

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      I am 10000% convinced you two would run make this team a contender. They’re gonna have to make it worth while for Dan to come back from Italy though… 🙂

      • John Ling says:

        Working with me as his assistant is all the reward he should need!

      • John Ling says:

        And, kidding aside… while I appreciate the kind words, and while I think Dan would be successful, I shouldn’t be anywhere near the team’s front office unless I’m there on another season ticket holder tour of the stadium.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Once I looked at that list, I couldn’t resist! 😉 Ed would have edited a line like that out of existence, but I snuck it in on a rare day he didn’t edit my column.

  2. This is excellent! PLEASE forward to the UNION Front Office, preferably with a received and read receipt…

  3. The Alpha & The Omega.
    .
    And for the record, I was standing two shoulders down from Mr. Sakiewicz yesterday watching the Union youth 16’s, I believe, play Continental FC Academy and I commented to a buddy of mine, 22 players on the field and not ONE difference maker. Fundamental technique issues. A notable short sightedness in providing support. A bunch of panic really. ZERO imagination.
    .
    Yeah yeah they’re only kids.
    .
    Bollox.
    .
    I want a GM with imagination. I want a right brained thinker. Let someone else crunch all the numbers. I want a GM to capture MY Imagination.

    • alicat215 says:

      The 16’s have 5-6 really nice players on that team…….they just all don’t play where they are suppose too…..out of position. Continental I would agree with, a bunch of kids with good first touches, little athleticism( The Union get the athletes!), and little imagination. Sadly, this is what the DA is……a bunch of mediocre ballers, where there are more decent players than ever before……but we are producing the best of the best….at the same rate as 20 years ago…..in fact, they may have been better then……

    • alicat215 says:

      I’m pretty sure the Union 16’s are like the 3rd or 4th ranked club in the country…….

      • Then what I saw must of been the reserves 215, because if that is the best that our best are at that age … than I have to admit to being a bit despondent.
        .

      • alicat215 says:

        maybe a few are with the YNT camps………..I say this because I had a few of them before they went to the DA……and they were nice players. Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of them digressed in the academy!

      • “The best athletes” is nothing new. It was the same with ODP, then the super clubs, then the DAs and still the MLS academies. It’s crap b/c everything changes when their 18.
        The academies are getting good at producing technically sound robots, but as a side effect, there are no players coming out with killer mentalities.
        Especially for the U, it comes back to our lack of direction overall. What kind of players are we trying to produce?

      • alicat215 says:

        exactly….technically sound robots…who are scared to death to take someone on or protect the ball under pressure.

      • The Black Hand says:

        We need to develop players, who know how to pick their heads up and take a look around. Players that know that, when in possession of the ball, they will not ‘explode’ if an opponent gets close to them. A little fucking composure…

  4. hobosocks says:

    I just want to point out that I think some of the things Jim and Chris have done are very smart. As you point out, utilizing loans with an option to buy to bring in newer players at lower risk makes sense.
    .
    Loaning out players that you don’t expect to contribute to (presumably) clear cap space for other signings makes sense. If that’s actually the plan. If not, I don’t get the Berry / Cruz loans at all.
    .
    Many of the most grievous problems have more to do with bridges that were already being burned–Amobi, Zac–before Curtin got there.
    .
    I’m not saying I like all Curtin and Albright’s decisions. I’m also not saying they necessarily should stay. I AM saying that I don’t want to see another coaching change until I see a GM or Sporting Direction hired to evaluate both of them. I don’t trust a single hiring decision made by any of the current decision makers.
    .
    And yes, I get the hopeless irony of wanting the poor decision makers in charge of the U to make the decision to hire a better decision maker to make exactly that sort of decision for them. That’s why thinking about the Union makes me want to run headfirst into a brick wall.

    • I like Curtin as a guy and Albright as well. And they probably can be good down the road.
      But we need to clean house.
      There is so much of the culture that repeats from Novak to Hack to Curtin.
      Same terminology. Same over emphasis on practice. Same lack of direction.
      We need a complete reboot and no legitimate GM is gonna want to have to keep the leftovers (see Chip Kelly vs. Howie Roseman and staff).

      • They should probably keep JC for the season though.
        It doesn’t matter though. Curtin and Albright could be replaced with Kreis and Lagerway(sp?) and this ownership would keep us bottom of the pack.

  5. This is a long Christmas list. Let’s hope its Christmas in July.

  6. Imagine any other franchise in all of American sports, not having a GM? Save for the Dallas Cowboys, (who are in another bizarro universe) its just ridiculous. Even the ones that fake it, where the coach /manager calls the shots, has someone with the title. That’s why i can’t take it seriously. 6 months and no one? Really?
    Dan, it’s very noble that you never let us Hackworth haters forget the good he did! Touché!

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Guilty as charged. You’ve been paying attention. 😉 I obviously wasn’t among the Hackworth haters. I’d hire him as a GM tomorrow if there was no baggage there.

      • Dr. Union says:

        I actually agree with that Hackworth would make a fine GM. It is typically where he excelled, unlike his tactical awareness. Although not sure Curtain has any tactical awareness either. Unfortunately, the hiring of a GM was likely all a hoax because has anyone even heard any rumor on who might be hired. I certainly haven’t and why would Muelsteen want the job when he can get paid to consult, but not be directly responsible for this terrible team.

      • Yeah Hack brought in Nog and Chaco. But he also spent big money on Edu when we had Amobi. Total waste.
        He also traded up to draft Blake when we had a serviceable MacMath and even Steffen (who is better than all) in the academy. Could have taken Dean/Birnbaum.
        Hack told the whole world that Adu has no place here, but come buy him. Not a great salesmen.
        Did he also bring Fabinho in? Could use Marfan on the flank right about now too.
        I put all on Sak anyway, but just saying.

    • UnitedPenn13 says:

      When was the last time anyone from the media asked Curtin, Sak, or Sugarman where the GM hunt stands?

  7. Running any professional sports franchise without a GM is asinine period. I also wouldn’t want to see Curtin or Albright sacked without having a plan in place.

  8. “This team will never be successful until they hire a person who knows what they are doing to scout, draft, trade and sign players. You literally could rebuild this team in a year if they brought in someone who could actually evaluate talent.”

    I totally agree!

    This team will also never be successful as long as Nick Sakeiwicz has anything to do with it and Jay Sugarman the owner!

    Sell this franchise to a competent and financially competitive owner!

    FREE THIS FRANCHISE!!!

  9. Amobi Ribeiro says:

    1. I think the reason they don’t appear to have a plan and are scrambling at the end of the transfer deadline is because they are paralyzed to do anything unless they have cash in hand. From what I remember, a lot hinged on what happened with Valdez before they could bring in Fernando or Vitoria. They seem to need multiple things to come together before they can sign someone.
    2. The other problem is the U and Nicky Sak are stuck in a time warp. Five years ago in MLS, it may have been creative to bring in a guy from Ligue 1, a guy who couldn’t get time in Portugal and a goalie from a lower tier world cup roster. However, with the growth of the league and the upper tier teams transferring legit players in, players who are known commodities, these type of moves reek of mediocrity.

    • Your first point is spot on. I always expect two (or more) moves when the Union sign a player — one on the debit side, one on the credit. It’s understood part of this is life under a salary cap, but with this organization it is so obvious.

      The second point is a little trickier. If you buy into a Moneyball strategy, Nando and Vitoria are the type of player you target. As loans, they are also low risk – like Brian Brown, if they don’t work out you cut your losses. The bigger problem is missing on the big $$ signings like Mbolhi. The damage then is two fold – an underperforming player plus money wasted that would have been better spent elsewhere. As many have said here many times before, we don’t need to have the highest payroll in the league, we just need to do a MUCH better job spending the $$ available.

      • Amobi ribeiro says:

        The Rais mbohli $$ is not a big signing. That’s the problem, they are competing with teams who have no problem shelling out salaries comparable with Europe. Jermaine jones comes off World Cup getting 3 mil from the revs. They haven’t lost a regular season game that he has played in since. LA, nycfc, Toronto, revs, red bull, Orlando, Galaxy, Seattle all spend real big time cash. That’s almost half of the league bringing in known talent with big contracts not hoping for a loan to work out. There are clearly two tiers in mls and unfortunately we are in the bottom. And enough with moneyball, it has never won anything in Oakland and it will not work in today’s mls. It is a frugal teams way of marketing their team to a fan base who deserves better

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Agreed, great point on #1. Of course, they’re in that spot in part because they splurged on Mbolhi.

      • for sure they had to scramble to raise the money for rais once the “incredible” opportunity to add a “world cup star” arose. looking for money in the couch for a late night wawa run works in college, but is not way to run a “professional” soccer club.

  10. This post is not germaine to the article topic. But what I am about to brain dump is all part of the problem with the game and I have to get rid of it for good sleep.
    .
    An email from a local club I received after speaking to a buddy of mine who coaches U9 kids and him telling me two weeks ago- between a league game and State Cup, his team played in 3 high level intense matches in one weekend. U9.
    .
    Dear Members,
    .
    I would like to congratulate the Under 9, the U11, and the U12 for advancing to the semi-finals of the EPYSA state cup competition. The U9 and U12 have advanced to the finals in May. Games will be held at USTC in Downingtown.
    .
    We had X teams participate in State Cup Competition from U9-U17. All teams were competitive in their brackets. It is an exciting time at Club as our teams continue to compete at a high level in many age groups. We look forward to continued success.
    .
    Sincerely,
    .
    Said club thinking they are doing so well.
    .
    .
    Please excuse as I download for a moment and maybe some of you will read this and maybe not and maybe most will think I am whacked but….I don’t care cause we have too many games that ‘matter’ -especially for 8 and 9 year old kids.
    .
    We beat the creativity out of our players. All these tournaments with bullshit trophies and State Cup headlines create players too afraid to be brazen. bold. parents screaming kick. coaches playing to win and advance. It is ALL wrong. They are 9 years old. They are 10 years old.
    .
    Already elementary school demands left brain left brain left brain and the soccer – forget it – as it is all left brain left brain left brain – so you get what we had here at YSC headquarters on tuesday, which I railed about yesterday, a bunch of fairly technical robots 15 or so years old, running around without the slightest idea how to unlock a defense. And that was the least of their problems on the field.
    .
    No moments of inspiration. You take all this left brain left brain left brain with 13 coaches teaching 13 different ways and you get a guy, me, standing at YSC like a ‘Snoozer shaking his head, with a 5 year old telling me this is all too slow and boring.’
    .
    Can we please stop with all this madness. Please.
    .
    What is is going to take to change our mentality as a system.
    .
    How can we change the measurement for success that this club is selling to parents?
    .
    I know. More festivals. NaH.

  11. james lockerbie says:

    Great article Dan, I just wish I could envision a day when the Union put these ideas into practice.

    `
    I imagine it would be heaven on Earth. Sun came up over the stadium the Soccer Gods rejoicing and El Colorado earned a free kick just outside the box. Chaco scores a beauty and the final score 1-0 Union Victory!, Victory! Victory! Victory!
    `
    Wake up, Wake up Dad you must have been DREAMING

  12. Scottymac says:

    Dan

    You and I have chatted on this before, we are in violent agreement.

    I’ll even stay silent on the Hack bon mots you threw out.

    I’d rather the Union spent their next million on FO infrastructure than players.

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