A View from Afar / Commentary

The good old days that never were

Photo: Paul Rudderow

There was a time not all that long ago that Philadelphia soccer fans brimmed with optimism.

They had a new team, it was full of young and promising talent flanked by a few likeable and capable veterans with strong character, and the future of professional soccer in Philadelphia seemed exciting. By Philadelphia Union’s second season, they had recorded a winning record and made the playoffs, despite the mad scientist in charge already beginning to show he was more mad than scientist.

The trade of Sheanon Williams, even more than the termination of Carlos Valdes’s contract, probably closes the door on those lingering memories with finality. All that young talent has scattered to the winds, taking with them the naive optimism that arrived with them.

Consider that core of young players and where you thought they’d be today:

  1. Amobi Okugo
  2. Jack McInerney
  3. Danny Mwanga
  4. Sheanon Williams
  5. Michael Farfan
  6. Gabriel Farfan
  7. Roger Torres
  8. Zac MacMath

Today, not one of them is locked in as a game-in, game-out starter — anywhere.

Maybe Okugo and Williams will nail down starting spots with their new clubs, Kansas City and Houston, respectively. Maybe Michael Farfan will do the same with D.C. United upon recovering from a hamstring injury, as he appeared to be before getting hurt. Maybe Jack McInerney, who has started 13 of Montreal’s 18 league games, just needed that target forward to play off in Montreal, and now he has it in the recently signed Didier Drogba.

Maybe they were never as good as they seemed at times. Considering the various barriers that young core has hit, it’s entirely possible.

Or maybe the Union just broke them.

They seemed like they could be so good, didn’t they?

Take Mwanga, who scored seven goals in 1,461 minutes in his rookie year — one goal every 209 minutes, or almost a goal every other 90-minute game. He hasn’t scored an MLS goal in three seasons. He’s just one example.

Nearly every one of those players seemed to have hit the same problem. In each case, they hit a roadblock, either created by themselves, their coaches, or mere circumstance.

  • Okugo wanted to play center midfield when he was a borderline all-star center back.
  • McInerney somehow turned off his original patron, John Hackworth, likely in the same way he has occasionally and bluntly called out his current manager.
  • The Farfans wanted to play in Mexico after each was played out of their natural position (outside midfielder) for most of their time with the Union.
  • MacMath was just beginning to blossom when Rais Mbolhi arrived.
  • Williams struggled with injuries and competition and seemed to plateau.
  • Torres never won Hackworth’s trust despite his moments of creative brilliance.
  • Mwanga seemed to lose all confidence by his third season.

You thought you would watch that young core for years.

We didn’t imagine Michael Farfan breaking ankles when he dribble-danced along the end line while deployed on the right flank. We physically watched Okugo cover vast stretches of ground and make all those smart simple passes. Mwanga actually scored those goals, and nobody made it up. We saw that beautiful Roger Torres pass against Houston and all the brief glimpses of brilliance that he showed. MacMath did in fact stop those penalty shots last year in the U.S. Open Cup. And Williams did lead all MLS defenders in assists two years ago.

These things actually happened.

Where did it go? What went wrong? What happened to the Union’s original mantra of youth development?

It’s all history.

Today, what’s left is a mismatched cast of players on the senior roster, an academy whose most talented players have gone abroad rather than sign with the Union, and a salary budget that has been in shambles ever since Peter Nowak wrecked it during the 2011-12 off-season.

The club still has some talented players in Vincent Nogueira, Cristian Maidana, Richie Marquez, Maurice Edu and C.J. Sapong, the latter of whom is showing that everyone who gave up on him as a winger was wrong to forget he was always a center forward.

But there’s no identity. Or certainly, not what there once was, an identity built around a young core of developing players and a handful of key, likeable and capable veterans.

Hints of a new identify are starting to emerge, in moments.

You see it when local kid John McCarthy stands on his head in goal to lead his club to a remarkable overtime victory over the rival Red Bulls, despite playing most of the game down a man.

You see it when C.J. Sapong just manhandles opponents and looks like the national teamer he briefly was, when Maidana creates goals out of nothing, when Nogueira does what Nogueira does and you notice.

Then the team collapses in historic fashion against D.C. United and reminds you that they have little quality depth, dogged as they are by the management mistakes that have set back this team time and time again.

The elements are there. The signs are there. The possibility that, perhaps, this team could actually get somewhere — It’s there.

It’s just hard to be optimistic when you see what’s come and gone.


  1. Okugo: too soon to tell.
    McInerney: not as good as he thinks he is, not as good as we thought he was.
    The Farfans: got raw deals here, no doubt.
    MacMath: has a low ceiling.
    Williams: has hit his ceiling, and, um, I’m not sure – was going to cost too much?
    Torres: seriously?
    Mwanga: defenses figured him out pretty quickly, no?

    • I have to disagree with MacMath on the low ceiling the kid was 23 and starting to come into his own (100 mls starts 1.3 GAA). While not amazing a solid keeper for MLS that can win games. With probably a peak around 25/26 if he was still playing consistently. He clearly had 7 to 10 solid seasons left to stabalize this teams goalkeeping position. Say what you want for the mistakes he made but he was 20 when he was thrown into start (far to soon for a goalkeeper in most teams) and for his value they should have locked him up to a long term simple deal (Say $150,000/yr for 5 years). An acceptable salary for both starter/cup keeper/or competition for starting spot. Whether or not someone else could have beat him out is fine, but it would’ve given the team stability and replacements were not needed. If Blake was a better keeper then he could prove it (which I still doubt at this point he can).

      • Atomic Spartan says:

        MacMath is a good example of the “Union Breaking Players” school of thought. One reason to loan out players is to give them more experience when you think you have better veterans lined up before him. So what happened? First, NikSak broke the season by getting a GK we didn’t need. Then the GK we didn’t need broke the entire team. In the process, NikSak is breaking MacMath because the Rapids don’t play him.
        Farfans left before they could be broken, and Okugo too.

      • Hmm….salient point and speaks to the article thesis.

      • Don’t forget MacMath clearly got a concussion in a Seattle road game and was not taken out. And then got another one in practice. Might explain why he was so hesitant as a keeper for a while after.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      There’s a third premise that your analysis does not acknowledge, which I think may be illustrated by the current struggles of Sebastian Le Toux, a player who maximizes the good level of potential talent that he has and has hit his ceiling.
      The league is improving by leaps and bounds every year in its level of technical skill and tactical sophistication.
      What were good players seven years ago are average players now.
      A second point: that young core had to be developed without an effective Reserve League program. There were two venues; practice, or first team games. That model works only in American Football. The other major American sports leagues have at least one developmental level. All the other major soccer powers in the world have multiple developmental levels.
      To the Union Front Office’s credit, they were out front in developing more developmental levels, has been surpassed, and may perhaps be rejoining the pack if “U2” emerges next year in Lehigh Valley or elsewhere.

      The list of eight Dan – and all of the rest of us – laments would have been an excellent core of a “U2” in the USL. John Hackworth’s decisions about Marquez and McGlaughlin, and the skill set (and 2 extra roster spaces) that nurtured a cooperative relationship with Coach Becher, has yielded a competent MLS center back. Whether it helped towards a flank midfielder is less clear.
      Final thought – athletes are driven by their own visions of themselves. Garfan was an effective left back, but he did not want to be a left back. Okugo was a fairly effective center back, but he did not want to be a center back. For that matter Edu can barely manage to make himself be a center back even though he has the experience and maturity to realize intellectually that that is what his team needs him to be. That self-defined mythology gets in the way sometimes.

  2. It seems in many cases the current rosters talented player blocked the young core. Mbohli & MacMath is the easy one. Edu & Nog fill both positions Okugo would play. Chaco blocks Pfeffer from his natural spot, so instead he gets asked to backup Nog. Vitoria, if he had not gotten hurt, would be blocking Marquez.

    • Good point. Hackworth played guys out of their natural positions, and Curtin doesn’t trust the young guys enough to give them minutes to develop confidence and be able to provide depth (will McLaughlin ever play?)

      Curtin also loaned out guys who could’ve provided depth (Cruz, Fernandes) because he keeps running out the same starting 11 and running them into the ground. Injuries are starting to happen, and come August and September, players like Maidana and Sapong are going to run out of gas …

      • +1 on the Curtin not trusting the kids and the grinding down of the XI. We’ve seen this movie before and sadly know how it ends.

  3. I’m really starting to hope that another team comes to Philly. A new ownership group. Being a fan of the Union is so gut-wrenching. It’s like the purest form of torture. A little tease of progress here. A gut punch in the stomach there. Get some new promising signings during the transfer windows. Only to watch them leave the next year. Or mire in obscurity on loan in some other country only to never be heard from again.
    This is getting tiresome. It has been for some time now. When will it change? When will I stop hoping it changes and just give up?
    August 8th starts the EPL. Can’t come soon enough.

  4. Great article Dan. It was hard to put into words how, personally, I was very optimistic and defended the team, etc, but have become totally tainted and pessimistic. This, the mismanaged failures of our young players, gives credence to how I feel.
    I look at some commenters and writers here when they preach patience and give, usually, reasonable answers to emotional responses, and I find it harder to listen as time goes on. We were told to wait last year, when Mbolhi was signed, to wait in the offseason as Okugo left and Fabinho was protected, as two overpriced, oft-injured players were our only players gained (Sapong is the huge positive exception). We were told not to rush to judgement as the team began horribly, and lead after lead was conceded, as the manager continued to sub too late, as Wenger continually was first choice winger.
    I just can’t wait anymore, and the mismanaged youth of years past, and relative lack of those players now, may be the key reason. And yet, I know I will wait, and I will continue to watch. Does that ultimately mean this ownership has us where they want us and no change will come?

  5. To me this just reiterates the fact that this club cannot develop players. Young promising talent always looks good on paper, but if they’re not growing in your system they’re just inexperienced players in an impossible position. This system needs to be gutted and refitted with knowledgeable experienced staff, scouts, and coaches.

    • What system? They don’t have one. Hence the problem.

    • Youth players only develop on teams with, say it again with me friends, ‘ Vision, Philosophy, Plan.’
      This article these players this trend is NOT coincidence. It is the exact equal and opposite reaction to lack if vision, philosophy and plan.
      Mr Sakiewicz Mr Albright Mr Curtin are not fooling me a bit. I watch because i love the idea of this Union…but I’m on to them completely….
      Situation Normal All Fucked Up. That’s a SNAFU for those of you too young to remember.

    • Wasn’t that the point of paying Muelenstein? To figure out how to set up the whole system to succeed??

  6. This was depressing to read…

  7. ‘Mismatched cast of players’ … Your lips to God’s ears. Not a whole lot more to offer by me….I lead a Union life of ‘Quiet Desperation’ and it is tiring…thanks be to my vinyasa practice.

  8. Once we were foolish children
    Playing as children play
    Racing through a meadow April bright
    Dreaming on a hilltop half the night
    Now that we’re growing older
    We have no time to play
    Now that we’re growing wiser
    We are not wise enough to stay

    Young and foolish
    Why is it wrong to be
    Young and foolish?
    We haven’t long to be
    Soon enough the carefree days
    The sunlit days go by
    Soon enough the bluebird has to fly

    We were foolish
    One day we fell in love
    Now we wonder
    What were we dreaming of
    Smiling in the sunlight
    Laughing in the rain
    I wish that we were young and foolish again

  9. Ironically, some of these young player post-mortems could be seen to validate the Union’s actions. Neither McInerney nor Okugo has been performing tremendously well for new teams that were really excited to have them. MacMath has been stapled to the bench. And I have no idea what the hell happened to Danny Mwanga.

    I think that Sheanon Williams is, fundamentally, a casualty of the M’Bolhi fiasco. I believe that he was traded because the Union had to have some cash to sign somebody this season, and that cash should’ve come from unloading Rais, but since their deals for him have fallen through, they had to raise cash somehow, and Williams (or Gaddis) was their only real salable asset. Sad to see him go.

    • You’re absolutely right on that first sentence. But I don’t think that’s it. I think it demonstrates just how important it is in soccer to land in a good environment, with a good coach, in which you are a good fit. This is why so many good players get lost in pro soccer. They don’t do that. (Brek Shea at Stoke, for example.)

    • To validate the Union’s action in letting the players go, I think the Union should be doing better without these players and that has not been the case.

      • Right on. That’s the other side of the coin of scottso’s point. Yes, the players the Union let go haven’t done anything anywhere else, but now that they’re gone the Union are the worst team in the league so what has really been proven? I’d say: that the Union FO can’t identify talent or effectively use what they do have.

  10. What about me, Dan? I coulda been somebody…

  11. The Chopper says:

    The Union front office has been a mess since Nowak went off the rails. But one of the tings I notice in our reactive way is that now as soon as the Front Office does anything, the instant assumption is that they have made the wrong move and the pitchforks come out and the villagers gather in the streets. Now the front office has earned that, but looking at the group of players you discussed, we see two potential scenarios, the Union stinks at developing real talent, or the Union fan base isn’t as good at evaluating talent as it thinks it is. Personally, I think it is a little of both.

    Another thing about the Union, MLS is not the NFL or NBA where you have true 24 hour beat reporters and TMZ following the players. Most of the information out there comes from the club. The Union is very good at keeping the off field stuff quiet. Even Freddy Adu’s extra curricular bullshit was never officially reported anywhere. So when a player is a locker room problem, they keep it quiet to protect the players value for transfer.

    Jack McInenery was a locker room cancer and his talent dictated that he was not worth the headache.

    Amobi Okugo lost favor with Jim Curtin. He lost it in Orlando too. Very quickly. Perhaps he is not as easy to deal with when things don’t go his way. I have heard off the record comments indicating Hackworth and Curtin were less than pleased with his effort at center back at the start of last season.

    Roger Torres simply is not an MLS caliber player, neither is Mwanga. Some fancy technical skill wins over fans who don’t see the other holes in the package.

    MacMath is serivceavle. But every MLS team had a a chance to get him for next to nothing, the expansion teams passed. A loan deal to be a backup is all he brought. So the verdict from every front office in MLS is that he is not a starter.

    The Farfans are certainly capable of occupying MLS roster spots and contributing. But their play since moving on from Philly shows that their gifts too were overstated by many.

    Sheanon Williams had a nice run here. He can play. It is clear the Union are freeing up cash for something. We can only hope, it is something good.

    Bottom line, we love our players and hate our front office and that can sometimes clouds our judgement.

    • I see your point and it has merit….I think what Dan is speaking too is broader than just talent evaluation. It speaks to the whole notion of the club. The constant flux that has created a culture of instability.
      How many times did Roger Torres come off the bench and spark play change possession or get the other team on its heals…this is just one example where he thrived in specific situations where you needed exactly what he offered. Not an all star. Not a stud. A spindly child, literally, with a deft eye and knack for the right ball. Now he’s a nothing nowhere…. Maybe that doesn’t speak to his talent solely but the fact that there are millions of futballers out there and now he is in a sea of them… The question though is would you like to still have Roger for those specific game situations?
      I would. But there has been too many coaches too much flux and all the shit rolls downhill instead of sticking to the wall and when was the last time a 77th minute sub impacted the outcome of a game on a regular basis. Torres did it regularly.
      Again I stress Roger is just an example.

      • John Ling says:

        Another point about Torres that may be worth keeping in mind is that he injured his knee shortly after leaving the Union. That’s pretty poor timing for the kid.

      • The Chopper says:

        Sometimes I think there was a little Tim Tebow syndrome with Roger, in that he was a situational,player with major limitations.

        Can be valuable in the circumstances you described, but with the fan base clamor and constant questions about his playing time, the distraction might outweigh the gifts. This was a player the Union had on the open market for a long time with no takers.

      • Your late game, rally the team for tying/winning goal sub this season is Fred. Not 2010 Fred, but 2015 assistant coach Fred.

        How about a young Union player who left not listed above – Ribeiro. I think that would be a nice option for the last 20 minutes. Nope, we get an assistant coach.

      • Dr. Union says:

        Now I saw Roger’s struggles and his lack of physicality in dealing with larger players. But think of this Chaco while pushing to be a 90 minute player can’t handle that just think if Roger was learning from him coming in late in games to keep the creativity flowing. They both have a left foot they both like being on the ball, they both don’t like the physical nature of the game. This is where the Union lack ideas and progress. It is not so much that they let the players go even for me its that they don’t properly teach them how to succeed.

    • These are really good points. There’s so much we just don’t know.
      Also, I wonder about player development. For example, maybe young player development will improve if there’s a Union 2 USL team that is working in concert with technical staff on the first team…. Perhaps that was one of the main recommendations made by Rene M.
      The main thing I’m really unhappy about with this club is the failure to hire a real director of soccer operations. There was a report last week that a guy in Europe turned down a job offer from the Union after some serious courting. I hope there’s a solid plan B in the works.

    • Chopper, I think you have a lot of valid points. But I don’t think Union fans are alone in misjudgement of talent. Coaches/managers/G.M.’s are all guilty of the same. It comes down to a Front office, Manager, coaches-players being on the same page (Insert Pachy’s mantra here). Take Sir Alex and his last year in charge, compared to Moyes first year in charge. Close to the same team from one year to the next, but a completely different outcome. Sir Alex was able to do so much with what seems to now be apparently very little. Even now Man U is still trying to right the ship. King Louis has even sent away a world class player in Falcao, he brought in a year ago.
      There are many things “So Union”. Talent mis-evaluation isn’t solely owned by them.

    • everyone brings suitcases … I would agree that the teams (as a whole) were not as good as we thought and that some of these players were not as well. The lack of a sense of stability or identity is what Sak has failed to nourish. Look at other successful clubs anywhere – there are always a few long serving players, who even stay on when they are no longer starters but still provide significant (if sporadic) contributions. To do well long term, the Union are new enough that more than a few of these players should still be here. the long view is the only view – the rotating door of managers are under so much pressure to win now that they compromise their values. The FO surely has no long view other than tickets sales. If the club continues this way, it will be a meandering, dawdling jog to permanent irrelevance (with the club’s succor being no relegation).

      • The Chopper says:

        I completely agree about the lack of vision, the instability etc. And the front office can’t escape their numerous misteps. The year long search for a GM or whatever title you want to give it, is laughable. Surely there is someone out there capable and willing to take the job.

        But in terms of players sticking around, they have to be worth keeping. The fact that none of these guy have blossomed in someone else’s system yet indicates that may not be the case.

      • it is further damning evidence … did the Union select poorly or fail to develop it? Its not like they couldn’t shake off whatever bad experience they may have had here, but it does have an impact. also, for MLS players, the margin appears so slim. I think many, many players are close to MLS-ability and many MLS players are one-step from going to lower levels.

      • We may be judging the players who left the team unjustly. They may not have blossomed yet in their new teams because they are starting all over in a new system. Please know there is a learning curve. Jermaine Defoe did not bloosom in Ontario, nor Bradley in his first year.

    • The level of talent in MLS has greatly improved since 2010 as well. Players who were best 11 just a season or two ago are now struggling. Look at all of the offensive talent in the league now.

      Aurellien Collin was an All Star not too long ago, and he looked like a traffic cone on Sunday (as well as other games this season).

      Okugo was quickly jettisoned to the substitutes bench on an expansion team because they had better options. Ironically he’ll likely play more at CB than in MF at SKC. The Union deemed him expendable because they have two players that play consistently better them him at his preferred position (Nogs and Edu, and Carroll is steadier too). Why overpay for a player who will more often then not be a substitute, and an unhappy one at that? Anyone think that Jack Mac will be starting in Mtl with Drogba in town? Hell he wasn’t starting before Cam Porter was injured and out for the season. Roger Torres is not Mauro Diaz, and that means he would be no more then a situational player coming off the bench. MacMath got Sak’d, and is now the unfortunate victim of playing a position that has traditionally been a developmental strength in the US (i.e. Goalkeepers grow on trees in the US). Why pay that relatively big GA contract number when you can sign a Clint Irwin or Sylvestre for less then half the amount?

      • Or a GK who played in a little tournament in Brazil.

        But to be serious, excellent point on the talent level in MLS improving. Which is what is so frustrating watching the Union stand still.

  12. It would have been interesting to see what might have happened if Peter Nowak didn’t go completely insane.

  13. It occurred to me that the lack of size on the Union’s squad may be a factor in a lot of it’s woes. Lack of overall height on the back line. Small midfielders. Smallish winger. As coach Kelly says, big guys beat up little guys. Even Curtain said after playing Bournemouth how much smaller the Union were. Is it possible the team just wears down too easily? And yes, I totally agree with their lack of depth also contributing. But even at the start of the season, the Union looked out of shape. They started the season losing energy and concentration towards the end of games. Nogs, Ayuk, Fabi, Gaddis, Pfeffer etc., all on the smallish side. It’s just a thought and was wondering what others thought.

    • It was the same with Crystal Palace last year. Their little guys were “bigger” than our big guys – all their guys were stouter yet skinnier, overall just much, much fitter.

      • I mean I understand that the Union really aren’t comparable to a EPL side. I get that. But how are they compared to the rest of the MLS? Carrol vs. Poku or Kitchens? Is this not a problem that Arsenal has? Smallish midfielders and backs, and they constantly have problems defending corners and set pieces.

      • At the gold cup game my wife said “these guys make the union guys look like little kids”

      • my impression is that they are comparable. hell, maybe its the tight fitting jerseys on the EPL guys. also, Aresenal are like CP or AFCB up close.

    • Curtin has been a big advocate of looking for guys with size. Vittoria is 6′ 5″ Marquez is 6’2″ … Mo is 6′ … ‘Nando is 6’2″ and CJ is 6’1″…. He’s said many times he wants size, especially in the center.
      On MLS vs EPL, as far as size s concerned, it will be interesting to see how Tottenham (literally) stacks up against the MLS All Stars.

    • Dr. Union says:

      You say smallish guys might be a problem yet Vitoria is 6’5″ can’t play worth a damn. And is about as fast as a tree.

  14. Those stupid bastards in suits in Chester are just ruining my fun!

  15. pragmatist says:

    It’s funny, because 2 areas where we need improvement are our outside midfielders…and I’m pretty sure the Farfans would be upgrades. It would be nice to have them back on the flanks…

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