A View from Afar / Commentary

Evaluation: Tranquillo, Sheanon, and no Corey Ashe

Photo: Daniel Studio

Tranquillo Barnetta was billed last week as the biggest signing in Philadelphia Union history.

His first on-field contribution was to get called for a penalty one minute after entering the game.

Seriously, this actually happened.

This is Philadelphia Union right now, a team so drenched in bad fortune that the only way you could make this stuff up is if you were brainstorming and inventing ways that Murphy’s Law could hit this club. Essentially, what can go wrong for them will go wrong. (And it looked to me like a bad call on a dive, though at least one wise man disagrees.)

But to say this club is simply unlucky is to miss the larger point.

Rather, they have such a narrow margin for error that, when fortune fails to smile upon them, they’re done.

So now they have returned to last place, where it seems they belong, with the league’s worst record, worst goal differential, and worst karma.

On the Barnetta signing: Who fits where?

On paper, Barnetta looks like a good signing. Of course, the paper we have access to doesn’t yet include details on his salary, so temper your enthusiasm till you see that.

Barnetta has a solid resume from the German Bundesliga and as a three-time member of  Switzerland’s World Cup squad. But his prevalence with his club teams has also dropped off since knee injuries struck in 2011, as he failed to crack Schalke 04’s lineup as a game-in, game-out starter after leaving Bayer Leverkusen in 2012.

With Jim Curtin saying he plans to play Barnetta centrally, it begs the question of what this team will tactically look like moving forward. Most thought Barnetta arrived to slot in on the left wing. Apparently not.

Center midfield is where the Union’s best players already start, when healthy. With Cristian Maidana moving out to the right flank in the second half, we got a hint. But then, that was also a 4-4-2 of sorts. Will that be what we see? Or will it still be the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 that Curtin has been sending out most games? Unclear.

Maidana’s tendency to drift wide right as a playmaker perhaps opens space for another attacking midfielder who is nominally a central player who may drift left. But then, you never really know till you see the team playing together.

If this hasn’t upgraded the left flank, then what has it done? Who goes to the bench — Le Toux, Wenger, or both? Do we see a return of each of them to a striker position in a 4-4-2?

We’ll see.

On the Williams trade: Barnetta vs. Ashe

I spent my last column focusing more on the big picture regarding the Sheanon Williams trade, rather than look at the details of the trade itself. With it now apparent that the Union used some of the targeted allocation money to close the Barnetta signing, it’s worth reviewing the Williams trade.

Follow this train of thought:

  1. Houston traded Corey Ashe for allocation money and a draft pick.
  2. Houston gave allocation money to the Union for Williams and a foreign player roster slot.
  3. Houston logically could have instead just traded Corey Ashe for Sheanon Williams and a foreign player slot.

Now, the key question there is how much allocation money was in play in each deal.

But yes, Corey Ashe was on the table, and the Union had assets Houston wanted.

Yes, the one player many have begged the Union to acquire for the last year could have been had.

Corey Ashe had been one of the league’s best left backs — an all-star in 2011 and 2013 — until Houston signed DaMarcus Beasley last year and relegated Ashe to the bench. Is Ashe still as good? He recorded two assists Saturday against Columbus.

Could the Union have acquired Corey Ashe instead at a lower salary, leaving money over (albeit less of it) for another signing? Could they have waited to accumulate more allocation money to sign Barnetta, or would they have lost the opportunity?

It’s an interesting question. And it may have been irrelevant if Jay Sugarman and company dug into their own wallets to sign Barnetta as a designated player.

On the Williams trade: Should he have been traded?

A trade of one of the right backs was long overdue. When you can’t maximize your assets on the field, you trade them for other assets that you can use. A team can only play one right back at a time, and when in top form, Gaddis and Williams have shown they are among the league’s best right backs. One had to go.

Some think the Union picked the wrong player to trade. Maybe, maybe not. Each has strengths; each has weaknesses. It all depends on how you — or, more significantly, Jim Curtin — want to play the game.

  • Gaddis is at his best a shutdown one-on-one defender who is weak in the air.
  • Williams is at his best a better offensive presence who is stronger in the air.

Some will argue that, as in Europe, you need both of them because of the competition and need for depth. Well, that’s nice in Europe, but in a league with a salary cap, you don’t have the luxury of paying a starter’s salary to a backup. Yes, Gaddis could always return to starting left back — Fabinho has played well of late, but memories and ingrained tendencies don’t fade that easily — but Gaddis was never a good fit there offensively. The Union need an actual left back.

Time will tell, as always, whether Curtin picked the right man.


  1. I just want to say i love the fact that since we traded Williams Gaddist has had his probably two worst games yet.

    It’s just so Union.

  2. Not sure what you mean by Gaddis being a good one on one defender. Shaun Wright-Phillips tore him up on Saturday. He looked terrible.

    Also so Union to being in another Central Mid when we need wingers.

    • “Gaddis is at his best a shutdown one-on-one defender …”

      At his best.

      He obviously wasn’t at his best this past weekend.

      • Agreed, he’s been bad this season and was torched Saturday, but Gaddis has shown previously he can lock people down at times.

  3. Instead of Philadelphia Union they could have been called Philadelphia Conundrum and have as a logo a snake eating itself. Quiet desperation. I am Jack’s aching futbol heart.

  4. I’m beginning to think one of the things that hurts this team more than anything is that lack of depth. The best teams in the league right now have far better players coming off their bench than Fred and Casey. On one hand, signing another central midfielder seems ridiculous, but he plays a position that whenever we’ve filled it with someone other than Nogueia, we’ve lost.
    It’s for that reason, I think, that losing Williams really hurts. I think he’s the better back than Gaddis, but given the choice, I’d do anything I could to keep both of them. Heck, Williams was even subbed in to play Wenger’s position at left mid and wasn’t bad at all — certainly no worse than Wenger.
    Yes, this team has been unlucky, but it hasn’t done enough to be sure it’s in the position to deal with runs of bad luck with depth that can cover for player injuries and tactical shifts.

    • Darth Harvey says:

      Our abject lack of depth is no better surmised than in the Union Bible…

      Book of the Cup that is Open 5:53 – 5:58

      “And the Evil Sigi did open the seventh seal and revealed unto the Unionites he who is Obafemi. The Unionites replied in unison, ‘Oh shit.’ A young and inexperienced son of a curtain maker, named James, did send onto the field of battle a diminutive warrior, Daniel of the Spanish Cross. To which the Unionites replied in union, ‘Oh Shit’

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      “The best teams in the league right now have far better players coming off their bench than Fred and Casey.”
      I agree. Let’s think about that and what it means in a salary cap with few to no loopholes if you are not one of the elect teams who are allowed to break the rules.
      I conclude that they are paying
      their starters less than we are.
      I guess the way to test my thesis is to use the Players’ Union salary data to get an average salary for the top fourteen players by minutes played on each team, and then correct each team’s fourteen for current long term injuries.
      if I manage to get that done in the next few weeks, I’ll post it.

  5. I like Gaddis but he is no starter. He can shut down mediocre players or players who are basically 1 trick ponies. This organization is the biggest joke in MLS. White is weak technically and has a poor soccer IQ. Thank the soccer gods that Edu is versatile enough to drop back. Unfortunately he has to cover for Fabinho, White and Gaddis. On top of that goal tending is still a 3 ring circus. It starts from the very top and goes back to 6 years. Everything that the leadership(Sakiewicz) has anything to do with is a failure. This team is a perennial bottom feeder. The ownership/CEO to the coaching staff is bush league. Too many starters are either too old, too slow, too injury prone or lack even basic skill with the ball at their feet or in the air. I haven’t posted a lot because I got sick and tired of the bullshit this organization expects this fan base to take. Barnetta is a good signing but this team needs quality and depth on and off the field and new ownership, front office, General Manager, and coaching.

    • I’d love to disagree with you… but there isn’t a lot to show otherwise, other than just loving the team and hanging on to the glimmers of hope and the few good players.

      • I’d love to be wrong. I never ever thought that when we got our team that it would be such a ratchet mess. I had a queasiness when I found out Nick Sakiewicz was involved. This has all been a sick joke!

    • Agreed, Gaddis works his tale off, is great to have on a roster for depth….but is not a starting RB at this level. I’ve actually noticed clubs trying to isolate and single him out this year…..that’s why you see him get exposed more……and a flank back still has to have an air game at this level…..especially in the MLS. Fabs gets exposed here too, I’ve seen him literally stand and watch guys go up right next to him and they have gotten punished for it…….

  6. Bravo Dan. So many items you’ve hit spot on. From the narrow margin the U walk on to succeed to Sugarman’s thriftiness.

    I’m going to be very worried until we see Barnetta’s salary. I can’t help but wonder how much of the TAM the Union used to pay down his salary (and save Sugarman money). MLS allows the teams to play with fire by being able to access all 5 years worth ($500k) immediately. A team desperate to make a splash (and perhaps help ticket renewals) could make a foolish decision that would haunt them for a half decade into the future. Hopefully the Union were wiser than that.

    • doubt it.

      • Jim Presti says:

        +1 I’m willing to bet they used around $200k of the TAM immediately. And what are they using the general allocation money from the Williams trade for? Probably to buy down DP next season

      • The TAM money is all gone I’m pretty sure they used it all on Barnetta’s contract for this year.

      • Thought I saw Barnetta post his contract was for 18 months, but I’m with you, they used the TAM.

        It’s ok everyone, in ten years that academy will be pumping out players for us. Just keep buying tickets til then.

      • Our best academy kids probably aren’t sticking around Philly either…..

      • Jim Presti says:

        If we used all of the TAM on Barnetta for this year and next I’m gonna be sick… Complete waste especially when the club is not going to be competitive at all this season.

      • My guess is they used a combination of targeted and regular allocation money to buy down Barnetta’s hit.

      • Jim Presti says:

        I believe I read somewhere that you cannot combine the two on the same player but I may have misread or misunderstood.

      • It’s MLS. Even if our read it it could change.

  7. All a Union fan needs to accept is that if the Union can do it wrong, they will.

  8. The Chopper says:

    It is time to drop the pretense of attempting to make the playoffs and start to figure out what you have for next year. In the meanwhile, you can still attempt to win the US Open Cup.

    With that said, move Mo Ecu back to midfield. Yes, he is our best central defender, but Brian Carroll is not starting next year and Michael LaHoud will never stay healthy. It is time to see how to make Chaco, Nogs, Mo and Barnetta fit. And how Sapong and Nando fit or don’t fit into the equation. Time to experiment. That is not a bad group of players, so it is time to try different formations to make it work.

    Let Vittoria play next to Marquez. Let’s see what he has. Start training Wenger as defensive depth. And by all means, play Andre Blake. We know what we have in McCarthy and Sylvestre and neither is a long term answer.

    • I don’t personally like Edu in the MF, but have no problem putting him there for a stretch- maybe he and Barnetta will click together. Couldn’t agree more on trying some experimenting last 10-12 games. Pretty exciting to think Vittoria’s 400k will be coming off the books at end of year, and the Valdez 400k permanently gone, too. A team that had their act together could sign 2 good CBs with that 400k. Or a CB and high quality LB, since we have Marquez. Add in potentially removing Mbohli’s 350k, oh boy….

    • I’ve been advocating for this for weeks. There is not reason to continue with the same old players and formation right now. The only thread of reasoning is the Open Cup run, but even that rings hollow. I almost threw my phone out the window on Saturday when I saw Blake not starting.

    • We have seen Jim tinker with a 3-5-2 when they have been down……I would love for them to start a match that way……….like you all said, not much to lose…….

  9. How long is Nogueira signed for? I wonder if Union signed Barnetta as replacement for Nogs next year, if they know Nogs wants to move on. Curtin was pretty quick to declare him a probable central midfielder for us. I like the pro-active approach if that is the case. If it’s not the case, no problem getting the best guys on the field – just put Barnetta on one of the wings, he’s apparently had good bit of experience there.

  10. The one thing about constant change is that it always brings about two sides. Those who will continually stay positive and take a “wait and see” approach, always waiting to see how the new change takes hold. And those who see the continued past mistakes as the reason for the constant change.
    To me, this really then comes down to trust. Do you trust the people who are umtimately overseeing these changes and making the decisions?
    Personally I don’t trust them. There is a reason we are where we are. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. Well this is the Unions third time possibly fooling us, do we believe it?
    Right now there are two options with who’s controlling the team. Either Sak is running things in reality and hiding it. Or Jim (young, first time head coach)and Chris (young, first time pseudo GM) are running it. Which is better? Is either option viable in the long run? I think not.
    I don’t enjoy being pessimistic about the team, the problem is that there isn’t much in their history to prove otherwise. Even the “biggest signing in team history” only happened because an old player told him to contact us. Which, when you think about it makes sense as to why we got him even though he doesn’t fit into the scheme or a need at all.

    • Hard to argue he doesn’t fit with the ‘scheme’…
      …we obviously need winger help and quality…of which he fits the need…now shuttling him inside when Nogueira becomes fit…and continuing to send Le Toux and the Wenger Winger out there in light of using this money on a bona-fide quality outside attacker is very interesting and dare I say…displaying the lack of philosophy and plan I argue over non stop.
      We will not know for sure until Noguiera is fit what JC intends to do. Boy sometimes I feel like the Union is trying to use the alphabet to play Sodoku…or numbers in a Crossword.
      I try to be upbeat and hopeful but it is certainly challenging.

    • I did sound a little optimistic above, but I’m with you completely in not trusting anyone in charge of this team. I think Sak is a complete dope. It’s just as a 40 year or so fan of Philadelphia sports my expectations of what success means have gotten pretty low. Local teams doing something that is not obviously and immediately idiotic is reason to cheer. If I didn’t allow myself that I would have quit following Philly sports years ago.

  11. “Rather, they have such a narrow margin for error that, when fortune fails to smile upon them, they’re done.” — This might be the best sentence ever written, describing the Union. It accurately and concisely describes this club for its entire existence. Well done Mr. Walsh.

  12. What I don’t understand with the Union is the fact that they don’t know how to figure out cap space and salaries. Its not that hard. I think the cap is somewhere around $4,000,000 this year with a 28 man roster which equals on average a salary of $142,857.14 per player. So if that is your average you base salaries off that. Even if you have no additional money throughout this league there are plenty of players that can be put together to make a good team on the lower end of these salaries.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      guaranteed to leak lots of goals over ninety minutes. If you could clone Marquez and put both of him on the flank backs with Edu in the center you might have enough speed, technical skill and athleticism to make it work, especially if Lahoud were to join Nogueira at the DCMs.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      the structure of the salary cap is more complex than the assumptions you made above.
      Only the first eighteen counted towards the salary cap, at least prior to the 2015 CBA. [it’s actually 18-20, but I want to keep it simple as dealing with the variation would give me a headache]. Those eighteen absorb the four million and change, with DPs excluded above their defined limit. Slots nineteen through and including twenty-eight do not count towards the cap. Of course, the ranking rules require that the most expensive salaries be listed first in rank order. Slot nineteen and below can be paid the league minimum. If slots twenty-four and below are filled by players under an age threshold, they can be paid below the official league minimum if they have little to no league experience. John McCarthy makes $50,000 in consequence, even though the official league minimum is ten thousand dollars more than that.
      To generate the average you want, you have to know each club’s “senior roster” [the highest eighteen to twenty salaries] and then average those figures. If you could enter the data from the players’ union’s Salary PDF into a spreadsheet, it would be pretty easy to come up with the numbers.

  13. UnitedPenn13 says:

    Jack McInerney was just traded to the Crew. Saw that coming after Drogba’s arrival.

  14. Union signed a player at a position they already had a decent player at while ignoring positions of need? This is my shocked face!

    Play all the loan players, play all the kids. If you really want to make Wenger a FB, send him to Harrisburg with express instruction that he must play 90 and must play FB. Everyone except Nogs, Chaco, Sapong & Edu is playing for their roster spot in 2016 starting now.

    Mikex got excited, but he is correct – Union have a lot of cap room in 2016. Now hire a Director of Soccer Operations to use it. If Sak/Curtin/Albright are in charge again this offseason, 2016 will be mirror of this year.

  15. is it me or is MLS becoming the old NASL of the 70s? Barnetta is 30. He is not a star and is the downside of a what looks like a nice career. His friend recommended he come to Philadelphia/the US to play because its a nice place to live while making some more money. why not be comfortable?

    the real mystery is that Barnetta chose to come here … “unlucky” on the penalty call, he’ll do better on the “next one”.

    agree en toto with the “margins” idea. Union are now the dictionary definition of “marginal”: not of central importance; limited in extent, significance, or stature; close to the lower limit of qualification, acceptability, or function : barely exceeding the minimum requirements.

    on that note, is it even worth it to save 7% on re-upping for next season?

  16. What does it say about me that the first thing I thought of this morning upon opening my eyes and staring at the ceiling fan was that….
    ….our “greatest signing” in team history’s first contribution wasn’t a slotted pass to tie a game, an upper 90 curling run of play shot that leaves you slack jawed, a perfectly weighted cross for a gol or a dogged run down and thwarting of a certain breakaway…no… it was a penalty and a spot kick—- for the other team.
    So union.

    • You are a true supporter my friend, I can say I have never woke up thinking about the club…….today it was, ” man, if I don’t find Peso the Octonaut today somewhere around the house…..my two year old is going to flip shit!” Maybe, the very first match at PPL….and the Open Cup final it was floating around there……but, yeah that’s probably it. My Gunners on the other hand………..I’ve been giddy since Sunday…..salivating for the weekend! COYG!

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      I thought of that when the ref pointed to the spot!

  17. Who is going to be the Union’s Dax McCarty and openly say “We are playing like shit!”???

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Best Candidate would be Curtin privately in a team meeting. He’s honest and direct.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      All the recriminations seem to ignore that for the first forty-five on Saturday night Red Bulls were the ones playing like shit. Our problem remains that we cannot score when we are dominating possession and the midfield. There is a psychological wall at the opposing defense’s eighteen. We do not penetrate that, especially not in numbers.

      • I would propose the wall is more talent related than mental, but toemayto tomahto at this point.

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