A View from Afar / Analysis

The Curt & Earnie Show reshapes the Union

Photo: Paul Rudderow

The Curt & Earnie Show is in full effect.

The Philadelphia Union revamp has begun in Earnest.

It’s Curtins for Maidana and company.

Choose your clever, witty lede. They all the say same thing: Jim Curtin, Chris Albright and (probably) Earnie Stewart have begun dismantling the Union roster like a crow bar to the head.

Chaco Maidana, gone.

Andrew Wenger, gone.

Antoine Hoppenot, Fred, Warren Creavalle, Danny Cruz, Zac MacMath, Austin Berry, Steven Vitoria, Conor Casey  — gone. Ethan White is probably gone too.

That’s over one-third of the roster.

And it doesn’t include:

  • Leo Fernandes, who could end up remaining with the NASL’s New York Cosmos after a successful loan there;
  • Brian Sylvestre, who remains on the books with the Carolina Railhawks after a successful loan to the Union;
  • Brian Carroll, a free agent the Union say they want to retain;
  • Jimmy McLaughlin, John McCarthy, Dzenan Catic and Eric Bird, who will probably get most of their minutes next year in USL with Bethlehem Steel FC, although there’s no guarantee the latter two will be back even in that role.

Come next season, you will probably see a Union roster on which more than half the players are new.

Is that a good thing? Maybe eventually. But teams can take a long time to gel.

The Union have been doing this on a regular basis for years.

  • Peter Nowak demolished his roster in 2012 after the team’s only playoff appearance and was fired for that and all sorts of other good reasons the following June.
  • The Union fired John Hackworth in June 2014 before his massive midfield revamp gelled.
  • Jim Curtin could end up facing the ides of June himself if if this wide scale remaking of the roster doesn’t produce wins by the June 2016 midseason break for the Copa America.

Sooner or later, the Union need to get this right. Of course, that’s the theory of firing Nick Sakiewicz and hiring Earnie Stewart as sporting director.

The Maidana dump

Close Union observers correctly anticipated that Cristian Maidana was on his way out, despite ranking second in the league in assists and first combined over the last two years. Sure enough, Philadelphia traded him to Houston yesterday, about as quickly as they could once the season ended. Curtin clearly never rated him very highly and seemed to lean on him only reluctantly, because the Union couldn’t score much when he wasn’t in the game.

Maidana’s flaws all stemmed from the fact that he was always looking for the killer pass — and often getting it.

  1. He was never much for holding possession;
  2. He floated all over the field looking for creative openings, which too often isolated him;
  3. He couldn’t put himself into good finishing spots;
  4. He couldn’t finish.

But to suddenly cast him as an anchor around the team’s neck is misguided and going way overboard.

This guy produced 26 assists in just 54 games, more than any MLS player the last two years. That’s an assist nearly every other game.

For those who forgot, an assist is to create a goal. Scoring goals is the point of the game.

The Union generally played well when both Maidana and Vincent Nogueira were healthy. When Nogueira was hurt — which has been too often for the Union’s best player — nobody adequately filled his deep-lying playmaker role, and Maidana’s floating tendencies isolated him from Nogueira’s replacements, traditional defensive midfielders who lack the Frenchman’s passing vision.

Somewhere — perhaps in Houston — there’s surely a coach willing and capable of putting Maidana in a flexible attacking system in which his creativity flourishes. If your No. 10 likes to flare out to the right to create, maybe your complement is a left-footed inverted right winger like Justin Mapp, for example.

People like to beat up on Maidana’s fitness, but that was a 2014 problem Maidana largely overcame with improved conditioning in 2015, much as many new MLS arrivals must do. (Benny Feilhaber is a great example of this.) Critics also like to beat up on his defensive efforts, but that also is overstated. Plus, how many creative No. 10s are known for their defense? Nobody talks about Federico Higuain, Diego Valeri or Mauro Diaz because of their defending.

Put simply, the Union traded Maidana because Tranquillo Barnetta fits more closely what Jim Curtin wants from his center attacking midfield position, and that’s perfectly reasonable. Barnetta doesn’t float all over the field as much, he maintains possession in a more disciplined fashion, and he is more aggressive in defense. He’s a good player, so it’s a matter of style and effectiveness within a coach’s preferred system.

Curtin likes players who play like he did: Strong, hard-nosed and straightforward. Maidana is something else altogether. He probably drove Curtin nuts. So Curtin went out to find an upgrade. Barnetta will get to show next season if he still has what it takes to be one.

The last word on Andrew Wenger

Like some, I picked Andrew Wenger to be a breakout star for the Union this year. I was wrong. He went on a confidence-shattering downward spiral that at times seemed the equivalent of Rick Ankiel losing the capacity to throw strikes.

Someone will figure out where Wenger should play on the field, because he’s certainly good enough to succeed in MLS. A few cynical loudmouths will tell you otherwise, but anyone (smart) who has watched him play can see he has the talent to succeed in MLS. Whether he does depends on whether he can overcome his confidence issues and find a position of comfort on the field. Houston general manager Matt Jordan seems to have bet that he can, and considering he was on Montreal’s technical staff when the Impact drafted Wenger, he has some inside knowledge.

If Wenger fails, he will become a cautionary tale for years: A talented player for whom coaches never found the best position. The lesson learned from Wenger’s case may end up being this: A top college player asked to make a position switch should consider telling the coach to take a hike. If MLS wants to draft him to play a position he doesn’t feel well-suited for, it’s time to say sayonara, avoid the long-term rookie contract, and head off for Europe or NASL.

Fans of the Maidana-Wenger trade are calling it addition by subtraction. It has certainly given the Union more immediate budgetary flexibility by clearing salary room and bringing in allocation money. Still, a few years from now, we could be remembering how Houston absolutely fleeced Philadelphia. We’ll see.

The last word on Conor Casey

Casey deserves a last word. I wrote it back in September. No other words will be better — it’s the best column I’ve written in months — so go read that column if you missed it. The guy is a warrior.

Intriguing names available in free agency and re-entry draft

Some intriguing names popped up yesterday when MLS announced its inaugural free agent class and list of players eligible for Friday’s re-entry draft. Here are some names that stand out, starting with the free agents.

  • Eric Avila, MF/RB: Avila played really well for Chivas USA before they collapsed. He’s versatile enough to play across midfield or at right back and could prove a great depth option, particularly considering Nogueira’s susceptibility to injury.
  • Corey Ashe, LB: Can the former all-star still play? He’s 29 years old and would fill a position of need.
  • Troy Perkins/Jon Busch, GK: Each could make a good veteran mentor to the Union’s young goalkeepers and fill a backup role.
  • Ricardo Clark, CM: The former U.S. international defensive midfielder scored a career-high eight goals this year. Yes, eight. At 32, he could be the midfield destroyer the Union want to complement Nogueira.
  • Ned Grabavoy, CM: The Jason Kreis favorite could slot nicely into a center midfield rotation.
  • Nathan Sturgis, CM: The journeyman played so well for Oscar Pareja in Colorado before the coach left for Dallas. Then he was back off to the journeyman wilderness. Quality player who played well for the best coach he had.
  • Jeff Larentowicz, CM/CB: Philly-area native, former all-star, defensive midfielder, friend of Jim Curtin. Likely Union target. Salary could be the biggest stumbling block.
  • Mike Magee, FW/LW: He has yet to regain his MVP form of 2013 since injuries kicked in. Someone should take a chance on this winner. Bet on it being Los Angeles, his former club.

And now some names available in Friday’s re-entry draft, in which the Union will have the third pick:

  • Steven Beitashour, RB: Generally considered one of the league’s best right backs. Still only 28. Should be in demand.
  • Chris Schuler, CB: A stud center back when healthy, but his list of freak injuries is quite long. Still, a healthy Schuler next to Richie Marquez could be an ideal center back pairing — and cheaper than Mo Edu.
  • Seth Sinovic, LB: Lost his starting job after three seasons as one of the league’s better left backs with Kansas City. At 28, he would be an upgrade on Fabinho.
  • Carlos Alvarez, MF: The former No. 2 overall pick never really got a shot with Colorado.
  • Oscar Boniek-Garcia, MF: At his best, he’s so good. But between injury and international absences with Honduras, he is often unavailable.
  • Marco Pappa, MF: Like Boniek, Pappa is another wide midfielder who can be a major offensive presence at his best. Would probably fit better into a 4-3-3 as a left-footed winger than he did in Seattle. Just 28 years old, likely comes with a sizable salary.
  • Bright Dike, ST: An absolute beast of a center forward when healthy. But he’s been hurt most of the last two years.
  • Max Urruti, ST: 24-year-old striker who can score in bursts. Netted 10 goals last year but just 4 this year. Could simply depart from MLS.
  • Gabriel Torres, FW/winger: Torres has struggled in Colorado under Pablo Mastroeni, just one of many talented players to meet that fate. A change in scenery could see him blossom.
  • Joe Bendik, GK: Decent goalkeeper for Toronto who probably took more heat than he deserved behind a questionable defense with no dedicated defensive midfielder.


  1. Pretty sure White has already been waived–either that or maybe just a Kinkead tweet saying he thought that happened…

    • There was a tweet from a writer in DC (Steven Goff?) that said White was done in Philly. That was about a week ago or so. I think Kevin K. re-tweeted it…

    • Yeah. Not official yet though, to my knowledge. I was short on time, or else I would’ve included the link and a bunch of others. Kevin has done a really good job over the last week.

  2. I agree with your commentary on Wenger, but I think the Maidana trade was the right move. All of those assists come at a high cost in terms of his positioning. The other CAMs you mentioned score goals, assists, and create space for their teammates with their off the ball movement. Maidana’s off the ball movement was so awful that it actually diminished the space available to teammates. It got to the point where the ONLY way we could score was when he got an assist. If a team is going to hand you the keys to the offense and become completely reliant on you, you need to be hitting 20-30 goals/assists (combined) per season. Otherwise, it’s better to have a CAM who gets 10-15 goals/assists, but their off the ball movement allows other players to get assists and goals as well. I’d rather have 4 starters who have 10-12 goals/assists than one starter with 15-20 and three others on 5. Especially since that one starter will also damage your defense.

    • I agree. I like Chaco as a guy and a player, but we (to some extent) tried to build an offense around him for two seasons. It didn’t work, and best of luck to him out in the West. Obviously, there were other problems as well, but I’m fine with a wrecking ball at this point. The team was bad. Very bad. I’d the culture had turned as well (how could it not?). A rebuild is necessary at this point.
      I also don’t think the U has really had that many rebuilds, as the article implies. Hack kind of tore things down after Nowak (over two seasons) and then we have this one. That’s really it. To me, part of the problem is that the team has tried to build from a flawed roster too many times INSTEAD of taking it down and getting it right. It’s easy to claim we had talent, but looking around, it’s not like guys that left the Union are lighting up the league. I think we overestimated what we had in the early years.

      • The team needed/needs to be built around its spine.
        See many of my Okugo and shitty CB pairing arguments.
        Until that happens… it won’t be right.
        We have a goalie. We have ONE CB. We have no DM that qualifies as ‘the guy’… The DM position is instrumental… Lahoud is a decent backup but that’s it… spot starts in Cup games and the like.
        Has to change and I expect it will by season start and then be even tighter by kickoff of SD second year in office.

      • I’d count Edu and Marquez as a solid CB pairing. Would love to see us add a stud DP CDM as our priority signing this year. Nothing else matters as that’s the 1 position you really can’t fake in my opinion.

      • I got an itchy feeling about Maurice Edu.

      • Yeah, I can see that. Wouldn’t complain honestly although I do like him. If a coach could ever convince him to play as a real #6 or fully buy into being a CB he’d be great. Not sure that’s going to happen until it’s too late though.

      • Well, you had significant revamping done after the 2010 season, the 2011 season, kind of during the latter half of the 2012 season, after the 2013 season and now.

      • I guess it depends on how you you define revamping and rebuilding. The way I see is that 2010 was an expansion team, so you expect changes initially. Expansion teams tend to rely on the e. draft the first year and then slowly shed those players as they build a real identity. But after that the team was never really shaken to its core. I see it as:
        2010: Expansion Team
        2011-12: Team built from a combination of Gutierrez/Hackworth connections.
        2012-14: Hackworth solidifies his guys and purges the Gutierrez / Nowak stuff. Investment in foreign players (and Edu) to support existing Hackworth core.
        2015: Curtin ditches some Hack guys and builds a patchwork team from Hack guys,loaners and M’Bohli. Presumably not allowed to make too many big moves as the “new sporting director search” is happening. Curtin doesn’t really have “his” team (took Hack two years to transition to that).
        2016: Hopefully a real tearing down and reconstruction under Stewart (as opposed to the crazy destruction under late Nowak).
        So I guess my point is that to me the Union has always been built on the same shaky foundation, basically Hack youth players supplemented with some flavor of the month depending on who was in charge. Lots of revamping, sure, but few real changes in foundation. I am hoping that the current purge is the sign of a deep rebuild of the team. Stability is only a good goal if you have something stable to build on in the first place. You could argue, I guess, that a decent core took shape in 2011, but I’m not sure that’s really true and we’ll never know with the Nowak debacle.

      • James Lockerbie says:

        +1 wow, I have to agree with your points how many guys moved on to other teams and bombed. Mapp has done well in Montreal but what about everyone else what was Adu doing with that tyson upright again? Not to kick a guy while he’s down or anything, just sayin

    • I don’t agree on the Wenger commentary, but maybe its because I never see this freakish ability everyone says he is capable of. To me Wenger looks like a below average MLS player who has confidence issues (only seen him play in MLS)(even last season didn’t think he was overly impressive he has one move thats it). Its a bad combination to me when you look at the MLS and the fact that in any major sport there will be pressure. If you can’t handle it maybe your not cut out for it. Now anything could happen maybe he’ll break out and be an amazing player, but I just don’t see what other see. Maybe the college version was much better I don’t know.

  3. Flush the roster. Clear up the cap space and grab some proven winners from FA and the Re-entry draft. There is talent there. Pick a few project pieces up in the draft and then scour the globe for your big paychecks in January.
    Chaco is talented. There is no arguing that, but 1. he’s probably on his last year w/ an option, so time to get value for him while you can. 2. Curtin doesn’t rate him and clearly Stewart doesn’t as well. So no point in keeping him on the roster if another squad out West will take him. Aside from the Open Cup and MLS Cup Final: the Union will play them once a season
    Getting Houston to take Wenger was interesting. Now an additional $400-$450k space on the roster between him and Maidana. Vittoria’s cap hit alone covers Pontius. Have to figure that with the remaining players, somewhere around $700k was freed up.
    Twellman tweeted that “significant” allocation/TAM was involved in the Houston trade. Most trades are usually around $50-100k. So “significant” I’m thinking in $200k range. Probably more than outweighs the cash tossed to DCU for Pontius.
    And so the Stewart era begins. Judge the roster on March 1. Save the pitchforks for March 31.

    • I give the team 12-16 games (roughly speaking Copa America kick off)…cause all along we will need to evaluate the coach as well.
      If the Eagles have taught us anything this year (among many things)… turnover will require time to gel… if it is able to gel in the first place…..and we will be uncertain the manager can manage until the team coalesces a bit.
      So on that note… here’s to a preseason that does not feature London FC…. and the trophy that comes with pounding a team(s) that doesn’t help your gelling process one bit.

      • Between pre-season and month’s worth of matches, I think we will be able to judge the direction the team is moving in. Those first two months are absolutely critical to making the playoffs by October

    • Based on the Guaranteed Compensation for 2015:
      Total cleared for players that have been confirmed that they are not returning: 2.64MIL. Subtract out $400k for Pontius and roughly $2.6MIL is left under the cap [give or take for raises next season and assuming the cap will not increase – which it will]
      That does not include the players that may come back but negotiations are ongoing: Which may be another $300k etc.

      • Jim, need to recheck your numbers: $2.64m -$400k = $2.24m, not $2.6m.

      • wow duh. Thanks for the catch. Still though $2.2MIL [assuming the Union aren’t paying any other salaries for players currently off the books] is a total revamp

      • Yes, they now have some money to play with in the days/weeks ahead.

    • Most definitely, re: saving judgment till later. Too early to fully tell.

    • damn, I just requested my pitchfork sharpening be complete no later than march 15th. I’ll reschedule.

  4. old soccer coach says:

    Yes, the Casey column was good, I remember.

    • Mostly it’s that a lot of what I’ve written since then hasn’t been. 😉

      But yeah, any time I get to quote Dylan Thomas in a column, it’s a good thing.

  5. What’s it mean that the “Curt & Earnie Show” stars . . . Chris Albright? A statement or press release is easy to write & easier to approve yet I have missed a single word our SD has said in the media about any move made so far. He’ll have his chance Thursday, but I have to believe he chose to remain silent until then. Personally I’d prefer my new SD to say sweeping out the stables was at his direction while it was being done. Makes me think Pontius is trying out for his next contract, too.

    • I’m curious as well about his statements on Thursday. We’ll know then what direction the club is going in and if these moves were at his direction.

  6. This is a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in many seasons in a league where it’s easy to make the playoffs. Now the team has gone out and made a huge commitment to a high profile GM. How can you say that any player is safe or that any move is a bad one?


  7. After a day to mull it over, I kinda wish Wenger could have gone to Bethlehem. He’s still quite young. It would have been even closer to home for him. We could have experimented with positioning more, and he would have been able to beat up on some smaller, slower players and boost his confidence. Was his salary too high for this? Did we give up on him too soon?

    • I think he had more than his fair shot and beating up on smaller slower players seems to be the only thing he is good at. At more than $200,000 gauranteed I am glad they got rid of him as that is way to much to pay someone only good enough to play for your low tier team.

  8. Official Earnie intro this week.
    Jonathan Tannenwald ‏@thegoalkeeper 2h2 hours ago
    The Union will officially introduce Earnie Stewart to Philadelphia on Thursday at Talen Energy Stadium.

  9. i’m available is Curt and Earnie are interested.

  10. The Curt & Ernie Show… I LOVE IT. I smell a tifo
    As I said yesterday, I am reserving my judgement for a few more weeks. I really have a good feeling about this off-season though. I’m sure that mostly hope, rather than concrete evidence, but hey, we shall see.

  11. Lucky Striker says:

    Union should take a look at the under 30 crowd. There are some pieces that could improve the depth.

    Always had a soft spot for Dike. Achilles are no joke, but Casey did recover from them.

    Not really looking to spend huge $ up top. Prefer Seba to return to where he wants and get a reprieve from his “Edu complex”. If Ari is coming back maybe putting Bright on the “Pontius Plan” and shoring up the back, mids and wings with the cash savings might be a better way to go.

  12. Stephen O'Malley says:

    I am a big Union supporter and have a season ticket and I follow MLS very closely But can someone explain why no players are ever taken in the Re-Entry Drafts and who do you think we should take I would love to hear otehrs opinions.

    • Few players are taken in the re-entry draft because of the (kinda/sorta) obligation to pick up their contract as is. Considering many of these players are only let go because of their high contracts, it can become an obstacle.

      But there have been definite successes in these drafts, notably Conor Casey for the Union and, probably to a greater extent, Sean Franklin and Bobby Boswell for D.C. United.

      • Isn’t there a second round of re-entry where the teams can negotiate new salaries with players? I recall that being taken advantage of a bit more than round 1 where you’re obligated to honor existing contracts.

  13. The Little Fish says:

    Very, VERY jazzed about the moves thus far. Hope springs eternal. We’ve got cash, high picks, and no Sak to screw it all up. LET’S DO THIS Y’ALL.

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