A View from Afar / Analysis

Is it 2014 all over again for Philadelphia Union?

Photo: Earl Gardner

The 2016 Philadelphia Union look an awful lot like the 2014 edition in some ways.

  • They have revamped and likely significantly improved their midfield.
  • But we don’t know where each of those new midfield additions is going to play or how they’ll gel.
  • Maurice Edu could return to center midfield, but there’s that chemistry-with-Vincent-Nogueira issue all over again.
  • The Union still haven’t found a good starting left back.
  • The center back question seems answered, but is it?
  • Their coach took the reins after his predecessor was fired in June a season and a half ago, and the front office could replace him if he doesn’t produce a winning team by mid-season. Further, he is talking about playing more possession ball, as opposed to the counterattack style on display last season.

Basically, the Union look much better than the 2015 version, but they feel a lot like the 2014 version, save for Earnie Stewart’s presence.

Head coach Jim Curtin faces as short a leash as John Hackworth did, in all likelihood, albeit for somewhat different reasons. New general manager Earnie Stewart didn’t hire Curtin and may not be inclined to wait long for Curtin’s success if he has someone else in mind as an alternative. Considering how quickly and successfully Stewart tapped his contacts for what could be the Union’s most impressive single season haul of foreign imports ever, one would think Stewart has a few coaching prospects in his contact list as well. June’s Copa America looms like the Ides of March.

Curtin may have as little as three more months to take the scattered and talented midfield pieces Stewart has provided him with and fashion them into a cohesive unit. That means figuring out how Tranquillo Barnetta, Roland Alberg and Chris Pontius fit into the same lineup, for example. All three have spent their careers primarily as inverted wingers who come from the left into the center to attack. Each can play centrally as a result.

In all likelihood, Curtin will develop a rotation of those three, Ilsinho, Sebastien Le Toux, Leo Fernandes and Vincent Nogueira among four of the five midfield roles, with Alberg fashioned as a Swiss Army knife, spelling Nogueira at the No. 8 and Barnetta at the No. 10. Considering the extensive injury histories of Barnetta — who is doubtful for Sunday’s opener against Dallas — Nogueira and Pontius, it may be best to budget their minutes.

Behind them, the issue of Maurice Edu remains. Everyone talks a good game about him playing defensive midfield, but the reality is he has missed the entire off-season and has not yet demonstrated the discipline or chemistry with Nogueira required to fill the role of a true No. 6. Edu has plenty of ability, but with a high salary and a two-year tenure of showing better at center back than midfield, his time with the Union could be nearing its end. Brian Carroll remains a short-term alternative, but the player who really has a chance to seize the moment is Warren Creavalle, who has impressed at times this preseason. Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago that Creavalle was a regular starter for a Houston Dynamo playoff team, and he’s still only 25 years old.

Finally, the Union have brought in enough new faces at center back to fill a two-deep depth chart, and time will tell how well they fit in. Back in 2014, Austin Berry looked like the answer, until he got hurt. Now he’s playing in USL. This year, the Union seem far too deep at center back to revisit that situation again — Aaron Wheeler won’t be playing center back, that’s for sure — but then again, one new center back is a rookie, another has played one year in USL (but has looked good in preseason), and the third is a veteran journeyman, mostly for middling Brazilian clubs. So this remains a variable too.

In so many ways, this is a very different team. But you can’t help but think it looks like deja vu all over again.

Miscellaneous notes: Quality veterans available

A few notable names hit the waiver wire recently, and we’re not talking about Amobi Okugo, who Curtin clearly wants nothing to do with. Here are the names that stand out.

  • Marcel de Jong. De Jong signed last year with a Kansas City team stacked at left back. It didn’t work out well. The 29-year-old Canadian international had good runs in the Netherlands and Germany and would likely be an upgrade at left back for the Union.
  • Hercules Gomez. Like De Jong, Gomez got stuck going to a club stacked at his position, due to the peculiarities of MLS roster rules. Now, he finally got what he wanted for years: Waivers. Despite his lack of size, Gomez is a good hold-up player, and he can score in bunches. He could prove a perfect rotational compliment to Sapong.
  • Dan Gargan. Any team signing the Philly-area native gets a few things: A solid backup fullback, a good locker room presence, and a social media dynamo. The drawback is that the Union go two deep at right back.
Quick note on Bethlehem Steel

Lastly, a quick update to readers: A few weeks ago, I mentioned in the Comments section that I would track down some information on Bethlehem Steel FC and how the relationship with the Union will be working out, and I’ve seen a few readers mention it since then, under the auspices of waiting for me to write about it. I talked with Bethlehem head coach Brendan Burke on Thursday while I was bouncing up and down the U.S. east coast between Jacksonville and New Jersey, and I hope to find time to write a column on it sometime in the next week or so. I thought this week and next would not be good times for me to write on a topic other than the Union, considering opening day is at hand, so hopefully I’ll find free time for an extra column in the next week to lay that out for you. Burke had some interesting things to say.

31 Comments

  1. Lucky Striker says:

    Think Herc could fill a role if the price was right, but location “apparently” and contract may prove to be difficult hurdles to jump.

  2. I see where you could find parallels but to me the biggest and most glaring difference is Earnie Stewart. There is someone that has a plan and an idea about how all of the pieces fit together. In 2014 it was just a hodge podge mess with some functioning pieces

    • The other key difference to me seems to be that the squad depth feels better than at any time in our history, including 2014 (possible exception of forward). There are opportunities here to survive a couple of injuries to star players and to even do a little planned squad rotation.

      There’s not a Corben Bone, Keon Daniel, or Matt Kassel in sight. It’s either established veteran pieces or young players with significant upside.

      • It *is* nice to look at a squad, see Edu and Barnetta out, and not feel like the house of cards has blown down. I actually feel confident in the depth of this squad to overcome these injuries.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Thank you, Giorgio, for teaching me how to denote special emphasis on a particular word using this specific medium!

    • Well said Kyle, ES – Saks… ES – Saks! Don’t think I need to say it a third time. It’s a no brainer !! Only 4 DAYS to go, UNION – UNION – UNION – UNION – UNION !!!

  3. Really well put, Dan. Thanks for bundling all of these points into one timely article.

  4. I really like the idea of signing Dan Gargan. We could really use a veteran to help guide all the young’uns in the backfield. In a way, I would think of him as insurance for Fabinho; right now our backup LB is either an unproven rookie, OR we slide Ray Gaddis over to the right. If we need to do that, then having Gargan around on the right side could really be useful, either to backup and guide Rosenberry, or as a starter. And he could have a settling influence on Marquez too, if one is needed. I’m uneasy with the lack of experience in our backfield right now.

  5. Dan, great job as always. Thanks for putting some breaks on my ever growing excitement about this team. I’ve been trying to stay objective. But secretly, I’ve had a tendency to start feeling like U-FAN-BQ. Can’t wait for the article about BSFC-Union relationship!

    • Brakes? Wait till you see that I’m the only PSP contributor predicting that they’ll make the playoffs.

      Yeah, I am. 😉

      But I’m aware of all the stuff above too.

      • I feel like those commercials that talk about letting your inner Fan out. I was one of the voters who said they’d finish in a playoff spot. I’m really excited and hopeful about this season. But we’ve all been burned before. So I’m trying to stay cautiously optimistic.

    • pragmatist says:

      I’m trying not to comment too much, because I just want them to start playing the damn games! Enough talk…go play!!!!!

  6. Mickey Goldmill says:

    .
    ‘June’s Copa America looms like the Ides of March.’
    .
    The consonance is magical … and no truer words were written regarding this season.
    .
    This is all about the malleable nature of bending language for me after all…..

  7. In 2014 they were right in the thick of the chase until someone came from a tournament in Brazil to give away the lead against Chicago and then the team imploded from a 2 goal lead against Columbus.

    • Mickey Goldmill says:

      Agreed 100% though another way of looking at it from a second level tells us we should actually thank him for those mistakes….
      .
      A 2014 playoff appearance may have resulted in metastasis.

    • “…a little tournament in Brazil.” have any other five words been so damning and damaging to the psyche?

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        From the perspective of Pompeius Magnus, “Veni, Vidi, Vici,” would have been moderately devastating, I would think. [G. Julius Caesar, “I came, I saw, I conquered.”]

  8. DeJong signed with Ottawa.

  9. I would disagree about the “short leash”.
    If this team really is rebuilding, and out expectations are to be set properly, why would the team blame the manager?
    .
    If you’re building a new house with only SOME of the materials you need, a new “contractor” isn’t going to be able to make the house more complete, having the rest of the materials will.
    .
    Seems to me Earnie and JC are talking the same language and get along pretty well. I don’t Curtin going anywhere this year.

    • He will go if there is no result.
      Coffin marches can move mountains.

      • John P O'Donnell says:

        I’m another person who just doesn’t see Curtin going anywhere. When your coach states that Ernie “brings clarity to the team” the tells me they are on the same page. This team is building a new philosophy and you just don’t bring in another coach in the middle of the season. You would start right from the beginning if you didn’t like Curtin. It’s not like Ernie probably couldn’t get another gig in this league with the coach of his choosing.

      • So, we’re not expecting a playoff team this year…And Curtin gets a coffin march?
        .
        That’s along the same “brilliant” logic as yelling:
        “Hey! Casey! F someone up!” when the team is two goals down.

      • No result for me means record like 2-10. If we are .500 team he will be ok.

    • same here. curtain gets a full season when the DP striker comes in the summer. after that we’ll see.

  10. sign a dp forward and cb tam in the summer.

    • Dr. Union says:

      TAM is gone I am pretty sure (Pretty sure Barnetta, Ilsinho, and Anderson have taken up all the TAM this year). I’m not even convinced they have enough for a DP striker.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        I fear the same.

      • pragmatist says:

        They have enough for the right DP. How much do you think it would cost to sign Aron Johannson or Rubio Rubin? 2 Americans in the Eredivisie that aren’t getting playing time, but would be a welcome addition here.
        .
        $1M/year? A little more? They have that. They don’t have the $7M/year, but they have $1-2M, based on all the off-season comments.

  11. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Dan, very glad to anticipate your treatment of the probable flow between USL and MLS rosters.
    .
    FYI, on Noise Nation [there is a link to the article I reference below in Ed Farnsworth’s Daily News Roundup today] a writer under the “handle” der Fussballzuschauzer [i am at least close to the correct rendition] has generated aggregate statistics, games played, games started, total rostered players appearing, total minutes, and so forth for the six wholly owned USL sides for the 2015 season. He attempts a comparison between them and PU-HCI 2015, which is both apples to an orange and sweets to a sour in my book. But the numbers he found are interesting in and of themselves
    .
    He does not have the official rules from MLS, but unless his generation methods can be shown to be flawed he seems to have performance data.
    .
    Might be of interest to you as you think before writing.

  12. Stephen O'Malley says:

    I hope your wrong about thus, so we can finally play well.

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