Opinion

Vincent Nogueira was unique, but not irreplaceable

Photo: Earl Gardner

On Thursday, Philadelphia Union announced that Vincent Nogueira and the club had mutually agreed to terminate the player’s contract and allow him to return to France for “personal health issues.”

Anybody that has watched Nogueira during his 64 appearances in Union colors knows the club is losing an exceptionally talented midfielder. Philly has leaned very heavily on Nogueira to be the polished stone that balances the scales between vertical, breathless attacks and a more controlled, dominant possession game. With the technique to get out of tight spaces and the passing range to give fullbacks time on the ball with quick switches, Nogueira filled an important niche that no other name on the roster can fill.

That said, Nogueira’s skill set is not entirely unique in the broader soccer universe, and he himself is not irreplaceable.

The big question facing Earnie Stewart and the Union, then, is not how to replicate Nogueira’s influence.

Instead, it is how to define the back of the midfield going forward.

Nogueira leaves very close to the time Maurice Edu should be returning to the field. Edu, still the team’s captain, was never going to spend the season on the bench behind Brian Carroll. And there are valid questions to be asked about whether the more improvisational Edu and Nogueira would provide enough defensive cover in front of a young back line.

Union head coach Jim Curtin said before the season that he planned to play Edu in the holding midfielder role, a “number six” in useless soccer parlance. That made sense with Nogueira shuttling between attack and defense, but now circumstances have changed.

Philly is no longer beholden to Edu-as-six midfield. Instead, they can allow Edu more freedom to play box-to-box, a role he tends to occupy even when nominally in a holding position.

Edu could be very good in Nogueira’s position, but only if he is willing to constrain his natural tendency to try and do a little bit of everything. The same qualities that allow Maurice Edu to simultaneously be a good defender, holding midfielder, and box-to-box player prevent him from being great at any one of those positions. In each case, he brings a lot of Mo Edu to the position instead of allowing the position to dictate how Mo Edu should play.

That sounds harsh, so let me temper it by noting that this is not all Maurice Edu’s fault by any stretch. Since he arrived in Philadelphia, the Union have (as they did with Amobi Okugo before him) removed any semblance of positional continuity from Edu’s mindset. At the drop of a Vitoria hat, he could be moving from midfield into the back line and out again. Imagine if the Union’s rookie duo at right center back were playing like rookies instead of seasoned vets. Would Jim Curtin really be able to justify keeping Edu in the midfield as the goals flew in?

We must also remember that the Union are not the team almost everybody — front office possibly included — expected them to be. They have gone from almost-worst to first while battling injuries to all three of the midfielders expected to drive their success this season. They have the best shot-stopper in MLS right now, and anyone who says differently can meet my stubborn side. More intriguingly though, they are winning with Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle putting in consistent performances at the holding midfield role.

In other words, before Nogueira left, Edu’s return was going to introduce uncomfortable new uncertainty. Now, it has the potential to eliminate uncertainty of a very similar vein.

Edu will not play the position the same way Nogueira did. The Union likely won’t be able to work out of pressure and retain possession as they did with the Frenchman. But in Edu, they can add physicality, a bigger defensive contribution, and more of a presence in the box. And, thanks to C2, they do not have to rush to recruit new blood. Assuming Edu returns on schedule, the club can use his performances to decide what role he should ultimately play and the type of player that will best compliment the captain.

Vincent Nogueira was special, and he made the Union offense smoothly hum in a gear fans may not see again for a while. But though his skills are not easily replicable, they are replaceable.

The club simply has to be patient. And find a player that fits the midfield as a unit, not just the tiny, feisty hole Nogueira leaves behind.

56 Comments

  1. Options:

    – Sign Derrick Jones a bit earlier than they wanted and start to work him into the rotation?
    – Trade for Poku?
    – DP signing?

    • pragmatist says:

      Don’t rush into a trade. And we still may not have the space for a DP player, depending on how his contract is handled by the league.
      .
      As far as Jones, by all accounts he has potential, but don’t rush development in what is still a rebuilding year. Yes, more successful than expected, but rebuilding nonetheless. Don’t mortgage the future in a panic move.

      • Honestly there’s no reason we shouldn’t have the space for this now. When we sold Lahoud, we should have received 200k worth of General Allocation money. In order to sign a summer DP, you need to have about 230k worth of cap space. Removing any part of Vince’s salary (400k) all but assures that we have the room necessary.
        .
        As for the trade and jones, totally agree with you pragmatist. That trade would cost us way more than I’d like when we have a DP that’s presumably going to step into that role. Jones, while improving, i don’t see as MLS ready at this point. Might stunt his development.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      No.

      Derrick Jones right now does not have the feet to play #8 at the level of Vincent Nogueira. He can see a good pass if he has the ball and is free. He has not yet shown that he can make himself free with his own dribble and hence create his own space in USL.

      Leave him alone and let him grow.

      Probably, I have absolutely no evidence for this guess, only the logic of his being the organization’s first signing to the Steel, if there is a roster device that allows the owning team dibs on a USL rostered player he is one of them. I know there is such a device for three academy players. I cannot remember about the core USL roster without looking, which, obviously, I have not done.

      • I don’t think the Union need to have dibs on any contracted Steel player. They have signed a contract with the Steel and can’t just be taken by another team.

  2. Ryan Pine says:

    Excellent article, Adam.

  3. james lockerbie says:

    I like it, I like it a lot. I hope Vincent recovers back in France. I think this will make Mo’s return a little easier now.

  4. This article is spot on, and very well thought out in the short time since this news broke. And while I disagree with not a single word of this article, I’m not ready for it. Not yet. Vince was easily my favorite player for the Philadelphia Union, and I (selfishly, I know… it would be much more difficult to pull together. Thanks for your hard work on all news updates PSP squad) would have loved to see a Vincent Nogueira appreciation article and highlight reel. Here’s to Vince, a quality player and human on a pretty crap team, and all he’s contributed to help turning the Union around. And here’s to Earnie being presented a new challenge to overcome.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @KT – thanks, and my guess is that the “Vincent Nogueira appreciation article” will take the form of more than one upcoming ratings/analysis pieces. It will be impossible to avoid noting how (and how often) he will be missed.

      • Cheers to that brother. I look forward to reading them. And again, this is a great read. Just a bit bummed by the whole thing, but glad Vince is taking care of himself first.

  5. alicat215 says:

    Alberg. Poku, when the window opens is good idea too.

    • I think you had a minor stroke when typing that. I hope you are ok now.

      • Alicat215 says:

        OK…..dork! In all seriousness brahseidon…..anyone who stayed up to watch the MNT last night probably had a few mini strokes. GFY……

      • Broseidon says:

        woah woah woah! take it easy. Everyone takes everything so personally these days. I apologize alicat, didn’t know you were so soft. And don’t call me brah….. its bro.

      • Ok brah! I just hate comment section spell checkers……says something about you. Being called soft by someone with your name is comical brah!

      • Broseidon says:

        lol, wait you thought i was spell checking you? NOOOOOO, grammar nazi’s are the worst.
        .
        i was referring to getting rid of Alberg for poku. Poku is great and i would love to get him but NEVER at the expense of Alberg…. come on bro, don’t be that way

      • Alicat215 says:

        And you thought I was asking for a a straight trade Alberg for Poku……now it’s coming together! First, let me apologize for my brashness….if you have seen the history of my posts….It’s just how I roll! Second, we miscommunicated…….I was saying to start Alberg in that CDM/ pivot roll that’s all. Then if we could acquire Poku in the future……do it. I like Alberg….think he’s perfect for this league. Kid just needs more time that’s all. Again, bro…….sorry for the miscommunication. If you talk to other posters here….this is generally how I kicked off things with them too! Have a good one!

  6. Lucky Striker says:

    nah; he’s pretty much irreplaceable.

  7. I don’t think players like him grow on trees. I don’t think he’s replaceable. He had on-the-ball skills and agility that cannot be taught. He may have been often injured, but that enabled everyone to see how important he was to the team: Philly’s record was near .500 with him last year at one point (when they were awful) and just one or two wins without him. A total specialty player that you construct your entire team around to amplify his benefits in the same vein as a Pirlo or a Modric. The quarterback and engine of this team is gone; Earnie and Co. have a BIG JOB finding someone else to come in and fill this guy’s shoes. For me, easily the best player in Philadelphia Union history, and I am thankful for getting to watch him play.

    • Well said. Every penny spent on Union tickets in the past couple years was well spent as long as Vinny was in the eleven that day.
      .
      Always hoped he would get another opportunity to make us forget the shot he hit off the post against Seattle in the Open Cup final, whether it was in that tournament or the playoffs.

  8. pragmatist says:

    I look at this from a different angle: Have we ever had any player ever wear a Union shirt that was worthy of this debate? The fact that we have to talk about it will (and should) worry all of us.
    .
    The Copa break was good timing. Let Carroll get some rest, because he’s going to get a ton of minutes for the next month+.

  9. I hope Vincent, for whatever reason, finds what he needs to find physically, emotionally or spiritually upon returning home.
    .
    Class act and the only reason in two + years this team has ever resembled anything worth watching.
    .

  10. I’ll be very interested to see what the front office does from here. We have the cap space now (especially so since summer transfers don’t count their whole season salary against the cap), to sign someone. But, if we really trust Edu enough to fill this void, will we spend elsewhere? Just use patience? Bring Derrick Jones up early? Whatever we do, it should be very indicative of the Front Office (read: Earnie Stewart’s) opinion of Mo.

  11. Well it’s going to be interesting to see what happens going forward. All the best to Vincent and his family! Class guy and it is great to see the club do the best for him and themselves. God speed!

  12. Old Soccer Coach says:

    “With the technique to get out of tight spaces and the passing range to give fullbacks time on the ball” describes Nogueira congruently, in the literal mathematical sense.
    .
    He would cut the ball in a circle away from the onrushing opponent, shielding the ball with his body cutting it to a tight circle using the outside of his foot.
    .
    Johann Cruyff has given us the Cruyff turn.
    .
    We in Philadelphia should give Vincent Nogueira “the Nogueira circle.”
    .
    We admire. We mourn. We pray.

    Whether it be Vincent himself, or someone else near and dear, … .

    Good Luck, and Godspeed, as they say.

  13. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Might the SoBs do a banner for the plaza outside the Talen that any one who cared to could sign with best wishes for the man?

  14. Besides the technical ability, vision, and range the guy had…..my favorite memories of him are going to be the “wtf, somebody freakin move or something”, arms in a open pose……..with a question mark plastered on his forehead….look he gave dribbling up the pitch during the dark times. Easily the best to wear a Union kit…….get well Vinny!

  15. So I can’t be the only super fan that watches literally everything the union does and publishes. So Did anyone else watch that “burning rubber” go-cart video the union put up the other day? When I watched it I said to myself wow everyone looks so happy and like they’re having a great time as a team, except nogueira.
    .
    Not that nogueira didn’t look happy he just didn’t look as comfortable as everyone else did. I don’t know though, that was just an observation I had. and then when I heard the news I immediately thought this had to be something other than just an illness. Especially with Ernie saying he’ll definitely play again.
    .
    Nogueira will definitely be missed but this may be addition by subtraction if it improves the teams chemistry, and of course the right player with the right skills comes onto the field to replace him.

    • That was from pre-season, i believe, for what it’s worth. No idea why it was re-posted as something new…

  16. Great One says:

    Easily the player who most made this team function over the last 2 years. All you have to do is rewatch the games with Carroll and Crevalle and know that the Union are in big trouble if that is their plan.
    .
    Best of luck to Nogs, I hope he finds what he’s looking for.
    .
    As for the Union, look for a very ugly stretch unless Curtin gets some imagination and comes up with a new plan.

  17. Old Soccer Coach says:

    New plan. Hmm.
    .
    We may have seen one piece of it Wednesday night. Roland Alberg went 90 minutes at #10, and Walter Restrepo looked like a credible “next man up” behind Pontius.
    .
    There have been no reported sightings of Maurice Edu. I understand welll the evidentiary pitfalls of using the absence of evidence as an argument. But that’s all we’ve got.
    .
    Might we see Tranquillo Barnetta on the field playing #8?

  18. Mo Edu is not the answer for the midfield. Honestly he doesn’t deserve to play that postion and hasn’t shown that he can. Idk what his Injury status is, but the only position Edu should have rn is being a sub. This circumstance could change how the rest of the season plays out.

    • I have no idea how this opinion exists in our world.

      He hasn’t shown that he can?

      How about when he was a mainstay in the USMNT for years? Or when he was bought by Europe and started at a solid Rangers team for years?

      Dude is a good player. He didn’t have time to grow and mesh here, because he played for idiot coaches who subscribe to the American “Hey he looks like he can play x position, let’s give it a try!” and like a tropper Edu said yes. And because he is so talented, he actually looked good at CB.

      But make no mistake, he is a CDM. And he has proven that over his whole career.

  19. Well it looks like the wait for a new ST or LB will continue.

    Only funny money we have right now is the 200K from the Lahoud sale.

    Salary is less clear but it seemed like they weren’t swimming with space and even if the league gives us back the prorated remainder of Nogs salary, I can’t imagine it’s a ton of space.

    We’re not going to be able to pay any kind of transfer fee. We’re also hard up against the internationals limit (although Herbers seems like he’s close to a green card).

    I think best case they fasttrack Herbers, bring in an 8 on loan (with a we’ll pay you with funny money in January promise) and find some kind of low budget domestic option for ST.

    Hope everything is ok for Nogs. Great player. I think the team still makes the playoffs, but as a lower seed and I don’t have much hope for a deep run or pushing for a supporters shield anymore.

    • Section 114 (Formerly) says:

      Restart discussion of Bedoya to Philadelphia in 5. 4. 3. 2. 1.

      • I think he would be subject to Garber makes up another bullshit rule to placate major teams.

        Plus he’s more of an attacking mid which we already have a surplus of currently, and I don’t think Nantes would loan him, I think if they move him it’s going to be on a permanent, and we just don’t have that kind of cash right now.

    • I think that the money from the Lahoud sale is actually straight cash, not the funny stuff, since it was a sale outside the league but I could be wrong. Might give them a bit more flexibility in that regard..

  20. Love you Nogs…sending you and your family good vibes. Nogs was often the lone hope in the dark years of Nicky S’ reign. Even tho Nogs has been hampered this year, I was so happy for him that he could get some positive attention (for his usual play) now that the U are tops of the East. Any thoughts on if he would (once whatever needs to gets taken care of) latch right onto Sochaux, or can he earn attention from Ligue 1?

  21. This is so sad when I saw this last night I was shocked. I hope he gets better and I hope going back to France helps him with whatever he needs. There will be a huge Nogs sized hole on the field now. He was a great professional and made others around him better. Even when he was struggling to get movement from players on the team with his arms up in the air trying to get people to open up you never heard him complain. He always pushed and strove to be the best that he and his teammates could ask for. He will be missed and remembered as one of the most steady and influential players this team had in its early history. Goodluck Nogs.

  22. Matt Thornton says:

    I’m glad much of my sentiment about Nogueira is reflected in these comments so far.
    1. I consistently say he’s the best to wear the uniform. Not only did he represent well, but GD if he didn’t look like the world collapsed on him when his winner rang off the post in 2014 USOC. That kind of emotion from a quiet player says everything I needed to know.
    2. Completely agree that this team is a shell of the power it can be with Carroll and Warren in the middle. One can only hope that Edu recovers more quickly than expected and we only have to suffer the next 6 games without a dynamic passer in the middle.
    3. Really wish we could have given Vince a sendoff that was proper. I genuinely had a lump in my throat for the better part of an hour yesterday afternoon when this news broke. I was angry when we traded Okugo, shocked when we traded Le Toux, but this hit me on another level in all my seven years of metaphorically bleeding for this team. Loved watching him play more than any other player. Case in point – the counterattack against NYRB in last year’s USOC. Pure magic, hustle, and skill.

    Also – one last bit, credit where it is due for the staff and FO that scouted and signed this guy. Probably one of their only truly great pieces of business.

    • scottymac says:

      Didn’t their scout reach to Nick? Then he went to France? We didn’t scout so much as get invited to sign him as Sochaux was going down and jettisoned him.

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